Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Multi Verbi: “On the Length of Encyclicals”



A few days ago someone commented concerning Gregory XVI’s Singulari Nos, “On the Errors of Lamennais,” at a little over fifteen hundred words,Man, encyclicals used to be so short!”  Yet the same pope’s Mirari Vos, “On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism” — arguably the first “social encyclical” — from two years earlier, clocks in at a little over four thousand words in the English version, leaving Singulari Nos in the dust.

Henry George: Leo XIII didn't understand Catholic teaching.
Or does it?  Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, that hearkened back to Singulari Nos in the use of the term “rerum novarum” to describe socialism, is around fifteen thousand words, or ten times as long as Singulari Nos (and the waspish reply of the agrarian socialist Henry George to Rerum Novarum informing the pope he didn’t understand Catholic social teaching was thirty thousand words).  Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and Divini Redemptoris (which are two parts of the presentation on social justice to counter socialism) combined are around thirty-three thousand words.
Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s take on the subject, is a little disappointing as it has only a little over twenty-seven thousand words.  That is, until you add in Laborem Exercens, with a touch over twenty-two thousand words and which is sort of the introduction to Centesimus Annus, giving you a total just short of fifty thousand words.
Pope Francis hasn’t issued an encyclical on the problem of socialism (yet), but, e.g., Laudato Si’ is a little over forty thousand words.  Amoris Laetitia (which we managed to spell correctly without having to look it up), is a pages-filling sixty thousand words.
Some critics: Pope Francis doesn't understand Catholic teaching
Our commentator was right.  Encyclicals are getting longer.  And longer.  The question is, Why?
As a tentative hypothesis, let’s assume that we’ve been right all this time and many people have neglected to learn how to think, and those few that do think ignore the first principle of reason.  As an example, let’s take the dust-up over Amoris Laetitia.
Now, we’re not looking at this situation for any reason other than to make a point.  What rules the Catholic Church has for its members and why it makes them are not our concern here.  What we’re looking at is reading comprehension, and how certain assumptions a reader or listener makes can change the whole meaning of a document or statement, whether instructions for putting a bicycle together, the U.S. Constitution, or an encyclical.
Anything goes? Is earthly happiness the goal of Catholic teaching?
Now, some experts have expressed “dubia,” that is, five concerns about Amoris Laetitia that pretty much boil down to one: can people who have been divorced and remarried participate fully in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church?  They claim that §§ 300-305 suggest that it may be possible.
Again, we’re not concerned here with whether or not people who are divorced and remarried can, e.g., receive communion, however important that issue may be to anyone personally.  No, our concern is whether the experts aren’t unconsciously twisting something to fit an agenda or conform to an assumption, and reinterpreting the document in light of preconceptions brought to the table.
Reading through the offending passages, we realized something remarkable.  They do not even address the issue of, e.g., whether people who are divorced and remarried can receive communion.  Rather, an entirely different issue is being addressed.
And that is?
The Catholic Church has a large number of people in “irregular unions,” meaning at least one party has gotten a divorce and remarried.  The Catholic Church considers this “B-A-D.”
Unfortunately, many people in this situation “know” that the Catholic Church teaches marriage after divorce is wrong, but they, like, man, don’t feel it is wrong.  Like, dude, their God wouldn’t condemn anybody for that, and What Would Jesus Do?
Lewis: you have to give 'em the bad news to give 'em the Good News
Ministers and counselors therefore have the extremely unpleasant job of getting such people to realize that they are doing something seriously wrong before they can even pretend to start fixing things, or even determining if it’s possible (humanly speaking) to fix it.  As C.S. Lewis once remarked, the “sense of sin” has degenerated so much in modern times that before a minister can give people the very “Good News” of the Gospel, he or she has to give them the very bad news that they are sinners.
And that is the concern of §§ 300-305 of Amoris Laetitia.  There are even several warnings that in the process no doctrine of the Catholic Church — such as communion after remarriage following a divorce — is to be downplayed, ignored, or changed just to make people feel better or make the minister’s job seem easier by taking a shortcut so everybody can be happy, happy, happy.
Obviously, then, the issue addressed in these particular passages is not, How can a clever confessor or counselor turn evil into good with a few mental reservations and a little creative casuistry so people can sneak around the rules?
No, the issue is to decide just how bad the situation is — and having people who don’t even know or believe they’re Doing Wrong Big Time (according to the Catholic Church) is not a good thing.  It sets up instant confrontation and immediate denial before people stomp out of the room, vowing never to return to the Church, thereby cutting off all chance of ever reaching that individual or couple again.
Cato the Younger: never compromise on principle
The job of priests, etc., however, is not to drive people out of a church.  Rather, their job is to bring them in and keep them in, but without compromising on principle — and there has been a lot of compromise in our day and age by the Christian churches just to be perceived as “open” and “welcoming.”
By the lights of the Catholic Church, divorce after remarriage is a very bad situation.  That anyone in such a situation is in a serious and objective state of sin is a given.  The sections of the “Apostolic Exhortation” clearly say so.
That anyone in a state of serious and objective sin cannot take communion is also clear, if we understand the repeated warnings against changing Catholic doctrine.  But how do you get people to understand the seriousness of their situation without them storming out of the Church declaring how their God wouldn’t condemn them, not like that jerk of an arrogant priest or that insensitive, immature deacon?
Thus, by a subtle change in the question being asked, from “How do you get people to realize they’re in bad shape?” to “Is Pope Francis trying to figure out ways for people to sneak around the rules to make them feel good and stay in the Church?” a document can be confused and distorted beyond recognition, and end up meaning exactly the opposite of what it was intended to mean.
Now, the reason for going into this particular issue — the substance of which has no relevance to the Just Third Way — is to illustrate a problem with form.  And that is?
Unless you 1) ask the right question, and 2) understand the underlying principles, you are 3) probably going to get things wrong.
And that’s why encyclicals have been getting longer, and longer, and longer, etc., etc., etc.
The question then becomes what, if anything, can be done about it?  Leave things as they are, and the next encyclical could easily resemble the Affordable Care Act and have as many pages as Singulari Nos had words . . . or even individual letters.
We’ll look at that trifling problem in our next posting.
#30#

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