As with every Vatican Pronouncement…

. . . take media reports of this one with a grain of salt.

When my Southern Baptist friends read press accounts of news or statements coming from the Vatican, they sometimes write me saying, “what fresh hell is this? Was Jack Chick right? Is the Vatican a bunch of commies?”

And I always have to remind them to “ignore the headlines; the headlines are about the press framing their preferred narrative, because they know that two days of blaring headlines promoting one narrative will completely overshadow perceptions and set it in stone. Wait three or four days for the media “clarifications” that will more accurately reflect the story — but you’ll have to look for them, yourself, because the press won’t be running clarifications in 30 point bold pica on the front page and above the fold. Check toward the lost puppy section of the paper.”

T’was ever thus. As Thomas Peters points out here, it was precisely such a media “narrative-grab-and-spin” that completely miscommunicated the prophetic papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (perhaps one of the most reviled and yet unread encyclicals of the modern age — everyone thinks they know what it says, hardly anyone has read it, and it’s not long).

Just last year, we watched the mainstream media go bonkers over Pope Benedict’s musings about the few and rare possible justifications for condom use — the headlines blared shouting, “the Pope says condoms okay!” — but there was very little consideration of what we might call “papal nuance,” and it took the strenuous work of many Catholics in alternative media to stop that overblown narrative from fully taking hold in the public mind.

It’s not just mainstream media, by the way, who seem unable to accurately report on what comes out of Rome. Drudge is blaring the mainstream media’s narrative, too, with headlines reading “Vatican Calls for Central World Bank” under a picture of the Pope, who has said no such thing.

A fundamental lesson in church-related stories: Pope is not “the Vatican” and “the Vatican” is not the pope; the Curia is not the Bishop of Rome and while they are usually in sync, their pronouncements are separate and distinct; it may seem like a small point, but — for the sake of accuracy and understanding — provenance should always be clear; when one sounds a tone-deaf notes the other should not bear the burden, and when one plays a thing sweetly, the other should not get the credit. Today’s paper on financial reform was released not by Benedict but by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This is an outreach and communications entity — just like the Pontifical Council for Social Communications or the Pontifical Council for Culture.

I have not — unfortunately — had a chance to read the full document; it’s not that long but time has been at a premium, but my advice to those concerned by the headlines is to do what I do: first, read the thing for yourself; don’t let someone else read it for you and then tell you what to think about it. Then, because these documents do tend to be dense, look for analysis from knowledgeable (not sensational, not prominent, not even “familiar” but knowledgeable) Catholics who have demonstrated they can be trusted to make a fair and thoughtful representation of the documents contents. I have come to greatly trust Austen Iverleigh, John Allen, David Gibson and Archbishop Timothy Dolan for competent and fair analysis, so I eagerly await their thoughts.

The paper was released with some advice on how it should be read and understood — advice that appears to have been deftly tossed to the four winds, except by a few: here is Samuel Gregg at the National Review:

Despite the Catholic Left’s excited hyperventilating that the document released today by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP) would put the Church “to the left of Nancy Pelosi” on economic issues, more careful reading of “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” soon indicates that it reflects rather conventional contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, given the uselessness of much present-day economics, that’s not likely to make it especially helpful in thinking through some of our present financial challenges.

Doctrinally speaking, there’s nothing new to be found in this text. As PCJP officials will themselves tell you, it’s not within this curial body’s competence to make doctrinal statements that bind Catholic consciences. Moreover, the notion that an increasingly integrated world economy requires some type of authority able to make decisions about what the Church calls “the universal common good” has long been a staple of Catholic social teaching. Such references to a global world authority have always been accompanied by an emphasis on the idea of subsidiarity, and the present document is no exception to that rule. This principle maintains that any higher level of government should assist lower forms of political authority and civil-society associations “only when” (as this PCJP text states) “individual, social or financial actors are intrinsically deficient in capacity, or cannot manage by themselves to do what is required of them.”

But putting aside doctrinal questions, this text also makes claims of a more strictly economic nature. Given that these generally fall squarely into the area of prudential judgment for Catholics, it’s quite legitimate for Catholics to discuss and debate some of this document’s claims. So here are just a few questions worth asking.

Do read the questions which are good ones.

Just, for heaven’s sake, don’t hyperventilate. Initial press reports on anything coming out of Rome must always be given time to — as it were — become seasoned so they may be better digested.

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About Elizabeth Scalia