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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Tim

    Well, at least we’ll get to know how Libertarians really feel about Catholicism with this. From the comments I’ve read so far on other sites, it all sounds familiar.

  • Elizabeth K.

    Sigh. You’re right, Tim. I was so disappointed to see some of the coverage on this today by people who should know better–it always makes me distrust everything else they have to say, which is a lot of work :).

  • Golem14

    I wonder if journalists have a precise entity in mind when they use the term “the Vatican”, or if they just make up the definition as they go along? Judging by some of the news stories I’ve read, they can’t tell the difference between a cleric (or even another journalist) stating an opinion and the Pope speaking ex cathedra!

  • Dan C

    As a one-time Catholic Worker who still knows direct charity, I abhor the subsidiarity commentary that breaks down into discussions of supporting faith-based organizations, without a realization that the Individual person and then the family are to help out first-and not just one’s own family but the stranger. Think about the vulnerability of “the stranger” eating with one’s own family-this is subsidiarity.

    Quite frankly, the level of horror of poverty and need exceeds my family’s ability to manage, the local communities ability, and I am faced with incompetence at the State level. I am stuck with recognizing the national character of the disaster of urban poverty and rural poverty. It needs that level of organization and support.

    This is my opinion from decades of work in such area. I have characterized the Catholic discussion to end welfare funding due to theoretized immorality as the “we want more child beggars” approach.

    This document is unlikely to shed more light on a subject for those disinclined to believe in welfare. If a papal encyclical is dismissed by Weigel without blogdom mockin this properly, then this Curial opinion will be dismissed by conservatives as lacking authority.

  • Clare Krishan

    Its high-level thinking aimed at high-level thinkers, a beautiful, good and true gift of subsidium to those in positions of authority who have no “Authority U” to attend to learn how to exercise the responsibilities of their office, as in the praxis of prudential judgement to know when you’re tempted to act “above your pay grade” as WSJ’s Holman Jenkins makes clear here:
    “Why Europe dithers”
    ?All are waiting for some market ruction hairy enough that the central bank will cast aside every political and legal restraint in order to save the euro. In doing so, of course, the bank will be acting far above its pay grade, and far outside the law, to make momentous decisions for all of Europe. Which countries will be saved via the bank’s willingness to print unlimited euros and buy unlimited assets to keep them out of default?”

    Benedict may not have written the “Note” but he certainly has the pay-grade to delegate to the authors the liberty of their vocation “The same effort is required from all those who are in a position to enlighten world public opinion in order to help it to brave this new world, no longer with anxiety but in hope and solidarity.

  • Clare Krishan

    Hopefully Helicopter Ben is listening, but he may not think “it” applies to him. The laws of nature, I mean. FIAT ex nihilo is more his MO, I’m told.

  • Clare Krishan
  • Clare Krishan

    For why these thinkers need a syllabus for their errors, see WSJ comment tab for this ‘bon mot’ concerning recently selected French presidential candidate Monsieur Hollande from a reader named Donald Forbes:
    “For these people, ideological voluntarism trumps reality every time.”
    And Sarkozy’s manipulating the currency to delay the inevitable is not “ideological voluntarism”?

    The dictatorship of relativism in all its taudry glory!

  • Hank

    Just as the US and England are said to be separated by a common language, the US and europe are separated by a common vocabulary for economic and social issues. The words and ex=specially the connotations are different, The staff at the Vatican was mostly educated in the European tradition. Read with charity, it might not mean what you think ti means. Ask questions, find a dictionary, check the context, and assume good fatih. An opportunity for learning.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  • johnny b

    Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the justice and peace council, told reporters the Vatican’s new document “appears to be in line with the slogans” of Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements around the globe,…

    Given the majority of the signs I’ve seen, that’s a scary statement.

  • Carol

    I did just read it, or tried to. It sounds more New Age Socialist than Biblical or even realistic/rational. Quite terrifying, really. Hey, let’s concentrate power over all peoples on this earth into a small group of people. What could go wrong? We’ll just pattern it after the UN.

  • Fr. Allen

    Its interesting that Michael Gorbachev and George Soros are also saying many of the same things the Vatican Document says.

    And, it’s difficult not to hyperventilate when a Vatican Note recommends “urgent implementation” of a global authority, while saying that “This is a complex and delicate process. A supranational Authority of this kind should have a realistic structure and be set up gradually.”

    As well, “abandoning all forms of petty selfishness and embracing the logic of the global common good which transcends merely contingent, particular interests,” is noble, but also doesn’t fully speak to the fact that the individual is created in the image and likeness of God. And, the inherent nobility and goodness of the individual does count for a lot.

    This isn’t high level thinking. It’s a gasping effort for those who believe in a world government, or as the document calls it, the “Authority”, to have a Vatican stamp of approval with smatterings of social teaching thrown in for good measure. And no doubt it’s a paper to justify this committee’s existence, as Cardinal Turkson’s name is being bandied about as a possible contender for the papacy.

    To be merciful, and to demonstrate solidarity, I will concede that it’s an effort. It’s an effort to read, and effort to digest, and an effort to accept, but it’s nonetheless an effort by Catholics towards a more just and peaceful world, amidst the vale of tears, which Christ came to divide, not to unite.

    Our adherence to prayer and to the laws of Jesus Christ is what needs some urgent implementation. In him is true Authority.

  • Henry Karlson

    As one person commented on my facebook page, “it is an ‘authoritative note’ from the Congregation for Divine Worship that bans liturgical dance. ”

    The irony of dismissing the Pontifical Council’s document, especially when it is constantly referencing Papal statements, because a particular American ideology is not being followed shows full well where the hearts of so many really lie.

  • Kevin

    Vatican City is a country. The Vatican is a hill. The Holy See is the central governing authority of the Catholic Church.

  • Dan C

    This is a repudiation from the Vatican of the language of libertarianism however that infects discourse. The use of silly terms of “envy,” “class warfare,” and “socialism” that infects the moderate’s discussions of modest tax increases is shown to be way out of step with thinking in the Vatican.

    I have maintained that Catholics such as Sirico present a novel and unique view of economics and social justice and are intellectually oppositional to Catholic Social Theory and even the pope on this matter. This statement I hold as “value neutral.” I do disagree strongly with these Catholics, but these Catholics need to understand their place in the history of Catholic Social Theory and the novelty of their thought.

  • Dan C

    And Southern Baptists are dreadfully wrong in their social justice theories. Sinfully so.

  • Fr. Allen

    Dan C., most conservatives aren’t against welfare, they are against a welfare state. Spending time in mission countries helps one to easily recognize how fortunate we are to have the great alleviations of poverty which our wealth affords and social structures afford our state.

    It’s not that the document does have authority (though it does not.) It’s that it’s a ridiculous document. While it is grounded theoretically in Catholic social teachings, it’s history is grounded in Post WWII collectivism. That and a heavy anti-capitalist bent which nonetheless acknowledges the great economic growth of the last half of the last century.

    The US Bishops have encouraged the government to expand exponentially and get into the business of health care, and are now lamenting abortion and contraceptive mandates, etc. And leaders in the larger Church are calling for more government and ‘urgent implementation’ which they will, to no one’s surprise, soon be lamenting as out of touch with Catholic thought as they sip aged Lagavulin in in their parlors.

    The time is best for prayer.

  • Dan C

    Father Allen,
    The discussions are clear about welfare and it is only liberals who are decrying the insane discussions about envy and “breaking the ten commandments,” and perversions of the term subsidiarity. This discussion proceeds in large part aided and abetted by Weigel and Reno and other major players of conservative Catholic discourse. Conservatives also controlled the governmental institutions for nearly a decade. No movements on national health plans were made. No approach to this problem was put forth. Conservatives sank a better plan in 1994. Let’s be clear, I engage conservative thought routinely on these matters.

    Additionally, conservative thought promoting capitalism differs from clearly CST. Conservative thought on this differs from the pope and most of his last encyclical is rejected by conservatives. I note this as “value-neutral” to indicate exactly where conservatives “think” relative to the Church and the magisterium.

    Conservatives declare histrionically about a welfare “state” at every turn now. There is no moderation.

    Europe is not collectivism. Not close. The ahistorical approach avoiding what collectivism really looks like vs. what happens in Europe is appalling and reduces the seriousness with which one should take conservative economic arguments. And also analyzing the social disruption that happens at the bottoms of European society vs. American society would be enlightening. Violence is less, mental health is better, etc in European/Australian societies. One would want to walk through an Australian ghetto before an American ghetto.

    Conservatives have warped the discourse to crazy levels and need to know that this is outside the routine in the history of CST.