Thoughts on an Encylical I Haven’t Read Yet

Yesterday, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ first formal document, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, available here in English translation, with both HTML and PDF versions.    I have not read it yet;  at 51,000 words I think I can be excused for not having done more than print it out.  So it may seem presumptuous to blog about it but I have a few quick thoughts on the reception and presentation of the text.

Both the secular press and the blog-o-sphere quickly filled with commentary and quotations.   The Guardian, predictably, focused on the economic aspects of the letter.  The New York Times gave a broader summary, but tended to focus on the hot button issues they care about:  women’s ordination, abortion, gay rights, denying the sacraments to politicians.  The Washington Post covered the encyclical in several columns and blog posts (e.g. here), giving  brief summaries but with most of the emphasis on economics.  In particular they brought attention to the Pope’s explicit condemnation of “trickle-down economics.”

Unsurprisingly, the National Catholic Reporter was overjoyed by the document, with the usually staid John Allen comparing it to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.  Michael Sean Winters calls it a “song” and is one of the few commentaries I have seen that highlights the “joy” in the title.

A quick check of conservative blogs showed a much warier approach.  Fr. Z. withheld judgment, while warning his readers to ignore the secular press and to be sure to remember that this was not an encyclical, or even apostolic letter, but “only” an apostolic exhortation.    He also added the interesting tidbit (with an ineffable sense of disaprobation) that there is no Latin text available.   Rorate Caeli had one quote, and claimed that the exhortation is a very Thomistic document.   And Catholic World Report had a long summary (sort of like a Cliff Notes version) that seems to go out of its way to bury any commentary about the economy in the details.  And the Acton Institute has nothing at all.

Going forward  my intention is to read the text carefully, and I hope to provide more detailed reflections as I complete each chapter.  Here, however, I want to comment on the semiotics of the document and its release.   Previous papal encyclicals were only available in HTML, and were typeset on the parchment colored background used throughout the Vatican website.  The effect is one of age, solidity, tradition.  The text itself is useful for reference but not for extended reading.   The footnotes, at least, were hypertext.   Moreover, one generally had to make several clicks and dig down to find the text.  The general effect was one of distance and detachment from the world.  Even when the contents were provoking (as in Pope Benedict’s commentary on the economy) their impact was offset by the presentation.

By contrast, Evangelii Gaudium immediately appears in a pop-up window  as soon as you select the English language homepage.  It is available in both PDF and HTML formats.  In HTML, the background has been changed to clear white, with a border in the traditional parchment background.   The text begins with a fairly detailed hyper-linked table of contents.  The net effect is a document that is easy to read and easy to search.  (This may explain the rapidity with which “juicy” quotes were able to appear.)   I had not realized this, but this change in layout actually occurred with Lumen Fideithough this document did not have the handy table of contents.

The availability of the PDF was a real surprise.  Moreover, when I went to print it, I discovered that the PDF had not been formatted as a monograph—narrow margins with footnotes at the end—but in a very readable book format with wide margins and a pleasing typeface.  (Though I must complain that at 200+ pages, it would have been a real waste of paper to print; however, if you print double-sided, two pages on each side of the sheet, with the text blown up to about 150%, you get a more compact but still readable document.)  The footnotes are given at the bottom of each page, rather than as endnotes.  The table of contents is still there, but in a European touch it is at the end of the book where Americans would expect the index.

The effect of these changes is quite striking and delivers in print and electronically the “populist,”  outward looking style that Pope Francis has brought to the papacy and wants the whole Church to adopt.   In form the documents appear modern, inviting and relevant.   The typography of the PDF suggests to the reader that this is a document for every man and woman and not a learned text to be parsed by theologians but otherwise not to be looked at.  Just in appearance it makes the title more plausible: the good news is indeed joyful.

Even if Pope Francis is not proposing any significant shifts in Church teaching, the change in the presentation is itself an important departure, an attempt to again make the Church a touchstone for moral and ethical reflection of the world around us by making the teachings appear part of this world.  I once heard Pope Leo described as the first pope to engage directly with modernity (and, more acerbically, as the only one until Pope John).  With these new documents, I think that Pope Francis is demonstrating that he is the first pope willing to engage with the post-modern world.

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  • Roger

    Like most people i haven’t read the entire document. I do have a great deal of respect and of course reverence for our Holy Father. Having said that, I believe he misses the point when it comes to his criticism of the “free markets”. I believe what has to happen is not a change of laws to protect people from the cruel markets but rather a changing of the people who run these free markets. In other words, don’t change laws, change people.

    That is essentially what the Gospel tells us – the responsibility rests with the individual to change their behavior. Too often we want government or the Church to affect change for us. God gives us free will to screw up, repent and change our ways. Its always up to us and no one else.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, our ultimate goal is to change hearts. But there is a long tradition in Catholic theology (back to Augustine, perhaps?) that in our fallen world, laws exist to promote justice when individuals will not themselves act justly. By way of weak analogy: we want a world when people do not commit murder. Given the current state of the world, the government makes laws against murder, and enacts policies to prevent people from committing murder (e.g. active policing, laws against owning weapons of mass destruction, regulation of gun ownership).

      In the same way, if we are to have free markets, and we know that they are going to be run by fallen individuals, then there should be room for government to regulate their activities in order to promote the common good. One can debate what laws and regulations are prudent in any setting, but I do not think, from a Catholic perspective, one can question the licit nature of these laws. (Here, I deliberately omit a discussion of Catholic anarchism, which is a topic for another discussion.)

  • Jordan

    Thanks David for a balanced pre-assessment. I have my own questions as I begin to read Evangelii Gaudium. I am particularly intrigued by your observation that Pope Francis has condemned trickle-down economics. As a social democrat who is convinced that a state modeled on CST is the most just state, I am very glad that a pontiff has finally condemned an economic model which gladly fills the pockets of Dives to overflowing while shamelessly slandering Lazarus as a malingerer or wastrel. The Gospel message is joyful precisely because of the radical equality of the baptismal priesthood. Indeed, Christians are challenged to extend radical brotherhood and sisterhood to all men and women. I strongly suspect that Pope Francis’s exhortation contains this basal but critical teaching.

    I pray that Pope Francis’s exhortation will compel a number of American bishops to cease their political machinations on behalf of the Republican Party. Either the bishops so inclined should out themselves as active political partisans and reject the Holy Father’s admonitions, or they should soberly reconsider active politicking. Our prelates are called to shepherd, not to immerse themselves in matters temporal of either political party. The latter is particularly true if a prelate engages in politics in the spirit of self-aggrandizement and to the exclusion of the “least brethren”.

    ad multos annos, Pope Francis. Keep up your fighing spirit!

  • CT Catholic Corner (@CtCathCorner)

    Fr.Z says it’s not an Encylical. Do you think he’s wrong?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No! The title page says explicitly that it is an apostolic exhortation. I was (semi-deliberately) sloppy in my choice of a title.

  • emmasrandomthoughts

    Excellent thoughts and I appreciate the roundup of reactions to the exhortation. Someone once pointed out that there is not one Catholic faith, but thousands, and the reactions to the encyclical seem to confirm that.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Actually, papal documents have been available in pdf for some time. The credit for that really belongs to the papacy of Benedict.

    It looks like this is a great exhortation which I look forward to reading. We have a great Pope in Francis who is really moving the Church forward.

    God Bless

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Really? I stand corrected, but even today when I went looking on the Benedict page I could only find HTML files. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. I just went back, though, and couldn’t find anything.

  • Julia Smucker

    I too heard about the exhortation yesterday and wanted to write something but have not had time to read it in full, let alone get my thoughts together. I did see a good summary offered by Vatican Information Service, and as I was reading that, it dawned on me that this was the next great contribution to Catholic Social Teaching. Several beautiful and quotable statements jumped out at me just from the summary, which contained substantial direct quotes.

    And then I saw the news reports from the secular press, and the beauty vanished. (I say this not to make a bugaboo of “the media”, but that’s just what I’ve seen so far. And I guess I do want to demonstrate that it’s possible to wholeheartedly LOVE Pope Francis and his message and also be put off by triumphalist interpretations from the left.) The most bemusing commentary disclaimed, “There’s a lot of stuff about Jesus, but…” and then went on to focus entirely on the economic angle – not that that doesn’t warrant focus, but it sounded as if the leader of the world’s largest Christian tradition would be expected to have a merely political message divorced from any of the “stuff about Jesus”.

    Anyway, David, I think you’re reading too much into the semiotics. For one thing, I wouldn’t expect the aesthetics of the Vatican website to be in the realm of decisions made by the pope. For another, the content (as far as I’ve seen) is neither radically new nor uncritically modern. Like many of his predecessors, who have explicitly expounded on economic justice since Leo XIII (the two most recent ones, who are getting a lot of negative comparison to Francis these days, are no exception: John Paul II denounced the “idolatry of the market” in Centesimus Annus; Benedict XVI called for a global redistribution system in Caritas in Veritate and additional memoranda and was proclaimed to be left of Nancy Pelosi!), Pope Francis has plenty of modern injustices to critique, and does so frequently and forcefully with favored phrases like “globalization of indifference” and “throwaway culture”, which strikes me as quite similar to what John Paul II was getting at when he spoke of the “culture of death”.

    This may be getting a little more rantish than I intended. Lest I be misunderstood, my motivation for saying all this is not at all one of retrenchment from the right or of wanting to downplay papal teaching on economics. Quite the contrary: I want to lift up the social justice tradition of the Catholic Church and proclaim it with utmost conviction. My concern is that the authority of that great social tradition is undermined if we act like it’s all new with Francis.

    • Jordan

      Julia, I fully agree with your statement that Pope Francis’s new exhortation should not be viewed as an economic or political manifesto. As demonstrated, I fell for that bit — I should have been less critical of what I perceive as a political slant in the American Church and its hierarchs. The latter indeed is not relevant to Pope Francis qua himself and his exhortation.

      I am convinced that Pope Francis’s statements on economic justice are resounding with many more people since our pope does not merely preach the intrinsic dignity of the poor and marginalized, but also strives to live a life as unencumbered by materialism as possible. His acts of personal mercy are also most admirable (I am thinking here of Pope Francis’s embrace of a man suffering from boils). Even the most hard-boiled atheists I know have stated their admiration of Pope Francis to me. The world listens to the pope because he willingly walks a path of suffering in a non-compromised desire to imitate the ministry of Jesus Christ.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      as I said, I have not dipped into the content in any meaningful way, but I am going to stand by my semiotic reading: signs communicate as powerfully and perhaps even more powerfully than word sometimes do. The text looks different both in HTML and PDF and therefore will be received differently. The content may be exactly what was said by Benedict XVI and John Paul II (and I expect that when I dig into it I will find things very much in continuity with both them and the long history of Catholic Social Teaching) but in his person and now in his presentation of his writing he has framed it in a way that makes it accessible and even attractive to the post-modern world.

      • Julia Smucker

        The presentation on the website may be more accessible and attractive, but I would attribute that to updates made by a website administrator. I’m not denying that Pope Francis has indicated an openness to engaging with the postmodern world in other ways, but to read that into the visual appearance of his writings on the Vatican website is a stretch.

        By the way, I completely agree with Jordan about Francis’ leading by example in his eschewing of materialism and his acts of mercy. That’s what makes him so genuinely admirable and, I will even add, sets him apart (just so long as we don’t get too polemical about it).

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I agree that in the end the final decisions were made by a web administrator. But I would bet that he did not make these changes unilaterally. The idea may (or may not) have originated with him, but would have been approved by someone higher up—probably some cleric in the Vatican bureaucracy. And here is where the connection emerges: what would cause the web admin to propose these changes? What would cause a Vatican official to suggest or to approve them? Here we see the consequences of Pope Francis’ new approach playing out: these minor changes are “signs” of a larger shift going on.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I also agree with Jordan. Yesterday I got a facebook comment from a colleague overseas who was raised Catholic but had stopped identifying himself as Catholic. He now finds in Francis something he can identify with.

  • Kurt

    Just for a little humor, can I share the following profound and deep reflection on the Pope’s letter?

    Christ healed the sick, and made the lame walk. He didn’t follow them home and give them a bucket of chicken, an Obama phone and a big screen tv. After ‘Arise and walk”, they were on their own. The Pope was wrong, spoke in an uninformed fashion regarding how wealth is created, and reflected his upbringing in communist Europe. (Oh, they call it socialism, but it is really communism, who is kidding whom?)

    • Dante Aligheri

      Kurt, I’m curious. Where did this come from? Obviously, the Pope wasn’t even raised in Europe (regardless of the mischaracterization of “socialism”).

      You’re right. This would be humorous except that I know people who actually think this way.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Actually, when I read it, I was confused as well: it sounded like a somewhat juvenile criticism of Pope John Paul II.

      • Kurt

        It was from one of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads (as they call themselves). I will say the conservative commentary from non-Catholics has shown no reluctance to dump the Pope. Even the old canards about the wealth of the Church, world government etc. have come out.

        I expect next we will hear the TEA Party demanding to see the Pope’s original long form baptismal certificate. :)

        • LM

          A bucket of chicken and an “Obamaphone”? Why don’t you just make the coded language complete and mention watermelon and Cadillacs?

  • Julia Smucker

    Further commentary from John Allen, by the way, provides his usual refreshing balance.

  • dismasdolben

    The attempts here to palliate the utterly novel and radical style of the new pope–radical in its tone and redirection AWAY from an “imperial papacy” and an exclusive attention toward private morality and toward greater attention to institutionalized violence and sinfulness is utterly disingenuous. A Jesuit pope is going to be, by definition, a POLITICAL pope, just as Roman Catholicism is, by definition, a theological system that addresses the entirety of man’s individual AND social existence.
    The medium is VERY MUCH a large part of Pope Francis’s message. The exhortations of Popes Wojtylwa and Ratzinger fell on deaf ears, because even as they created their own quite esoteric terminology to criticize modernity (“culture of death,” “theology of the body,” etc.), they crushed dissent within the Church, banished female altar-servers from the mass in a national cathedral, supported individuals such as Pinochet, sported fantastically expensive regalia, recklessly canonized in a politicized manner, and–worst of all–circled the wagons around pedophile priests. Pope Francis, instead, has actually dared to castigate the Right’s own economic mantraya, using the actual words of the political economists: please tell me, Julia and David, when you heard Pope Wojtylwa or Pope Ratzinger actually use the words “trickle-down economics”? Similarly, those popes WOULD NOT HAVE DARED to say to a Reagan ;or a Bush–to the faces of those murdering tyrants: “Your genocidal wars are the inevitable consequences of your relentlessly selfish economic policy.”
    During the First Gulf War, when John Paul II Wojtlywa had denounced that war from his audience window as a “disgrace to humanity,” and the American Military Services’ press (the newspaper that army, navy and marine service people read, had censored that pope’s comments out, so that YOUNG CATHOLIC SERVICE PEOPLE could not read what their pope had said about what they were doing (an army press corps member told me this), their was not a peep out of the Catholic hierarchy in America or the Vatican. I am willing to bet my life’s savings that a Jesuit pope will not let such an opportunity to confront the insane Behemoth that is entrenched and anarchic social and economic violence pass, in the same manner that Wojtylwa and Ratzinger were, with a mere diplomatic dance around the reality of LEGALIZED MURDER.

  • Roger

    Michael Voris loves the Pope. he actually gives a fairly balanced, intelligent wrap-up of the pope’s vision. I agree with Voris and people here – especially those on the left, should check it out.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Listening to this 10 minute rant, I heard very little that was balanced. He continually sets up straw men, denouncing “modernists” and “heretics” and “liberals” and (my personal favorite) “effeminate bishops” without ever naming them or quoting the positions he is rejecting. Moreover, while his quotes from Pope Francis are true (I’ve read all of them on Sandro Magister’s blog except the one about Trent) he is picking and choosing among the thought of Francis to construct a narrative image that suits his narrow, revanchist understanding of Catholicism. In other words, he is engaging in the same interpretive game he accuses the “diabolical media” of playing. He is, perhaps, an example of the refusal to accept Francis on his own terms that Digby denounces in his post above.

      With reference to my own theme of semiotics, I find it interesting that he closes with the hope that the infamous “red shoes” will return, as they are a symbol of “the blood of martyrs.” He is unable or unwilling to read the rejection of this symbol by Francis in the broader context of who Francis is and instead insists on a reading that is archaic and literally has no meaning in the modern context: as a sign, essentially no one read the red shoes of the Pope in this way anymore. (I wonder if this was ever the organic meaning of these shoes, or if this was a post facto spiritual reading given to a practice that had started for some other reason. But that is a question for another day.)

      • Roger

        Believe me, if Voris wanted to criticize the Pope, he would. He would have no problem calling out the Pope for anything he believes is not “Catholic” in his view.

        He has no agenda other than to ensure the Catholics believe and act as per the magisterium. Obviously the two us have differing views on Catholicism and no doubt I tens to side with someone who attends Mass with reverence and who truly believes Mass is not just a community gathering but rather a re-presentation of the sacrifice of our Lord, the Lamb of God.

        I don’t always agree with Voris but he his dead on here – and unfortunately its not what the lefties/hippies of the church want to hear.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Roger, your mistake is assuming that someone (like me) who disagrees with Voris is not “someone who attends Mass with reverence and who truly believes Mass is not just a community gathering but rather a re-presentation of the sacrifice of our Lord, the Lamb of God.”

          As for calling out the Pope, that really does sound like the old saying, “Don’t be more Catholic than the pope.”

  • Morning’s Minion

    I love it that Fr. Z quotes Rush Limbaugh with enthusiasm. For just as the pope condemns selfish libertarianism, I’m sure he would also condemn hedonism and libertinism – including the use of drugs for pleasure, adultery, trading in wives like used cars, and sexual tourism. What Limbaugh perhaps can’t see is that this is the very same narrow self interest and disrespect of the other that motivates the pope’s discussion of the economy. So for Limbaugh, it’s personal, and it should be. What a shame that Z is willfully blind to this.

  • Brian Martin

    Pardon me, but in the scheme of things..who the hell is someone like Voris, that he…or at least you, have the belief that he is in a position of telling the Pope what is not Catholic. I tire of the arrogance perpetuated by the internet which gives people the impression that their opinion on matters Catholic are as important or even more important than the POPE, who is after all, the successor of Peter, who, as all good Catholics know, was chosen By God to lead his Church.
    Let’s be clear…”He has no agenda other than to ensure the Catholics believe and act as per -his interpretation of-the magisterium.”
    Voris wants followers of Voris. Makes me think of the song “Icon” by Henry Rollins, which, I will grant, is probably not usual musical fare for the denizens of Vox Nova.

    • dismasdolben

      Brian, basically I think you’re right, but I am sure that you must have noticed that the more “liberal” commentators at Vox Nova–and I include all, or almost all of those with whom I’ve had disagreements–are considerably more scholarly than the likes of Voris. Even if I don’t accept the “infallability” of the Successor of Peter, as you do, I’m readily consenting, ALWAYS, that somebody so well qualifed by training and education as a Supreme Pontiff, is better able to interpret Sacred Scripture and the traditions of the Catholic and Apostolic Church than I. And that includes Pope Ratzinger, whom I never really liked.

      • Brian Martin

        The terms liberal and conservative have come to mean much less to me than in the past. As to the infallibility issue, I accept that there are things the Pope says that are infallible, but I am with you in that I believe that his knowledge, training, and life leave him better prepared than I to interpret Sacred Scripture and traditions.
        I also accept that Voris has more theological based education than I…but then so did Fr. Corapi…and I view them similarly. I always reserve the right to trust my conscience and ask questions.

  • dismasdolben

    Heard this morning, in the commons area of my international school here in Alexandria Egypt, from out of the mouth of the director, an excommunicated ex-Mormon: “This pope makes me want to become a Catholic.”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, encourage that thought! The more the merrier.