Monday, July 27, 2009
How NOT to Read an Encyclical
The editor of this blog and I were joking that the tone I should aim for is "interesting enough that someone might read this entry," but not so interesting that we both need to "look for new jobs." A controversy at least shows that someone is paying attention, but it doesn't necessarily mean that anything is being learned and so it is the case with the reception of Pope Benedict's recent encyclical, Charity in Truth. You can read it for yourself in any of at least seven languages at www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/index_en.htm.
Some are reading out of the encyclical the essential connection Benedict emphasizes between respect for human life, marriage, the dignity of procreation and a just social order. Others think that portions they don't understand might mean something "dumb." There are efforts to co-opt the encyclical to support one policy proposition or another as if the Pope had submitted draft legislation for the US Revenue Code to Congress. But that isn't his job or, to paraphrase our President, that would be below his pay grade. The Pope is concerned, as always, about the dignity of the human person and our right relationship to each other and to God. Just count the words in the English translation: "faith" appears fifty times, "love" two hundred and seventy-four, "life" appears thirty-seven times, "Eucharist" nine times and the words "capitalism" and "socialism" combine for a total of zero mentions. The focus is on man (about 130 mentions), not money or wealth (0 mentions).
The glossary of my handy-dandy Catechism of the Catholic Church says "Encyclicals are expressions of the ordinary papal Magisterium" and in another section, "To this ordinary teaching the faithful are to adhere to . . . with religious assent." Now there can be fair debates about authority, but it is not honest to judge an encyclical's authority on the basis of your agreement with it. "The Pope is authoritative when he agrees with me" is not a Catholic attitude.
Catholics are part of a community of faith founded by Jesus and governed by his vicars. I benefit most when the Church teaches me something that I would not have figured out on my own, but that means I need to put aside my pride and be open to change, open to being wrong and acknowledge that I am in need of conversion. Wow! Being Catholic means being open to learning something from the Church? Something that might require ME to change what I believe or the way I live? Yes, but even more threatening, Jesus wants us to change to be more what we were created to be, both in heart and mind.
Some additional reflections on this encyclical, with an emphasis on what Pope Benedict is asking of us, can be found in upcoming issues of the Catholic New World.
Summary of the encyclical from the Vatican Information Service