Reading the Fine Print
I must confess that I have not yet read the pope’s encyclical on the environment, in part because of its substantive length, and partly because it is, well, new. I was lucky enough to have had a graduate course in historiography or the discipline of assessing sources. A side effect of this course is my intimate knowledge of everything ever written about the foreign policy of the Grant Administration. Now that comes in handy every now and then. Many years ago I had lunch with General William Westmoreland, the controversial commander of the U.S. military effort in Viet Nam in the 1960’s. As I recall, he was suing a major TV network for libel, I think, and I suspected he didn’t want to talk about that. So I mentioned that I was giving a presentation that night to my seminar on President Grant. The general leaned across the table and said, “Did he really drink as much as they say he did?” Expert that I now am in this field, I was able to say with confidence, “Only when he was bored and when his wife wasn’t around.” (Come to think of it, that’s true of a lot of guys.)
But seriously, I am eternally grateful to one Edmund Kallina, Ph.D., of the faculty of the University of Central Florida. I needed two graduate history courses at midlife to qualify as an adjunct instructor in history in our state university system, and the chairman of the department, noting my advanced age at that time of 42, said to me in effect, “The heck with prerequisites; let’s see if you can survive Kallina.” It was close. I never worked as hard, and I was terrified every minute I sat at the seminar table. I discovered during the course that several of my classmates were practicing attorneys honing their research skills. But that single course saved me days and weeks and months of reading inferior materials and showed me how to assess texts and make use of the leads they provided in getting to the bottom of my pursuits. I should add parenthetically that Dr. Kallina would become the chairman of the department, in my view a much deserved position.
I tend to approach documents and books with a degree of caution. Books cost money, but more importantly, they consume time and energy, which is why critiquing is such an important skill for a professional, and that includes catechists. An accurate and competent text can change a lifetime of outlook on a specific subject, can tease out interests and even passions we didn’t know we had, and make us better ambassadors for the causes we carry.
I learned in my studies under Dr. Kallina that time itself is a factor in assessing sources. For almost a century after President Grant left office in 1877 historians of the day tended to generalize his administration as one corrupt cesspool; I found one young history professor’s very harsh generalizations about Grant written around 1900. Ironically its author, one Woodrow Wilson, would eventually lead another war, the one “to end all wars.” Grant’s foreign policy, it is now generally accepted, had highly successful moments, notably in settling a very explosive problem regarding Britain and war reparations. (Great Britain had materially sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and some American politicians were calling for a seizure of Canada.)
There is a little known theological principle today (at least rarely acknowledged) called “reception,” or reception of the faithful. Given that all Christians receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church has understood (to varying degrees at various times) that any formal instruction or teaching by the Church must be “received” by the faithful. The most famous act of reception in our history is the formation of the New Testament itself; by 200 A.D. the canon or official library of what we call the New Testament was formalized based upon the faith and liturgical practice of two centuries of Christian experience. Reception is a prolonged process; some Christian communities did not received St. John’s Gospel till around 400 A.D. Official Church communications today tend to avoid the term, probably because of its implications for the present day papal authority on such matters as artificial birth control, where “reception” of the Church teaching is at best debatable.
Pope Francis’ Laudato Si has certainly created a stir. Some public figures have either criticized the Pope’s reasoning or denied his right to discuss matters in the secular sphere. Others have welcomed the encyclical with a mood of great joy and have rushed to speculate on its implementation without due diligence. My fear, in both cases, is that we are not doing what faith and science equip us to do, that is, study the document. That includes following the text’s internal logic, examining carefully its Biblical roots and place in the Church’s teaching tradition, looking carefully at its footnotes and sourcing, and making a fair assessment of scientific and economic reasonings brought to bear. Popes have every right to address “secular” matters, but their use of non-theological data is fair game for what universities call “peer review.”
Here is where history is a great teacher. In 1965 the Church received the greatest influx of new pastoral teaching in our lifetimes, certainly, the documents of Vatican II. And yet it cannot be denied that the haste to implement specific measures—often without a full understanding of documentary concepts—led to a state of affairs that bred, among other things, polarity between a variety of interpretations. So adopt a healthy distrust of instant analysis. Give the pope and his teaching the ultimate honor of time, so that there will be nothing superficial or dishonest about your “reception.”
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