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 Fidei, though 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.