Is Caritas in Veritate poorly written? (updated)

Peter Steinfels has a piece about Caritas in Veritate in yesterday’s New York Times.  He basically asks the question, Why is the thing so hard to read?  Actually, Steinfels asks why it’s “so poorly written.”

Working busily on a companion guide to the thing, I had asked this question myself already (and commented on the fact here), though I guess I was thinking more that it was hard reading than poor writing (but I can live putting it either way).  My basic answer has been: it’s the subject matter.  Reading about economics and business ethics is just not as much of a grabber (to me anyway) as the Eucharist and the value of human life.  But I suppose that only goes so far.  Let’s face it, Populorum Progressio is not as difficult. Maybe it is more than the fact that it’s a hard topic.

Steinfels suggests three answers: 1. It’s an encyclical.  (Not a good answer, because this one is obviously more difficult than most.)  2. It’s the work of many hands.  (Not a good answer, because so are most encyclicals — as he acknowledges.)  3.) The Pope tries to cover too much ground.  As Steinfels puts it:

“Caritas in Veritate” is a document about human nature and the Trinity and the current economic crisis and inequality and the energy problem. It argues a link between Catholic teaching on sexuality and life issues like abortion and Catholic stances on social issues like poverty and the environment.

It carries on an internal Catholic debate about continuity versus discontinuity in interpreting church teaching. It even offers a tantalizing glimpse at a new variation on markets, profits and the relationships between economics and politics.

This seems to make the most sense of the three, I guess.  But even with this, some good rewriting and editing could have solved a lot.  I know in my own work, once I’ve written something, I need to stop, step away (at least mentally, though literally getting away from it for a few days  is better) and then almost sneak up on it, approach it as a reader who has never seen it before.  Is it clear, understandable, interesting, etc, to someone who’s not in my own head? (And that, of course, is why blogging is generally not a forum for stellar writing.  We write the first draft and publish at the click of a button!)

It seems like this is the step that was missing in the drafting of CiV.  I doesn’t seem like they asked themselves, Are the people — remember, it’s not addressed only to bishops or theologians, but “all people of good will” — going to be able to get this?

Anyway, Jody Bottum, whose work I admire, suggests at the First Things blog that Steinfels’ asking this question is akin to George Wiegel’s earlier criticisms.   But that’s disingenuous.  Weigel, of course, was not “pilloried” (as he puts it) because he said the encyclical is poorly written.  Rather, he used this fact as an excuse to suggest readers could disregard major sections of it as not worth our attention.  There’s a big difference there.

UPDATE: Someone has now put it all far better than I did in the comments to the post — second one down.  Well said, Mr. Martens


%d bloggers like this: