Once upon a time, if a Vatican document was greeted with snarky putdowns and outright dismissal, one might safely conclude that the document had something to do with sex and that the peanut gallery hooting it down was full of Catholic progressives mocking the lame-brained celibates who produced it.

No longer.

Take, for example, the recent bile from some opinionated souls on the Catholic right when the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace released an 18-page document in advance of the G-20 economic summit suggesting ways of international financial reform.

“I am reading through the new ‘white paper’ (I won’t dignify it with ‘document’) from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and trying to keep my blood pressure down.”

“The document is a ‘note’ from a rather small office in the Roman curia.”

“This brief document from the lower echelons of the Roman Curia.”

“If the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is trying to make the Catholic Church sound as if she’s living in a fantasy world or trying to portray Catholic social teaching as completely irrelevant to real-world problems, I’d say, ‘mission accomplished.'”

The council “might just as well call for the establishment of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.”

Every one of these writers would consider himself both conservative and orthodox, yet there is an ideologically fueled disdain that ripples through almost all of these comments, meant to telegraph in bold letters that Catholics need not waste any time reading this document because it is wrong.


Catholic progressives are enjoying the sight: “Conservatives regularly condemn liberal ‘Cafeteria Catholics,’ E. J. Dionne wrote, “who pick and choose among the Church’s teachings. But the conservatives often skip the parts of the moral buffet involving peace, social justice and what Pope John Paul II called the ‘idolatry of the market.'”

Of course not every document issued by the Vatican has the same doctrinal heft, not even every papal document. Catholics are allowed to consider the level of authority issuing such a document, and they are certainly allowed to engage in a thoughtful discussion of policy recommendations.

Thoughtful discussion, however, is far different from sarcastic eye-rolling, or signaling to a larger Catholic audience that the principles enunciated do not need to be engaged.

For one thing, the rush to minimize this document ignores the fact that it does indeed reflect the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI as expressed in his most recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” Being an encyclical — which has significant authority — the Pope did not get into specific policy descriptions, but his observations in that document — widely ignored by U.S. Catholics in general — could be considered quite radical.

On his way to World Youth Day, Pope Benedict summarized the philosophical underpinnings of both his encyclical and the recent Vatican document, citing Pope John Paul II as well: “Man must be the center of the economy and the economy cannot be measured according to the maxim of profit but rather according to the common good of all.”

Political and economic conservatives seem unsettled that such statements might not sync up readily with the conservative economic orthodoxy, and they are right. The truth is that the Church is countercultural in many different ways, unsettling both left and right. Our challenge as Catholics is to put down the cafeteria tray and both prayerfully and intellectually pay attention to the Church’s whole moral message.