The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, January 21, 2003  

The Importance of Original Sources
A Case Study

Kevin Drum of CalPundit recently reaffirmed the importance of clicking through hyperlinks provided by webloggers to ensure the accuracy of the transfer of ideas from the original article back to the blog.

Drum’s point is a valid one, one I have made myself, but I would like to take it a step further and suggest that, whenever possible, and particularly when there is a discrepancy between the blogger’s comments and the original published article or essay, that the reader search for and review the original source documents. Naturally, this method is neither appropriate nor feasible in all situations, but when called for, it can be very illuminating.

Such is the case with a recent post at

In a January 12 post, Andrew Sullivan said, “In advance of what I predict will be a purging of all gay priests and seminarians from the Catholic church, the men who now control the Vatican (it’s not clear if John Paul II is one of them) are now moving toward a tighter control of the Catholic press.”

How so?

“No Catholic publication will henceforth be allowed to publish a variety of viewpoints on such critical matters as church governance, women priests, clerical celibacy[,] or gay priests,” Sullivan writes. “Equally, no Catholic politician will be allowed to deviate from Vatican orthodoxy.”


“At least that’s the clear inference of this latest 17-page document from Cardinal Ratzinger’s department,” Sullivan avers, referring to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and linking not to “this latest 17-page document” but to a brief Reuters news story about it.

The document itself, heavily footnoted and carrying the weighty title, “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” written by the CDF, can be found in its entirety here, in English, no less, at the Vatican’s web site.

The Reuters piece, aiming for brevity and as much clarity as can be provided given the news wire’s general audience, got several aspects of the Doctrinal Note wrong, most notably, casting the document as a shift in Vatican doctrine or emphasis when it is instead a summary of past statements from the Catholic Church with additional clarity on a few points of confusion -- not a bad idea considering the number of Catholics in the world today.

The reiterative nature of the Doctrinal Note would be obvious to a Catholic or to anyone else with a solid understanding -- and not a mere passing familiarity -- with such documents as Christifideles laici (1989), Centesimus annus (1991), Evangelium vitae (1995), Fides et ratio (1999), and the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, among others.

The Note itself says exactly this, reading in the fourth paragraph:

The present Note does not seek to set out the entire teaching of the Church on this matter, which is summarized in its essentials in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but intends only to recall some principles proper to the Christian conscience, which inspire the social and political involvement of Catholics in democratic societies. The emergence of ambiguities or questionable positions in recent times, often because of the pressure of world events, has made it necessary to clarify some important elements of Church teaching in this area.

And taking a bit more of the edge off the Doctrinal Note -- though the theocrats will have my head for this -- as is customary in Vatican documents, once the hard line doctrine has been stated, there is just a bit of backsliding, to wit:

By its interventions in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends -- as is its proper function -- to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible.

Having studied the Doctrinal Note in its entirety, I can say with confidence that there is virtually no connection between its issuance and what may or may not become Vatican policy on the ordination of gay men as priests and brothers. The only relevant reference to gays, no mention being made of gay religious, is this:

[T]he family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such.

Like it or not, and there is much not to like, this is nothing new.

The Reuters story cited by Sullivan asserts, “The document . . . also turned the screws on Catholic publications, saying they could not put forward different views for the sake of pluralism.”

Not exactly. The Doctrinal Note states:

[S]ome Catholic periodicals in certain countries have expressed perspectives on political choices that have been ambiguous or incorrect, by misinterpreting the idea of the political autonomy enjoyed by Catholics and by not taking into consideration the principles mentioned above.

In context one could narrowly presume this is a reference to liberal periodicals directed at Catholic audiences that provide space for views that are not entirely in compatible with Vatican teaching but reflect the modern practice of the faith and the consciences of contemporary Catholics, particularly in advanced Western societies. However, given that most such periodicals make it quite clear that they are disagreeing with Rome, and even if not, it’s safe to assume their readers are aware of the disagreement, one might equally presume the CDF’s comments are aimed at so-called traditionalist Catholic publications, not a few of which are managed or supervised by clergymen already excommunicated by Rome. In Sullivan’s self-referential world there apparently is no deviancy on the right.

Nowhere -- I repeat, nowhere -- in the Doctrinal Note is it stated or implied that, in Sullivan’s words, “[n]o Catholic publication will henceforth be allowed to publish a variety of viewpoints on such critical matters as church governance, women priests, clerical celibacy[,] or gay priests.” Nor is it stated or implied that, again in Sullivan’s words, “[n]o Catholic politician will be allowed to deviate from Vatican orthodoxy.” Is it surprising that Reuters got it wrong? Not really. This stuff is pretty tough going.

Instead, the Doctrinal Note is best considered a chastisement, a remonstration, and a call to orthodoxy, a call not unlike dozens issued by the Vatican in the last 40 years. There is no mention of, nor hint at, excommunication or the closing of publications. That does not in any way detract from the importance of the message contained therein, or the moral compulsion upon Catholics to adhere to its message. But it would do us all well not to find a new message where there is none and not to create a new controversy out of thin air.

I can’t help but mention that not studying the document itself allowed Andrew “Let the Missiles Fly” Sullivan miss this directive:

Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned. Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. Peace is always “the work of justice and the effect of charity.” [Catechism, No. 2304.] It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders. [Ed.: Emphasis in original.]

On a broader level, this modest exercise reveals that it is imperative not only to click through the links, as CalPundit recommended, but also to go directly to the source documents to ensure there has been no misinterpretation. One would think Sullivan’s jihad against the great infidel, Howell Raines, would have taught him as much.


In the same post Sullivan writes, “I wonder if this is in part a response to the Jesuit magazine America’s recent special issue defending the dignity and worth of homosexual [sic] priests,” Sullivan writes.

I doubt it.

Pope John Paul II approved the Doctrinal Note on November 21, 2002. The issue of America to which Sullivan refers was dated December 16, 2002.

Of course, Sullivan couldn’t be expected to learn that from reading the Reuters story. He would actually have to have consulted the source document, a task he obviously neglected.

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