When apostolic exhortations are too long all we are left with is spin

A journalist writes notes as he browses though a copy of Amoris Laetitia (AP)

Here is a question to which I can find no answer: who was responsible for the ordering of the books of the New Testament? There are twenty-seven in all, and the way they are ordered is not in the order they were written. Take a look, for example at the epistles of St Paul: the one that comes first is Romans. Why? Not because it is the oldest, but because it is the longest. Indeed, the letters of St Paul are more or less arranged by order of length, as this very useful table shows. That is one way of arranging them, I suppose. There is at least one library in Oxford where books are ordered according to size, which can be confusing, but there again, makes a sort of sense.

St Paul’s letter to the Romans is 7,111 words long in the original Greek. It is generally agreed to be the most profound work in Pauline canon. St Augustine constantly reread it, but claimed not to understand it. It has probably caused more theological controversy than any other book in the Bible. Two thousand years after it was written, it is still generating discussion.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, weighs in at 60,000 words or thereabouts. According to Fr Raymond de Souza, this makes Amoris Laetitia the longest document of the Papal Magisterium ever. The encyclicals of St John Paul II, which have been of lasting value to the Church, are long by the standards of his predecessors, but Amoris Laetitia beats all records.

This strikes me as unfortunate. When one writes anything – novel, article, or apostolic exhortation – one does so in the hope that it will be read as widely as possible. But when one’s apostolic exhortation is of record breaking length, the chances of it finding a wide readership become correspondingly slim. It simply won’t be read by the man and woman in the pew. The only people who will read it will be professional theologians and commentators, and many of the latter will skim read it, and mine it for quotations. Thus most people who hear about Amoris Laetitia will do so at second hand, and even then in a way that may well warp the meaning of the original. Given the unmanageability of the work itself, what we will be left with is the spin; neither will we be able to counsel people to read the original for themselves and make their own judgment.

Papal documents have been getting longer and longer of late. Perhaps one needs to remember that these are letters, like the pastoral letters that our bishops address to the faithful a few times a year and which are read out in church. A Papal letter than could be read out in all churches would really make people sit up and pay attention. Funnily enough that has been done before now. Mit Brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of Nazism, is 8,000 words long and was read out in all German Churches on Palm Sunday in 1937. That must have been a very long Sunday morning! But one thing was for sure, after that every congregation in Germany knew exactly where the Church stood – as indeed did Hitler, who was furious that he had been unable to stop the letter, which had been secretly printed and distributed, being read. Mit Brenenneder Sorge should perhaps be regarded as a template of all future Papal magisterial pronouncements: relatively short, to the point, dealing with an urgent matter, and finding a wide audience.