The release of Pope Francis’s second encyclical (and the first that can truly be called his alone, since Lumen fidei was essentially cowritten with his predecessor, Benedict XVI) was anticlimactic.  By the time the final text was released on June 18, there seemed hardly any point in reading it, since FOX News and Rush Limbaugh and various environmental groups and politicians both Democratic and Republican had already informed us what the encyclical was about and what to think of it.  Not that they had read it, either; that the words climate change were rumored to appear had told them everything they needed to know.  The document could be reduced to that single phrase and treated entirely in political terms.  “Liberal” Catholics loved it without even seeing it, and for the first time in decades urged the world to listen to the Vicar of Christ; “conservative” Catholics hated it, and went to great pains to remind their religious and political confreres that members of the Church of Rome need only listen to popes when they speak on matters of faith and morals.  Mater si, magistra no!

In the end, the phrase climate change appeared 12 times in a document whose body numbered 37,809 words, with almost another 3,000 words in footnotes.  The length of the document itself should have been a warning sign not to jump to conclusions before reading it in its entirety.  But the soundbites and tweets were shorter and easier to process; in a world in which everything is reduced to politics, the very idea of spending several days or even weeks, or even just several hours, grappling with a significant text that took @Pontifex more than 30 seconds to write seems the height of foolishness.

When John Paul II released Centesimus annus on May 1, 1991, Rush Limbaugh had been broadcasting nationally for less than three years; the World Wide Web existed only as a proof of concept (the first publicly accessible website would launch on August 6, 1991); and the debut of FOX News was still over five years in the future.  My fellow graduate students and I in the politics program at The Catholic University of America ordered paperback copies of the encyclical, which arrived remarkably quickly—only a week after its release!  We read the text and reread it and highlighted it and annotated it and went to the library (remember those?) to consult the sources in the footnotes.  We discussed it and debated it and went home for the summer and came back in the fall and picked up where we had left off.

In other words, we took the text seriously, both as Catholics and as scholars, and while each of us came to our own conclusions about what Centesimus annus meant, none of us made up our minds before reading the text—or, worse yet, let others make up our minds for us.  Because that, in the end, is what it means to read a tweet or a Facebook post or listen to a radio or TV entertainer (pundit is too exalted a word) and think that you know everything you need to know.