Home / Culture / On the Reading of Obscure Documents


A little known document from the Pontificate of Pius XI is the Apostolic Constitution Quam curam, published in 1929 for the creation of the “Russicum” (the Russian College) to train priests to enter the Soviet Union and minister “underground” to the then-oppressed faithful. I am currently translating this document for a larger project that I am working on. In terms of papal documents, this document is obscure. When the literate Catholic thinks of the great papal teachings of Pius XI his mind immediately goes to Quadragesimo Anno or even Divini Redemptoris; one does not think of Quam curam. Yet, to most Catholics and non-Catholics, I would argue that each of the aforementioned documents are obscure. So too are the writings of Aesop, Dante, Aquinas, Belloc and Chesterton. While these are wildly popular names in the West generally, why are their writings obscure? When we say that a document is obscure we are saying that its existence or contents are not readily known by the public. A document may be said to be obscure in several ways: (1) by the nature of the document itself, (2) by language, (3) by neglect, (4) by suppression, or (5) by lack of popular interest.

Sometimes the nature of a particular document will ensure its obscurity. One thinks here in the business world of memoranda intended for the recipient’s eyes only. Likewise, technical documents whose purpose has no lasting value other than for the immediate aim of the writing (e.g., a grocery list). Given that these documents are not disseminated to a wide audience or—depending on the scope or purpose—intended only for an immediate need, their obscurity is almost always guaranteed.

Secondly, a document may be said to be obscure by the language used. On the one hand, the document may be obscure in the sense of the understanding. I may know Dante’s Divina Commedia, but if I have not the facility in medieval Italian, the original text—when presented to me—will be impossible to understand and therefore obscure. On the other hand, a document may be obscured by the language used if the idiomatic expressions or concepts or terms of art are not understood by the reader. He may be able to read the document, but its purpose and meaning will elude him. Oftentimes, in such cases, the writing is put on the shelf and not referred to again; a tacit acknowledgement may be made of the value of the work and its title may be familiar, but the contents of the work will not often be generally understood.

Thirdly, a document may be said to be obscure through neglect. Neglect may be benign or malicious (if malicious, I would dare say that almost is a variation of “suppression.”). There are countless examples of wonderful works of literature that have been neglected over the years. In this country, Aesop’s fables or the popular English nursery rhymes, I would argue, are not popular not because of any media or elite conspiracy on a general scale (though I do believe there is one on a smaller scale), but rather because of benign neglect. In this example, the story of the “Fox and Grapes” may not have the same impact largely, I would wager, because many children have not been taught to observe nature or to reflect on how humans think.

The fourth way that a document can be obscure is through suppression. Contrary to the reigning dogma of this country, sometimes suppression is good. Pornography or error should be suppressed. This indeed does discriminate in the true sense of the word—upholding that which is true, good, and beautiful and condemning that which would keep us from the same. However, we must be careful here. The issue of who is the authority on this point is key. Certainly, the power elites in the current political reality and in the media uphold values and ideals that are manifestly untrue and suppress the contrary (i.e., the truth). Here one can point to the example of Humanae vitae. Pope Paul VI, not only as the chief shepherd of the Church, but also as a reasonable observer of the world made predictions as to the cultural suicide that was inevitable if contraception were accepted and normalized. We are experiencing its bitter fruits now. Yet, Humanae vitae is an obscure document. Its message was never taught with vigor and precision on a universal scale, and the principalities and powers of the world saw to it—and continue to see to it—that the document and its message is suppressed through a combination of mockery, misrepresentation and misprision.

Finally, a document may be said to be obscure because of the public’s lack of interest. This one may result from suppression or may simply be a variation of neglect. The lack of public interest may be indicative of the value of the document (i.e., that it is not very good) or it may be that the attention of the public has been diverted to another thing.

Laziness accounts for much of at least three of the five ways that a document can be obscured. My point in demonstrating this is to show why we, detective-like, should seek out obscure documents to find the answers to today’s problems. A friend of mine from law school—one of the most brilliant intellects that I have known—once quipped that “people need to get over the fact that something has been written 800 years ago and read it—they might actually find the answer to the questions they have been asking.” Chronological snobbery with regard to thought is a particular malady of the modern age; somehow, to the unthinking moderns, something is better if it is said today rather than yesterday. It is an intellectual laziness that states “you can’t turn back the clock.” Well, paraphrasing Chesterton, “by God you should if your clock is mistakenly ahead one hour!”  Contrary to this intellectual sloth is the hunt for the treasure to be found in the obscure document. Pope Benedict XVI suggested this very course of action in his recommendation for summer reading. He encouraged folks to read the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament (rather obscure book in the Canon, don’t you think!). This was a specific recommendation for the exalted view it gives of marriage and the family—all the more valuable as it is divinely inspired! Is the pope telling us that we can find the answers to today’s problems regarding marriage and family by reading this book written in the 2nd century BC?  I believe he is.

The same thing can be said for re-discovering the great works of Distributism. Even as a prelude to the classic Distributist works, we should re-discover the now obscure philosophical notions of the Greeks: Homer and his explication of human nature in the Odyssey and the Iliad; Sophocles’ Antigone, with its sophisticated recognition of natural law and the duties of man to God; Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Nichomachean Ethics, where sound thinking and ethical living point to the good life. We should follow these with the works of Augustine and Aquinas and the popes. This is the thought of a culture that has fostered a view of the human person as of inestimable value and the family as the essential unit of a just social order. Somewhere along the line, pride, the cult of newness, and laziness have obscured these fundamental truths. The Distributist philosophy, grounded as it is in common sense and the tradition of the West and submitting to the guidance of the Church, stands against this onslaught. The Distributist should seek to uncover those obscure documents, the monuments of our forefathers who—like good fathers—left a great inheritance to their children.

This inheritance is the glory of Dante, whose journey as a Pilgrim through hell, purgatory and paradise have left us a theological, philosophical and poetic treasure; it is the Book of Tobit’s exaltation of “the pearl of great price” that is marriage and family; it is the riches of Belloc’s and Chesterton’s vision of a culture of life built upon the solidity of these ideas. It is even an apostolic constitution that inspired countless missionaries to enter Soviet Russia for the salvation of souls. The adventure that is seeking out obscure documents to find the answers to perennial questions is quintessentially Distributist. To those who would scoff at such an essential element of the Distributist or any sound philosophy, I can only recommend reading Aesop—in order to rid themselves of their sour grapes.


About the author: John M. DeJak


John M. DeJak, a recovering attorney, teaches Latin at the Church and School of St. Agnes in St. Paul, MN. He is Program Director for The Bellarmine Forum. His articles have appeared in, among others, The Wanderer, Gilbert Magazine, and St. Austin Review. John and his wife, Ann, have seven children.


Recent posts in Culture



  1. I concur with your statement. I have recently been very edified by reading the book of Wisdom from the Old Testament.

    To piggyback onto your final point, I would like to make readers of the Distributist Review aware that I digitized the VERY obscure masterwork of Distributist philosophy, Harold Robbins’s “The Sun of Justice.” It is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s websites:



    Thank you to all the contributors here at DR for making this site so vital.

  2. Pingback: THURSDAY AFTERNOON EDITION | ThePulp.it

  3. John,
    This is a fantastic and inspiring article. Thank you.
    David o)

  4. Thanks, David. It was a pleasure to write!

  5. Joshua, this is wonderful news! I’ve been trying to get a copy of Robbins’ book for a number of years! For those of us who do not have Kindle or Nooks, do you plan on publishing the work in another format?

  6. Both Kindle and Nook have free programs for your PC (as well as free smartphone apps) that will allow you to read any ebooks you purchase there. I am just an individual who digitized the book out of a desire to read it myself, and then I used the self-publishing programs from Amazon and B&N to try to make the book more widely available. So I won’t be publishing it in another format, but that doesn’t stop someone else from doing it!

  7. Richard,
    There is a free program called Calibre that can be used to read (or convert) various e-book formats. I just downloaded The Sun of Justice to my Kindle, so it’s next on my reading list. o)