The Importance of Reading and Understanding Papal Encyclicals

W. P. Bennett

The Importance of Reading and Understanding Papal Encyclicals

Whenever the pope releases a document many people immediately say that the pope released an encyclical. This isn’t always the case as an encyclical is a specific type of document. Hopefully, by going through the different types of documents a pope can release we can begin to see what an encyclical actually is and than we can move into a little strategy for trying to read the encyclical.


Informal Communications

To begin with, there are very informal communications of the pope.  These are not encyclicals and it should be obvious that they should not be considered encyclicals. An example of these include letters the pope may send to an individual person. Usually, the pope sends a little message of congratulations and a prayer for peace to a newly elected leader of a country. This brief little message is not an encyclical and carries little official weight. Not that the pope is not sincere in his desire to work with the nation towards peace and the good of the people but rather the document does not carry any official doctrinal weight. Also falling into this category would be Papal tweets. These are used for teaching, and used to proclaim that mind and thinking of the pope, but do not carry hardly any doctrinal weight.

Perhaps the most common teaching tool of the pope are his homilies. These are not only his homilies from Masses but also his reflections at the Wednesday Audiences. These homilies are then published or broadcast as videos. I’ve seen quite a few clips of them making the way through social media. These are certainly teachings and carry more doctrinal weight than his tweets or private letters and messages but yet do not carry the full doctrinal weight of other documents.


Apostolic Exhortations

After a meeting of bishops of the Church, often with others to advise them, that have been called together to discuss a particular issue, a gathering called a Synod, the pope will release a document called an Apostolic Exhortation.  For example, in the near future is a Synod on Young People that will be held in Rome. Invited are not only bishops (but not every bishop around the world) but also a selection of other invited guests of people with expertise in this area. Also invited to this Synod are young people to speak about their experiences. The pope, after listening to everybody, will issue a final document summarizing the Synod along with his reflections and advice for going forward. This final document is the Apostolic Exhortation and carries fairly high weight. It should be read by bishops and priests and other people who are involved with the church, especially those who deal with the topic.

Apostolic Exhortations can also come from the pope’s own initiative.  In March, Pope Francis released an Apostolic Exhortation called “Guadete et exsutate” about holiness and how everybody is called to holiness.

Then there is a document called a Motu Proprio. This is not issued at the end of a gathering and not issued because of an official request. It often deals with legal things of the church.  The most famous one of these in recent times was the Motu Proprio released by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 that expanded the use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

There is a similar type of document called an Apostolic Constitution. This often deals with the rules and organizations of the church. If the pope were to change the procedure for future papal elections, as St. Pope John Paul II did, he would do it via an Apostolic Constitution. When a new diocese comes about because of changing populations, it is officially done via an Apostolic Constitution.  These rarely deal with doctrinal issues, but their effect is binding on the law of the church.


Papal Encyclicals

Finally, we come to the most famous type of papal document- the papal encyclical. Pope Francis’ most famous one is entitled “Laudato si”. This encyclical deals with how we as human beings are called to be stewards of the earth and her resources. It received a lot of coverage not only from the Catholic media, but from the secular media as well.

An encyclical is a letter from the pope that can be for the church at large, for all of humanity, or for a specific group within the Church. Often, though, the encyclical is for the entire church and people of good will. Encyclicals for a particular group within the church are fairly rare, and the most famous of these is called “Mit Brennender Sorge” which was addressed to German Catholics during the rise of Nazism.  Because this encyclical was addressed specifically to German Catholics it was written in German as the primary language, which makes it the only encyclical not written in Latin as the primary language.

Encyclicals take their name from the first two or three words of the Encyclical itself. So, it is not necessarily easy to figure out what the topic of the encyclical is from the title alone. The encyclical mentioned above “Mit Brennender Sorge” means “With Burning Sorrow” in German and although given the context makes a lot of sense, on its’ own the title doesn’t directly relate to the topic. Examples of encyclicals where one really has no idea what the topic is from the title include “Rerum Novarum” which means “New Things”. This encyclical was the first to deal in depth with Catholic Social Teaching and was incredibly influential not only in its own time of the late 19th century but also today.  In fact, this encyclical prompted further encyclical reflecting upon it.

Encyclicals carry a lot of teaching weight.  It is the highest form of papal document that can be released by the pope alone. Although the pope can issue an infallible statement, encyclicals are not infallible but certainly deserve the highest assent that can be given.


How to Read Encyclicals 

So, now that we have a general idea of what an encyclical is, how do we read one? Some of them are quite long (over 100 pages) and others shorter.  But they should be read in their entirety. Many people, at all different places on the political and theological spectrum, will take quotes from the encyclical that they really like or dislike. Sometimes, certainly not all the time, these quotes will be out of context and need to be read within the context of the paragraph, chapter, or even the entire document. So please read the entire encyclical.

The second help is to have a Bible near you when you are reading the encyclical and a good scripture commentary.  So often, references are made to scripture and it is good to be able to look up the actual scripture verse and even read a little bit of the commentary to understand the scripture. Also, read the footnotes or endnotes. These can be very important and are well worth being read.

Read the encyclical in charity. Read it with a mind of wanting to grow in faith and don’t go into the reading looking to find problems with it. If we bring our own pre-conceived notions into the encyclical it can taint our reading.

Finally, once you’ve read the encyclical, read some commentaries on the encyclical or find others who have read it and have a discussion about it. Learn from what others learned from reading the encyclical. The encyclical is designed to be read by the church at large, so begin to engage the church at large and engage in charitable discussion about the topic of the encyclical. Also, and this is key, allow what you read to help you learn more about the faith and grow closer to Jesus Christ!