Papal encyclicals: an explainer

Throwback to public's reaction to encyclical on contraception

Pope-Francis-writing--300x254The following comes from a June 10 Action Institute Power Blog post by Joe Carter:

Here are some answers to questions people who aren’t Catholic—like me—may have about the encyclical Laudato si’:

What is an encyclical?

The term encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) refers to a circular letter, that is, a letter that gets circulated to a particular group. A papal encyclical is a letter written by the Pope to a particular audience of patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Catholic Church. Sometimes encyclicals are written to an even narrower group (e.g., the bishops of a particular country) but they normally tend to be for a broader audience. Encyclicals addressed to the bishops of the world are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large.

What do encyclicals do?

As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, encyclicals condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent.

Why is the encyclical called Laudato si’?

The title Laudato si’ is a quotation from the religious song Canticle of the Sun. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is said to have written the song that praises God for the creation of the different creatures and aspects of the Earth. The phrase “laudato si” occurs several times in the Latin version of the prayer-song.

The encyclical is also expected to be given the Italian subtitle: “Sulla cura della casa comune,” (On the care of the common home).

Does the pope actually write the encyclical?

As with most documents by world leaders, Pope Francis has a staff that helps him to compose the letter. The first draft was prepared by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Other church leaders also contributed to the draft. The document was also repeatedly revised and reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State (and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

Is this encyclical considered infallible?

No, it’s not likely to be declared infallible. To meet that standard the letter would have to meet three criteria: 1) the subject is a matter of faith or morals, 2) the pope must be teaching as supreme pastor, and 3) the pope must indicate that the teaching is infallible. No pope since 1870 has designated an encyclical to be infallible.

Are encyclicals considered binding if they are not infallible?

That’s a complex question. As Stephen Barr says, “Catholic teaching itself distinguishes different levels of authoritativeness for different kinds of teaching and different kinds of Church pronouncements.” Barr has as a brief answer to the question here.

Pope Paul VI and Pius X transmitted on February 26,, Religion News Service file photo

The following comes from a June 11 Crisis Magazine article by Dale Ahlquist:

It is interesting now to look back at the various reactions when the pope issued his encyclical on contraception. I dug up the following, and I think they pretty much speak for themselves. It is hardly necessary to add any comments at all except to say how little things have changed.

A leader from an association of Protestant mainline denominations called it “the most important encyclical ever promulgated in the entire history of the papal succession.” He said, “I am glad that this pronouncement is so thoroughly clear-cut and uncompromising.” He was glad that everyone had to be either for it or against it. There was no middle ground.

And why did that make him glad?

“It will mark a new era in wide and deep-going revolt against ecclesiastical control. It will bring … nearer a revolt within the Roman Catholic Church.” He said this attempt by the Church, with its “autocratic domination” to interfere with the private and intimate matters will push it closer to its own inevitable collapse. This exercise of “hierarchical power” would certainly be met with “indignant repudiation” by Catholics themselves.

In other words, he was glad that the Catholic Church made its position clear, so that Protestants and everyone else could clearly reject it. No middle ground. And he predicted Catholics would reject it, too.

A leading feminist said the Church had set itself “squarely against progress.” She said the message of the encyclical was: “Go ahead and have a child every year, never mind if you are too poor to give them a decent home; never mind if they will be born sick or feeble-minded; never mind if they will be born deformed. Birth control under any and all circumstances is a horrible crime.” She said the pope’s denunciation of contraception would lead to more poverty and more disease. She praised the Protestant and Jewish congregations that had already officially endorsed contraception.

A doctor said the document was “confusing,” especially when it came to the issue of the health and welfare of the mother. He disagreed with the encyclical that claimed contraception violates nature. And he observed that the declining birth-rate among Catholics indicated that the rule was “being more observed in the breach.”

A spokesman for an atheist organization said that the document was evidence of the Church’s failure to recognize that morals change.

A pastor of a non-denominational church in New York said the encyclical was an example of “a tenth-century mind at work on twentieth-century problems. We are never going to get anywhere with marriage or anything else by going back to St. Augustine. The pope’s interpretation of marriage is pure mythology … his denunciation of birth control is bigotry.”




  1. Your Fellow Catholic says

    So Cal Catholic, for whatever reason, chose to omit the link to Barr’s article on the different levels of authority, contained within the article that it quoted. It’s a good first start at an explanation of the different levels of authority, and it could serve as a basis for frutiful discussion going forward. So here is that link:

  2. He forgot to condemn plastic bags.

  3. Happy Father’s Day to all Fathers. Especially the priests and bishops.

  4. Global Warming (GW) is a theory, not a fact, promoted by some scientists and liberal politicians. Science must be based on facts, not on consensus. Many people believe that GW is just another ruse to collect more taxes and have more control over populations. Does Pope Francis want to align himself with this liberal cabal?

    • Nonimous says

      Yes, Sarah, he does. He’s made it sufficiently obvious even to me.

    • Your Fellow Catholic says

      Not “some” scientists”. The VAST majority of scientists. It’s not rule by majority, it is the way science works…by repeatedly testing hypotheses and examinging facts, which these scientists have been doing for decades.

      More taxes and control over populations? Have you calculated how much the populations will have to be taxed to save more and more people and their property from violent storms, ferocious fires, and flooding, because the “populations” will expect that of their governments?

  5. Steve Phoenix says

    I highly doubt that PF wrote this encyclical himself (except for a couple of Romano Guardini quotes, Guardini being the subject of PF’s Ph.D. thesis at Frankfurt), because the style, compared to Evangelii Gaudium, is well-ordered, well-laid out (although almost entirely secular-humanistic, in places merely Schellnhuber’s secular-atheistic content), and it marches solemnly toward Gomorrah in its singular focus on that agenda.
    And, other than Jesus Christ getting 4 par’s (96-100) to Himself & the NT, it is virtually a UN document, probably why St Francis of Assisi is presented as representative of the Christian life in place of Christ Himself. That should disturb any Christian.

    • sixlittlerabbits says

      “Virtually a UN document”–that’s telling it as it is. Whether Francis wrote it, he is the public author and so advances the aims of the anti-life UN.

    • Anonymous says

      Just like each of us,
      Pope Francis is responsible for any words out of his mouth, and anything he signs.
      The Pope does not get a pass in the area of responsibility for ones own actions.

  6. Steve Phoenix says

    Stephen Barr’s discussion in First Things, and excerpted above, is pretty basic. L. Ott’s classic, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a pre-Vatican II, highly reliable theology manual, is a far better source of the different levels of “required faith”. At least Barr lays out for Catholics to understand that an encyclical is not specifically “de fide” teaching; since today, incredibly, many seem to think, “If the Pope says it is so, it is so.” And since about 2/3rds of this encyclical say nothing of God or Jesus Christ, 2/3rds is flat-out UN propaganda.

    • Steve Phoenix says

      Another consideration of Laudato Si: of its 246 paragraphs, generally excepting nns. 1-13, 64-100, and 217-end, the rest is pure UN “solemn nonsense”: really no mention of God, Jesus Christ, or the Gospel.
      Jesus (or “Christ”) is mentioned 17x’s in LS. “Environment”, “ecosystem(s)”,”biosphere” and “ecology” are mentioned well over 100x’s–conservatively 109, to be exact. Cut out nn. 96-100 and in LS you have essentially the “Earth Charter” (n. 207, oh yes, it is mentioned as a source) secular-atheist agenda. In essence, nature is worshipped as god in LS: We all owe the ancient pagan nature-religions an apology.

      • joe bryner says

        Steve , you hit it right on the head. In the 2000 year history of the church, I doubt there has ever been a document more flawed. From last Sunday’s Gospel:” Who the is This, Who even the winds and the sea obey Him”. Man has no control over the climate; it belongs to God Alone.. If climate change is a problem, we can only address it on our knees. Thinking a secular human institution, staffed by enemies of Christ, is capable of solving any world wide problem in a just and fair way, is utopian nonsense.

      • Anonymous says

        Steve Phoenix, He did not say that nature is worshiped as God. You know he said the opposite. No. 78

  7. When read carefully, the Pope’s encyclical promotes a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT – Law Making authority, Taxing authority, and Policing authority.
    And promotes the marxist/communist positions that only the “wealthier” nations should pay to clean up messes created by other Countries.
    Rather than the polluting Countries paying to clean up their own pollution.
    Each Country is responsible for the pollution it allows within its own borders, and for educating its own population.
    Whatever happened to responsibility for ones own actions ?

  8. “LAUDATO SI” on the Vatican web site:

    # 164 “…… Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan….”

    # 164 ” ……. A global consensus is essential for confronting the deeper problems …….”

    # 167 ” …… its accords have been poorly implemented, due to the lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of non-compliance.”

    # 167 …… Convention on international trade in en-dangered species of wild fauna and flora, which includes on-site visits for verifying effective compliance…. ”

    # 170 ……. Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, …..”

  9. continued –
    #173 ……. “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed…..”

    # 173″…….”Global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations……”

    # 175……” it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.”

    # 175……” for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority.”

    This Encyclical proposes a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT – Law making authority; policing authority, and taxing authority.

    This is not Church teaching.

  10. Steve Phoenix says

    Well done, John, esp. noting 175, where PF throws in his support for a “true world political authority.”

    • Anonymous says

      Pope Francis is quoting Pope Benedict XVI there. And they are not talking about a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT, but I like that you are reading and thinking about what the Pope said.

  11. Steve Phoenix says

    Another outrage in this “encyclical”: n. 168, PF praises the Vienna Convention, Montreal Protocol, and corresponding world elites for “protection of the ozone layer”, saying that it “appears to have entered a phase of resolution.”

    The whole threatened ozone-layer crisis was a complete fable and mass-manipulation on a cosmic scale, as the scientific data subsequently collected have proven: the earth regularly has ozone “holes” esp. over the southern pole region. It had nothing to do with the coolant “Freon” or other human activity.

    The proof is that chlorofluorocarbons, if they were indeed the catalyst causing the O3 reduction, would continue the hysterically-threatened world collapse of the ozone layer: because…

    • Steve Phoenix says

      …because a catalyst is always regenerated at the end of a chemical reaction, and never used up. So CF3’s would, according to Vienna Convention/EarthFirst theory, continue without limit in destroying the so-called O3 layer. Utter nonsense and bunk.

      But we are so duped, so deceived on a mass-scale by enormously powerful interests: Dupont, the patent-holder, happily retired Freon, and came out with a new chemical and made bank (their Freon patent statute was running out anyway). And the whole world had to replace their air-conditioners. Brilliant, Al and Jorge, brilliant!

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