Benedict XVI's New Encyclical: Caritas in Veritate

E. Christian Brugger
© Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

As now is widely known, Pope Benedict XVI recently issued his third Encyclical, entitled Caritas in Veritate1. Most of us are familiar with pope's issuing encyclicals. But some of us might not be clear on what precisely an encyclical is. In this blast I would like to explain briefly some pertinent points about the nature and issuing of papal encyclicals.

What is an encyclical? The term encyclical is derives from the Greek words egkuklios and epistolai meaning simply an ecclesiastical circular letter addressed to the Christian faithful. The term epistle used to designate certain New Testament books (e.g., 1 Peter) has the same basic meaning. Bishops, popes and even emperors in the early Church used encyclicals periodically as forms of Christian instruction as well as means to defend the Christian faith. For example, the 5th century Codex Encyclicus was a collection of 41 letters written by Emperor Leo I, Pope St. Leo the Great and numerous other bishops defending the doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon (Evagrius says that the collection contains letters "called encyclicals"). In 1740, Pope Benedict XIV, in order "to revive the ancient custom of the Popes", published an encyclical on his elevation to the papacy. But it was not until the pontificate of Gregory XVI (1831-1846) that the term encyclical comes into ordinary use. Since then encyclicals have been a common means of instruction by the popes. Just to give you an idea of how frequently they've been issued: Pius IX (1846-1878) issued 33, Leo XIII (1878-1903) issued 48, Piux X (1903-1914) issued 10, Benedict XV (1914-1922) issued 12, Pius XI (1922-1939) issued 30, Pius XII (1939-1958) issued 41, John XXIII (1958-1963) issued 8, Paul VI (1963-1978) issued only 7, John Paul I (1978) died before issuing any, John Paul II (1978-2005) issued 14, and Benedict XVI (2005-) has now issued 3.

How does an encyclical compare to other papal documents (such as Apostolic Exhortations, Apostolic Letters, Letters, Messages, etc.)? An encyclical is generally considered the most authoritative regular document (as opposed to a Motu Proprio) issuing from the ordinary and universal magisterium of the papacy. The term "magisterium" in Catholic theology refers to the authority to teach of the apostles and their successors (the bishops, including the bishop of Rome). Different types of teaching authority exist. School teachers, for example, derive their authority from their competence or expertise within some field(s). The authority of parents derives from their God-given role as co-creators and primary guardians and care-givers of children. Although bishops conventionally enjoy an authority of competence and a parental-type of authority as 'fathers' within the Christian community, the term magisterium refers to neither parental authority nor the authority of competence. Catholic faith holds that Jesus conferred on St. Peter and his successors (the popes) a charism (power, capacity) from the Holy Spirit to teach on matters of faith and morals (see Vatican II, Lumen Gentium [LG], no. 25). This charism assists the pope and bishops to proclaim what is true and avoid what is false when teaching on matters of faith and morals (i.e., in regard to those truths necessary for salvation). "Magisterium" then refers to the divinely conferred authority of the pope and bishops to teach in the name of Christ and includes the protection from error of the Holy Spirit.

The "ordinary and universal" magisterium of the papacy is the authority the pope exercises in his day to day teaching of the Christian faithful. He exercises this magisterium for at least three general purposes: 1) to restate (not define) truths of the faith for purposes of instructing and edifying Catholics, evangelizing unbelievers, and defending the faith against attacks from those outside the Church; 2) to reaffirm truths that are doubted or contradicted by those within the Church; and 3) to apply the faith to contingent circumstances in the contemporary world for purposes of helping Christians live more faithfully the Christian life. The protection from error popes receive in their ordinary teaching is not absolute infallibility. This is reserved, the Church teaches, to the pope's extraordinary teaching authority, by which he issues solemn proclamations ex cathedra. (Solemn proclamations can also be made by the bishops in union with the pope, as when at an Ecumenical Council together they solemnly define doctrine.)

As I said, an Encyclical Letter is an exercise of the ordinary and not extraordinary magisterium of the papacy. Many of its teachings may be derived directly from Sacred Scripture or be restatements of other truths of the Catholic faith, in which cases they should be received with divine Catholic faith on the part of the faithful. But unless some teaching in an encyclical is already a matter of definitive doctrine, its presence in an encyclical does not ipso facto establish it as definitive. This is what we mean when we say that an encyclical is not an infallible document. This does not mean, however, that its teaching is doubtful or 'up for grabs'. Because the pope enjoys the assistance of the Holy Spirit even when teaching in his ordinary capacity, such teaching has a high degree of certitude. This is why Vatican II teaches that the faithful should receive all ordinary teaching with "a religious submission of will and intellect" (religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium) (LG, no. 25). Since this obsequium should be proportionate to the authority of the ordinary teaching, and Encyclical Letters are the most authoritative regular documents of the ordinary papal magisterium, the teachings of encyclicals should be received, affirmed and adhered to with a high degree of religious submission.

Which brings us to Caritas in Veritate (CIV), the third Encyclical Letter and first so-called "social" encyclical of Benedict XVI's pontificate. It is written in self-conscious continuity with the tradition of social encyclicals beginning with Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891). In particular it is issued "to pay tribute [to] and to honor the memory" of Pope Paul VI's teaching on integral human development as put forward in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (CIV, no. 8)2. CIV is quite long (longer even than John Paul II's Centesimus Annus!) and in places complicated. But overall it is a straightforward and eloquent defense of the thesis that the ethical norm for global cooperation in facilitating the integral development of persons and nations should be charity (and not merely justice) governed by the truth. Dr. May has ably summarized salient points from the encyclical so I will not repeat his good work. I will end by simply itemizing important themes found in the document and the sections where each can be found for those interested in reading further.

Interesting topics in Caritas in Veritate:


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