A letter that makes the rounds

By Patricia Kasten | July 2, 2013

Papal encyclicals are teaching tools to Catholics, and others of ‘good will,’ across the globe

Chain letters are scams. However, the popes have their own form of a circular letter that’s also meant to be shared and truly does offer good things.

This weekend, right in the middle of the Year of Faith which ends on Nov. 24, Pope Francis will issue his first encyclical.

(At press time, the encyclical was scheduled to be released on July 5.) Vatican spokespersons have long told us that this encyclical, called Lumen fidei (“The Light of Faith”), will be on the virtue of faith, and actually be the completion of an encyclical written by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. And in June, Pope Francis himself told the media, that this encyclical is “written with four hands, so to speak, because Pope Benedict began writing it and he gave it to me.”

The new encyclical will thus finish a trilogy on the three “theological virtues” — faith, hope and love, following the letters “Deus Caritas Est” (2005) on charity and “Spe Salvi” (2007) on hope. It will also be only the fifth encyclical issued this century. (Pope Benedict XVI also released Caritas in Veritate in 2009 and Pope John Paul II issued Ecclesia de Eucharistia [On the Eucharist] on April 17, 2003.)

Encyclicals are letters written by the popes to address issues of faith, morals, justice, to highlight an event or even to commemorate a previous encyclical. For example, Pope John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus (“100 years”) on May 1, 1991, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) from May 18, 1891. This encyclical was the first one that addressed social justice and it laid the groundwork for modern Catholic social teaching.

The word “encyclical” comes to us from the Greek “enyklios” and means “in a circle” or “circular” and refers to a form of teaching, with students gathered around their teacher. This is the image we should have of a papal encyclical: the pope is writing to his bishops around the world, and issuing a teaching to be shared with all people. In fact, Pope John XXIII addressed his 1963 social encyclical, Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”), “to all men of good will,” not just Catholics.

Of course, writing to members of the church around the world dates back to the apostles: two letters attributed to Peter and three to John are part of the New Testament. And Paul wrote letters to various local churches that were widely circulated. The early bishops of Rome, the first popes, also sent letters to their fellow bishops.

However, with the tensions that covered Europe in the Middle Ages, such shared letters tapered off. The pope still wrote letters, of course, but they were more often to local bishops, addressing specific local issues.

Most sources agree that it wasn’t until Pope Benedict XIV (elected in 1740) that modern papal encyclicals began. In 1755, Benedict XIV wrote a letter addressed to missionaries working in areas of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches.

However, some sources point to an earlier pope as writing what could be considered a modern encyclical. On Oct. 7, 1272, Pope Gregory X issued “Papal Protection of the Jews,” and addressed it to all Christians, “to those here now and to those in the future.” In it, he spelled out official policy regarding those of the Jewish faith: that they could not be forced to receive baptism, that they should not be treated with violence and that their religious practices must not be interfered with. Anyone who did not follow this teaching, Gregory added, was in danger of excommunication.

Today, papal encyclicals do not threaten excommunication. And most do not carry the weight of infallibility. One exception to this was the letter of Pope Pius XII in 1950 — technically not called an encyclical, but an apostolic constitution (the highest-ranking form of communication to the universal church) — regarding the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In it, the pope declared that anyone who “dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith.”

Again, most papal letters do not carry such force. Instead, they are meant to teach and to gently turn the faithful toward the truths of the faith and to convey the message of God’s love. No doubt that is why Pope Benedict’s first encyclical bore the title “God is Love.”

That’s a message that’s been going around since the very beginning. And it’s full of good things.

Sources: Vatican website at www.vatican.va; Catholic News Service; Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.com; Précis of Official Catholic Teaching; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catholic University Columbus Law School at www.law.edu; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; www.parablemagazine.com; and “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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