FAQs: What’s an encyclical?

Paterno R. Esmaquel II
FAQs: What’s an encyclical?
Rappler presents 7 frequently asked questions as the Vatican launches Pope Francis' encyclical on ecology, 'Laudato Si'

MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si (Be Praised), became the most anticipated papal document in recent decades. It even got its own unofficial Youtube trailer!

We’ve heard much about it but, wait, what’s an encyclical in the first place?

We prepared answers to 7 frequently asked questions below, as the Vatican launches the encyclical on Thursday, June 18. 

1. What’s an encyclical?

An encyclical is basically a circular letter through which the Pope clarifies teachings of the Catholic Church and sometimes addresses global issues.

The word “encyclical” comes from the Greek word kyklos, which means “circle.” 

2. What does an encyclical contain?

Encyclicals can “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,” the Catholic Encyclopedia says.

3. Can you give examples of landmark encyclicals?

Many encyclicals have influenced world affairs through the decades. Francis Rocca of the Catholic News Service (CNS) includes the following among the encyclicals “that shook the Church” through the past 150 years: 

  • Rerum Novarum (1891), through which then Pope Leo XIII, according to the CNS, “rejected both communism and extreme laissez-faire capitalism, affirmed the right of workers to organize in unions and was crucial to the emergence of a Catholic labor movement”
  • Pacem in Terris (1963), through which then Pope John XXIII “called for international and inter-religious cooperation for the promotion of world peace”
  • Humanae Vitae (1968), which stated the Catholic Church’s ban on artificial birth control
  • Centesimus Annus (1991), “issued on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” through which then Pope John Paul II  “reaffirmed Pope Leo’s expressions of solidarity with the poor and organized labor”

4. Is an encyclical infallible? 

In Catholic teaching, not everything the Pope says is infallible or free of error. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the Pope enjoys infallibility “when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful…he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.” 

Given this, experts say an encyclical is not necessarily infallible. 

David Gibson of the Religion News Service writes: “The short answer is ‘No.’ The longer answer is ‘It’s complicated.’ Certainly, an encyclical is one of the most authoritative statements a pope can issue on his own. As theologian Richard Gaillardetz has explained, the positions in an encyclical do not, however, entail declaration of dogma or defined doctrine. They are rather matters of prudential judgment that believers and others should approach with an informed conscience.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia also says an encyclical is not necessarily invested “with infallible authority.” Whether a document is infallible “must be judged from the circumstances, and from the language used in the particular case.”

5. How many encyclicals has Pope Francis written since he became pontiff in March 2013?

Pope Francis has written two encyclicals. 

Francis published his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“Light of Faith”), in June 2013. In this encyclical, however, he only continued and finished the original work of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. 

This means Laudato Si, his encyclical on the ecology, is the first encyclical that Francis began and wrote on his own.

6. How long is the encyclical Laudato Si? Who is its target audience?

Agence France-Presse reports it is 200 pages long. 

Through this encyclical, the Pope aims to reach not only the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. In fact, Crux reports that “a Catholic, an Orthodox Christian, and an atheist scientist, and an economist” will present the encyclical on June 18.

7. What does the encyclical Laudato Si contain? 

Agence France-Presse reports that, in Laudato Si, Pope Francis warns “that global warming threatens the future of the planet,” and that “there is both an urgent need and moral imperative to reduce fossil fuel consumption.” 

Francis also urges world leaders to fight global warming. – Rappler.com


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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com