Lots of people are excited about Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on the environment. But what exactly is an encyclical?
Encyclicals began as sort of the e-mail of the early Church. They get their name from the Greek word for circle, or circular. Important letters from the pope would be forwarded to bishops and local churches, who would then copy and forward them to other bishops and local churches, until the entire Church received the message.
This could take a good deal of effort. So you can imagine they must have contained vital information and were not issued all that regularly.
Today’s encyclicals are immediately posted on the Vatican website in many languages for the world to read. But their principal audience is still the bishops and pastors of the world, and all who teach and defend the Catholic faith. Encyclicals help everyone better understand how to apply the teachings of Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition—especially in light of a particular issue.
Encyclicals are not necessarily “infallible” statements—although they can be if the pope wants to go through that process. That doesn’t happen often. Normally encyclicals offer important guiding principles for the faithful to reflect on. This doesn’t mean that Catholics can ignore an encyclical if they reflect on it and don’t like what it says. Papal encyclicals are indeed to be taken very seriously and should challenge us all to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
(For more on the different authorities of Church teachings, see this summary by one of the GCCM signatories.)
There is a tradition in the Church, especially over the past century or so, to write “social encyclicals” on issues like the rights of laborers or the development of human beings and cultures. (Check out more about social encyclicals here.) That doesn’t mean that “social encyclicals” aren’t concerned about faith. Of course they are! Remember, their purpose is to link our Catholic faith to some new reality.
And so it makes sense that in the first century and in the twenty-first, whenever the pope (who is the universal pastor!) wishes to provide guidance on this or that topic, he sends word around the Church.
In other words, he issues an encyclical.
For more information on Catholic teachings on climate change and creation stewardship, read these resources.