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Definition: encyclical from The Penguin English Dictionary

in the Roman Catholic Church, a letter from the pope to all bishops or to those in one country [via late Latin from Greek enkyklios circular, general, from en- 2 + kyklos circle, wheel].


Summary Article: Encyclicals
from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

The term encyclical is used in the modern Roman Catholic Church to designate a formal pastoral letter written by, or under the authority of, the pope as the bishop of Rome and spiritual and administrative leader of the church, which includes the Latin Rite and Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion. In its etymology, encyclical is drawn from linguistic roots in Latin and Greek, meaning “encircling.” In the early church, an encyclical was a pastoral communication in letter form sent out by any bishop and spread to the churches functioning within a particular geographical region. The Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches have retained this traditional usage. Beginning with Pope John XXIII (1958- 1963), encyclicals were written not only for Catholics but for the consideration of the entire human community.

Encyclicals engage a variety of significant issues relating to Catholic faith and doctrine. They can be addressed to the Catholic bishops of a particular locality or to the bishops representing the universal church. The title of papal encyclicals is taken from the first words of the letter. Pope Benedict XIV issued the first modern encyclical in 1740 (Ubi Primum), and since Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), these letters have become the primary way for the pope to communicate authoritatively as a teacher and interpreter of the Roman Catholic tradition. Although the pope may write and is always given credit for the content of his encyclicals, these statements are often the result of collaborative work. One of the most controversial 20th-century encyclicals was Humane Vitae (Of Human Life) by Paul VI, which reaffirmed the traditional church teaching against artificial means of birth control.

The social encyclicals have been particularly significant as globally relevant statements that treat vexing issues such as economic justice, human rights, and peace. Their method of instruction involves a combination of social critique and pastoral advice. The tradition of offering social encyclicals to the world community began in 1891with Leo XIII's promulgation of Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Person). This papal letter is concerned with the effects of the Industrial Revolution on individuals and their communities. It seeks to show the institutional church's concern with the working class by applying Christianity's traditional teachings to the problem of elimination of poverty in the working classes, the right of workers to form labor unions, just wages, and safe working environments. Major anniversaries of this encyclical have been marked by various popes with letters of their own reconsidering its major themes. Quadragesimo Anno (After 40 Years) is a 1931 encyclical by Pius XI that reflected on ideas of justice in relation to the world social order. Issued in the midst of the Great Depression and the advances made by communist totalitarianism, it questioned the basic ideas of both capitalism and socialism and promoted the principle of subsidiarity—the value of small-scale societal living and cultural expression over large-scale societal control and subsequent human alienation. Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher) is a 1961 encyclical of John XXIII that continues the discussion of the duties of the state in the economic order. In 1981, John Paul II addressed the theme of the dignity and spirituality of work, and in 1991, he marked the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum with Centesimus Annus (The 100th Year), addressing the rights of workers, especially in light of the fall of communism in Europe.

Encyclicals do not always mark anniversaries but often reflect specific global concerns. Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) of John XXIII, issued in 1963, is a systematic social theory concerning the dignity and rights of the human person, including the duties of nations to each other as the keepers of peace on an international level in the midst of the Cold War. Paul VI addressed the theme of international relationships and how they can work for global development in his 1967 Populoum Progressio (Progress of Peoples). Benedict XVI's 2009 Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) offers moral direction in the context of the global economic crisis.

See also

Benedict XVI, Christianity, John Paul II, Roman Catholicism, Rome, Social Justice, Vatican City State and the Holy See

Further Readings
  • Ihm, C. C. (1990). The papal encyclicals 1740 to 1981. Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press.
  • Schuck, M. (1991). That they be one: The social teaching of the papal encyclicals, 1740-1989. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  • Primiano, Leonard Norman
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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