A letter, "essentially pastoral in character" (John Paul II, Ut unum sint [May 25, 1995], no. 3), written by the pope for the entire Church. Encyclicals have not been used for dogmatic definitions, but rather to give counsel or to shed light on points of doctrine that must be made more precise or that must be taught in view of specific circumstances. For instance, the encyclical Veritatis splendor (Aug. 6, 1993), "limits itself to dealing with certain fundamental questions regarding the Church's moral teaching" (no. 5).
An encyclical is, first, a papal letter and is therefore distinguished from pastoral letters written by an ordinary for his diocese. Second, it is a letter, and therefore distinguished from other papal documents, such as apostolic constitutions. Since it is a pastoral document, it pertains ordinarily to doctrinal, moral, or disciplinary matters; it is not a legislative text. An encyclical letter is ordinarily addressed either to the bishops or to the entire Church, although at times it is also addressed to those persons who are not members of the Church, but are of "good will." The encyclical letter is also used both in the Orthodox Churches, as is evidenced by the ecumenical patriarch's regular encyclicals for Christmas and Easter, and in the Anglican communion, for instance, at the end of Lambeth Conferences held every 10 years.
History. There have been formal papal letters written for the entire Church from the earliest days of the Christian era. But it seems that the first modern usage of the encyclical as now known was made by Benedict XIV on Dec. 3, 1740, in his encyclical epistle Ubi primum, dealing with episcopal duties. It is only in more recent times, from the reign of Pius IX, that encyclicals have become frequent expressions of the pope's ordinary teaching authority.
Authority. The teaching contained in an encyclical has generally not been given as belonging formally to the deposit of revelation, but as Pius XII stated it pertains to Catholic doctrine: "In writing them, it is true, the Popes do not exercise their teaching authority to the full. But such statements come under the day-to-day teaching of the Church…. For the most part the positions advanced and the duties inculcated by these encyclical letters are already bound up, under some other title, with the general body of Catholic teaching" (see Pius XII, Humani generis [Aug. 12, 1950], AAS 42  568). Because of this, an encyclical is generally considered to be an expression of the pope's ordinary teaching authority; its contents are presumed to belong to the ordinary magisterium unless the opposite is clearly manifested. Because of this, the teaching of an encyclical is capable of being changed on specific points of detail (see Paul VI, Allocution, June 23, 1964, AAS, 56  588).
Pope John Paul II began to use encyclicals to present points of church teaching that are henceforth to be considered "definitive." For instance, in Evangelium vitae (March 25, 1995), he used the following formulas: "Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm" (no. 57). Or, again: "Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops … I declare" (no. 62). And: "In harmony with the Magisterium of my Predecessors and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm" (no. 65).
Reception. Although Catholics are to give assent to the moral and doctrinal content of papal encyclicals, three points must be kept in mind. First, encyclicals possess less authority than dogmatic pronouncements made by the extraordinary infallible magisterium (unless otherwise specifically provided). Second, they usually do not contain definitive, or infallible, teaching (unless otherwise clearly stated, as noted above). Finally, the publication of an encyclical does not imply (unless otherwise provided) that the theological issues examined in the encyclical are now closed. An encyclical necessarily expresses a particular theological point of view, but it is usually not a definitive assessment.
Social Encyclicals. Beginning in 1891 with Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, the teaching of the Church relating to matters of social justice, human rights, and peace has been expressed in encyclicals. Pius XI issued Quadragesimo anno (1931); John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963); Paul VI, Populorum progressio (1967). Three major social encyclicals of John Paul II are: Laborem exercens (1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), and Centesimus annus (1991). These teachings are usually centered on the dignity of the human person and on the gospel message that is a basis and motivation for action (Centesimus annus, nos. 53, 57).
Bibliography: r. p. mcbrien, ed., Encyclopedia of Catholicism (San Francisco 1995), s.v. "Encyclical." f. g. morrisey, Papal and Curial Pronouncements: Their Canonical Significance in Light of the Code of Canon Law (Ottawa 1995) 11–12.
[f. g. morrissey]
An encyclical is the most authoritative of official Catholic Church documents. Encyclicals provide the pope with an opportunity to comment on critical issues in the contemporary church and society (e.g., materialism) and/or to reassess official church teaching on a particular question (e.g., women's equality). Since the Catholic Church sees itself explicating a "universal" morality that transcends the doctrinal beliefs of any specific faith tradition, papal encyclicals are often used as a way to engage public debate on the morality of particular institutional practices. The outlines of Catholic social teaching on economic justice and the rights of workers, for example, were first elaborated in an encyclical issued in the late nineteenth century (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum [On the Condition of Labor], 1891), and subsequently elaborated by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order), 1931. In more recent times, similar themes have been expounded by Pope John Paul II (e.g., Laborem Exercens [Engaged in Work], 1981), who, like many of his predecessors, criticizes the inequalities associated with global capitalism and who, in reacting to the fall of the Soviet Union, has repeatedly cautioned newly developing capitalist societies against excessive materialism.
The Vatican has issued encyclicals on many diverse topics, but perhaps the most publicly known encyclical is Paul VI's 1968 Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Births), which reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial birth control, abortion, and sterilization. This encyclical caused public controversy at the time among theologians, priests, and laypeople in America and Europe, who argued against the unreasonableness and impracticality of the church's position on artificial contraception. After Vatican II's affirmation of religious freedom, lay competence, and the importance of conscience, these critics saw Humanae Vitae as an intrusive and authoritarian document.
The papacy of John Paul II (1978–) is renowned both for the extensive number of encyclicals issued and the didacticism of their tone. A common thread throughout many of these encyclicals is the Vatican's broadly encompassing concern with moral relativism, secularism, a self-indulgent consumer culture, and what John Paul sees as the break between faith and morality that allows individual and self-oriented reasoning to displace the relevance of moral conscience and "divine wisdom" (see especially Veritatis Splendor, 1983; Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life], 1995; and Fides et Ratio [Faith and Reason], 1998). In Evangelium Vitae, for example, John Paul sees contemporary society as a "veritable culture of death" in which there is a "conspiracy against life" as exemplified by the prevalence of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. John Paul calls for a profoundly consistent ethic of life that "cannot tolerate bias and discrimination" of any form and at any life stage, and he challenges people in both their personal and their professional lives to work for a more morally and economically just society (22, 30, 155ff). Although it is well documented that a majority of Catholics (and non-Catholics) do not necessarily follow papal exhortations on specific issues, papal encyclicals nonetheless remain a unique and important source of public theology in today's world and can orient political and intrachurch debate in ways that have the potential to build a more inclusive and just society.
Carlen, Claudia, ed. The PapalEncyclicals, 1740 –1981. 1981.
John Paul II. TheGospelof Life (Evangelium Vitae). 1995.
en·cyc·li·cal / enˈsiklikəl/ • n. a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.