WE GET LETTERS, LOTS AND LOTS OF LETTERS
Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the release date for Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical letter, entitled “Charity in Truth” or Caritatis in Veritate which will be the official Latin title. This seemed like a good day to reflect on exactly what an “Encyclical Letter” is and with what seriousness it should be taken by Catholics world-over. Popes use encyclical letters for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are used as teaching documents to elaborate on matters of truth, faith and morals. Sometimes they are used as clearer guidelines to morality and ethics. Sometimes they are used to proclaim articles of faith which must be accepted by the faithful. The word “encyclical” means circular or a letter circulated among all the Churches throughout the world. So do they often establish new doctrine to be embraced by all Catholics? They have indeed on occasion but in more recent times they represent attempts by the Pope to illuminate, elucidate and inculcate the faith. Most of the time, when the Holy Father goes to the trouble of writing to all the Churches, it represents his concern for an aspect of life, either in faith or secular society, in our day.
Catholic social teaching which is one of the best-kept secrets of our faith has long been a bed-rock of material for encyclical letters. In “Mater et Magistra” Blessed Pope John XXIII spoke to the rights of workers to organize. In “Populorum Progressio” Pope Paul VI issued a challenge to evangelize the world with the Gospel following the Second Vatican Council. In “Evangelium Vitae” Pope John Paul II spoke to the whole gamut of “life issues” and called for society to embrace a deeper respect for human life from conception to natural death. In the natural span of my sixty-eight years there have been exactly fifty encyclical letters. Perhaps the one which has raised the greatest challenge to Catholics was that of Pope Paul VI dealing with artificial birth control, “Humanae Vitae in 1968.
The Church teaches and binds Catholics in basically two ways: the extraordinary magisterium (definitions of Ecumenical Councils and/or Popes with the clear intention to bind the faithful) and ordinary magisterium which includes encyclical letters, papal bulls, apostolic constitutions (which by the way rank higher in authority than encyclicals). All can be written for the whole Church, for bishops, or sometimes something for a particular Church in a country or part of the world.
So, bishop, you should be asking, what about this one? Should I read it? Should I take it seriously? Will its teaching be a matter of faith with which I cannot disagree? In this instance, the Holy Father is addressing the current economic situation of the world in which we live and the responsibility we hold for all of our brothers and sisters. We should listen to him. It is no accident that this letter is being issued just prior to the annual meeting of the G-8 nations with their powerful economic engines, some of which like our own are currently in low gear. Benedict is a professor. His writings are among the clearest and most concise documents I have ever read in my years of priesthood. I look forward to settling down tonight and reading the letter from start to finish. I know he will speak my heart. Caritatis in Veritate may well ultimately wind up on the top ten list of social encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Quadragesimo Anno of Pope Pius XI in 1931, and Mater et Magistra of Blessed Pope John XXIII. The Lord Jesus said to his apostles, “He who heareth you, heareth Me.” (LK 10:16). We should all listen to this successor of St. Peter.