... The encyclical developed from the papal bull. The bull was a primarily juridical instrument used as a means of promulgating an authoritative judgment of the Holy See, either in matters of doctrine or governance. These could often be very short; we marvel today at reading something like Boniface VIII's Unam Sanctam (1302) - which famously declared that submission to the Roman pontiff was necessary for salvation - and is only a page long! Papal bulls in the old days knew what they wanted to say and they said it.
The modern encyclical developed out of the Enlightenment period as the popes realized that broader literacy and intellectual challenges to Christian revelation necessitated using the papal bull as a means of educating the flock on Catholic teaching, and hence by the time of the French Revolution the bull had begun to transform into the encyclical, the teaching letters of the modern pontiffs.
The encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th century are lucid and clear. Their purpose is to expound Catholic doctrine and defend it against modern errors, which they do very admirably. A friend recently commented to me that in thinking back on great documents like Pascendi, Quas Primas, Casti Conubii and so forth, one can immediately recall the substance of of them and the force of their arguments. Pius XII taught that the encyclical was the normative means by which the Roman pontiff exercised his teaching office. The same cannot be said about modern encyclicals - who can easily summarize what Redemptor Hominis or Populorum Progressio are about except in the vaguest terms?
... somewhere along the way the popes seemed to have dropped the declarative aspect of the encyclical in the overly optimistic hope that if we could just explain our teaching to the world - just walk them through our thinking step by step - then maybe the world would accept the Church's message. Maybe if we simply "proposed" our rationale for belief humbly instead of declaring that we "had" the truth, the world would reciprocate and enter into a "fruitful dialogue" with Christianity that would mutually enrich everybody?
Fruitful dialogue. Reciprocate. Mutually Enrich. Sorry, my post-Conciliar vocabulary started taking over for a moment.
Seriously though, the problem with this approach is fourfold:
(a) The world does not reject the Gospel because it has not been adequately explained. They reject it "because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil" (John 3:19).
(b) Even when its has opted for explaining rather than declaring the Church's teaching, the Church has done a poor job of it because it has chosen to explain its teachings in terms of humanist phenomenology rather than having recourse to the Church's traditional pedagogy.
(c) By focusing so much on the explanation and presentation over the declaration, the Church has unwittingly given the false impression that the validity of its teachings are bound up with the force of her argumentation, a kind of false intellectualism. She feels shaky and inadequate simply saying, "Such is the voice of the Church; such is the teaching of our Faith"; she feels she must offer a humanistic centered explanation for everything - an explanation that will "suit" the needs of "contemporary man" - with the effect that her message has become completely man-centered. "He taught as one who had authority" (Matt. 7:29) said the people of old about Christ; but when the Church forgets the supernatural force that stands behind her teaching and opts instead for an anthropomorphized message, she no longer "speaks with authority", in the sense that her words lose their force. Hence people shrug at the latest papal document and move on.
(d) Finally, because the popes have sought for novel means to propose their teachings, encyclicals lose their strenght as teaching documents and become instead opportunities for the popes to foist their own theological or literary tastes on the Catholic people. The phenomenology of John Paul II, the Balthasarian-Hegelian-Teilhardism of Benedict XVI, and now the sort of "literary theology" of Francis. Each pontiff has opted not use traditional pedagogy, which means every pope has to "try something new" in how they choose to teach.
Thus, while retaining its authority in the juridical sense, from a strictly pedagogical viewpoint, the modern encyclical tends to become a rambling, sprawling mess that lacks the force to move minds and hearts. There have been exceptions; Humanae Vitae certainly did its job, as did Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Fides et Ratio was profound. But by and large they have failed to really educate the Catholic flock on the substance of the Church's teaching and are too cumbersome to be accessible to the average pewsitter. There is reason why going on and on is called "pontificating."
Monday, June 22, 2015
Boniface, "The Curiosity of the Modern Encyclical" (Unam Sanctam Catholicam June 18, 2015):