If you do not know already, an Encyclical is usually a name given to a letter written by the Pope to a particular audience of Bishops. These Bishops could be from a specific country or they could be all of the Bishops throughout the world. Encyclicals are always written with the intent of the guiding the Bishops in their relations with their flocks.
Why should I read these?
It would be good to familiarize yourself with what the pontiffs had to say about many different elements of Christian Doctrine, especially if you are a Religious Education Teacher or Youth Minister. Also, given their wide availability (all of them can be found here) and the fact that they are free means that you can read them on your own anytime.
Now, here’s a few Encyclicals I believe Catholics should read and study.
Casti Connubii (“On Christian Marriage”, 1930) – Pius XI
This is somewhat a forgotten encyclical (it’s a shame too, it’s very good), but Catholics would benefit from reading this, as many of the topics Pope Pius XI writes about are now very common and unhappy realities which face Catholics. It takes a clear and outspoken stance on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, the inherent wrongs of artificial contraception, and opposition to abortion, eugenics, divorce, and adultery.
Rerum Novarum (“On Capital and Labor”, 1891) – Leo XIII
A landmark in Catholic social teaching, this undoubtedly is Pope Leo’s most famous encyclical. Sympathetic to the plight of the poor and reacting against the inhumane conditions brought forth by Industrialization, Leo XIII builds all of his socio-economic principles upon the foundation of Natural Law and Christian Morality, something he believed Industrialized Europe urgently needed to rediscover for there to be harmony and a just order. Pope Leo XIII lists errors (on the parts of both the laborers and employers) which gave rise to social ills of the time, and affirms that serious social problems could only be solved if all forces cooperated.
Laetitiae Sanctae (“Commending Devotion to the Rosary”, 1893) – Leo XIII
Fun fact: Pope Leo XIII actually wrote 12 encyclicals on the topic of the Rosary! In this particular one, Leo XIII presents the Rosary not only as a personal devotion, but as an antidote to errors afflicting society, and reiterates the Rosary’s power to influence society as a whole. For instance: the Joyful Mysteries, which center on Jesus’ early and humble life stand in contrast to the disdain for simplicity and poverty. The Sorrowful Mysteries, which focus primarily on Jesus’ acceptance of the Cross, goes against the attitude of fleeing from hardship and suffering. And finally the Glorious Mysteries, which serve as a reminder that this life is only a prelude to something greater.
Sicit Dudum (“Against the Enslavement of Black Natives from the Canary Islands”, 1435) – Eugene IV
Have you ever been met with the accusation that the Catholic Church formally endorsed slavery? Well the sad truth is there were many fallible men of the Church who did take part in it; the Church herself however, took a strong stand against slavery, and you need not look further than this short Papal Bull by Eugene IV. Pope Eugene condemns the forced servitude of the Black Natives from the newly-colonized (by the Portuguese) Canary Islands. What makes this Bull most significant is the date: Eugene IV issued it nearly 60 years before the likes of Columbus or Vespucci even touched the New World! Plus, the fact that the enslavement of the Natives was condemned in the strongest terms right after the Pope discovered what was going on is very important. Eugene IV demanded the colonists correct this injustice within 15 days, and if they did not do so, they would be excommunicated ipso facto.
Mediator Dei (“On the Sacred Liturgy”, 1947) – Ven. Pius XII
Despite being written nearly 70 years ago, I believe Ven. Pius XII’s encyclical on the Liturgy is just as relevant (if not moreso) today as it was before. It bears witness to both the interior and exteriors dimensions of the Sacred Liturgy, and the matter of organic development. It also comments on some of the proposals made by the Liturgical Movement, which Pius XII acknowledged had some positives but ultimately judged it as unwise and excessive, the reason being that the Liturgical Movement’s infatuation with both novelties and antiquarianism would lead the liturgy’s organic development down a crooked path. There’s also one paragraph that one might find eerily prophetic:
“Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table form; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.” (Paragraph 62)
Amusingly though, while the excesses mentioned in paragraph 62 are considered by some people to have been created Ex Nihilo during or after Vatican II, actually found their advent earlier, hence why Pius XII comments on them. Mediator Dei is both a good tool for liturgical formation, and a sober reminder of the task of re-enchanting the liturgy.
Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”, 1993) – St. John Paul II
I may be one of the few people on this earth that doesn’t view Love and Responsibility or Theology of the Body as the best things John Paul II wrote… I actually consider this encyclical to be his best. While in the past there had been encyclicals which addressed one particular moral issue, Veritatis Splendor is more or less the first time a pope provided a formal systematic outline of Catholic moral doctrine. John Paul II criticized the fundamental errors and distortions which had crept into Catholic moral theology in the years following Vatican II. It deals specifically with Morality & Freedom, conscience, obedience, and a criticism of both Moral Relativism and Proportionalism. It packs a good punch at what the Pope himself called “a genuine crisis.”
Humanae Vitae (“On the Regulation of Births”, 1968) – Paul VI
Politically speaking, this is perhaps the most controversial encyclical. While many Christian denominations had begun to accept contraception, Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional teachings on married love, responsible parenthood, the sanctity of life, the procreative & unitive nature of conjugal relations, and the rejection of artificial birth control. Open dissent and criticism from both laity and clergy(?!) was widely voiced immediately following the encyclical’s publication (and the dissent continues today…). Several passages in this letter prove it is a rather prophetic document, even nearly half a century later.
Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”, 2005) – Benedict XVI
The first of Pope Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals treats the subject of love as seen from the Christian perspective. It starts off with a reflection of three forms of love known in Greco-Roman philosophy: Eros, Agape, and Philia (curiously, Storge –the fourth and familial form of love– is absent). Eros is more of an intimate and romantic love, Philia is the love a person has for their friends, and Agape is the charitable, selfless love; and Benedict XVI writes about their relationships with Christ’s teachings, and how they are the center of Christianity.
Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“On the Doctrines of the Modernists”, 1907) – St. Pius X
Although the particular modernists Pope Pius X was condemning have long gone (Loisy, Tyrrell, Blondel, etc.), many of their big ideas still persist in some form or another (and sadly, mostly exist within Church hierarchy, Catholic academia, and certain social justice movements). For instance: the implicit doubt of Divine Revelation, “evolutionary” dogma, attempts to synthesize Catholic thought with Rationalism (specifically, Descartes’ theory of knowledge), and the tendency to interpret Catholic teachings in light of personal experience or whichever era one lives in. Pascendi is a very long and sophisticated read, but it is nonetheless very timely.
Those are (in my opinion) the essentials, but here are a couple others that one may find beneficial (or even simple enjoyment) from reading.
- Fides et Ratio (“On the Relationship between Faith and Reason”, 1998) by St. John Paul II
- Tra le Sollecitudini (“Instruction on Sacred Music”, 1903) by St. Pius X
- Arcanum (“On Christian Marriage”, 1880) by Leo XIII
- In Praeclara Summorum (“On Dante Alighieri”, 1921) by Benedict XV [for any of you who are Divine Comedy fans 😁]
- Vigilanti Cura (“On Motion Pictures”, 1936) by Pius XI [this one is especially good because it remarks on the power of media to influence people]