Skip to content

Why Should we Read the Encyclicals?

By Mayra Addison—During the first class of my course “Energy & Environment: A Sustainable Approach” we go over the syllabus and main topics…. and then we reach the part when I say “we will study two Papal Encyclicals.” After more than 8 years teaching this course, the reactions and the looks on the faces of my students have been varied.  From the “poker face” to the “no big deal” to the “what?” I believe I’ve seen it all.  After they finish my course, my students change their perceptions; they would even agree that it was well worth it and admit that they are thirsty and curious for the “next Encyclical” to come out of the Vatican.

So, what is it about Papal Encyclicals that is so daunting and attractive at the same time?  Why so many different reactions to them?  The “daunting” part is understandable seeing as some Encyclicals are very long and hard to understand, even though many have surpassed the greatest “best sellers” in number of readers. Sometimes Encyclicals address very controversial issues.  In 1891, Rerum Novarum (of New Things) was locked in the safe of a European Cathedral because it was considered “subversive.[i]” In fact, many of them proved to be ahead of their time[ii] – wouldn’t you want to know what’s next in the world?

What are they?

The word encyclical takes its root from the Latin “encyclicus,” a Latinization of a Greek word that means “circular”, “in a circle”, or “all-round” [iii](the word “encyclopedia” has the same root).  Encyclicals started as letters of the Pope to be “circulated” within a specific group within the church to address issues of concern, point out dangers that might affect the Church or the world, exhort for action or constancy, and prescribe remedies.  For example, Pope Leo XIII, towards the end of his pontificate, wrote many short Encyclical letters (some of them less than one page long) addressed to specific bishops regarding current issues of concern in their region, such as the introduction of civil marriage in Ecuador, the weakening of the faith in Bohemia and Moravia, and the establishment of seminaries in Greece, to name a few.  They resemble the loving pen of a concerned father for his children, urging them to persevere in the values that rule the Christian family.  The better known Encyclicals, however, were addressed to the whole church, under the formula “To Our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other Local Ordinaries having Peace and Communion with the Holy See, and to the Clergy and faithful of the Entire World.“  But most recent Encyclicals, since S. John XXIII’s Pacem in Terra in 1963, expanded the address to include “All Men and Women of Goodwill”, making modern Encyclicals not just for Catholics, but for humanity.

Why are they important?

Why do modern Encyclicals concern all of humanity, not just the Catholic faithful?  They address and shed light on issues that are the subject of confusion and debate among humans of all faiths and beliefs, and give us a platform of understanding, not just from the point of view of a catholic Pontiff, but from a rich fount of humanistic and theological principles.  Take Benedict XIII’s Caritas in Veritate (2009) and Francis’s Laudato Si (2015).  Both address the environment.  Is the environment a Catholic problem? No, it’s a human problem.   Pope Benedict introduces the notion that the environment is gratis[iv], a gift from our Creator to humanity, so we can extract from it to satisfy our physical human needs – most people would agree with this.  Because it is a gift to our generation, and it was a gift to the generations before us, it should be the same quality of gift to the generations to come – again, we can agree to this too.

Therefore, it is our duty as humanity to care for the environment so when we leave this world we leave it a gift as good as it was for us to our children, and the children of our children.  While there seems to be no novelty in the notion that we are stewards of the environment, Pope Benedict opens our mind to understand the gratuity of the gift, and the charity involved in keeping the environment in good shape for the next generations of humanity, elevating our miniscule individual role to a transcendent, more supernatural one embedded in charity and love.

Pope Francis, in Laudato si, warns against consumerism as one of the most harmful human actions to the environment[v]   Wait…it’s not CO2? Then, is humanity responsible for climate change? Pope Francis’s Encyclical argues that taking from the environment more than what we need is what harms it.  Think of the effect on the environment of buying a product that you do not really need, of the amount of energy used to generate this product, the amount of resources taken from the environment, so this product, container or food ends up as trash without being “consumed” as intended. You get the picture.  And then you realize that the problem is not only the polluting industry, not the private jet or the large SUV to drive around the city.  It was me, you, all of us humans who purchased something that we did not really need.  Is that charity?  Is that love or “self-love”?

Did your understanding of the environmental problem change?  If so, then you see one small example of how Encyclicals work, how they can elevate and enhance our view of the problem and the response to the human question.  The last 120 years have seen a prolific number of Encyclicals that are worth studying.  From economic development (Populorum Progressio), to how the relationship between men and women and the make up of the family can change with the pill (Humane Vitae), a constant theme has been that most of them were controversial at their time, but all of them were accurate in their warnings and predictions.

Where to start?

How can Encyclicals be read and understood in an easy way? Keeping an open mind is key to understanding Encyclicals, because they challenge the popular perception of the problem in many ways.  Getting a “study guide” is also a good idea.  There are several sources for study guides in the Internet, but beware of the source or organization providing them.  Starting a “study group” among friends to analyze an Encyclical can be fun and bring up interesting debate, such as in a book club.  You just need to start reading one…and then you might get “hooked” on them.

Mayra Addison

Cameron School of Business, adjunct faculty member


[i] Catholic Social Teaching – Faith in a Better World.


[ii] Rerum Novarum in 1891 anticipates the failure of socialism and Marxism, and introduces the concept of the State as the custodian of the “common good”.  Socialism is “anti natural” because men are all different “it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind” Paragraph 17.  Marxism is failed at its base because “The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth…Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” Paragraph 19. “it lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor; and this in virtue of his office, and without being open to suspicion of undue interference – since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good.” Paragraph 32.

Humanae Vitae in 1968 predicted, in a somewhat prophetic way, the change in the relationships between men and women with the introduction of the pill  (section 17).


[iii] Merriam Webster Dictionary


[iv] Chapter 4, Paragraph 48 “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole”.


[v] Laudato Si, Section iv – Joy and Peace.


share this post





Never miss an update...

Subscribe to the CSB Blog!

Translate »