For the unfamiliar, the various forms of papal teaching can at times be confusing. Apostolic letters, motu proprios, exhortations, constitutions; papal bulls and decrees; conciliar documents; homilies, speeches, interviews, and Wednesday audiences…there’s quite a list, and each have their own place within the hierarchy of Magisterial thought and authority.
For modern Catholics, the most familiar form of papal teaching is the Encyclical. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the Encyclical as follows:
According to its etymology, an encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) is nothing more than a circular letter. In modern times, usage has confined the term almost exclusively to certain papal documents which differ in their technical form from the ordinary style of either Bulls or Briefs, and which in their superscription are explicitly addressed to the patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Universal Church in communion with the Apostolic See. By exception, encyclicals are also sometimes addressed to the archbishops and bishops of a particular country. … From this and a number of similar facts we may probably infer that the precise designation used is not intended to be of any great significance. From the nature of the case encyclicals addressed to the bishops of the world are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large. They condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent.
This last portion of the description is of particular relevance. It is the purpose of encyclicals to express the Church’s Magisterial thought on given issues that pertain in particular to faith and morals. That is the central focus, around which the other purposes orbit. We see the use of encyclicals in the condemnation of errors or dangers in, for example, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Pope St. Pius X; condemnation of Modernism) or in Mortalium Animos (Pope Pius XI, On Religious Unity). Caritatis in Veritate (Pope Benedict XVI, on Charity and Truth) would be an example of an encyclical which exhorts, etc. Examples abound.
The authoritativeness of encyclicals is not absolute, but relates instead to their subject matter and treatment. Again, from the Encyclopedia:
As for the binding force of these documents it is generally admitted that the mere fact that the pope should have given to any of his utterances the form of an encyclical does not necessarily constitute it an ex-cathedra pronouncement and invest it with infallible authority. The degree in which the infallible magisterium of the Holy See is committed must be judged from the circumstances, and from the language used in the particular case.
To give some examples which are frequently the subject of debate in our times, both Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII, On Capital and Labor) and Quadragesimo Ano (Pope Pius XI, On Reconstruction of the Social Order) touch on the topic of just wages. Some Catholic scholars have argued that while a pope can authoritatively exhort employers to act justly towards their workers, they stray from the realm of binding authority when trying to prescribe a particular economic system or policy by which to accomplish this end. Particular prescriptions that range outside of faith and morals and into other fields of study (particularly when subjective to specific circumstances and ongoing research, as in the case of economics, policy, or scientific inquiry) fall, rather than under papal authority, into the realm of papal opinion or suggestion, and thus cannot bind the conscience of the faithful or require assent.
Why do these distinctions matter?
A proper understanding of the limits of papal infallibility is essential in our modern age, where every word or thought of a pope uttered in public are broadcast to the entire world. The right of the faithful to prayerfully and studiously discern whether certain statements of the pope — whether in a speech, a letter, or an encyclical — are in fact authoritative or prudential is equally important. “Prudential judgment” is a term that is perhaps used too lightly or without sufficient reflection in our current context, but no less a figure than Pope Emeritus Benedict made clear the right of the faithful to disagree with the Roman Pontiff — without sin — on certain issues of a serious nature:
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
The issues mentioned in the quote above are specific; the principles underlying the allowance in the first case but not in the second are implied. So let us bring them to the surface.
The reason why a Catholic may “be at odds with the Holy Father” on capital punishment or the waging of war is because, again, of the necessity to apply objective moral criteria to the subjective circumstances in question. The pope cannot say that either capital punishment or war are moral evils in and of themselves; the long history of the Church’s Divinely-given authority says otherwise. At most, a pope may suggest that this criminal should not be executed; that that war is not just. But the pope can only apply those moral principles based on the information he possesses. He can say in a general sense that it appears these things are not justified, but he would have to be intimately acquainted with the specific details surrounding such prudential decisions to offer more than a personal opinion. And even then, since the Church has always indicated that the moral imperative in execution or in war belongs properly to the state, the pope could only offer his informed moral judgment – which should be considered very seriously, but which I would argue is not, in fact, binding on those with the authority to make the decision.
In the latter case, however — those situations of abortion and euthanasia — the circumstances are irrelevant to the morality of the action. There is never a case where abortion or euthanasia are justified, and thus, there is no such thing as “prudential judgment” in cases of abortion or euthanasia. These are always gravely wrong, no matter what. In condemning these, the pope speaks with the infallibility of his office.
The further an issue moves away from the certitude of faith and bedrock moral principles, the less authoritatively a pope may speak on it. To use some absurd examples to illustrate the point, a pope could not write an encyclical that would authoritatively bind the faithful not to wear the color purple, or to follow a specific diet. He might sincerely believe that purple is the color of the devil, or that certain foods are dangerous (or beneficial) to health, but there is no moral principle by which he might impose those opinions with the authority of his office – and in both cases, it is quite clear that a pope would be wrong for attempting to do so. The limitations on papal infallibility to maters of faith and morals exist for a simple but profound reason: the protection of the entire Church from error, and maintenance of the integrity of the Faith.
It should be clear to the reader by now that the content of a given Encyclical is not a one-size-fits-all blanket exercise of infallible papal authority. Any such document must be read with a filial openness to the authority of the Petrine Throne, but also with a clear understanding of the established teaching of the Church which must under-gird its various assertions, and the boundaries and limits which contain them.
It is not the purview of even a pope to innovate in or tamper with the Faith, but it his solemn duty to safeguard, defend, and preserve it. Each papal document should be read in light of these criteria.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.