What is an encyclical?

by | Jun 1, 2021 | Uncategorized

What is an encyclical?

Laudato Si’. Credits: Johan Bergström-Allen / carmelite.org

Billions of people have been motivated by Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’. But what exactly is an encyclical?

Encyclicals began as sort of the e-mail of the early Church. They get their name from the Greek word for circle, or circular.

Important letters from the pope would be forwarded to bishops and local churches, who would then copy and forward them to other bishops and local churches, until the entire Church received the message.

This could take a good deal of effort. So you can imagine they must have contained vital information and were not issued all that regularly.

Today’s encyclicals are immediately posted on the Vatican website in many languages for the world to read. But their principal audience is still the bishops and pastors of the world, and all who teach and defend the Catholic faith.

Encyclicals help everyone better understand how to apply the teachings of Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition—especially in light of a particular issue.

Encyclicals are not necessarily “infallible” statements—although they can be if the pope wants to go through that process. That doesn’t happen often.

Normally encyclicals offer important guiding principles for the faithful to reflect on. This doesn’t mean that Catholics can ignore an encyclical if they reflect on it and don’t like what it says.

Papal encyclicals are indeed to be taken very seriously and should challenge us all to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

There is a tradition in the Church, especially over the past century or so, to write “social encyclicals” on issues like the rights of laborers or the development of human beings and cultures. That doesn’t mean that “social encyclicals” aren’t concerned about faith. Of course they are! Remember, their purpose is to link our Catholic faith to some new reality.

And so it makes sense that in the first century and in the twenty-first, whenever the pope (who is the universal pastor!) wishes to provide guidance on this or that topic, he sends word around the Church.

In other words, he issues an encyclical.

How many encyclicals has Pope Francis written?

He has written and published three encyclicals during the time of his pontificate, with a close relationship between them. 

The first one was written on June 29, 2013 on faith, under the name “Lumen Fidei” where he calls all Catholics to fully trust in God’s love and the fullness of the Christian faith, seeing the church as the mother of our Catholic faith, reminding us that whoever believes, is never alone.  

In 2015, Pope Francis completed the encyclical Laudato Si’ on May 24 on the care for our common home which has been foundational for Catholics in relation to listening to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, highlighting that all of creation is interconnected and emphasizing climate change and the acceleration and injustice of the ecological crisis and climate emergency. 

The most recent Encyclical issued by Pope Francis on October 03, 2020, was Fratelli Tutti on fraternity and social friendship, in a global context of uncertainty due to the Covid 19 pandemic.

The encyclical is a call to open our hearts to the whole world and establish dialogues to strengthen peace, justice, and fraternity.

Why is Laudato Si’ such an innovative encyclical?

It is the first encyclical ever written that speaks about climate change and ecology, and it also has an ecumenical and interreligious sense of calling on all to care for our common home.

Catholics around the world have responded in an extraordinary way to the call of Laudato Si’ to care for our common home, you can learn about their opinions and experiences in Live Laudato Si’.

Laudato Si’ gave new impetus and hope to the ecumenical movement and interreligious dialogue, as well as to the promotion of peace and solidarity in the world. 

An innovative aspect of the encyclical is the focus that the climate crisis has become a moral issue as people who have had nothing to do with the generation of greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are causing the climate crisis have suffered and will suffer its worst effects. 

Why did Pope Francis write the encyclical Laudato Si’?

One of the Holy Father’s main motivations for writing the encyclical is that he identifies himself deeply with the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, who is an inspiration for being, without a doubt, the most “ecological” figure in the Catholic Church.

Based on this ecological inspiration, the Pope has stated that “in this Encyclical, I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” (LS 3).

This dialogue is based primarily on listening to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor as our home “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” (LS 2).

The encyclical is addressed to every person who inhabits the planet, written as a citizen of our common home who has a moral responsibility to build a “new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” (LS 14).

Have there been other encyclicals on the climate crisis and the environment?

Since the pontificate of Pius VII in 1800 and throughout history, the Popes have collectively written a total of 275 encyclicals with a primarily social focus.

The encyclical Laudato Si is therefore the first to address the theme of ecology, the environment and care for the common home.

An important earlier reference is the encyclical Caritas in Veritate written by Benedict XVI also in 2009 with ideas closer to environmental concern and social justice issues linked to the environment. 

There is more information regarding the encyclicals on the Vatican website.

How are Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti related?

Both encyclicals are related in the pursuit of the common good, having Laudato Si’ as their basis and recognizing the importance of all interconnected creatures.

Fratelli Tutti also promotes an open fraternity that “allows us to recognize, value and love each person beyond physical proximity, beyond the place in the universe where he or she was born or where he or she lives.”

In this story you can learn more about the relationship between Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti: 10 Laudato Si’ references in Fratelli Tutti. Everything is connected.

Note: This story was originally published 28 March 2015 but has been updated.

Tomás Insua
Tomás Insua

Executive Director
Tomás is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, working to help the Catholic Church turn the Laudato Si’ call into bold action for climate justice. He was previously a Fulbright Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School, served in the UN Climate Secretariat helping prepare the COP21 climate summit, worked for Google in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and co-founded a grassroots Catholic organization working in the slums of Buenos Aires. He completed a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a concentration in climate policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. He grew up in Buenos Aires, where he had his spiritual home with the Franciscan friars, and lives in Rome with his wife, Vicky.

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