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Apr 9 Encyclicals

Updated: May 18, 2021

Today in 475 the Byzantine Emperor Basiliscus releases an Enkyklikon, a circular letter to the bishops of his empire about the Monophysite controversy. These encyclicals have become a key part of papal teaching, today we explore how. Since 1840, when encyclicals started to be used by the Pope, there have been 240 published. We also look at some of the landmark ones, and explore how there usage has changed.


When the Emperor Basiliscus attempted to pacify the supporters of the Monophysite position by issuing his Enkyklikon, or encyclical letter, he ordered that the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and the supporting Letter of Pope Leo were to be rejected. Ironically, with that historical context in mind, these circular letters would eventually become a popular tool of the papacy 1300 years later.

One of the major theological disputes over the nature of Jesus Christ in the early years of the Byzantine Empire was the Monophysite controversy. The Council of Chalcedon, (in Turkey) had definitively declared that Jesus Christ possessed two natures, therefore was fully divine and human. The Monophysites, believed that Jesus Christ possessed only one nature, divinity, a position which is still continued in the Coptic Orthodox Church today. Back in the fifth century, the supporters of the Monophysite position were extremely numerous especially throughout the region of northern Africa and would establish their own parallel hierarchy as a rival to that of the Chalcedonians. So this theological dispute would quickly have political repercussions as large sections of the Byzantine Empire placed themselves in opposition to imperial authority as long as the Emperor supported the theology of Chalcedon. Patriarch of Constantinople opposed the Enkyklikon. They registered their protest by covering the icons in the Basilica of Hagia Sophia in black cloth. In the West, Pope Simplicius asserted that it was he as successor of Peter and not the Emperor who possessed the authority of expounding the faith. He too rejected the Enkyklikon.

Encyclicals now are very significant papal documents, not infallible they are second in importance only to the highest-ranking document, an Apostolic Constitution. However, the designation "encyclical" has had different weight under different popes, linked to how often they were issued. The archives at the Vatican website currently classify certain early encyclicals as Apostolic Exhortations, a term generally applied to a type of document with a broader audience than the bishops alone. The first papal encyclical was written in the eighteenth century. Although formal papal letters for the entire church were issued from the earliest days of the church, the first called an encyclical was Ubi primum, dealing with episcopal duties, published by Benedict XIV in 1740. Since then, nearly 300 have been written. Leo XIII was the most prolific with eighty one. His Rerum Novarum ‘on New Things’ started the tradition of social encyclicals that is growing in importance (see the end of the podcast of Feb 27) The same pope, four months after Rerum Novarum issued an encyclical on the morality of duelling, which seems rather time specific and irrelevant now.

This overuse of encyclicals would present problems for future generations who would have to unpick like Leo’s Apostolicae Curae of 1896 declaring Anglican Orders null and void. This still has a restrictive impact on ecumenical efforts, it also lead to the rare release of an Anglican encyclical Saepius officio the following year in response. Although there is some disagreement now about the status of the two documents. Encyclicals are normally addressed to the bishops of the church, but occasionally they aim at a wider audience, they also indicate high papal priority for an issue at a given time. Mit Brennender Sorge "With burning concern" On the Church and the German Reich is an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, issued during the Nazi era. Written in German, not the usual Latin, it was smuggled into Germany for fear of censorship and was read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on one of the Church's busiest Sundays, Palm Sunday. Pope Pius XII issued forty-one encyclicals, mostly after 1945, three of them protesting the Soviet invasion of Hungary in order to crack down on the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 Encyclicals, are essentially pastoral letter written by the pope for the whole Roman Catholic church on matters of doctrine, morals, or discipline.

During the papacy of Pius IX in the mid nineteenth century encyclicals became frequently used. There was a prolific period of 112 years, from 1846 to 1958 when 224 encyclicals were promulgated. Pacem in terris by John XXIII, was written months after the Cuban Missile crisis and addressed to a wider audience of “all men of good will.” Pope Paul VI published an encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 which re-affirmed the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding married love, responsible parenthood, and the rejection of artificial contraception. Hugely controversial not just because of its counter-cultural message in the free love of the swinging 60’s but also because he rejected the conclusions of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control established by his predecessor, John XXIII, a commission he himself had expanded. It was the last of the seven encyclicals that he issued. The formal title of an encyclical in Latin consists of the first few words of the official text; the document is not considered to be infallible. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, ditched the Latin for Francis of Assis’s Italian and was addressed to "every person living on this planet" . An unprecedented inclusivity in the history of papal encyclicals, but maybe a reflection in the increasing soft power of the Papacy and a more prudential release of encyclicals.


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