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The problem of the modern papal encyclical June 24, 2015

Posted by Tantumblogo in catachesis, episcopate, error, foolishness, General Catholic, Holy suffering, Papa, sadness, scandals, secularism, self-serving, Society, the return, the struggle for the Church.

Great piece by Boniface at Unam Sanctam Catholicam, as usual.  I have to heartily second his sentiments……problematic papal encyclicals did not start with Laudato Si.  Encyclicals have grown increasingly long-winded and off-topic for decades.  The problem really exploded after the Second Vatican Council, when the clarity of the prior Magisterium was replaced by a nebulous hopefulness and a subliminal sense of doubt.  Encyclicals no longer simply declare the Faith as they used to, they seem to beg the world permission to be Catholic while hoping to possibly convince a few to come along.

That’s the gist of Boniface’s point, and I think it’s a very important one (my emphasis and comments):

Modern encyclicals are a curious thing. The encyclical developed from the papal bull. The bull was a primarily juridical instrument used as a means of promulgating an authoritative judgment of the Holy See, either in matters of doctrine or governance. These could often be very short; we marvel today at reading something like Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam (1302) – which famously declared that submission to the Roman pontiff was necessary for salvation – and is only a page long! Papal bulls in the old days knew what they wanted to say and they said it. [Dang right.  And they did that, because they had the confidence of their convictions, and it showed in so much of what the Church did for centuries]
The modern encyclical developed out of the Enlightenment period as the popes realized that broader literacy and intellectual challenges to Christian revelation necessitated using the papal bull as a means of educating the flock on Catholic teaching, and hence by the time of the French Revolution the bull had begun to transform into the encyclical, the teaching letters of the modern pontiffs.
The encyclicals of the 19th and early 20th century are lucid and clear. Their purpose is to expound Catholic doctrine and defend it against modern errors, which they do very admirably. A friend recently commented to me that in thinking back on great documents like Pascendi, Quas Primas, Casti Conubii and so forth, one can immediately recall the substance of of them and the force of their arguments……….. who can easily summarize what Redemptor Hominis or Populorum Progressio are about except in the vaguest terms? [Quite.]
…….When we get to Vatican II, a noticeable change comes about. I personally attribute this to John XXIII’s famous principle from the opening of the Second Vatican Council:

“Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”

This principle has effected the manner in which the post-1965 ecclesia docens functions. Essentially, the post-Conciliar encyclical doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. The popes have still utilized them as a means of teaching, but rather than teaching what Catholic doctrine consists of, they have increasingly become occasions for popes to explain why Catholic doctrine is what it is. [In a sort of desperate, if I make this clear enough won’t you accept it kind of way, instead of just laying down the law]

That’s not entirely a bad thing; fides quaerens intellectum, right? But somewhere along the way the popes seemed to have dropped the declarative aspect of the encyclical in the overly optimistic hope that if we could just explain our teaching to the world – just walk them through our thinking step by step – then maybe the world would accept the Church’s message. Maybe if we simply “proposed” our rationale for belief humbly instead of declaring that we “had” the truth, the world would reciprocate and enter into a “fruitful dialogue” with Christianity that would mutually enrich everybody?……
Seriously though, the problem with this approach is fourfold: (a) The world does not reject the Gospel because it has not been adequately explained. They reject it “because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil” (John 3:19). [Exactly, and that is something the Church knew for almost her entire existence with great clarity.  It knew that men are so tempted to fall, and, even more, to twist even clear beliefs into nefarious ends.  So the Church spoke with great clarity and force, and in that clarity was great charity for souls, souls who might otherwise be lost by taking a more “pastoral” approach.  How many have fallen away in the past 50 years, anyway?]

(b) Even when its has opted for explaining rather than declaring the Church’s teaching, the Church has done a poor job of it because it has chosen to explain its teachings in terms of humanist phenomenology rather than having recourse to the Church’s traditional pedagogy. [Another great point.  And more and more true, with rare exceptions, as time has gone on. Now we have two whole generations of priests who have been formed thoroughly in this humanist phenomenology, and it has affected their thinking to a great degree. Not just these priests, but almost all of us have to be very nearly de-programmed from the toxic modernist/humanist filth in which we stew in order to come to an appreciation for the Faith That Was (and shall be again).]

(c) By focusing so much on the explanation and presentation over the declaration, the Church has unwittingly given the false impression that the validity of its teachings are bound up with the force of her argumentation, a kind of false intellectualism. [That is a HUGE point.  I think it plays a very large role in much of the progressive attempts to subvert doctrine.  They think if they can come up with a better argument, the Doctrine must fall by the wayside.  We’ve seen that in so many respects when they attack the accuracy of Scripture, when they try to insinuate that the early Church somehow believed differently, etc.  Great, great point]  She feels shaky and inadequate simply saying, “Such is the voice of the Church; such is the teaching of our Faith”; she feels she must offer a humanistic centered explanation for everything – an explanation that will “suit” the needs of “contemporary man” – with the effect that her message has become completely man-centered.  [and watered down] “He taught as one who had authority” (Matt. 7:29) said the people of old about Christ; but when the Church forgets the supernatural force that stands behind her teaching and opts instead for an anthropomorphized message, she no longer “speaks with authority”, in the sense that her words lose their force. Hence people shrug at the latest papal document and move on.  [Which is only exacerbated by their length and the numerous segues into side topics, like so-called climate change]

(d) Finally, because the popes have sought for novel means to propose their teachings, encyclicals lose their strenght as teaching documents and become instead opportunities for the popes to foist their own theological or literary tastes on the Catholic people. [Ahem, Laudato Si, but also others]

———End Quote———

As is so often the case, I’ve taken most of Boniface’s post, but I left the conclusion and some additional details.  Please do go to his site once if not several times and see the rest of his post.

I’ll conclude with this: some of my best posts have been my shortest ones.  Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that.  Who besides a few specialists and hardcore believers is really going to struggle through 187 pages (nearly 100,000 words) of carping text?  I think it utterly brilliant that Unam Sanctam was one page long.  That’s the stuff of Catholic greatness, and Boniface VIII was a great pope.

Here’s a question – how many post-conciliar encyclicals aside from Humanae Vitae, have  you read cover to cover?  I’ve read a number of the pre-conciliar encyclicals but I have to admit I have never made it through one post-conciliar encyclical all the way (I may have finished Caritas in Veritate, but I’m not sure). I just get too exhausted by the effort.  Mind, I’m a guy who reads the Bible cover to cover over and over and is typically reading at least a dozen books on Saints and catechisms and general Catholicism simultaneously.  I have fought through a lot of so-so and more than a few bad books, but I simply cannot muster the strength to fight through many of these encyclicals, and I doubt I am much alone.


1. Magdalene - June 24, 2015

Have read perhaps all of St. JPIIs encyclicals and some of his apostolic Exhortations and have them on my bookshelf. Have B16s too. Also other encyclicals from other Popes–such as Casti Canubii, etc. Am not and do not plan to read encyclicals of the present pontiff though.

Baseballmom - June 24, 2015

Sounds like a very prudent decision.

2. Murray - June 24, 2015

Might I ask your thoughts on Simon Dodd’s analysis? Dodd holds–to my mind persuasively–that it is a category error even to speak of “dissent” in the context of Laudato si’, since dissent presumes the existence of a definitive teaching on faith and morals, and Ls contains no such teaching.

More precisely, in the famous phrasing of 1983 CIC 752 (emphasis mine),

… religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

The obvious counter is that Ls does comprise such teaching, but Dodd responds that this is to do violence to the traditional Catholic understanding of “morals”:

… the word “morals” must have some content—irreducible scope and inexceedable limits—or the petrine teaching authority can be expanded or contracted at will. And it would further seem to follow that we should be wary of logical gymnastics that separate the magisterium from that skeleton. If “morals” is wholly protean, if it is able to mean anything one wants it to mean, the upshot is that the petrine ministry is not actually limited to morals—it directly reaches any issue.

To put it in familiar engineering terms, we have scope creep. If “moral teaching” is now taken to encompass highly specific actions such as avoiding air conditioning, sorting our garbage, favoring renewable energy, taking public transportation, and resisting the privatization of water, what can possibly be beyond its reach?

To be sure, Laudato si’ contains various theological reflections about man’s alienation from the natural environment, and many of these are actually useful, once you sort through the verbiage. But is there actually any teaching on faith or morals in there?

Tantumblogo - June 24, 2015

Sorry for delay in your comment posting, I think it was due to the link.

Murray - June 24, 2015

Huh, it posted immediately. No apology required!

Tantumblogo - June 24, 2015

Oh, it looked to me like it was flagged. Oh well, no harm no foul


[…] Reconocer-and-Resistir en acción: En la religión Novus Ordo, Documentos “papales” son un “problema” […]

4. Boniface - June 25, 2015

Thanks for the link! One problem is that – I recall this was from Pius XI or maybe even Leo XIII – the pope is the one who decides what pertains to faith and morals when he chooses to exercise his teaching ministry.

Murray - June 25, 2015

Right, but this would seem to be in some tension with the pope’s role as a “remora against innovation”, as Father Hunwicke puts it.

As Dodd argues, if it were simply, unproblematically true that the pope has sole discretion to decide “what pertains to faith and morals”, then we would be required to provide religious submission of intellect and will to a papal encyclical on (say) the designated hitter rule, as in Dodd’s reductio. Everything previously left to the prudential judgment of the faithful–politics, economics, social welfare, war, most of Scripture–would be one encyclical away from becoming binding teaching. Surely there must be limits.

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