How to Read an Encyclical (and Why)
How to Read an Encyclical (and Why)

How to Read an Encyclical (and Why)

A Protestant's grateful guide to these papal "technologies of remembrance."
Appears in Winter 2015

There is something almost circus-like in the media's anticipation of the release of a papal encyclical. It can feel like a crowd awaiting the opening of a Barnum & Bailey freak show. "Come see this amazing relic from dark days gone by! Celibate! Magical! A friend of dangerous exotic assassins from the East! A gateway to hideous, boil-covered freaks! You won't be able to look away!"

This three-ring atmosphere that has greeted encyclicals in the last decade or so is symptomatic of an age that has forgotten that there is more to life than politics. It can no longer imagine a public document that reaches beyond the next global summit, or one with a heritage older than the last election. As a result, an encyclical is approached with the selective memories of its readers, a feverish focus on the personalities of its writers, and impaired reasoning about its contents and structure. In other words, the circus is a manifestation of cultural dementia.

This insistence on maintaining an integral vision of human life is a scandal to an age that forgets (or ignores) that there might be such thing as a whole with a purpose.

But the encyclicals are not solely, or even primarily, political documents. They are pastoral documents. They are more fruitfully approached in the same way you approach a bike. If you've ridden before—your imaginative muscle memory trained to the possibility of the sacred—it can be a thrilling experience, exciting even if it's familiar. To those new to it, there will be plenty of awkward jukes, starts and stops, bumps and bruises. Some will give up. But others will learn the rhythms and flow of these documents, and will find themselves on a tour of our current age that, unlike the circus that surrounds their release, feels oddly unmediated and, well, real. And, if you take a second ride, and start reading backward from Laudato Si' (2015) to Rerum Novarum (1891), you'll find that you've ridden beyond today and been on a tour of history that turns out to be a theological genealogy of our present. The encyclicals are a repository of wisdom we've forgotten, which also turns out to be just what we need in the modern age.

The encyclical as a bicycle is not just a cute metaphor. The word encyclical literally means "in a circle." It is a letter intended to travel— to circulate. And if, when you pick one up and find yourself reading something familiar, it's because the content of the encyclicals is not new. Like the wheel of a bicycle, it is made of a series of fixed points that go around and come back, all the while moving forward. Encyclicals simultaneously encapsulate the teaching in Ecclesiastes that "there is nothing new under the sun" and recognize that, in Christ, "all things are made new."


As my long-suffering wife, my colleagues, and a few other people whose names I forget will tell you, I am not a man who remembers well. I've been known to leave my wallet in the office prior to boarding a flight for the West Coast, to leave my jacket, and the phone inside its breast pocket, on an island in a lake in the Canadian wild while canoe camping, as well as other things more and less important.

Given this tendency, I have, over the years, adopted various technologies of remembrance— tricks, tools, and practices that mitigate my tendency to forget. While I have not yet resorted to tying a string to my finger, most of these technologies are simple: placing my keys and wallet in a small basket every day when I get home, writing lists, sending myself an email, extensively using my online calendar. These things "stand in" for me when, for whatever reason, memory is absent.

A letter is also a technology of remembrance. And there is no better example of this than a love letter. The lover writes her beloved not only—not primarily—to convey news but also to remind her beloved of herself. Why else were scented paper and locks of hair so often included in love letters? Why else do soldiers on the battlefield keep letters so close to their hearts? In a love letter, words "stand in" as a paltry reminder of the real thing— the woman at the desk who wrote the words in her own hand.

As Francis notes, our disenchanted society sometimes needs reminding that such a coherent life is possible.

The encyclicals are letters intended to perform the same function. They are not written, as the circus ringmasters would have you believe, as documents outlining the social policy of the Vatican up for negotiation at the next international summit. They are written as exhortations—encouragements—to remember. And what is it they are asking the reader to remember? They are calling us to remember that, as Benedict XVI says in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, "being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." A papal encyclical is flesh become words intended to propel us toward the Word become flesh; love letters reminding the reader of the "God who is love."


If you're not a Roman Catholic, or not even a believer, why read them at all? They are worth reading for Protestants because—in a manner that contemporary Protestant writing still only dreams of attaining—they take the time to pore both through the Scriptures and through the breadth of the Christian tradition to testify to the person of Christ in life right here, right now. And readers who aren't Christians often find themselves intrigued, curious, and maybe just a bit attracted to a community that can talk with such depth and clarity about the anxieties of our age, and that presents a coherent and beautiful vision for the good life in an age that too often settles for a mere collection of shards.

The name of the encyclical that began this tradition also set the tone for the form of later encyclicals. Rerum Novarum, written in 1891 by Leo XIII and which many consider the fi rst modern encyclical, literally translates as "new things." It attempted (and succeeded) to bring to bear the old, old story of the Christian church on the new—and revolutionary— things that were happening in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.

At the time Rerum Novarum was written, Europe was a seething mess of injustice, revolution, poverty, inequality, and instability. The massive industrialization of work and production, combined with wide-scale urbanization, led to massive poverty, social dislocation, and a massive underclass that was largely uneducated, disenfranchised, increasingly resentful. It was also still predominantly Christian.

You can still feel the heat and righteous indignation of Leo's opening analysis of Europe's "social question" today:

By degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

Leo's critique (echoed the same year by Abraham Kuyper in his address to Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands) was aimed at the heart of the many elites in Europe who were unwilling to see Europe's troubles as the result of systemic political and economic problems.

But it was also aimed at the Marxists who thought that the problem was entirely a material systemic problem—as if all would be well if we could radically restructure society to align ourselves with the forces of history. Leo has words for them too:

To remedy these wrongs, the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

A pattern emerges from this first social encyclical that repeats itself in the encyclicals that followed. Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Dignitatis Humanae (1965), Popularum Progressio (1967), Humanae Vitae (1968), Centesimus Annus (1991), Caritas in Veritate (2009), and, yes, even Laudato Si' (2015) all begin with an analysis of the zeitgeist and go on to outline a particularly Christian response to the issue at hand. As such, each bears the mark of its time. Reading John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, for instance, against the backdrop of the breaking of the grip of communism helps you understand how its recognition of the tremendous good that markets can achieve is not out of step with the concerns about those same markets that appear in Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate, which was written after the financial meltdown.

Papal encyclicals are diagnoses of particular historical ailments—the encyclicals speak about work (Laborem Exercens), the environment (Laudato Si'), religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), birth control (Humanae Vitae), the state and civil society (Centesimus Annus), development (Popularum Progressio, Caritas in Veritate)—and as such, they offer different prescriptions.

Reading the encyclicals is like being walked around a cocktail party of great saints with a host who takes the time to make introductions.

Which goes at least some way to explaining why papal encyclicals tend to drive those who adhere to ideologies of "conservatism" or "progressivism" nuts. If progressives are obsessed with a manic drive to move forward and are willing to burn in order to facilitate their social experiments, and if (unredeemed) conservatives are those who (with apologies to Buckley) merely stand athwart history yelling "Stop!" but have nothing else to say, the papal encyclicals say, "Come, let us reason together" and move forward according to a robust, whole, and full conception of what it means to be human.

This insistence on maintaining an integral vision of human life is a scandal to an age that forgets (or ignores) that there might be such a thing as a whole with a purpose. Insisting that it is not enough to provide money to the poor, but that you also need to see them as people made in the image of God—as your neighbor worthy of your time and your love—sounds scandalous (or like a waste of time) to an age of efficiency. Insisting that human life is sacred—even old, decrepit, stupid, and useless lives—is dissonant in a society that makes judgments on principles that preclude the possibility of one vision for the good life. Indeed, reminding our society that (to take a current societal obsession) it might be better for all of us to see sex as part of a holistic vision of life is heretical to our age. As Francis notes in Laudato Si', our disenchanted society sometimes needs reminding that such a coherent life is possible:

Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries— even those where Christians are a minority— the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defence of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing. Yet, we find it difficult to make people see that when we raise other questions less palatable to public opinion, we are doing so out of fidelity to precisely the same convictions about human dignity and the common good.

Reading through the list of papal encyclicals, especially as someone who works in the world of policy, I find it tempting to split them into so called "spiritual" encyclicals like Evangelii Gaudium, Deus Caritas Est, Evangelium Vitae and "social" encyclicals like Laborem Exercens, or Rerum Novarum. But as Francis's words underscore, this renders you unable to read them for what they are: as reminders that the social is the spiritual. Or, as Benedict so aptly puts it:

It is the primordial truth of God's love, grace bestowed upon us, that opens our lives to gift and makes it possible to hope for a "development of the whole man and of all men," to hope for progress "from less human conditions to those which are more human," obtained by overcoming the difficulties that are inevitably encountered along the way. . . .

. . . Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value. The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), opening up the path towards reciprocity of consciences and liberties. (Caritas in Veritate §§8, 10)


If it is true that the social is the spiritual, it is equally true that the spiritual is also social. An authentic Christian does not just encounter the person of Christ through contemplation. The authentic Christian must encounter the person of Christ in work and in all the dimensions of our social life. The encyclicals provide an extremely helpful guide for doing just that. It sounds a bit macabre to say that the encyclicals help tie one's heart strings to your fingers, but in many ways that is how they function. They are a lesson in the anatomy of the Christian life. And like five fingers on which we could tie such strings, the encyclicals help us remember five things without which it would be impossible to encounter Christ.

For all our striving to live lives that exhibit a true encounter with God, our work will always be marred by sin.

1. The first is to remember the poor and weak as people made in the image of God. Recent popes have exhibited this aspect of the encyclicals' teaching. Think of John Paul II's meeting of Mehmet Ali A?ca, the man who attempted to assassinate him, in a prison, or Francis's embrace of Vinicio Riva, a man whose face is covered with tumours. Both are physical manifestations of a message that runs through all the encyclicals: that we encounter God in the weak. It is easy to neglect the poor and weak as, almost by definition, they are missing from the places of power. But if we neglect to remember the poor, if we forget that they are people made in God's image, if we neglect to befriend them, we are in fact turning our back on God himself. And it is not enough to make the poor rich, or the weak strong. Justice is not the end: love is the end and lodestar of our relationship to the poor and weak: Benedict XVI says in Caritas in Veritate that "charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is 'mine' to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is 'his,' what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting."

2. The flipside of this is to remind the powerful of the purpose of their power. The encyclicals spend a great deal of time criticizing those in power for their forgetfulness of God, the poor, and the weak. In fact, one of the gifts of the encyclicals is how they demonstrate that forgetting one is likely to lead to forgetting the other. But they also outline ways in which the power embedded in creation can be put to use for true human development. Those with a particular interest in the role of the state, markets, and technology, and their potential for human good, should read the encyclicals with care.

3. But the encyclicals' discussion of power— located in social institutions—goes far beyond the state. Ranging from the church, to the family, to trade unions and the international community, the encyclicals carry a unique vision of the social life, one worth remembering in an age prone to forget that there are more actors in our social theatre than individuals. As John Paul II notes in Centesimus Annus, citing Rerum Novarum,

The social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good.

Our sociality is worth remembering.

4. And that sociality extends beyond the here and now. One of the great delights in reading the papal encyclicals for me has been the discovery of a whole new—actually very old—cast of characters who have thought about, experienced, and attempted to live out of their encounter with Christ just like us today. Reading the encyclicals is like being walked around a cocktail party of great saints with a host who takes the time to make introductions. In an age that loves to "move fast and break things," it is both encouraging and a useful reminder to find an unbroken chain of people who have struggled with sin in their own lives and in the world and have attempted to live their lives with integrity before God.

5. And that chain serves as a useful segue to the final string. For all our striving to live lives that exhibit a true encounter with God, our work will always be marred by sin. It's helpful to be reminded—especially those of us who work in the tempting world of policy—that all of our strivings will somehow come short. This perspective shifts our focus from frenetic striving to hopeful living. It is fitting, then, that one of the most important things the encyclicals teach us is that we still have another, better encounter to come:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."

And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." (Revelation 21:1—5)

Whether you are an old Christian, or a new Christian, a devout Catholic or Protestant evangelical, the encyclicals are technologies of remembering you'll want to put in your memory basket. And if you're someone who doesn't believe any of it but are curious—if you want to get a feel for what it is that Christians believe about social issues (every editor and every producer of every newspaper and media outlet should insist on having their staff read the encyclicals before offering any commentary on Christians and public life) and see examples of how Christians think about social issues—or if you're simply interested in why Christians seem so weird, the encyclicals are for you. There are plenty of bicycles for you to ride: hop on.

Brian Dijkema
Brian Dijkema

Brian Dijkema is the Vice President of External Affairs with Cardus, and an editor of Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.


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