Thursday 18 June 2015

Laudato Sii

I, your humble auntie, almost never read papal encyclicals, so it is very unlikely I am ever going to read Laudato Sii.

The two great papal encyclicals that have a major importance for my life are Humanae Vitae (Paul VI) and Mulieris Dignitatem (Saint John Paul II).  WAIT! Hold the phone. Apparently Mulieris Dignitatem is not even an encyclical; it is an Apostolic Letter.

Five years of theology school, and I do not know the difference. Moan, groan. How can this be?  I graduated Cum Magna Laude from my theologate, and I fled the anti-theologate, so you would think I would know.

Meanwhile, even I know that Benedict XVI's most important work (for me),  Summorum Pontificum, is not an encyclical but a motu proprio which is a ... hmm...

Wait! The internet has jogged my memory. Encyclicals are to BISHOPS.* BISHOPS are supposed to read the encyclicals, ponder them in their highly trained theological brains, and then come up with a plan to filter the information down to their not-so-highly-trained priests and laypeople.

Sadly, bishops do not always have highly trained theological brains and are chosen for their administrative skills instead. In such circumstances, they turn to priests and professors they trust, with mixed results.

Well, unless you are a bishop or your bishop is going to call you up to tell him what to think, the fact that Laudato Sii is for BISHOPS lets me and you off the hook. We can wait until our bishops write little guides to Laudato Sii and then read them.  And I am sooo glad because I do not want to plow through 200 pages written by whoever wrote them before Francis signed off on it. Not all popes write their own encyclicals--that is definitely something I remember.

But I am relatively sure Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were two of the most formidable and skilled Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, wrote their own encyclicals. I really ought to read them. When I was a teenager, I tried to read JPII and gave up, thinking I just wasn't smart enough. Little did I know that it wasn't me, it was his writing style, not to mention the difficulty of translating philosophical Polish into English and, presumably, Latin.

To be honest, it wasn't until the past six years that I really got an insight into Saint John Paul II's greatness. Reading and rereading Mulieris Dignitatem until I understood it was a real eye-opener, a fantastic experience.

So, really, before I read anything by Pope Francis (or his advisors), I think I will read all the papal writings of Saint John Paul II. This may take some time.

Meanwhile, here is quite a thoughtful essay on the topic by Canada's most under-appreciated brilliant prose stylist, David Warren.

Update: Here is a cool and handy guide, courtesy of EWTN, on the relative weight of papal pronouncements. Apparently a motu proprio has even MORE authority than an encyclical.  I just did not know that. Does this mean Summorum Pontificum has even more weight behind it than...Humanae Vitae? (!!!!)

*Oh wait. EWTN doesn't say encyclicals are just to bishops. Sigh, sigh, sigh. It's all so confusing. It's like trying to find out if Pope Francis actually studied anything in Germany or just sat around the Mensa in Sankt Georgen reading Tintin in German--just like little me.


  1. I spent a lot of time reading encyclicals at one of my college jobs. JPIIs were great. I haven't read all of all three Benedict XVI, but what I did read were fantastic too. And the first one on human work is quite enlightening, though somewhat difficult to read.

  2. Also these quotes make me want to read Laudato Sii!

    How eloquent the appreciation of men and women!

  3. Thank you! (And what a great job, reading encyclicals!)

  4. Thank you! (And what a great job, reading encyclicals!)

  5. I think the principal Differences are that Encyclicals (Greek-style root) are intended for general Circulation (more Latinate root), Apostolic Letters are more-specifically addressed; and Motu Proprii are usually legal exercises: they institute changes in the prudential realm (or, in the case of Smm Pfcm, assert that Some Thing was never changed), and this is why it's important to have the Supreme Pontif's own authority and agency behind them, whence their name.

    Of course, "general Circulation" need not mean that many people need read them very closely; I think your intuition is quite correct on that point.

  6. "[B]ishops… are chosen for their administrative skills"... I've always wondered about this, and I suppose it depends on what one means by "administrative skills". The first bishop, after all, was Peter, whom I cannot imagine administering anything more complicated than a Sunday school picnic, given the NT's accounts of him. The great skill of most bishops often appears to be a genial talent for getting along with everyone. That is why they tend to be unheroic, poor fellows, in a position that does occasionally call for heroism. Yet they can surprise us, too. And Christ must have loved that type of bishop, because it was He, after all, who chose Peter to be the first one.

    Alias Clio


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