Against Papal Encyclicals — Guest Post by Richard Greenhorn

Against Papal Encyclicals  — Guest Post by Richard Greenhorn

The program with papal encyclicals is the same: Every few years the windows of the Vatican open and a forty-thousand word puff of smoke is exhaled. No one quite knows what they mean or what effect they have; indeed, it is clear from reading them that even their own authors do not take encyclicals seriously. Catholics go about analyzing the puff of smoke like the most superstitious of Delphic pagans: This one contour confirms the right to property; this other denies the existence of borders, but another seems to confirm it. All of it is a pathetic sight.

For a layman, the only proper Catholic response to papal encyclicals is to ignore them. The “revealed doctrine” surrounding encyclicals is so obscure that it requires laymen not only to know the black letter rules hidden within these literary monstrosities, but also the jurisprudence of where to place these long-winded documents within the Magisterium. The current mess over capital punishment is one case in point. Is a Catholic now required to confess the “sin” of harboring the belief that maybe, just maybe, executing a murderer might be just? What if that murderer had been executed by the countless saints and popes of the past? One cannot be quite sure.

It is frankly absurd that anyone must place so much emphasis on these rambling and obscure documents at all. The Roman Pontiff is not, per se, a profound thinker. He is our ruler and our lawgiver, as well as teacher, but in no way a doctor or wise man. Our first pope came off at times as the most foolish and befuddled of all the apostles; it was well left with Saints John and Paul to develop Christian theology. Peter and his successors were not meant to expatiate on this or that matter, but to actually manage and lead the Church.

The modern papal encyclical arose as a response to the French Revolution. The ideological war levied by the Revolutionists demanded response in kind. But the butchery inflicted on the clergy, along with the secularizing influence throughout Europe, left the Church without the practical authority to quash heresy or help regulate the affairs of the State. The only recourse was the pen. As fine as some of the documents are, they are nonetheless written from a position of weakness.

What is called Catholic Social Teaching had usually been touched only indirectly by popes before the Revolution; the pontiffs generally played the role of settling disputes and thereby setting the limits of orthodoxy. Moral theology was more or less left to moral theologians. The steady stream of affirmative pronouncements after 1789 was, perhaps, a necessary countermeasure against the Revolutionist, but it was exceptional. The wisdom and moral probity of the men who held the papacy in these years lent much authority to them; it is hard to believe anyone would have taken seriously the moral guidance of the popes throughout the ninth century “pornocracy,” for example.

Still, the best of the encyclicals were far from academic. Rather, they were attempts to apply immortal Church teaching to concrete modern situations. Pius XI’s Casti Conubii is, in large part, nothing but Augustine’s teaching applied to the modern environment of industrial birth control and abortion. Likewise, Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors is a compendium of answers to the Vatican posed through the previous decades. The best encyclicals were not ends in themselves, but bolstered a larger program of operation. St. Pius X’s Pascendi domini gregis was only one part of the complete battle plan envisioned by the saint, culminating in his Oath Against Modernism. These encyclicals were never ruminations for their own sake.

Things are much different after Vatican II. Since the Council, the pontiff through his encyclicals acts not as a ruler or a teacher, but an academic trying to support one thesis: The Second Vatican Council. The bibliography of these post-conciliar encyclicals is enough to prove this task; if an opportunity is presented to quote the Church or the Council Fathers, the popes will choose the Council. The vague, indeterminate authority of encyclicals is eminently suited for the vague and contradictory nature of papal teaching at the time. One immediately notices that modern encyclicals are not written by men who see themselves as representing the Church; the papal “nos” is replaced by the “ego.”

We see this most in John Paul II, so much of whose writing is merely an intellectual effort to graft the Church’s teaching to Kantian ethics. There is no reason to attempt this, outside of intellectual satisfaction. The ninety-nine percent of Catholics who have no clue what Kantian ethics mean are left with largely unreadable and mostly obtuse tomes which have little or no power of conversion.

Pope Francis’s encyclicals may be the best example and the worst culprit of this intellectualism. There is nothing in his recent encyclical that can be turned into an effective law, or even an actionable moral principle. It is simply a personal rumination on how Francis would like to see the world run. This is not the role of a pope; it is the role of an ideologue.

The debate over capital punishment is the worst instance of this. If the Holy Father wants to abolish the death penalty, let him change the law to impose punishments on those who support or use the death penalty. Actually taking a position on the death penalty would lead to conflict, and eventually expose the position as incoherent. The past three pontiffs did not want this; they in fact could not have sustained it, either in a moral or practical level. They were weak leaders and bad governors. They oversaw an institutional collapse unprecedented in history, and they did this because they would not (or could not) function as leaders of the institution they headed. They endeavored to create a moral atmosphere, not to act as supreme pontiff. The popes of the 19th Century were feckless against the State; the popes of our time are feckless against their own institutional Church.

The final effect of this is a gross distortion of Catholic Social Teaching, and transformed it from a liberating system of rules to one of stodgy emotionalism and incoherence. The role of Catholic Social Teaching was not to prescribe a political platform or ideology. It was to establish the moral boundaries outside of which fallen man would fall into spiritual decay. This required a role in the polity, a role the Church played by defining and enforcing her own norms. Everyone was better off because of this.

Catholic Social Teaching is meant to tell us: Here are the limits, go no further; but within these limits you are free. The important thing in this is that the Church is not creating the limits in this teaching, rather she is only pointing them out. The Church does not create the Truth; Truth created the Church.

The stark and clear defense of Catholic teaching allowed for truly liberal thought. Build a sturdy wall around your city and you are free to roam around the city; tear down the wall and one is always forced to be on guard. One clearly recognizes this in the present day compared to the past; the modern Catholic intellectual is a cramped creature. He must be. For the modern Church is more and more just an ideology. Our clergy will not enforce clear moral laws, but they will make you march in step to the atmosphere they create.

The same truth applies to the government of the Church as the government of state: Regulations not enforced through external conformity will be forced internally, that is, they will be totalitarian. Those not wholly in sync with the mind of the pontiff stand like timorous party apparatchiks, waiting with dread to find out if this year’s new teaching has fenced them outside the Church.

None of this should be considered a unique indictment of Pope Francis. Francis, in his personal affability, is at least honest about his role. The confusion sown by Francis is not unique to him. It arises out of the outsized position given to papal statements. It has led to schizophrenia in Catholics, and de facto schism between those who adhere to the modern atmosphere, and those who strive merely to live by the old rules established through the centuries.

I can only recommend that laymen not play this game. Pretend you’re an illiterate peasant, one unlearned in the theology and jurisprudence necessary to understand the modern encyclical. We must be led by the Pontiff, but he in turn must agree to lead, not simply expatiate. We owe deference to the Roman Pontiffs, but the Pontiffs owe us coherence.

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  1. Michael Dowd

    Prior to Vatican II Papal encyclicals were much shorter and comprehensible. Since then—in the interests of obscuring their real thoughts–the encyclicals have grown much longer and ambiguous in keeping with the desire to undermine pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrine.

    The latest, FRATELLI TUTTI, is a perfect example of obfuscation in the service secular political motivation. And another example of Bergolian utopianism.

    What the “Pope” expresses is neither practical or realistic as it disregards the lessons from history and human nature. That lesson is that the strong dominate the weak for their own benefit. The best we can do is defuse these tendencies by means of multiplying sources of power via competition and the expression of human creativity in order avoid world dominance by a single global authority which would end by placing the devil in charge of humanity.

    The ultimate and correct answer to mankind’s situation of manifest imperfection is to follow Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Unfortunately, “Pope” doesn’t seem to know the this is the Gospel of good news he was officially–but not actually–elected to preach.

    FRATELLI TUTTI is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to justify global Communism. The “Pope” has forsaken his divine mission. His apparent mission is to place the world under the control of the devil.

    For a summary of Fratelli Tutti see:

  2. Briggs

    Because I have nowhere else to put this, and because it relates to Francis’s exegesis, I note that this Sunday’s gospel readings had a short and long version. The wedding feast parable. The short version ends (recalling it begins by rejecting the original invited guests):

    “…Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”

    A cheering and cheerful conclusion. The one I wonder if Francis used in this Sunday’s angelus. For he said of it, “This is how God reacts: when He is rejected, rather than giving up, He starts over and asks that all those found at the thoroughfares be called, excluding no one.”

    Excluding no one.

    The longer passage ends:

    “…The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.

    But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

    The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’

    Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

    Excluding at least one.

  3. Amateur Brain Surgeon was well left with Saints John and Paul to develop Christian theology. Peter and his successors were not meant to expatiate on this or that matter, but to actually manage and lead the Church.

    The New Testament writings of Pope Peter are not theology/doctrine?

    That is the same error Newman made – that the Church was an idea set loose in the world absent any definitive truth, i.e. Original Deposit of Faith, and so men, however saintly they may have been, created the Church and its doctrines.

    There was a reason why Newman was so loved by the Vatican Tow Fathers.

    In any event, Happy Columbus Day and here is an encyclical worth reading on the happy day.

  4. Amateur Brain Surgeon

    “The wisdom and moral probity of the men who held the papacy in these years lent much authority to them; it is hard to believe anyone would have taken seriously the moral guidance of the popes throughout the ninth century “pornocracy,” for example.”

    Jesus taught us Catholics how to both understand and how to respond to such authorities:

    THEN Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. 3All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.

  5. jwm

    Odd. I brought this up over at Fran Porretto’s site just yesterday, and now it appears here. Over the course of the last few years, and this last year in particular I have added quite a few bookmarks to my daily reading. This site is one of the more recent. In every case, I’ve included the new writers because what they wrote resonated with me. These guys all seemed to have their had on straight. They “get it” so to speak. But then I also notice that they are all Roman Catholic. I begin my every morning with prayer. Part of that prayer is, “Show me the way that You would have me follow…” As I wrote over at Liberty’s Torch, I think I can take a hint. A couple weeks ago I sent an email to the pastor at the nearest parish, and spent an hour talking with Fr. Dave. I brought up this parable, because it has always puzzled me. The king asked everyone on the street to come to the wedding. Everyone shows up in suit and tie, but one (clueless?) fellow walks in in jeans and a T-shirt. This guy is tied up, and thrown out. It seems an overly hash treatment for a man who had poor fashion sense. I have not yet heard the explanation that makes the story click into place. I’m know missing something here. Could anyone tell me what it is?


  6. Ann Cherry

    Well it happened again, my “genius” comment got queered. (can I still say that?) I’ll take it as a hint, even if it isn’t. Great column, and great comments. Thanks!

  7. John B()


    I had similar issues with this parable

    The way I’ve heard it explained by (I believe) American Episcopal priest Father Robert Farrar Capon, in The Parables Of Judgment.

    According to Capon, the “wedding garment” would have been PROVIDED by the king! (I mean they gathered these “guests” from the highways and the byways and it would be surprising that any of them had proper garb). This improperly garbed man had managed to enter with every one else (who became properly garbed) avoiding the courtiers who would’ve provided the man proper garments.

  8. JTLiuzza

    To JWM:

    From St. John Chrysostom: “Not having a wedding garment. By this one person, are represented all sinner void of the grace of God. Wi. — To enter with unclean garments, is to depart out of this life in the guilt of sin. For those are no less guilty of manifesting a contempt for the Deity, who presume to sit down in the filth of an unclean conscience, than those who neglected to answer the invitations of the Almighty. He is said to be silent, because having nothing to advance in his own defence, he remains self-condemned, and is hurried away to torments; the horrors of which words can never express.”

    You can access the Douay-Rheims bible which includes commentary here:

    I also recommend the Haydock Bible Commentary compiled by an English Catholic Priest and Bible scholar in the 19th century:

    One more would be the Catena Aurea, a compilation of commentary on the four Gospels by the Church fathers:

    I hope you find those useful.

  9. Amateur Brain Surgeon

    Dear JMW. Keep your eyes and mind open.

    ASK is an acronym (Ask, Seek, Knock) and the door shall be open and you will get an answer.

    Here is the primary site ABS uses for new testament biblical exegesis.

    The New Testament is a collection of letters written by catholics to other catholics in an already existing Catholic church. One major criteria for whether or not a book would be included in the Canon is whether of not it had been read at Mass.

    If putative experts have studied the new testament and are not Catholics their supposed expertise is an undeserved compliment.

  10. Whitney g


    my understanding is the garment is baptism

  11. Johnno

    I’d have to slightly, but strongly disagree here Briggs.

    The problem doesn’t lie with the existence of encyclicals and the Catholic faithful paying attention.

    The problem lies with the current guy issuing them – Francis.

    Serious questions need to be raised about him and his ilk, and the whole paradigm that raised a man like him, not the method of issuing what are essentially instructional letters, this particular one being a circle-jerk exercise addressed to no-one. Much the same extends to JPII as well.

    I do agree that the less encyclicals the better. Much the same for all these phoney unnecessary synods. Save them for when they are most direly necessary. However, the modernist clique running amok in the Church wants to push heresy, and this necessitates finding ways of doing it by circumventing the protections in place that will expose them as the formal heretics they are. Much like COVID cases, they need the aura of legitimacy and nothing says legitimacy like a nice official letterhead.

    It’s the equivalent of lefty activists looking for loopholes in the law to push their agenda.

    Perhaps God wants the Catholic faithful to be alerted to what is going on in the Church just as much as in the American elections apparatus. If the guys in charge aren’t competent and are rigging the game, then the laypeople need to know. Otherwise we might as well just march into the COVID concentration camps and register ourselves for life, and just install Joe Biden in office now without bothering to go to the polls.

    Francis needs to be called out for what is clear obstinate open heresy with his rubber stamps all over it. If he’s a heretic, then that means he is no longer Catholic, much less the Pope.

  12. C-Marie

    Do read the Encyclicals so as to know the character and more of whoever is the current Pope.


    From the article:

    From the article: “it was well left with Saints John and Paul to develop Christian theology. Peter and his successors were not meant to expatiate on this or that matter, but to actually manage and lead the Church.”

    Have you read I and II Peter?

    “None of this should be considered a unique indictment of Pope Francis. Francis, in his personal affability, is at least honest about his role.”

    And, is this honest, that though when finally questioned, Francis said the statement in the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together that he signed with the Imam meant God’s permissive will, and yet, Francis has yet to have the wording changed from the heresy which the words actually say and so the document still reads:

    “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”

    God bless, C-Marie

  13. Cloudbuster

    This is one of the reasons I’m a Protestant.

  14. jwm

    John B(). ABS, JTLiuzza, Whitney g:

    Thank you all very kindly. I appreciate your taking the time, and your responses. Now the day is winding down, and I can take the time to begin exploring the links you recommended.
    Take care, and God Bless


  15. JTLiuzza

    JWM your original post was very heartening. A soul who begins each day with prayer and a plea to be shown the way with an open and trusting heart is a delight to the Lord. He’s showing you, of course. And one thing you’ll learn is that the Holy Ghost works through the souls of broken sinners like me and the other good souls in this thread. I know it, I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.

    It is a great joy to know that maybe you have been His implement in His work. He certainly doesn’t need us. He can do all things by Himself. But it is part of His generosity and love to allow you to participate in His work. When I was a boy I used to help my dad work on the car. He didn’t need me to of course and my capabilities were certainly limited: handing him tools that he could have retrieved for himself, holding a flashlight… But he did it out of fatherly love to instruct me, to allow me to experience the joy of being a part of accomplishing something good with him, and to be able, as a son desires, to help my father and to learn how to be like him.

    The Holy Ghost does the same. He can’t wait to do it. That’s something for you to look forward to because it is something that you will know and participate in. God bless you.

  16. Amateur Brain Surgeon

    The one not having a wedding garment is a protestant, faith alone – faith without works

    <I<And he saw . . . wedding garment; Syr. a festal garment. The garment for the wedding, that is, one which is clean, precious, and splendid, is not faith, as the heretics say. For all who were at this feast of the Church, indeed, could not have entered in except by faith. Therefore this garment is charity, and holiness of life. A pure and holy life is like a clean and splendid robe, woven of virtues and good works, which are a glorious adornment of a man. So SS. Jerome, Hilary, Tertullian, and others. S. Gregory explains the not having a wedding garment to mean faith without works of charity, by which the Lord comes to unite the Church in marriage with Himself. But S. Augustine (lib. 2, contra Faust. c. 19) explains it to mean one who seeks his own, not the Lord’s glory. But S. Hilary says, the wedding garment is the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the brightness of heavenly conversation, which being received by the good answer of confession, is preserved spotless for the celestial company. S. Jerome says, works which are fulfilled out of the Law and the Gospel, form the garment of the new man.

  17. John B()


    You can see MANY MORE reasons here to be a protestant!

  18. Joy

    Catholics undermine their own asserted truth about Truth. Briggs, you could add it to your polygon of catholic virtue signalling “immaculate contraption” thing you’re peddling overleaf

    “immaculate contraption”
    What one school child thought Mary had.
    “out of the mouths of babes”

  19. Joy

    Biblical Howlers:

    The cute statements below are said to have been written by actual students and are genuine, authentic and not retouched or corrected:
    In the first book of the Bible, Guinessis, God got tired of creating the world, so he took the Sabbath off.

    Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree.

    Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.

    Noah built an ark, which the animals come on to in pears.

    Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.

    The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble with the unsympathetic Genitals.

    Samson was a strongman who let himself be led astray by a Jezebel like Delilah.

    Moses led the Hebrews to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients.

    The Egyptians were all drowned in the dessert. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten amendments.

    The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple. The fifth commandment is to humour thy father and mother. The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.

    Moses died before he ever reached Canada. Then Joshua led the Hebrews in the battle of Geritol. The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed him.

    David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Finklesteins, a race of people who lived in Biblical times.

    Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

    When Mary heard that she was the mother of Jesus, she sang the Magna Carta. When the three wise guys from the East Side arrived, they found Jesus in the manager. Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption. St. John, the blacksmith, dumped water on his head.

    Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule, which says to do one to others before they do one to you. He also explained, “a man doth not live by sweat alone.”

    It was a miracle when Jesus rose from the dead and managed to get the tombstone off the entrance.

    The people who followed the Lord were called the 12 decibels.

    The epistles were the wives of the apostles. One of the opossums was St. Matthew who was also a taximan.

    St. Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony which is another name for marriage.

    A Christian should have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

  20. Ugly Hunchback

    No, I disagree. Even the old encyclicals are mush, unreadable rubbish. Though the newer ones are indeed unreadable; I almost have a physical reaction against reading such trite, rhetorical nonsense. Humana Vitae and Gaudium et Spes almost made me puke.

    And the commenter who wrote that Peter defined doctrine too or so should remember that the Apostles were of a different caliber, given that Christ Himself chose them. Further, thinking that a disgusting pig like Alexander VI. with seven or even ten children (!!!) is a successor of Peter is a disgrace.

    All this talk, for example, about how “great” marriage is, is complete and utter dung. We know that in Garden Eden Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed, so they were not lusting after each other because of their innocence. This is seen in children still: at age four, boys and girls are still able to play naked outside, play in the water or whatever. Ten years later, this is impossible.

    It is therefore fitting that the first deed of man after being forced out of paradise was “knowing” Eve. Knowing being another hint that sex is knowledge which indeed changes everything. This is true for puberty as well. We also are unable to imagine Adam and Eve copulating like we do in Garden Eden. The only Catholic who has written about this, as far as I know, is Andy Nowicki. Especially his “Confessions of a Would-Be Wanker” and “Notes Before Death”. (He has two children himself, but this did not change his anti-sex philosophy. For good reason, since it is correct.)

    I was born out of wedlock due to sheer, base animalistic lust and a lot of people are just “accidents” — I was too, the condom broke: oh! Why was I not spared this existence! What we find attractive are just superficial physical traits we have no control over. It is not the most “moral” men who are popular with women (and vice versa), but the best looking, Cary Grant types (in case of men, status and money also play a role). It is primitive and a curse, a result of the Fall. Even Seraphim Rose speculated in his volume on Genesis and Early Man that there may have been a physical change because Eve was cursed with pain during childbirth.

    Therefore, I will not want to listen to this trite nonsense again. It all went downhill with the advent of Thomism, which is a shallow and very limited theology even Aquinas rejected (seeing how all he wrote was as straw).

    I certainly would never have chosen my horrible life, suffering from mental illness and being ugly, born a hunchback. In school, I was the fatso in class and was insulted almost every day, it was a kind of hell being there; Now I am living on disability because I am unable to function in society. What does God want from me? What’s the point of creating a being like me?

    I therefore end with some “escolios” by Catholic reactionary Nicolás Gómez Dávila:

    One could object to science that it easily falls into the hands of imbeciles, if religion’s case were not just cs appals those who fear its judgment.

    No beneficiary of slaves is supporter of birth control.

    The individual who lies to himself, just like the society that does not lie to itself, soon rots and dies.

    Depopulate and reforest – first civilizing rule.

    Although it grieves the angelism of the democrat: one cannot build a civilisation with miserable biological

    The two most pressing problems of the contemporary world: demographic expansion and genetic deterioration are
    Liberal principles prevent the solution of the first, egalitarian ones that of the second.
    as serious.

    The two most insufferable types of rhetoric are religious rhetoric and the rhetoric of art criticism.

    Christianity is an impudence which we must not disguise as kindness.

    Sex does not solve even sexual problems.

    In the end, there is no area of the soul sex would not succeed in corrupting.

    It is above all against what the crowd proclaims to be “natural” that the noble soul rebels.

    Despite what is taught today, easy sex does not solve every problem.

    By merely looking at the face of the modern man one infers the mistake in attributing ethical importance to his
    sexual behavior.

    Modern man’s life oscillates between two poles: business and sex.

    Modern society is abolishing prostitution through promiscuity.

    Sensuality is a cultural legacy of the ancient world.
    Societies where the Greco-Roman legacy is being wiped out, or where it does not exist, only know sentimentalism
    and sexuality.

    To liberate man is to subject him to greed and sex.

    This century has succeeded in turning sex into a trivial activity and an odious topic.

    When the modern consciousness suspends its economic routines, it only oscillates between political anguish and
    sexual obsession.

    Sexual promiscuity is the tip society pays in order to appease its slaves.

    The problem is not sexual repression, nor sexual liberation, but sex.

    Sex and violence do not replace transcendence after it has been banished.
    Not even the devil remains for the man who loses God.

    The 19th century did not live with more anguish because of its sexual repression than the 20th century with its
    sexual liberation.
    Identical obsession, even when the symptoms are the opposite.

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