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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