Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Curiosity of the Modern Encyclical

No, I have no immediate commentary on Laudato Si. Why? Well, the darn thing is 187 pages long and I want to digest it patiently, so maybe come Fall I will have some commentary on it - if I'm lucky!

I have to be honest - I had a very hard time getting through Lumen Fidei and couldn't finish Evangelii Gaudium. But then again, I struggled through Caritas in Veritate and Deus Caritas Est as well, so its certainly not a Francis thing.

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. 

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. Pius XII taught that the encyclical was the normative means by which the Roman pontiff exercised his teaching office. The same cannot be said about modern encyclicals - who can easily summarize what Redemptor Hominis or Populorum Progressio are about except in the vaguest terms?

That's not to say pre-Vatican II encyclicals were always to the point; the pre-Conciliar popes certainly had their moments of rambling - but at least their rambling was clear and fun to read!

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. 

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?

Fruitful dialogue. Reciprocate. Mutually Enrich. Sorry, my post-Conciliar vocabulary started taking over for a moment.

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).

(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.

(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. 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. "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.

(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. The phenomenology of John Paul II, the Balthasarian-Hegelian-Teilhardism of Benedict XVI, and now the sort of "literary theology" of Francis. Each pontiff has opted not use traditional pedagogy, which means every pope has to "try something new" in how they choose to teach.

Thus, while retaining its authority in the juridical sense, from a strictly pedagogical viewpoint, the modern encyclical tends to become a rambling, sprawling mess that lacks the force to move minds and hearts. There have been exceptions; Humanae Vitae certainly did its job, as did Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Fides et Ratio was profound. But by and large they have failed to really educate the Catholic flock on the substance of the Church's teaching and are too cumbersome to be accessible to the average pewsitter. There is reason why going on and on is called "pontificating."

At any rate, I look forward to digging into Laudato Si. Pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis. Pray for the Church of Christ. Pray that she stands firm in her identity as the Bride of Christ, teaching with the authority of Christ, and confident that the Light which cometh from her Lord is still sufficient of itself to change the hearts of men without having to pander to modern psychology, science, or theological novelties.

Mutans tenebras ad lucem


Dave Armstrong said...

I thought it was just the right length and quite clear. Saying that long stuff fails to connect is simply another way of saying that "modern folks don't / won't / can't read."

I think that if wisdom is being put out, the more the merrier.

Teresa said...

Yes, Dave, and that is one heck of a big "IF".

Netmilsmom said...

I agree with Teresa, a big "IF"
With that, only a writer could find LS to be "the right length"
Who do we think this is written for? It states right in the encyclical that it is for everyone, so if we know that modern folks don't/won't/can't read" why would PF put out something of this length? I learned WAY back in college, write for your audience.

Dave Armstrong said...

It's a big if for those inclined to be hostile and skeptical, which is, of course, the usual modus operandi of mainstream traditionalists and especially radical Catholic reactionaries (like Chris Ferrara, whose hit-piece on LS I critiqued).

If you guys love tradition so much, about about the tradition of profound respect towards papal documents? Try it; you might like it. As it is, I am much more the traditionalist in this instance, because I receive these documents with the awe and respect that are befitting writings coming from the vicar of Christ and Supreme Head of the Church, while you guys hem and haw and engage in the usual second-guessing of popes.

Boniface said...

Dave, nobody here on this blog has offered any criticism of Laudato Si other than some commentors in this combox who have opined that it is long, which is hardly a mark of disparagement.

I personally have not finished reading the document yet and have said nothing on it.

Boniface said...

Dave, nobody here on this blog has offered any criticism of Laudato Si other than some commentors in this combox who have opined that it is long, which is hardly a mark of disparagement.

I personally have not finished reading the document yet and have said nothing on it.

Dave Armstrong said...

I should note, since traditionalists and radical Catholic reactionaries alike seem overly (and oddly) concerned about mere length (RadCathR Chris Ferrara made a big deal of this in his hit piece), that I DO take into consideration modern audiences. Hence, I currently write 800- and 1000-word articles for two publications.

Of my books, there is "The One-Minute Apologist": two pages each on over 60 apologetics issues. And "The New Catholic Answer Bible: one page each on 44 topics. My "Revelation" is a type of catechism that provides answers solely from passages of Scripture (usually one verse). And my upcoming book for Sophia: "Proving the Bible is Catholic" offers 80 short essays on apologetics topics.

St. Paul said "be all things to all people." The pope does short general audiences, if folks want short. Meanwhile, depth is not to be frowned upon. People need to stretch their intellectual and spiritual horizons, too, and be challenged.

I always say that people have PLENTY of time spending many hours in front of the idiot box or reading 500-page novels (many of dubious value, to put it mildly). They'll study reams and reams of materials in college, to prepare for their vocation / occupation. But when it comes to God, all of a sudden we are supposed to dumb down and read only short things.

That's my opinion: depth is good. Yet, as shown, I bow to the short attention spans and the sad "sound-byte" / Twitter reality of today and write short stuff as well.

Dave Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Armstrong said...

Corrected a typo (and added one parenthetical remark):

Two people here stated (or agreed) that "it's a big 'IF'" that wisdom is present in LS. They were replying to one statement of mine. That's a criticism, and indeed a pretty strong one.

WH said...

Mr. Armstrong, you are clearly very knowledgeable and a gifted writer. I own your books, and they had a small part of my own conversion to the Church. I would not call myself a "radical traditionalist." I'm not even sure what that means, as I only entered the Church this past Easter (Hail Mary!). But, Mr. Armstrong, apart from any ulterior motive or chip on my shoulder, I have so struggled with Pope Francis. I am sympathetic to those who think the Holy Father appears and sounds unconcerned with how frighteningly difficult it is to live one's Catholic faith in 2015. In the trenches of my RCIA class, I heard all manner of statements that suggested that much of the Catholic faith was up for debate - abortion and homosexuality come to mind - specifically because Pope Francis had opened it up for debate. This is hard for me because I can say over and over and over again that this is not actually what the Pope meant or "who am I to say what the prerogatives of the Pope should be," etc. But, Mr. Armstrong, at what point do I get to question the appropriateness of the Pope's statements and actions? At what point can I say, sure this is perhaps not exactly what the Pope meant, but his nuanced upon nuanced view of things is causing scandal to the weak. My concern is not so much causing scandal to the traditionalists, but rather the scandal caused to my fellow weak new Catholics who are struggling to save our souls. Its tough out here, and its hard at times to see the Holy Father as on "our side." I apologize if that sounds aggressive or presumptuous to you; it wasn't meant to be.

Dave Armstrong said...

I have not perceived any such difficulties, after studying the pope's words and defending him on many occasions. I've done so again regarding this encyclical, which has already been classified as pantheist, universalist, Marxist, and who knows what else to come.

I wrote a book defending the pope, which I offer for free (as a PDF) for anyone who is sincerely struggling over this pope and is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

If you send me your e-mail address (mine is apologistdave [at] gmail [dot] com), I'll send you a copy if you like. But I leave for vacation tomorrow morning, so it may be a little while.

Obviously, profit is not my motivation here, if I am giving away one of my books for free. I want to help people as much as I can, as an apologist.

I only ask for your prayers in return, and maybe a little word of mouth, as I do do this work full-time and live mainly off of meager book royalties.

Invective said...


you should try getting a real job then; the kind that doesn't grant enough spare time to spam comboxes with abuse against other Catholics, while complaining about abuse from other Catholics.

Boniface said...

Eh, leave Dave alone. Dave and I have disagreed on things, but he's trying to do a good work and I respect him for showing up here and engaging people who question him.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, Boniface, this long text will be forgotten soon.

Remember When Zar Nicholas I was introducing strict censorship, he explicitly excluded from it any book that contained more than a thousand pages: no one would read books of that kind anyway.

Nowadays nobody reads more than 50 pages!


Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Soothing Dave. Raider Fan quit reading the thing after the misrepresenting of Saint Francis in the opening. As moderns are won't to do, the Seraphic Saint has been reduced to a hipster dufus goofing with the bees at Woodstock.

Both reviews of the product at The Remnant are very entertaining - especially Chris Jackson's - and it was easy to predict your reaction because it is one that is consistent with that of the other members of ultramontanes inc.

Dear Brother Boniface. Thanks for this excellent historical recapitulation of the, let's call it evolution, of the Encyclical - although one is tempted to write it reminds one of "the hopeful monster."

The alarmists amongst the ultramontanists are not only predictable, they engage in their character assassinations pro bono and they are ever alert to rhetorically accost any powerless layman who does not toe the party line; and this latest product is a political party line as one can easily determine by finding a bevy of scientific critics of AGM who do not quail to label this product a largely political document.

Of course there are excellent points within the encyclical - as one can see by reading reviews that defend it - but the idea this is binding is silly.

Keep-up your great work, Boniface.

Mr. Armstrong. As you can probably tell by the way this writer addressed you, you and your works are known but it really is bad form for a convert to castigate those who were born into the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church for bred into their bones were so many things that can not even begin to understand them anymore than one born into that Church can exhaustively list them.

The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church that Raider Fan was born into in 1948 is invisibilium.

O, and think about restructuring your arguments against us for referencing your own reaction to the encyclical leaves the distasteful impression that the way you perceive events is normative.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Mr. Armstrong. As you can probably tell by the way this writer addressed you, you and your works are known but it really is bad form for a convert to castigate those who were born into the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church for bred into their bones were so many things that a convert can not even begin to understand anymore than one born into that Church can exhaustively list them.

is the way that paragraph ought to read.

A failed convert anyway said...

Way to make us converts feel bad, Raider Parader. Besides your comment only applies to you oldy goldies that didn't embrace heresy, what's that, 0.0001% of Catholics? Go complain about the youth these days, why don'tcha

Ultramontanists can suck on a fart-stick though we agree on that, silverback bonesack.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion when you have to say 'there are some good things in there' you are already in trouble. If this letter to the world contains any errors, ambiguities, ideas that contradict tradition, or even a hint of bad science, the whole document is compromised.
Were encyclicals not addressed to the bishops in the past?

susan said...

a great comment over at Mundabor....

"The author of a great article at the Federalist actually pointed something out that did give me the chills about this man. This latest encyclical on matters purely outside the pope’s competence actually contains this gem: Bergoglio uses the miracle of Christ calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee as an “example of how Christ lived in harmony with nature.”

Sorry folks, but if that is what this man believes, that’s the end of the ballgame. That is not even a climate change issue which makes it worse. He is distorting and downplaying a supernatural miracle unmistakably showing Christ’s divinity into a tree hugging moment.

I don’t need to hear more from this man. Zero. He’s done."


And IMO, Dave A's wide-net ad hominen rants against faithful Catholics earn him a prized spot in the Mark Shea pompus bloviator hall of fame. We're not in Kansas anymore Dave...and those with enough sense, wisdom, and love for God and His Revelation to admit it, are not the enemy...they love the Church, they love Her teaching, and they love Her Tradition. There is no way to read this... ...or much of the rest of this pontificate in ANY light of continuity with that Tradition. This pontificate is a whole different species from what went before, and to castigate those who recognize that reality displays your willed-blindness. You may be well-intentioned, but no doubt so were the ones who cried out "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and cast out demons in Your Name?" Our Lord's response to treachery against His words and His teachings is not too least to those eager to toss them away for novelty, all in the name of 'loyalty'.

Anonymous said...

Long documents are easier to disguise heresies with. Like "The Old Covenant has never been revoked." Armstrong protests too much. Laudatory Si should make a sedevacantist out of a liturgical dancer.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Susan. The Dave A's have made this guilt-tripping 'apologetics' a cottage industry. They've received their reward.

Dave Armstrong said...

I've been on vacation. The usual ad hominem . . . Thanks to Boniface for sticking up for me. Just today I was thinking of inviting him to my house to do a presentation to 10-15 people on legitimate traditionalism.

The Bible says, "woe unto you if all men speak well of you." We apologists make a lot of people angry; i.e., the ones who believe stuff that we critique. The reactions of many are completely predictable.

As I said, I will send a free PDF copy of my book defending Pope Francis to anyone who thinks he is a liberal, the antichrist, the worst thing since disco, etc.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it strange how a man can attack a tiny portion of Catholics with a flurry of invectives, receive a back-lash by the same small group - and turn around and complain about ad hominens and quote the Bible saying, "you don't like what I said so I'm right." I am glad I am not part of this American pop-Catholicism. It would drive me mad.

Dave Armstrong said...

"It" obviously has succeeded . . .

Humor, folks, humor . . .