|At its simplest, "a letter circulated by the pope."
The term is importantly connected with the Roman Catholic understanding, shared both by liberals, who stress dialogue, and by conservatives, who stress authority, that the papacy is a primary means of maintaining and creating unity within the church and for the world. At first, these letters were mostly about matters internal to the church, and included letters written by archbishops and bishops to their dioceses or to other bishops. But since the eighteenth century, these more intramural letters have been called pastoral letters , and the term encyclical is reserved for documents of some major importance for worldwide Catholicism, such as the great poverty associated with unregulated capitalism, the topic of Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum (Of New Things), which gave special prominence to the social teaching of Catholicism. Since then this has become the most common meaning of encyclical and the one of primary interest to sociologists.
Since Pope John XXIII (see his 1963 Pacem in Terris , or Peace in the World), these letters are often now addressed not merely to Catholics but to men and women of "goodwill." While their vision is clearly grounded in biblical and theological insights, their analysis is in terms of reason and the best models of empirical inquiry. Their conclusions are offered as "prudent," that is, as directions suggested by practical reason for contingent applications of grounding principles of the good society. Since Paul VI's 1964 Ecclesiam Suam (On the Church), social encyclicals have stressed the importance of culture, historical differences, and the centrality of dialogue. The church itself, in the spirit of Vatican II, is presented as a "pilgrim" in dialogue with the world. Although the models and metaphors used in encyclicals vary over time (Schuck 1991), scholars can identify primary affirmations (the common good, the dignity of each person, the importance of the family, the responsibility of governments for justice, subsidiarity, and that economic development must first be social development). These communitarian themes, retrieved from precapitalist orientations of thought and sensibility, were a major reason for the formation of the American Catholic Sociological Society, as American sociology at the time remained wedded to scientistic methodologies that precluded an overt ethical concern or explicit social criticism.
It should be noted that the papal encyclical tradition is but one of many sources of Catholic social thought, neither the most radical (see, for example, The Catholic Worker or Pax Christi) or the most conservative (see, for example, Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism , Simon & Schuster 1982).
—James R. Kelly
M. J. Schuck, That They Be One (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991).
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