Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When the Pope Sits Down and Writes Us a Letter

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

When the Pope Sits Down and Writes Us a Letter

Article excerpt

A few months ago Pope John Paul II published his latest encyclical letter, Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason). It's his 13th letter of his 20-year papacy. Twelve years in the making, this encyclical is a lengthy letter.

The publication of an encyclical, especially when tagged as "long awaited," is an important moment for Catholicism, and, in some cases, for the wider world. Whether an encyclical transcends its moment and becomes a benchmark in the traditions of Catholicism and, perhaps, in the history of the wider world, is dependent upon at least two things: 1) the importance of the subject matter and 2) the test of time. Fides et ratio is about important subject matter--the worldviews of modern philosophies and the Christian worldview. The second requirement, the test of time, is, at this point, too early to tell. Its ink is hardly dry.

Encyclical letters as we know them today began with Benedict XIV's letter on episcopal duties, Ubi primum, issued in 1740. After Benedict's death in 1758--some 13 encyclicals later--the next five popes used the encyclical letter quite sparingly. A total of 17 letters were issued by this quintet. Then came Pius IX in 1846, who published 38 encyclicals during his 32-year pontificate. Leo XIII's quarter-century papacy followed with 86 encyclical letters. We should all do so well with our own correspondence! Ever since then the encyclical letter has been common, though not necessarily as prolific, in every papacy, save for John Paul I. In his less than one month's papacy, Albino Luciani didn't have time to find the stationary let alone pen an encyclical! …

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