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(Latin Litterœ Encyclicœ)

According to its etymology, an encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) is nothing more than a circular letter. In modern times, usage has confined the term almost exclusively to certain papal documents which differ in their technical form from the ordinary style of either Bulls or Briefs, and which in their superscription are explicitly addressed to the patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Universal Church in communion with the Apostolic See. By exception, encyclicals are also sometimes addressed to the archbishops and bishops of a particular country. Thus this name is given to the letter of Pius X (6 Jan., 1907) to the bishops of France, in spite of the fact that it was published, not in Latin, but in French; while, on the other hand, the letter "Longinqua Oceani" (5 Jan., 1895) addressed by Leo XIII to the archbishops and bishops of the United States, is not styled an encyclical, although in all other respects it exactly observes the forms of one. From this and a number of similar facts we may probably infer that the precise designation used is not intended to be of any great significance. From the nature of the case encyclicals addressed to the bishops of the world are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large. They condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent. In form an encyclical at the present day begins thus — we may take the encyclical "Pascendi" on Modernism as a specimen: --

"Sanctissimi Domini Nostri Pii Divinâ Providentiâ Papæ X Litteræ Encyclicæ ad Patriarchas, Primates, Archiepiscopos, Episcopos aliosque locorum Ordinarios pacem et communionem cum Apostolicâ Sede habentes de Modernistarum Doctrinis. Ad Patriarchas, Primates, Archiepiscopos, Episcopos aliosque locorum Ordinarios, pacem et communionem cum Apostolicâ Sede habentes, Pius PP. X., Venerabiles Fratres, salutem et apostolicam benedictionem. Pascendi dominici gregis mandatum", etc.

The conclusion takes the following form: — "Nos vero, pignus caritatis Nostræ divinique in adversis solatii, Apostolicam Benedictionem vobis, cleris, populisque vestris amantissime impertimus. Datum Romæ, apud Sanctum Petrum, die VIII Septembris MCMVII, Pontificatus Nostri anno quinto. Pius PP. X."

Although it is only during the last three pontificates that the most important utterances of the Holy See have been given to the world in the shape of encyclicals, this form of Apostolic Letter has long been in occasional use. Almost the first document published by Benedict XIV after his election was an "Epistola encyclica et commonitoria" on the duties of the episcopal office (3 Dec., 1740). Under Pius IX many momentous utterances were presented in this shape. The famous pronouncement "Quanta cura" (8 Dec., 1864), which was accompanied by a Syllabus of eighty anathematized errors, was an encyclical. Another important encyclical of Pius IX, described as an "Encyclical of the Holy Office", was that beginning "Supremæ" (4 Aug., 1856) in condemnation of Spiritualism. Leo XIII published a series of encyclicals on social and other questions which attracted universal attention. We may mention especially "Inscrutabilis" (21 April, 1878) on the evils of modern society; "Æterni Patris" (4 Aug., 1879) on St. Thomas Aquinas and Scholastic philosophy; "Arcanum divinæ sapientiæ" (10 Feb., 1880) on Christian marriage and family life; "Diuturnum illud" (29 June, 1881) on the origin of civil authority; "Immortale Dei" (1 Nov., 1885) on the Christian constitution of states; "Libertas præstantissimum" (20 June, 1888) on true liberty; "Rerum novarum" (16 May, 1891) on the labour question; "Providentissimus Deus" (18 Nov., 1893) on Holy Scripture; "Satis cognitum" (29 June, 1896) on religious unity. Pius X has shown the same favour for this form of document, e.g. in his earnest commendation of catechetical instruction "Acerbo nimis" (15 April, 1906) his address on the centenary of St. Gregory the Great (12 March, 1904), his first letter to the clergy and faithful of France, "Vehementer nos" (11 Feb., 1906), his instructions on intervention in politics to the people of Italy, and in the pronouncement on Modernism already mentioned.

Two officials presiding over separate bureaux still count it among their duties to aid the Holy Father in the drafting of his encyclical letters. These are the "Segretario dei brevi ai Principi" assisted by two minutanti, and the "Segretario delle lettere Latine" also with a minutante. But it was undoubtedly the habit of Leo XIII to write his own encyclicals, and it is plainly within the competence of the sovereign pontiff to dispense with the services of any subordinates.

As for the binding force of these documents it is generally admitted that the mere fact that the pope should have given to any of his utterances the form of an encyclical does not necessarily constitute it an ex-cathedra pronouncement and invest it with infallible authority. The degree in which the infallible magisterium of the Holy See is committed must be judged from the circumstances, and from the language used in the particular case. In the early centuries the term encyclical was applied, not only to papal letters, but to certain letters emanating from bishops or archbishops and directed to their own flocks or to other bishops. Such letters addressed by a bishop to all his subjects in general are now commonly called pastorals. Amongst Anglicans, however, the name encyclical has recently been revived and applied, in imitation of papal usage, to circular letters issued by the English primates. Thus the reply of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the papal condemnation of Anglican Orders (this condemnation, "Apostolicæ Curæ", took the form of a Bull) was styled by its authors the Encyclical "Sæpius officio".


Little has been written professedly on the subject of encyclicals, which in treatises on canon law are generally grouped with other Apostolic Letters. The work of BENCINI, De Literis Encyclicis Dissertatio (Turin, 1728), deals almost exclusively with the early church documents which were so styled; see, however, HILGENREINER in Kirchliches Handlexikon (Munich, 1907), I, 1310; and GOYAU, Le Vatican (Paris, 1898), p. 336; WYNNE, The Great Encyclical Letters of Leo XIII (New York. 1903); EYRE, The Pope and the People (London, 1897); and D' ARROS, Léon XIII d'après ses Encycliques (Paris, 1902). On the authority of encyclicals and similar papal documents, see especially the very useful book of CHOUPIN, Valeur des Décisions Doctrinales et Disciplinaires du Saint-Siège (Paris, 1907); cf. BAINVEL, De Magisterio vivo et Traditione (Paris, 1905).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1909). Encyclical. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Encyclical." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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