Pope Francis and the enviroment: what is the nature of an encyclical?

religion | Jan 28, 2015 | By Thomas Collins

As we await the publication of the encyclical of Pope Francis on the environmental issues of the twenty-first century, it would be helpful to keep in mind some important premises regarding the nature of such a solemn teaching. 
 
First of all, we need to remember that an encyclical is primarily addressed to the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church. The term "faithful" indicates not merely those who have been baptized into the Church. And it means more than those Catholics, who have been doing their best to live in accordance with the doctrines and disciplines of the Church. In short, this term indicates those who conscientiously embrace into their lives the saving and sanctifying disciplines of repentance, reparation and docility to the whole transformative truth of God.
 
This is important because the truth of God is always sacred, sanctifying and salvific to those who are willing to humbly and reverently embrace the obedience of faith in their daily lives. And this truth is always transcending and transforming our perspectives, so as to open the way to a greater fidelity to the whole truth of God.
 
I raise these points because, in recent years, many have come to receive these teachings of our popes without conscientiously begging the Holy Spirit for the gift of a humble docility before they read and reflect on these sacred documents. As a result, the temptation to embrace a knee-jerk react to any teaching that challenges our premises becomes overwhelming. We need to keep in mind that one dimension of concupiscence is the tendency to allow our current horizons to become the boundaries of our intellectual, spiritual and relational development. And, sadly, the Unholy Trinity of Comfort, Convenience and Complacency has put threatening taboos at these boundaries to prevent our souls from experiencing the true freedom of the children of God.
 
The fact that encyclicals are addressed to faithful Catholics also accentuates the fact that these teachings must be irrevocably Christo-centric. They do not merely offer teachings derived from Christ. Rather, they offer all in the Church the opportunity to be more deeply and authentically incorporated into the mystery and ministries of Christ. They are more like invitations than exhortations. This being so, they can only be efficacious to the degree that those receiving them do so in the firm conviction that Jesus Christ is essential for the world's salvation. The unicity, uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ in all of Creation and in all  of history must be reverently appreciated by those receiving these teachings. Otherwise, souls may find soon themselves seduced into treating Christ more as a mascot for their personal agendas than as the Master of all Creation. 
 
As an aside, it is  rather embarrassing to note how Islamic leaders so frequently punctuate their teaching with the doxology, "Allah-hu-Akbar" (God is great), while encyclicals generally seem to be devoid of regular punctuation with doxologies. Authentic teaching should be permeated with grateful praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, since such doxologies open us to the fecundity of divine wisdom and help to prepare us for the eternal joy of being able to enjoy and praise God in His Heavenly Kingdom. This fact is indicated by the word, orthodox, which primarily means correct worship and secondarily correct teaching. The two are inextricably interlinked.
 
Correct spiritual formation requires both information and inspiration. Faith without works is dead. And the most ennobling and edifying work possible is reverent and grateful worship. Any attempt to divorce or alienate teaching from worship can only lead to frustration and futility.   
 
Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.


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