Friday, August 6, 2010


Q - When popes write their encyclicals, do they speak ex cathedra? Do encyclicals define dogma? I love your blog! Thank you so much for making this available for all of us!

A – Thanks for the kind words and the questions.

First let us look at what an encyclical is. The word “encyclical” comes from the Greek for “circle”. In common use it now means a “circular letter”. Most encyclicals in the modern Church come from the Pope. The recent Popes have used them for several reasons, most commonly to teach about a particular subject.

Let me talk for a moment about infallibility. The Universal Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church) can exercise the charism (gift of the Holy Spirit) in three ways:
  1.  – Ordinary Universal Episcopal Magisterium
              -Normal teaching of the Church
  2. – Extraordinary Universal Episcopal Magisterium
              -Dogmatic definitions of ecumenical councils. (note: not all statements in an council are infallible)
  3. – Extraordinary Papal Magisterium
              -Ex Cathedra teachings

Another way of teaching – Ordinary Papal Magisterium – would not use the charism of infallibility. When the Pope issues a document that has his authority as Pope, it doesn’t mean that it bears the full weight of that authority. In other words, most are not ex cathedra statements. To be an ex cathedra (infallible) statement, the teaching must bear the full authority of the Pope and be about faith or morals.

The Pope can speak to different topics using different levels of his authority, though if he is teaching as universal pastor at any time, we are required to assent to the teaching. There are only two instances of the Pope using his entire authority to speak ex cathedra –The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (1950) and Immaculate Conception (1854). When something is declared infallible, we are obligated to have the response of the “obedience of faith”, because it has been declared part of the deposit of the faith. It is universally binding on all Catholics.

Encyclicals generally do not define dogma, but rather are the ordinary way for the Pope to teach and would not be extraordinary. Now, that doesn’t mean that there are not infallible teachings within the document, but it is not infallible declared. A common example would be that moral questions are generally not infallibly defined, but that does not in any way make the teaching less binding. Rather, infallibility is the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Church that allows it to recognize those truths that cannot be reversed in content (not wording) because they correspond to the “deposit of faith” from Christ and the apostles.

I hope that answers your questions.
For more on this subject click on these links:
-Infallibility explained
-Infallibility defined