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In the ancient Church, an encyclical was a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area. As used at that time, the word could be used of a letter sent out by any bishop. The word comes from Latin "encyclia" meaning "general" or "encircling", which is also the origin of the word "encyclopedia".

In the modern Roman Catholic Church a Papal encyclical is a letter sent by the Pope to Roman Catholic bishops of a particular area or the world, usually treating some aspect of Catholic doctrine. Papal encyclicals usually take the form of a Papal brief due to their more personal nature as opposed to the formal Papal bull. Papal encyclicals are so famous that the term encyclical for Roman Catholics is used almost exclusively for those sent out by the Pope. The Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion retain the older usage.

Within Roman Catholicism, an encyclical (officially called an Encyclical Letter) is second in importance after the highest ranking document now issued by popes, an Apostolic Constitution.

Pope Pius XII holds that Papal Encyclicals can be infallible: "It is not to be thought that what is set down in Encyclical letters does not demand assent in itself, because in this the popes do not exercise the supreme power of their magisterium. For these matters are taught by the ordinary magisterium, regarding which the following is pertinent: “He who heareth you, heareth Me.” (Luke 10:16); and usually what is set forth and inculcated in Encyclical Letters, already pertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among theologians." Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII.


Important papal encyclicals

Important Eastern Orthodox encyclicals

External links


The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd. ed.), p. 545

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