What is an Encyclical and Why Should You Read One?

In the life of the Catholic Church, we often hear about documents called “encyclicals.” What is an encyclical and why should anyone care to read one? To really get what an encyclical is, and why it matters to you, let’s go step-by-step. We’ll dig into what these writings are, where they come from, and what they mean for our spiritual lives.

What is an Encyclical?

An encyclical is basically a letter written by the Pope. But it’s not just a “Hey, how’s it going?” kind of letter. It’s a teaching letter, aimed at helping us understand more deeply some aspects of our faith. Encyclicals are one of the main ways the Pope teaches the whole Church.

An Extension of the Magisterium

In the Catholic Church, we have something called the “Magisterium,” which is the Church’s teaching authority. The Catechism tells us: “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.” (CCC 85)

The Pope, being the highest human authority in the Church, writes encyclicals to carry out this mission of teaching and guiding the faithful. In this way, an encyclical is a part of the Papal Magisterium.

How is it Different from Other Church Documents?

Church documents come in various types and forms. You’ve got Apostolic Constitutions, Papal Bulls, and Pastoral Letters, just to name a few. Encyclicals are unique in that they are often addressed not just to bishops or clergy, but to all the faithful, and sometimes even to “all people of good will.”

Why Should You Read an Encyclical?

Reading an encyclical can seem like a big job, and you might wonder if it’s worth the effort. Let’s talk about why it is.

Spiritual Growth

First and foremost, an encyclical can help you grow in your faith. Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Just as the letters of St. Paul and other Apostles guided the early Christians, so can encyclicals guide us.

Understanding the Faith

Encyclicals often clarify Church teachings on matters of faith and morals. The Catechism tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (CCC 74). Encyclicals help lead us to this truth.

Responding to Modern Issues

The world changes a lot, and the Church speaks to modern issues through encyclicals. Whether it’s social justice, climate change, or bioethics, an encyclical can give you the Church’s perspective, grounded in eternal truths.

Unity in the Church

One of the marks of the Church is unity. Jesus prayed “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). Encyclicals, by offering a common teaching, contribute to this unity. When you read an encyclical, you are engaging with the same teaching that Catholics around the world are considering.

How to Approach an Encyclical

So you’re convinced that you should read an encyclical. Great! But how should you go about it?

Start with Prayer

Just like you wouldn’t dive into the Bible without asking the Holy Spirit for guidance, the same goes for reading an encyclical. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind to understand the teaching.

Take it Slow

An encyclical is not a novel; it’s more like a study guide. Take time to digest it, and don’t rush. Reflect on what you read and how it applies to your life.

Discuss with Others

After reading, it might be beneficial to discuss the encyclical with friends, family, or members of your parish. This can help deepen your understanding and offer new perspectives.

Not All Opinions Are Equal

When you read an encyclical, keep in mind that not everything in it holds the same weight. While an encyclical is a teaching document, not every statement in it is considered infallible. The Church distinguishes between doctrines that must be believed with divine and catholic faith, and theological opinions which are open to discussion. Be aware of this as you read.


An encyclical is more than just a letter; it’s a rich teaching tool authored by the Pope. It serves as a guide to understanding our faith and how it applies to the world today. Reading an encyclical can enrich your spiritual life, help you understand your faith better, and keep you connected with the universal Church.

So the next time you hear that a new encyclical has been released, consider it as a personal letter from the Pope to you. It’s not just for bishops or theologians; it’s for every person who wants to grow closer to God and understand His Church better.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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