Are social encyclicals binding?

It is a good question, and an honest question that many may wonder about, both inside and outside the Catholic orbit. I wince at the “social” qualifier,” but Joe Carter, a Baptist, poses the questions well at the First Things blog:

If you had asked me as a young Baptist boy to explain the difference between Protestants and Catholics, I would have said that Catholics were the Christians who “have to do what the Pope tells them to do.” Now I’m an old Baptist and realize how naive I was. (I’m more likely to agree with the Pope than some American Catholics I know.)


I’m still unclear, though, on where Catholics draw the line of demarcation between complete freedom of conscience and deference to magisterial authority. After all, if a Catholic can support abortion and still receive communion, what is off-limits?

Stephen M. Barr responds with a useful (to my layman’s eye) explanation, and this caveat:

I do think that it would be better if Catholics were not so disposed to pick these documents apart like an English teacher grading a student paper. A little more obsequium would be nice, even as we recognize that not everything in these documents is of equal weight.


I wonder if Jody Bottum, who is diligently deconstructing and re-writing Caritas in Veritate in a series on posts, caught that monito.

I very much like the writings of Richard Gaillardetz on authority, but I’d welcome other amplifications. Of course any concession to different levels of authority opens the gate to the slippery slope to dreaded cafeteria Catholicism. But it’s interesting to see many who would confer the status of near-infallibility on lesser papal statements they like now pick apart a major statement they don’t like quite so much. So say we all, eh.

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posted July 9, 2009 at 10:58 am

For starters, check out this article at Wikipedia. Interesting quotations (emphasis added):
“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine [such as the frequent repetition of teachings in the social encyclicals, including Caritas Vertatis, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, 25 a)
“When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith.” (Donum Vertatis)
What I always find interesting is how conservative Catholics use citations like this to beat liberal Catholics over the head with when accusing them of being “cafeteria Catholics” but seem strangely to forget them when dealing with teachings that they don’t like themselves. There are indeed levels of teaching and variations in what one must in conscience accept, and careful parsing is often needed; however, when liberals point this out in regard, say, to Humanae Vitae, conservatives are always quick to jump their case. They then go ahead and carefully parse rip apart encyclicals they take objection to. Fascinating to watch.
Hope this helps!

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posted July 9, 2009 at 11:57 am

Indeed it is in matters of faith and morals that these things are binding. So, for example, the fact that the Pope says it is immoral to engage in predatory lending is binding. When he says that greed in capitalism is wrong, that is also binding.
Now, his suggestions such as a world financial body, should be carefully considered, but are not binding. That is a policy suggestion of a wise and holy man, not a matter of faith or morals.
In the case of Humanae Vitae, it mostly deals with morals. Again, matters of morals are binding.
Conscience is important, but the primacy of conscience is based upon the assumption that the conscience is properly formed (i.e. in line with the Church’s teachings.)
This isn’t my opinion, this is what the Church teaches. It’s really quite simple and it’s easy to teach with clarity.

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Clare Krishan

posted July 9, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Haven’t read to completion yet (read PP first to sharpen my perspective, like a miner digging gold from the depositum fidei of the rock of Peter) but my reflective conscience was struck by the transparency of authority in the refined form of the Church’s social teachings, a comparison that renders the earlier encyclical as a rough nugget that failed to get the world’s attention or to elicit a response of admiration for the source of all splendour, God (while inside the Church fans of rough nuggets ran off to the four corners of the earth acclaiming rough nuggets as the preferred form of gold for renewing the face of the earth.)
The key to me can be found in the author’s wisdom in authoring a narrative that echoes the ultimate “authority”, disciplined editing has insured words with real heft are used consistently, terms like JPII’s “adequate anthropology” build on each other an edifice of remarkable erudition that incorporates all the scholastics, ancient and modern. The term “logic” is used 62 times in different contexts, but it seems to me, that the whole opus is like a jeweller fashioning a setting for the world to see the jewel in its beauty – all logic points to the Logos! All science explores the truth of apriori perfection. Anthropology — the -ology of anthropos — explores the truth (logic) of anthropos (man perfected), biology is the logic of bios (living things) perfected (and hence its thrall as we learn to breed plants resistant to decay and yielding abundant produce), astronomy is the logic of stars perfected (and hence its mysteriousness, since perfection is outside the grasp our senses relying as we must on light signals that took millions of years to travel to our optical instruments means we “know” only that the star we see had a past existence, we are left with no certainty about what exactly “is” at that “location” at the present moment…) we are able to pursue each area of inquiry because we trust and have faith in the logic of our faculties to arrive at meaningful conclusions none the less!
Thus ‘economic logic’, ‘commercial logic’ and ‘political logic’ are all open to the dialog Benedict invites people of good will to participate in regarding development ‘logic’ – by what authority do we permit ourselves to conclude any plan of action on behalf of each others welfare? The “obsequium” Barr appeals to is just that – the assumption of good will required to entertain a social encounter that pursues development. The unplanned gravida resists the temptation to thwart the life developing within by obsequium, a reverence for the author who rewrote the letters of her own DNA into new words composed with the letters of the DNA of another. This is the eco-logy that Benedict would have us revere ( quote “1873, coined by Ger. zoologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) as Okologie, from Gk. oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” (see villa) + -logia “study of.” Ecosystem is from 1935. Ecosphere (1953) is the region around a star where conditions allow life-bearing planets to exist. from etymologyonline).
If we grasp the Church’s magisterium as a kind of ventriloquy of Christ in the womb of earthen vessels, we may permit ourselves the delight of hearing the harmony inherent in all things and be filled with courage to sing the same tune, no? Some will find the melody resonates and join us in developing fully human beings, but so long as the Church is heard as a choir of clanging cymbals its highly unlikely that the splendor of the true human voice within will soar above the cacophany of instrumentalists eager to bang the drum in a percussive march into a ‘tyranny of relativism.’

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posted July 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Are social encyclicals binding? Not on me. I’m not a Catholic. And that applies to the majority of the people in the world.
I was raised Roman Catholic. I left that persuasion, though I still read blogs like Pontifications.

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Charles Cosimano

posted July 9, 2009 at 11:55 pm

That a social, or any other encyclical, is not binding in any on those of us who are not Roman Catholic goes without saying. It reminds me of an incident during the 1980s when the Bishops issued their statement on nuclear weapons and there was a brief moment of question as to whether Catholics in the military would follow the order to fire them. President Reagan was reported to have heard that, laughed and responded that it did not matter, there were more than enough Baptists to do it for them.
In the end it does not matter whom is speaking, be it Pope or Presbyter or L. Ron Hubbard from beyond the grave. It matters whom is listening.
The issue with the encyclical is that it is hopelessly European and it is doubtful that US Catholics will find much in it to take seriously enough to follow, especially as they must compete in the marketplace with us non-Catholics who will possess none of their limitations. Pope Benedict impresses me as a genuinely good and even holy man, but he is not always a wise man. Even so, he is infinitely better than his nineteenth century predecessors who had even less understanding of the world and whose writings now are comic relief for academics.

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posted July 10, 2009 at 9:07 am

The neatest thing about religeon in general is that it operates on faith. Helping teach my grand children the ways of the church aren’t and will continue not to be easy, hoever it’s my faith in the church and the Holy Spirit that begs me to continue. Argue all you want about the churchs wisdom, in another 2 thousand years it will be the church not the parsers who survive. We are all free to go our own way and beleive as we wish just as Jesus was,there fore these desicions and how we choose to live out our lives are what we will be judged on.

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Your Name

posted July 10, 2009 at 12:36 pm

When we talk about the Christian life whether we are Catholic or Protestant or somewhere in between, we talk about abundance of ife or freedom in Christ or personal application. we also talk about doctrine and about teaching and about tradition and a lot more. The Church, (that’s all of now)in order to be the Church, (the Body of Christ)needs to say something consistent about what it believes so that it ay be identified as something other than just a bunch of different ideas (about faith, social issues etc)thrown together to muddle through the best we can. 1700 years ago, it came up with some basic statements of faith, we call them creeds.If you were in agreement with those creeds you were identified with the Church. If you didn’t agree, then you were not in communion with the Church. Perhaps we are in need of a basic statement of belief for social, economic and environmental issues. We have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise we are in danger of losing our identity as the Body of Christ.

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posted July 19, 2009 at 10:32 am

“Perhaps we are in need of a basic statement of belief for social, economic and environmental issues. We have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise we are in danger of losing our identity as the Body of Christ.”
I know I’m too late to this thread but I couldn’t let the above comment go by. Buy yourself a Catechism of the Catholic Church, for heaven’s sake! For ten bucks you will have your basic statement of belief. You won’t have to come up with it yourself because its based on 2,000 yrs of teaching given to us by Jesus who is God. Of course the encyclicals are not infallible teaching but they are our Holy Father’s way of being a father to us in light of our current situations. I am personally delighted to be one of his children & listen to what my dad has to say. Since Jesus said, “Whoever hears you, hears me”, I know I’m also listening to my Heavenly Father!

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posted September 27, 2009 at 3:43 am

“Are social encyclicals binding? Not on me. I’m not a Catholic. And that applies to the majority of the people in the world.”
Really Where did you take Basic Math?
“Even so, he is infinitely better than his nineteenth century predecessors who had even less understanding of the world and whose writings now are comic relief for academics.”
And what passes for intellectualism in your Hayseed Clubhouses that often lack the most basic knowledge of world History and what the U.S Constitution “that Godlike document” actually says.

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