Is there anyone busier than a pope? Especially in these “interesting” times for our church and world, I imagine that the occupant of the Chair of Peter enjoys precious little time for actual lounging. The bewildering array of duties of the papal office would weigh heavily on any mortal being, no matter how young and vigorous. If I ever found myself within earshot of anyone faulting Pope Benedict for allowing some item of business to fall through the cracks, I would be the first to come to his defense on this score. There are just so many objects to juggle for the leader of the universal church.
Yet there is one agenda item I would hasten to recommend as a higher priority: the more frequent production of papal encyclicals than has been the case lately.
As a theologian, I have developed an especially acute enthusiasm for the publication of encyclical letters, the sort of momentous work that only a pope can initiate. As a recent visitor to my office commented while perusing the contents of my bookshelves, I collect texts of encyclicals the way some people collect baseball cards. I quickly replied that I track both the quantity and quality of these papal teaching documents and added that I am rarely disappointed when a new encyclical appears.
Perhaps I am experiencing a touch of withdrawal syndrome, as this month marks the third anniversary of the latest encyclical, “Charity in Truth” (“Caritas in Veritate”), released on July 7, 2009. While it is probably an exaggeration to claim that the faithful throughout the world have been obsessively checking their inboxes for three years for another teaching letter in this highly authoritative genre, it is hard to deny that another is overdue.
We can review this pope’s encyclical publication record in a jiffy. Benedict’s first such letter, “God Is Love” (“Deus Caritas Est”), appeared during his first year in office. It was dated Christmas Day 2005, though it was not actually released until several weeks into 2006. (As term paper deadlines approach, my students often express envy of this papal prerogative of delivering a text well after the date indicated, like post-dating a check). As the title suggests, Benedict’s first encyclical treated the greatest of the three theological virtues. It did this in highly insightful ways, often employing quite beautiful prose, and drew numerous intriguing connections between Christian theology, human experience and secular thought.
Vatican watchers holding their fingers up to the wind anticipated subsequent teaching letters on the remaining theological virtues of faith and hope. They were rewarded in 2007 with the appearance of “In Hope We Are Saved” (“Spe Salvi”). We still await an encyclical on faith; and as a highly accomplished theologian, Benedict is extraordinarily well positioned to issue a doctrinal instruction of lasting value on this topic. Some observers speculate that a future encyclical on faith in the contemporary world will treat the theme of the New Evangelization and may be timed for release during the upcoming Year of Renewal of Faith, which is to begin in the fall of 2012 and conclude on the Solemnity of Christ the King in 2013.
Despite sporting the word love in its title, Benedict’s third and latest encyclical is a departure from his program of treating the three theological virtues. “Charity in Truth” is a social encyclical that contains the pontiff’s response to the global financial crisis and also marks Benedict’s celebration of Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio” (he missed the 40th anniversary of that teaching document on integral human development by two years, invoking that papal publication prerogative yet again). Despite its prodigious length (30,000 words) and perhaps overly ambitious agenda, I have come to admire the way Benedict accomplishes numerous goals so deftly in this encyclical. He champions environmental concern, embraces the cause of social justice in ways suited to our globalized economy and proposes a creative vision of a “civil economy,” borrowing principles for ethical business practices from the “Economy of Communion” school of thought and the Focolare movement.
Witnessing erudite and constructive papal encyclicals like this one, can anyone blame me for impatiently begging: More, please?