Why We Study Papal Encyclicals

By Dr. Brian T. Kelly (’88)

Note: The following remarks are adapted from Dean Brian T. Kelly’s report to the Board of Governors at its May 10, 2013, meeting. They are part of an ongoing series of talks in which Dr. Kelly explains why the College includes certain authors in its curriculum.


Thomas Aquinas College is a great books program, but in a brief sequence near the end of Senior Seminar, we ask the students to read and discuss several Church documents as a way to introduce them to an authoritative source of Church teaching. Here our Catholic character leads us to depart a little from the great books model. We may be a great books program, but we are a Catholic program first and foremost. In order to orient ourselves most fruitfully toward wisdom and to live the intellectual life in an authentically Catholic way, we must submit our minds to the Church.

When you ask the founders why we make room in the Senior Seminar for encyclicals, they speak of the importance of being properly disposed to the Magisterium. They also stress the need for our students to get at least a taste of how the Church addresses the kinds of questions that we discuss in our classrooms, and how the Church reacts to powerful intellectual movements.

Pascendi Dominici Gregis, for example, is a response to a range of different developments captured under the heading of “modernism” — which seems in some ways to spring from the influence of thinkers such as Hegel and Kant. The social encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno pick up the thread of the conversation arising out of reading a host of political and social theorists including Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Aeterni Patris helps to explain the importance of taking St. Thomas as a guide and patron, and therefore helps to explain why the College exists. Humani Generis achieves at least two important ends: It shows the openness of the Church to scientific inquiry with regard to evolution — while laying down the limits that Faith imposes — and also explains the authoritative character of encyclicals. Lumen Gentium is a document of Vatican II explaining the “inner nature and universal mission” of the Church, the mystical body of Christ.

Answering Possible Objections

This is, admittedly, a very short list, and many great and momentous encyclicals are not included. Where is Humanae Vitae? Where is Fides et Ratio? Generally we have found that time is fleeting. Four years may seem capacious, but it has proven impossible to squeeze in everything great and worth reading into that period. We do what we can to make a good start, and we are content with that. But a sign of how difficult it is to make this selection is the frequent disturbance of this list; we have tinkered before and may well tinker again. It is hard to argue against the giant thunderclap that was Humanae Vitae, and it is hard to conceive that Bl. John Paul II will remain off the list for many more years.

It is also true that we don’t read anything here that was written very recently. There are several reasons for this exclusion. First, we try to connect the documents with the texts and issues that we have been wrestling with in our classes. Since this is a great books program, that tends to mean that encyclicals from the early 20th century will be more in continuity with the students’ other readings than those from the late 20th century.

Second, with a limited time for such reading, you have to pick and choose. Papal encyclicals tend to lean very heavily on earlier documents — as one can see just by looking through the footnotes of any current encyclicals. So if you have to choose between Leo XIII on social teaching or John Paul II, the choice is a little like choosing between reading chapter one or chapter two. If you have time to read only one chapter, it is better to read the earlier chapter. Reading chapter one prepares you for reading chapter two, and hopefully whets your appetite to do so. This approach fits better with our insistence that we are trying to make a good beginning.

A third reason is the test-of-time principle which is used to help discern the great books. It is hard to know which books are great until you see what books are still widely read and studied after many years. Dr. Spock’s book on childrearing sold a lot of copies and had a large impact when it was published, but is anybody reading it now? The same principle applies to the question of encyclicals and other Church documents. They are all authoritative, so we cannot choose on that basis, but some more than others withstand the test of time or are foundational in important ways. Rerum Novarum, for example, is perhaps the most important foundational document on Church social teaching in centuries.

There are two benefits that also come from reading documents that predate us. They help to remove us from the language and environment of our own time, and therefore push us to understand current teaching in a broader context. Church teaching is mostly not new, but it is often expressed in new ways. If we only educate ourselves by reading what is current, we might tie our understanding too closely to the way that it is expressed.

Just as it can be helpful to us to see how the Faith is proposed by missionaries in foreign lands, so also it can expand our understanding to see how it was proposed in the past. Reading older documents is also a concrete way to gain an appreciation for the continuity of the Faith. In looking at these encyclicals, we find the same Church. Doctrine develops and the mode of expression changes, but the mystical body of Christ persists.

An Authoritative Source of Wisdom

Even though we may vary which encyclicals we select, we will always maintain the practice of reading Church documents at the end of Senior Seminar, so as to open our students more fully to the Church as a source of wisdom. We hope that they take this moment the way they should take the whole program, as a beginning. We hope they will thirst for more and will take the time to catch up, to read the important encyclicals of John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

I want to close by reminding you of one thing about our patron. When St. Thomas was dying, he submitted all of his writings to the correction of the Church. In turning to some representative Church documents at the end of Senior year, we hope to remind our students of the importance of this kind of intellectual humility.