How Pope Francis Made His Positions Official in Papal Encyclicals
Papal Encyclicals are official documents written by the pope to address a particular moral or doctrinal concern. Their name is determined by the first two words of the Latin text, because Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church. So, Humanae Vitae is the encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1968 on Human Life, and Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth) was from Pope John Paul II (1993).
Pope Francis’ first official letter was entitled Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith). It was released on June 29, 2013. His predecessor Pope B16 did a lot of the preliminary drafts, and his other two encyclicals centered on Love (Deus est Caritas, 2005) and on Hope (Spe Salvi, 2007). Lumen Fidei this would have been his third had he not resigned from the papacy in 2013.
Lumen Fidei is still an encyclical of Pope Francis, for he edited and added to it as well as promulgated it as his first papal document. It centers on the supernatural virtue of faith and how it enlightens the mind of the believer.
Faith is believing what God has divinely revealed. It is an assent of the intellect (mind) to accept a concept as being true even though one is unable to completely understand it. It is a mystery one embraces because of Who it is that reveals this truth.
Pope Francis uses familiar Catholic notions such as truth being the object of the mind. Theological truth is revealed directly by God and contains information necessary for salvation but is beyond the capacity of human reason (via philosophical truth or scientific truth) to know on its own.
Pope Benedict wrote two papal letters on love and on hope. These are two of the three theological virtues. The last one is faith and so it made sense that this would be the next document, even if by the new pope. Pope Francis speaks of faith as both an intellectual activity (enlightenment) and a personal activity (having a loving relationship with Jesus Christ).
Written in 2013, this letter addresses the issues of spreading the Gospel (called evangelization) and includes some reflections on a fair and just economic system. Some in the secular media falsely interpreted it to mean that Pope Francis was condemning capitalism. In fact, the word never appears in the document. Consumerism is what is rebuked as an overemphasis of acquiring material goods to the exclusion and neglect of the moral and spiritual needs of human beings.
Pope Francis also spoke of concern for the poor and for the promotion of justice at home and abroad. He explained the centrality of the Gospel and its message of hope and the joy, which the Word of God brings to the hearts of men and women — hence the name, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel).
The letter includes a section on promoting global peace through social dialogue and ecumenical engagement. He underscores the pursuit of the common good as the principal goal of society and culture.
Pope Francis is not a controversial pope in that he seeks to undo or unravel what was said and done by his predecessors. His aims and goals are not to reinvent the Catholic Church or to redesign it. He does intend to reform the papacy and the church, but from within. Unlike the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which resulted in formal separation of denominations that differ theologically, liturgically, and in governance, Francis seeks an internal reformation in that he brings the efforts of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to their logical conclusion.
Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI implemented the liturgical and structural reforms. JP2 and B16 brought the papacy to the modern world with their international visits and by their international expansion of the college of cardinals, as well as by the number of saints canonized during their reigns.
Some in the secular press and media misinterpret Pope Francis and see him as a loaded gun or as an unpredictable innovator. Spontaneity is not the same as rashness, nor is informality the same as irreverence. Francis’ persona is such that he wants to be and to look accessible. He uses a more casual style than his predecessors, but he has no desire to abandon ritual and tradition just for the sake of doing so.
He still wears the traditional white cassock popes have worn since Pope St. Pius V began the custom in the 16th century. Although he lives in the Doma Sanctae Martae hotel rather than in the papal palace, his residence is still within the Vatican, whereas some early popes lived at Saint John Lateran in Rome, and for 70 years popes lived in Avignon, France.
Francis chose an unconventional name when he was elected, but John Paul I was the first one to choose two names in 1978. Francis kept the custom of changing his name, that is, of not using his baptismal name (a custom first begun in 533 and done consistently since 1555). Hence, it cannot be said Pope Francis has turned his back on all custom and tradition, but he does make minor changes now and then.
Pope Francis, like all popes, will defend the 2000-year history of doctrine and dogma, but he will do so in his own style. He chooses to be more of a pastor, whereas some of his predecessors were more like teachers. All popes take on both hats, so to speak. In fact, the ancient tiara (three-level crown) that was used in papal coronations represented the three-fold powers of every pope: priest (sanctifying office), prophet (teaching office), and king (governing office). It also symbolizes the legislative, judicial, and executive powers of the bishop of Rome.
No one should pigeonhole Pope Francis or box him into one category or classification. He is neither liberal nor conservative. He is different, as are all popes, but no one can deny he has been one of the most popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, rivaling only John XXIII and John Paul II.
The term “Francis effect” has been used to describe the more informal style and the overt attention to the poor and needy. Cardinals, bishops, and priests around the world are emulating his kind and gentle manner to remind their flocks that their shepherds are human just like them and that they are approachable and available for their main mission, which is to serve and not be served. It is not about being soft on morality or doctrine, rather, it is about being patient and compassionate and just being there, as well as teaching and leading the fold.