2006-01-29 Theological terms like "ontology" and "eschatology" are useful shorthand

January 29, 2006

Theological terms like "ontology" and "eschatology" are useful shorthand expressions for "the meaning of existence" and "the end of time," but they are mere jargon if they are not explained. St. John does not say that Jesus is the ontological essence: He says, "In Him was life." St. Paul does not speak of realized eschatology: He says, "this present world is passing away."

I am thinking right now especially of the word "encyclical" because our Holy Father has issued his first: Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love"). An encyclical is a circular letter, the word coming from the Greek word for circle, kyklos. Over the centuries, these letters sent around the world from the Pope have come to mean specifically major teaching entrusted to the patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops, for use in exercising their teaching, or "prophetic" function as they instruct the people. This function boils down on the local level to parish pulpits and even a pastor's column in the parish bulletin and catechetical classes.

The encyclical is the template for authentic teaching, rather like Greenwich Mean Time or the Bureau of Weights and Measures. It is the weightiest form of Apostolic Letter, so-called because the bishops are successors of the Apostles. The earliest Apostolic Letters are those letters in the New Testament. The difference is that all revelation ends with the death of the last Apostle and subsequent Apostolic Letters are commentary on that unchanging truth. In the nineteenth century, Pope Pius IX used the encyclical form to condemn the errors of materialism and spiritualism. He exposed the fallacies of Communism before Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. Leo XIII was especially prolific. Some encyclicals celebrate and amplify earlier ones, such as Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus which were the tributes of Pius XI and John Paul II on the fortieth and one hundredth anniversaries of Leo XIII's teaching in 1891 on social justice, Rerum Novarum.

Some of the most famous are Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Pius X), Casti Connubi (Pius XI), Humani Generis (Pius XII), Pacem in Terris (John XXIII), and Veritatis Splendor (John Paul II). Usually the mint text is in Latin, as the official language of the Church, although in 1937 Pius XI smuggled to the German bishops Mit Brennender Sorge in the language of the people suffering under the Nazis. The most important encyclicals have been the most controversial. Paul VI's Humanae Vitae caused an uproar, and seldom has an encyclical been so devastatingly on the mark in its warning and predictions. An encyclical always requires deference in conscience and has the full authority of the Pope's infallible charism when he designates it as irreformable evidence of natural law, Scripture, and Tradition. Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical is a highly generous gift of his intellect and eloquence and, most of all, his humble service to the Word of God.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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