Even before we had the benefit of the Pope’s views on civil unions, we had a new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, which was an opportunity for him to opine about the subjects close to him – openness to migrants and hostility to nationalism, for instance. However, it ended up as the occasion for a terrific fuss from feminists about terminology (fratelli may mean “siblings” in Italian – following Latin – but it sounds very like “brothers” in English).
But there was really very little that was strictly necessary in the encyclical. It was not the Pope arbitrating about disputed matters of faith and morals; it was more about him sharing his thoughts on the events of the day. In other words, it was rather typical of the modern encyclical – usually a kind of circular letter addressed to bishops – that is, an expression of creeping papalism.
Cardinal Newman would have taken a dim view of Fratelli Tutti, not necessarily the content (though he probably wouldn’t have cared for it) but the notion that it is the pope’s job to sound off at intervals in encyclicals about matters that bother him. He was very uneasy about the character of the papacy of Pio Nono in his own time; he felt it signified a new authoritarianism in the Church, leaving little scope for the fruitful clash of intellects which characterised Catholicism in periods of theological development. Ultramontanes viewed religious controversy as suspect, not the means by which doctrinal truth is arrived at. As Newman wrote to a woman friend in 1872:
This age of the Church is peculiar. In former times there was not the extreme centralisation which is now in use. If a private theologian said anything, another answered him. If the controversy grew, it went to a bishop, a foreign university or a Theological Faculty. The Holy See was but the court of final appeal.
In other words, he felt that the pope’s real job was as arbiter in the case of disagreement, not someone who ought to intervene on whatever matters took his fancy, including areas where the Church had no particular expertise and no legitimate jurisdiction. In particular, he didn’t much care for the 1864 encyclical Quanta cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors. “I don’t understand its meaning or its worth,” he wrote in a letter. The encyclical spoke of concepts such as “liberalism” and “progress”, but these words did not have a clearly-defined theological meaning – “rather they are the newspaper cant of the day.”
Newman partly put the change down to Benedict XIV. Although in many respects a very good pope, Benedict pretty well invented the systematic use of the encyclical as a form for teaching. After him it gradually built up to the mini-industry that was Leo XIII’s flurry of encyclicals. Eamon Duffy writes in his account of the papacy, Saints and Sinners, of the “radical shift in papal teaching which Leo’s collected encyclicals represent. Here, for the first time we have the pope as an inexhaustible source of guidance and instruction. No pope before or since has come anywhere near his 86 encyclicals.” But his successors have continued to use encyclicals where other forms of address or admonition might do.
This is not to say that a pope must remain silent on everything until he is obliged to intervene in a dispute. There are other ways in which he can express an opinion. Pope Benedict, for instance, used addresses in various forums, including secular ones, to expound a theological point, as in the case of his (admirable) address to the university of Regensburg. Pope Francis sometimes expresses his views after the public recitation of the Angelus. He can use addresses to delegations at the Vatican to say what he thinks. But routinely using an encyclical to lend papal authority to strongly felt views is not a helpful development.
Any Catholic will treat the utterances of the Pope with respect, simply because of his office, even when they actually think he doesn’t know what he is talking about. However, what matters for the job of the pope, precisely as pope, is that he can arbitrate on disputed matters of faith and morals. If popes fire off encyclicals all the time, it can blur the boundaries between the pope’s expressions of opinion, and his proper function as final arbiter. Pope Francis may be a liberal, but in giving way to this creeping papalism he is following a retrograde and illiberal trend.