On November 30th, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI published his second encyclical letter, “Spe Salvi,” or “Saved by Hope.”  His first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” was a reflection on the nature of love.  But you may be wondering, what exactly is an encyclical letter anyway?

In the ancient Christian Church, a encyclical letter was one sent to the bishops of a particular area. The name comes from the Latin word “encyclia” which means general or encircling.  It’s the same root word as in “encyclopedia.”  In contemporary  Catholic usage, an encyclical is an official teaching letter sent by a pope.  In the hierarchy of Catholic teaching, an encyclical letter is less important and authoritative than an Apostolic Constitution, and more important that an Apostolic Exhortation.

Generally speaking, encyclicals are addressed to a particular audience– usually bishops– although they can specify a broader audience.  “Spe Salvi” is addressed to the Bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful.  So that would be everyone.

Usually, encyclicals are named according to the first words of the Latin edition.  One notable exception is the letter Mit Brennender Sorge, sent from pope Pius XI to the bishops of Germany in 1937.  That letter, whose name means “With burning concern,” dealt with the condition of the Church under the third Reich, and condemned Nazism. 

Pope Benedict’s encyclicals– so far at least—have dealt with more theological topics like the nature of the virtues of love and hope.  This seems in keeping with the Holy Father’s background as an academic, philosopher and theologian.  There has been some speculation that his next letter will deal with the virtue of faith, but one Vatican representative has called that unlikely, since as the text of Spes Salvi makes clear, the faith and hope are nearly the same thing.