CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict's last encyclical will be unfinished when he retires.
Pope Benedict's historic decision to resign at the end of February has astonished and perplexed the world in many ways, not least because of what might be called the mystery of the missing encyclical.
In December, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Pope Benedict's fourth encyclical would be released in the first half of 2013.
Treating the subject of faith, the encyclical would complete a trilogy on the three "theological virtues," following Deus Caritas Est (2005) on charity, and Spe Salvi (2007) on hope.
Then, on the day after the pope's announcement, Lombardi said Pope Benedict would not issue the encyclical after all.
The news was surprising because it suggested that Pope Benedict had abandoned the most prominent teaching project of his pontificate just before its completion.
This, even though Lombardi said the pope had pondered resignation for several months, and the Vatican newspaper reported that he first considered the move in March 2012.
It was hardly plausible that so prolific an author might be suffering from writer's block. On Feb. 14, Pope Benedict delivered a highly structured, 46-minute talk, without a prepared text and only occasionally consulting his notes.
However, papal encyclicals are not one-man productions. Though the pope ultimately determines their content, they are the fruit of much behind-the-scenes collaboration.
Pope Benedict's last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (2009), appeared more than a year after its expected date, reportedly because of complications in this process.
Lombardi has suggested the former pope might publish the document under his own name, in which case it would not rank as part of the papal magisterium. But it is at least as likely that his successor will take up and finish the task.
Popes tend to honour their predecessors' commitments. Indeed, Pope Benedict's own first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was started by his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II.
The knowledge that the next encyclical was the work of more than one pope would underscore its impersonal character and reinforce the idea that the papacy is an office distinct from any individual who holds it.
Only three days before he announced he would step down, the outgoing pope said something that has added meaning in light of that historic event.
Commenting on the First Letter of Peter, Pope Benedict noted internal evidence that the apostle and first pope was not the epistle's sole author.
"He does not write alone, an isolated individual, he writes with the help of the Church," Pope Benedict said. "Peter does not speak as an individual, he speaks 'ex persona Ecclesiae,' he speaks as a man of the Church. . . .
"He does not want to say only his word, but truly carries in himself the waters of the faith, the waters of all the Church, and precisely this way gives fertility, gives fecundity and is a personal witness who opens himself to the Lord."