All church documents are not created equal

By Ruth Powers

As Catholics we believe the Holy Spirit is guiding the church and that the teachings of the church develop with this inspiration. This belief, however, has led to some misunderstandings by non-Catholics (and a few Catholics) regarding the level of authority carried by a somewhat bewildering array of documents and pronouncements issuing from the Vatican under its authority to teach on faith and morals (magisterium).

Ordinarily, Catholics are expected to accept magisterial teachings without any need to delve into levels of authority. However, sometimes it is important to know, especially in times of controversy when some Catholic dissenters may try to dismiss teachings that are infallible while others either underestimate the authority of recent magisterial teachings or overestimate the authority of earlier ones. Non-Catholics may believe that we think every utterance of the pope comes directly from God.

Ruth Powers

The agent proposing the doctrine on faith or morals has some bearing on the level of authority of what is taught. These agents are the Pope, Ecumenical Councils, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (whose teachings must be accepted by the Pope).

Let’s first consider papal documents. In order of descending authority, they are:
Ex cathedra statements — These statements are sometimes called extraordinary magisterium and are few and far between. They occur when a pope defines a document as the head of the church. These statements are explicitly stated to be infallible. An example is the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

Infallible doctrine — These statements are sometimes called ordinary magisterium and occur when the pope affirms a previously taught doctrine as infallible.

Apostolic/Dogmatic/Papal Constitutions — This is the most solemn form of document issued by a pope. Ex cathedra statements and definitive teachings are generally issued in this form of document, as are legislative acts by the pope meant to make changes in Canon Law. Examples are Ex Corde Ecclesiae by St. John Paul II (rules governing Catholic Universities) and Pascite gregem Dei, issued by Pope Francis in December of 2021 which reformed parts of Canon Law dealing with investigation and penalties for certain offenses, especially child abuse.

Papal Bulls — So named because of the lead seals, or bulla, attached to them. These documents were used widely until the 19th century but not so much anymore. They affirm a wide variety of things, such as the excommunication of Henry VIII when he remarried after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Papal Encyclicals – A pastoral letter addressed by the pope to the whole church. Encyclical letters generally address matters of faith or morals, encourage a particular commemoration or devotion, or deal with matters of church discipline which are to be universally observed.

Apostolic Letters — Letters written by a pope to a specific community or to address a specific need.

Apostolic Exhortation – Exhortations generally encourage some virtue or activity. They are frequently issued following a synod of bishops, in which case they are known as post-synodal apostolic exhortations. Exhortations do not define church doctrine and are not considered legislative. An example would be Amoris Laetitia, issued by Pope Francis after the Synod on the Family.

And finally, there are homilies, audiences and interviews, which carry the least weight of authority.

A term that has received much attention lately is moto proprio. This is not a document but rather refers to how a document was issued. When a pope issues a document moto proprio it means he does so of his own interest and signals that this is a matter of special importance to him. In the church, the pope is both an executive and a legislator, and if a document issued moto proprio, he acts in his legislative capacity. Legislative changes made by the pope overrule decisions made by other Vatican departments.

Another source of official church teachings are the documents of ecumenical councils, which are those councils made up of bishops from the whole church rather than from a specific region. Council documents, in descending order of authority, are dogmatic constitutions, decrees, declarations and pastoral constitutions. These apply to the entire church, whereas documents issued by regional councils apply only to the regions involved.

The third source of teaching is the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith. The material coming out of this Vatican office is varied. They can also issue discipline, sometimes with penalties, to clergy misconduct. Documents take the following forms, in descending order of importance: decrees, declarations, monita (“warnings”), responsa (answers to questions), explanations and press conferences.

The theological weight given to a particular document depends on the pope’s manner of acceptance. The greatest weight is given to decrees approved in modo specifico (in every part). The next level is formal acceptance (which is often used in disciplinary matters). Next is simply acceptance, and finally is the order that a document is published (least theological weight).

As you can see, not all materials released by the Vatican carry the same level of authority. A comment by a pope during a homily is not to be interpreted as having equal weight as an apostolic constitution or an encyclical, although secular media tends to treat them as such. Knowing what kind of a document contains a statement can help Catholics unpack its level of impact on the teachings of the church.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)