Hierarchy and Importance of Documents of the Holy See (Extended)



The official documents of the Catholic Church are a vast and rich collection, spanning centuries and covering a wide range of topics. While some documents are exhortative, most documents offer authoritative declarations on matters related to faith and morals, serving as a guiding influence for our beliefs and practices as Catholics. Through these documents, the Church also guides on ethical and social issues, offering perspective on topics like war, poverty, and human rights.

Essentially, there exist four categories of church documents.

  1. Papal documents, issued directly by the Pope under his name; 
  2. Church Council documents, issued by the ecumenical councils of the Church and promulgated under the Pope’s name;
  3. Curial documents, issued by offices of the Holy See but authorized by the Pope;
  4. Bishops’ documents are issued either by individual bishops or by national conferences of bishops.

Navigating this vast collection requires understanding their diverse ranks, where each type holds its place of authority and purpose. Here is a general framework of the hierarchy of Church documents. However, the significance of a document may depend on the context, the authority of the author and the nature of the issues addressed.

1. Papal Bulls are among the most authoritative papal documents which are formal decrees issued by the Pope on matters of great importance, such as defining dogmas, making significant doctrinal statements or addressing matters of universal concern. ‘Misericordiae Vultus’ which translates to ‘The Face of Mercy’ is the most recent papal bull written by Pope Francis, issued on April 11, 2015. This bull officially declared an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which took place from December 8, 2015, to November 20, 2016.

2. Apostolic Constitutions are pronouncements from the Pope that often define dogma, establish or modify Church law, or address fundamental issues within the Church. They are the most solemn form of documents and have the highest level of authority. The recent Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia ‘Praedicate Evangelium’ of Pope Francis, presents a missionary framework aimed at enhancing the Roman Curia’s ability to serve local churches more effectively and fulfil the mission of evangelization.

3. Encyclicals are documents or circular letters written by the Pope addressed to the entire Church or to specific groups. They cover a wide range of topics, including theology, morality, social justice and current issues. Encyclicals are considered authoritative teachings but they may not necessarily define dogma or establish new laws. A few examples include Pope Paul VI’s ‘Humanae Vitae’ on contraception and Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si’ on the environment. 

4. Apostolic Letters are issued by Popes to address administrative questions, such as approving religious institutes but at times have also been used to encourage the faithful on doctrinal issues. They do not typically establish laws but rather should be thought of as an exercise of the Pope’s Office as ruler and head of the Church.

In principle, Apostolic Letters are of two types:

a. Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio (of his own accord) is a type of Apostolic Letter that is issued by the Pope on his initiative. These letters are often used to address specific legal or administrative matters within the Church.

b. Apostolic Exhortations are documents in which the Pope encourages or exhorts the Church to take certain actions or adopt particular attitudes. Pope Francis’ ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ which focuses on the joy of the Gospel is a recent example.

5. Decrees pertain to various matters, including doctrinal issues, disciplinary measures or organizational changes within the Church. An example of a decree is the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’ which was issued by the Second Vatican Council. This decree addresses the Catholic Church’s stance on ecumenism, emphasizing the importance of promoting unity among Christians and fostering dialogue with other Christian traditions. 

6. Declarations are authoritative expressions of the Church’s teachings which Catholics are expected to respect and adhere to as part of their commitment to the Pope’s authority.

7. Allocutions are oral pronouncements by a Pope, focusing on pastoral matters. They cover important messages on faith, morals or reflections on current events. Allocutions are delivered on occasions like meetings with bishops, audiences with diplomats, or significant liturgical events.

8. Instructions are documents issued by Vatican offices, guiding the understanding or implementation of various aspects of Church life.

Historically, Church councils primarily issued documents in the form of Decrees or Constitutions. However, during Vatican II, the Fathers aimed for a pastoral focus rather than strictly doctrinal. Consequently, they produced various types of documents, all promulgated under the Pope’s name, adopting the same name and format as papal documents. Vatican II produced Four Constitutions, Nine Decrees and Three Declarations.

The official website of the Holy See, vatican.va, provides access to most official documents, including papal encyclicals, council documents, and pronouncements from various offices of the Curia.