Hierarchy and Importance of Documents of the Holy See



The official documents of the Catholic Church are a vast and rich collection. Most documents offer authoritative declarations on matters related to faith and morals, serving as a guiding influence for our beliefs and practices as Catholics.

Essentially, there exist four categories of church documents.

Papal documents, issued directly by the Pope under his name; 

Church Council documents, issued by the ecumenical councils of the Church and promulgated under the Pope’s name;

Curial documents, issued by offices of the Holy See but authorized by the Pope;

Bishops’ documents are issued either by individual bishops or by national conferences of bishops.

Here is a general framework of the hierarchy of Church documents.

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 or addressing matters of universal concern.

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.

3. Encyclicals are documents or circular letters written by the Pope addressed to the entire Church or specific groups. They cover a wide range of topics, including theology, morality, social justice and current issues.

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.

5. Decrees pertain to various matters, including doctrinal issues, disciplinary measures or organizational changes within the Church.

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.

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

During Vatican II, the Fathers aimed for a pastoral focus rather than strictly doctrinal. 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.