Are Papal encyclicals binding?


Is there ever any binding aspect to papal encyclicals?

How are they viewed in the context of Church teaching, authority, etc.?

Is there every anything “infallible” that comes from them?

I’m trying to get a good understanding of how Catholics should view encyclicals? What weight are they given in forming our faith and beliefs as Catholics? That is, are they simply a “letter” to support or explain some view on a particular topic.

For instance, Pope Pius XII’s Encyclical Humana Vitae, when it talks about Adam and Eve and that Catholics should not embrace the concept/teaching that Adam was not a real man… Is that something we are required/expected to believe; or not, since it is in an encyclical?

Thank you!


The Church teaches infallibly in two ways. The first, and most common, is the Ordinary Magisterium. That which has been handed down by the Apostles.

The large majority of our Infallible teachings ( such as the existance of the Trinity) come from this. So does most of the Moral Law. (see the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, chapter 25)

The second way the Church teaches infallibly, is by the ExtraOrdinary Magisterium. This includes Eccumenical Councils, and Ex Cathedra declaration by the Pontiff.

First of all, Encyclicals, by their nature, are not excercises of the ExtraOrdinary Magisterium.

But many Encyclicals have infallible content in them, teachings from the Ordinary Magisterium.

Humane Vitae is one of those. It, by itself, is not infallible, but the Truth it teaches on contraception is an infallble teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium.

In addition, infallible or not, the teaching given in an Encyclical ARE binding on the faithful.

Pastor Aeternus, from Vatican I said.

  1. Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, **are bound to submit **to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.


And yes, we are expected to belive that there were first parents of whom all humans are decended of. One male human and One female human.

Pope John XXIII spoke of that in Humanae Generis.

There is some freedom of belief in how they came to be (Creation vs. Intellegent Design) , but they did exist.


Thank you. That helps.

I know this may seem like a dumb question or two that follows, but I’m trying to research, and be sure and precise to assist in an answer I’m trying to provide to someone else. Did you intend for your comment “In addition, infallible or not, the teaching given in an Encyclical ARE binding on the faithful.” to be supported by what “Pastor Aeternus, from Vatican I” said?

Also, do you know of other statements, (i.e, catechism, etc.) that restate, or support this position/statement?

Thanks again!


Vatican II - Lumen Gentium - Chapter 22

The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.


Pope Paul VI wrote the Encyclical Humanae Vitae


In Catholic teaching there are various levels of “binding,” so that would be an area where precision could be very nitty-gritty, but I thought this quote from Lumen Gentium 25 (with my emphasis) might help you:

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.


Also, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
892*** Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. ***

Keep the faith, my brother!


Actually it was Pius XII.

There is some freedom of belief in how they came to be (Creation vs. Intellegent Design) , but they did exist.

Please don’t let this become another boring “evolution debate”, but from a Catholic POV it is wrong to pose “Creation” and “Intelligent Design” as competing alternatives. Fundamentalists try to twist the meanings of those two terms to mean something else of their own invention. God created Adam and Eve and the world and everything in it. That is Catholic dogma. He created it according to His own intelligent design. Nothing happens in the world unless God lets it happen. Catholics are free to believe that Adam and Eve came into being by the process of evolution from animals, or by some other process involving a special miracle, or series of miracles.


That seems to be somewhat problematical. here’s an example: according to the Papal Bull Ad exstirpanda the use of torture was authorised to elicit confessions. It was issued on May 15, 1252, by Pope Innocent IV, and was confirmed by Pope Alexander IV on November 30, 1259, and by Pope Clement IV on November 3, 1265. However, the teaching today is that no form of torture can be condoned. Please see:
So I don’t see how the teaching given in the Encyclical Ad Extirpanda is in any way binding on Catholics?


Torture was authorised in a particular place and time for a particular purpose and under very strict restrictions. (IN order to curtail its less restricted use.) Even there, it wasn’t made compulsory or “binding” LOL! You seem to be saying that if an encyclical contradicts a previous encyclical, they can’t both be binding on the Catholics of the time and place to whom it was addressed. You are wrong.


Let’s see where I am wrong:

  1. In the Papal Bull, Ad Exstirpanda, it was declared that it was allowed under certain circumstances to use torture.
  2. The present Pope has declared that it is not allowed to use torture under any circumstances.
    There has been a change in Catholic teaching on the use of torture.


I repeat, You seem to be saying that if an encyclical contradicts a previous encyclical, they can’t both be binding on the Catholics of the time and place to whom it was addressed. You are wrong.


First, it does NOT mention the idea or the word torture.
It was not a teaching but a matter of discipline. Teachings are matters of faith or morals addressed to ALL Christians, not just those of a particular time or place.
If a doctrine is not binding on all Christians for all times, it cannot be a teaching.
Ad Exstirpanda no where mentions the word torture or implies torture. " When those adjudged guilty of heresy have been given up to the civil power by the bishop or his representative, or the Inquisition, the podest or chief magistrate of the city shall take them at once, and shall, within five days at the most, execute the laws made against them."

      First,  torture was used by some to elicit an admission of heresy.  The Popes never, ever taught that torture was permitted under any circumstances in these cases.  Torture was an idea that was a hold over from pagan goverments and these goverments were the ones who pushed this idea in order to elicit a testamony of guilt.   The Church NEVER taught this was permissible.  

   The civil powers who considered heretics to be traitors, not just heretics, in which case the civil powers

had the right to prosecute them as traitors. In this case the civil goverments had the right to prosecute them as they saw fit, even the death penalty for example, as they did with St. Joan of Arc, even though she was convicted unjustly with the help of some bad bishops.
Sometimes the state had lesser punishments. But it was the state govements determing the laws made against them and the punishments and NOT the Popes. Do the Popes tell our goverment how to punish traitors? Of course not. Would our goverment listen anyway? Of course not. The Popes originally wanted certain types of heretics to be expelled from the country. And those were only the onces that advocated suicide or who advocated husbands to abandon their wives and children, so they could live in fornication with younger women. In other words, the Popes only advocated those heretics who were gravely harming society to be expelled. But, when the goverments prosecuted these types of heretics, they fought back, started wars, etc. The goverments then considered them to be traitors and the enemy, and thus used harsh measurers against them.

 The Popes never advocated the harsh measures, but they have always allowed the state to use punishments the death penalty, for serious crimes, as they do today,  but only as the last resort.  The Popes actually took in those who were fleeing the prosecution by the state. 

So when we read.
" 1. In the Papal Bull, Ad Exstirpanda, it was declared that it was allowed under certain circumstances to use torture."

These are interpretations by anti-Catholics who have no desire to seek the truth. No where does the Church advocate or permit torture and never did the Church advocate or permit torture. The Church allows the state to proscute prisoners or the enemy, but she has never ever taught that goverments should use torture.


The headline reads:
**"Yale professors debate the use of torture. "
See the link.

The Popes and the Church teach:
“Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” 2297 CCC

Notice of course, no one, especially the liberal media, are loudly condemning the Yale professors in this article. They might disagree, but they do not condemn.

If any Pope ever said such a thing, every atheist and anti-Catholic and liberal in the country would be condemning the Pope and have it all over the TV, internet, newspapers, etc.


If what you say here is true, then we would have to conclude that various Catholic sources, such as the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Catholic Encyclopedia first edition, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition and the Catholic Encyclopedia online are anti-Catholic, which obviously they are not. I don’t care which one you use as a reference, they all say that Ad Exstirpanda authorised the use of torture to extract confessions. For example, from the Catholic Encyclopedia online:
“It [torture] was first authorized by Innocent IV in his Bull “Ad exstirpanda” of 15 May, 1252, which was confirmed by Alexander IV on 30 November, 1259, and by Clement IV on 3 November, 1265. The limit placed upon torture was citra membri diminutionem et mortis periculum – i.e, it was not to cause the loss of life or limb or imperil life.”
"In the beginning, torture was held to be so odious that clerics were forbidden to be present under pain of irregularity. Sometimes it had to be interrupted so as to enable the inquisitor to continue his examination, which, of course, was attended by numerous inconveniences. Therefore on 27 April, 1260, Alexander IV authorized inquisitors to absolve one another of this irregularity. Urban IV on 2 August, 1262, renewed the permission, and this was soon interpreted as formal licence to continue the examination in the torture chamber itself. The inquisitors manuals faithfully noted and approved this usage. The general rule ran that torture was to be resorted to only once. But this was sometimes circumvented – first, by assuming that with every new piece of evidence the rack could be utilized afresh, and secondly, by imposing fresh torments on the poor victim (often on different days), not by way of repetition, but as a continuation (non ad modum iterationis sed continuationis), as defended by Eymeric; “quia, iterari non debent [tormenta], nisi novis supervenitibus indiciis, continuari non prohibentur.” But what was to be done when the accused, released from the rack, denied what he had just confessed? Some held with Eymeric that the accused should be set at liberty; others, however, like the author of the “Sacro Arsenale” held that the torture should be continued, because the accused had too seriously incriminated himself by his previous confession. When Clement V formulated his regulations for the employment of torture, he never imagined that eventually even witnesses would be put on the rack, although not their guilt, but that of the accused, was in question. From the pope’s silence it was concluded that a witness might be put upon the rack at the discretion of the inquisitor. Moreover, if the accused was convicted through witnesses, or had pleaded guilty, the torture might still he used to compel him to testify against his friends and fellow-culprits."
So, as I see it, the situation is the following:

  1. The teaching of the Church according to Innocent IV, Alexander IV and Clement Iv was that torture was permitted under certain circumstances to elicit confessions.
  2. The present teaching of the Church is that torture is not permitted under any circumstances.
    I don’t see how anyone can deny that the teaching of the Church on the issue of torture has changed.


Bob, you are basing your whole long-winded argument on dcdurel’s one error in denying that the Church “permitted” torture. Everything else s/he says is correct. The Church did not “advocate” torture, much less carry it out.
And you have produced nothing to contradict the fact that every papal encyclical is binding on Catholics. Perhaps you are confusing “binding” with “infallible”?


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