Papal Documents


I have a question about the binding force upon Catholics of Papal documents like Bulls, whether or not they are “ex cathedra” and hence infallible. May a Catholic in keeping with the proper exercise of Catholicism reject the views expressed in a Papal Bull or similar document (that has not since been retracted or amended in a later Church document) if he believes that it was not written ex cathedra?




No, generally speaking, they are not Ex Cathedra, but can contain Infallible teaching. Unless specifically noted that they contain an Ex Cathedra pronouncement like the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, or the Dogma of the Assumption.


Thanks, Rich. If I understand your answer right, you’re saying no, the Catholic is not free to disregard these edicts. (Please feel free to correct me if that’s incorrect.) The reason I asked was that I had questions either way. If the Catholic is obligated to adhere to Papal Bulls and the like, I guess my next question is aren’t there a lot of things that are said in these documents that just about no Catholics today would endorse? The example that came to mind recently was Pope Leo X’s 1520 Bull “Exsurge” where he condemns as “pernicious poison” the claim that heretics should not be burned alive (paragraph 33).

I’m certainly not saying that Catholics today want to burn heretics. I’m just trying to use this example as a case study to develop a better understanding of when a Catholic is permitted to reject a teaching in a Papal Bull. I’d appreciate any thoughts.




It’s pretty easy to tell when something is declared de fide and must be held by the whole of the faithful. A good example is the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, released by John Paul II in 1994:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

This is an infallible teaching, since the Pope invoked the power of his office to teach on a matter of faith (the constitution of the Church) with the intent that his teaching be held by all the faithful.

In this case, Leo uses similar language:

With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected…

I think this instance rests on how you interpret the phrase “X is against the will of the Spirit.” I would take that to mean “X is offensive to the Spirit” or “the Spirit specifically forbids you to do X.” In that case, the bull would be saying, “Burning heretics is not specifically forbidden by the Spirit,” but not “All heretics must be burned” or “All the faithful need to be comfortable with the idea of burning heretics.”

Hope that helps.


Hi CThomas,

Catholics generally don’t look at papal documents in that light. Jesus said to the apostles, “He who hears you hears me.” He gave the Church the mission to teach and to the faithful the obligation to be taught.

Ex cathedra pronouncements only confirm what has been believed for ages.



Hopefully most Catholics today know that burning heretics is completely immoral. John Paul II surely did, as can be seen in the Church’s year 2000 apology. How that reconciles with Exsurge is anyone’s guess.


Perhaps this will help:

Identifying Infallible Statements
By Jimmy Akin


What Pope Leo was giving here was a discipline/practice. Such things do not deal with the faith directly, but how to prudently administer/protect/practice the faith. Situations change, and so the prudence of a certain course of action changes.
Disciplines include such things as burning heretics, celibate clergy, and meatless Lenten Fridays. Each of these things can be changed, since they are not a part of the faith, but ways to protect, administer, and practice the faith, respectively.
Things like Jesus’s Resurrection, regenerative baptism, and the transubstantiated Eucharist are truths of the faith itself and so are not up for debate.


Just like everything else, you would need to look at the context and intent of the document.

Though I do not believe “Exsurge” is “about” the burning of heretics at the stake."

The document does say the following:

In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor we can under no circumstances tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious

poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion and injury to orthodox faith. Some of these errors we have decided to include in the present document; their substance is as follows:

And goes on to list 41 errors.

One of which is:

  1. That heretics be burned

is against the will of the Spirit.

The document is primarily about ordering Martin Luther and his followers to cease and desist.

Therefore we can, without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation as one whose faith is notoriously suspect and in fact a true heretic with the full severity of each and all of the above penalties and censures. Yet, with the advice of our brothers, imitating the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live, and forgetting all the injuries inflicted on us and the Apostolic See, we have decided to use all the compassion we are capable of. It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church.
Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us. If they really will obey, and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity, and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.
We enjoin, however, on Martin that in the meantime he cease from all preaching or the office of preacher.

If you really want to get into the validity of statement “33” we would then need to look for Church documents that are actually “about” Capital Punishment and the rights of Nations to enforce such penalties.

There we might gain an understanding about why the Pope felt statement number 33 to be true.

This particular document does not offer any explanation as to “why” we should believe any of the 41 items to be true.

If I ask the question:

Should anyone ever have been burned at the stake?

We can quickly answer a resounding NO.

If I ask the question:

Should someone guilty of generating civil unrest to such a degree that it results in continual violence and death to the citizens of a country, who refuses to discontinue his actions, be put to death by the government?

The answer becomes a little less clear cut.

In modern western societies, the answer to this question would still “almost always” be NO.

In Medieval Europe? I’m not so sure.


I’m certainly not saying that Catholics today want to burn heretics. I’m just trying to use this example as a case study to develop a better understanding of when a Catholic is permitted to reject a teaching in a Papal Bull. I’d appreciate any thoughts.




Thanks, all. Spirithound — I’m not sure I followed the implications of your distinction between disclipines or practices and doctrinal teachings. I would assume that a Catholic is fully bound by disciplines and practices that are taught with papal authority even if they may change over time. Am I wrong about that? In other words, to pick one of your examples, I assume a priest today may not say, “The teaching of priestly celibacy is merely a discipline or practice, and therefore I choose not to adhere to it.” If that’s right, then I assume there must be an express change of teaching to modify a discipline or practice. Do you know if there has been any modification of the Catholic policy regarding the burning of heretics since 1520? (I’m not saying there hasn’t been – I just genuinely don’t know.) If not, then wouldn’t a Catholic today be no more free to disagree with Exsurge’s statement regarding the burning of heretics alive than a priest today would be free to disregard the currently promulgated rule regarding the ceilbacy of priests?

Thanks again,



GHx86 – Thanks. Following this line of argument through, should a Catholic today belive that it is not the case that all heretics must be burned, but that burning heretics is not contrary to the will of the Spirit? Does the spirit, in your view, not frown on the burning of heretics? Again, just trying to better understand how you view your obligations under Catholic doctrine.




Pope John Paul II spoke out against capital punishment. Again this would not be an infallible teaching. But, it is an example of how teaching regarding judicial legislation (punishment imposed for crimes) can change. Such regulations are not infallible. It can be compared to the orders for capital punishment given by God in the OT that have also changed with the passing of time and changes in culture.

Regarding the bull: it would have been “binding” (to be obeyed) at the time. In other words, Catholics were not to say that burning was against the Holy Spirit. As to when it was no longer to be considered binding, I don’t know since I’m not familiar with all the teaching and proclamations made by the Magisterium since 1520. It probably just ceased to be relevant due to cultural changes.


So, rereading some earlier posts, GJx86 makes an important note. The bull does not say that heretics must be burned, it says that burning is not against the will of the Holy Spirit. Remember that heresy was once a criminal offence according to the “secular” government; the Church did not carry out many executions on her own.
Anyways, if the scenario as we were discussing is correct, then yes you are right that another bull would have to be promulgated to retract the previous one. Pope John Paul II’s recent-ish proclamation that capital punishment is almost never necessary is the most recent anyways, but I’m sure there have been others.


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