Papal Pronouncements


I don’t know if this is the right forum for this question (didn’t seem right to put it under Sacred Scripture).

Popes can issue different kinds of documents: Bulls, Exhortations, Encyclicals, etc.
What are the ranking of authority in the different document forms, and how does this translate in to Papal Primacy and Papal Teaching Authority?

In case that was confusing, list the documents types according to levels of authority, and describe how each document translates into the necessity of belief? I.e., Exhortations are dogmatic and are necessary to believe, etc (<not sure if that is true, just an example)


I’ll take this one :slight_smile:

First, I’ll quote an article by Fr John Trigilio, Jr. and Fr. Kenneth Brighenti.

<<The pope can exercise his papal infallibility in two ways. One is called the Extraordinary Magisterium, and the other is called Ordinary Magisterium.

When an Ecumenical (General) Council is convened, presided over, and approved by the Pope, Vicar of Christ, and he issues definitive decrees, they are considered infallible because they come from the Extraordinary Magisterium.

Ex cathedra (Latin for from the chair) pronouncements from the pope are considered infallible teachings. The only two ex cathedra pronouncements in 2,000 years have been the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950). When the pope teaches ex cathedra, he’s exercising his universal authority as Supreme Teacher of a doctrine on faith or morals, and he’s incapable of error.

The second way that an infallible teaching is taught to Catholics is through the Ordinary Magisterium, which is the more common and typical manner, hence the reason why it’s called ordinary. This teaching of the popes is consistent, constant, and universal through their various documents, letters, Papal encyclicals, decrees, and so on.

It is never a new doctrine but rather one that has been taught ubique, semper et ab omnibus (Latin for everywhere, always and by all). In other words, when the pope reinforces, reiterates, or restates the consistent teaching of his predecessors and of the bishops united with him around the world, that’s considered the Ordinary Magisterium and should be treated as infallible doctrine.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), more commonly known as Vatican II, the type of Papal document the pope chose determined how much authority he intended to exercise. The following list indicates the order of authority that various Papal documents traditionally had:

  • Papal Bulls
  • Papal Encyclicals
  • Papal Briefs
  • Apostolic Exhortations
  • Apostolic Constitutions
  • Apostolic Letters
  • Motu Proprios

Since Vatican II, however, the content and context of the document determine the degree of authority and not just the type of Papal document.

As a consequence, we tend to apply this scheme of thought to previous Papal documents.

It remains a fact that Encyclicals are not ex cathedra pronouncements. They are, however, the consistent teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, which is equally infallible when it concerns faith and morals and reiterates the constant, consistent, and universal teaching of the popes and bishops.

Their content requires religious submission of mind and will of faithful Catholics around the world. So-called dissent from Papal teaching in encyclicals is not part of Catholic belief. The Catholic faithful willfully conform to Papal teaching and don’t dispute it. >>


Second, I’ll quote “The Doctrinal Authority of Papal encyclicals” by Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton

<< These documents have come to be recognized as the most frequently used vehicles of the Holy Father’s ordinary teaching of the flock entrusted to his care.

Despite their manifest and unique importance, however, the papal encyclicals have never been given anything like a completely adequate treatment in the literature of sacred theology.

Some of the text-books used in our seminaries today give no special consideration whatever to the doctrinal authority of these documents.

Others content themselves with a sweeping over-simplification and blithely dismiss all the encyclicals as “non-infallible” pontifical statements.

A third group of authors, more scientific in their approach to this problem, maintain that these documents contain some infallibly true teachings, doctrines presented as infallible on the authority of the encyclicals themselves. Even within this last-mentioned group, however, we find most frequently little detailed explanation of the various norms by which we can recognize infallibly authoritative statements of the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium in his encyclical letters.

All the theological works dealing with this subject make it perfectly clear that all Catholics are bound seriously in conscience to accept the teaching contained in these documents with a true internal religious assent.

They all insist that even in this portion of his ordinary magisterium the Holy Father has the right to demand, and actually has demanded, a definite and unswerving internal assent to his teaching from all Catholics.

An astonishingly large number of prominent theologians can be found among those who take no adequate cognizance of the encyclical letters in their treatises on papal infallibility. These men content themselves with an examination of and a theological demonstration for the formula by which the Vatican Council defined the Holy Father’s infallibility. As a group these writers frequently give the impression that they consider only those truths proposed by the Holy Father solemni iudicio as infallibly defined, to the exclusion of those truths which he sets forth ordinario et universali magisterio.

The distinguished theologians who deny the papal encyclicals the status of infallible documents teach, none the less, that the faithful are bound in conscience to accord these letters not only the tribute of respectful silence, but also a definite and sincere internal religious assent.

This authority (of the papal encyclicals) is undoubtedly great. It is, in a sense, sovereign. It is the teaching of the supreme pastor and teacher of the Church. Hence the faithful have a strict obligation to receive this teaching with an infinite respect. A man must not be content simply not to contradict it openly and in a more or less scandalous fashion. An internal mental assent is demanded. It should be received as the teaching sovereignly authorized within the Church.

The magisterium of the Church has been equipped with help from God by reason of which the first sort of teaching gives infallible truth, while the second affords infallible security. Employing the plentitude of its power, the teaching Church operates as the auctoritas infallibilitatis. Working, not to define, but merely to take those steps it deems necessary to safeguard the faith, it is the auctoritas providentiae doctrinalis. To this auctoritas providentiae doctrinalis and to the teachings it sets forth, the faithful owe the obedience of respectful silence and of an internal mental assent according to which the proposition thus presented is accepted, not as infallibly true, but as safe, as guaranteed by that authority which is divinely commissioned to care for the Christian faith.

It might be definitely understood, however, that the Catholic’s duty to accept the teachings conveyed in the encyclicals.

The authority which imposes this obligation is that of the Roman Pontiff himself. To the Holy Father’s responsibility of caring for the sheep of Christ’s fold, there corresponds, on the part of the Church’s membership, the basic obligation of following his directions, in doctrinal as well as disciplinary matters. In this field, God has given the Holy Father a kind of infallibility distinct from the charism of doctrinal infallibility in the strict sense. He has so constructed and ordered the Church that those who follow the directives given to the entire kingdom of God on earth will never be brought into the position of ruining themselves spiritually through this obedience. Our Lord dwells within His Church in such a way that those who obey disciplinary and doctrinal directives of this society can never find themselves displeasing God through their adherence to the teachings and the commands given to the universal Church militant. Hence there can be no valid reason to discountenance even the non-infallible teaching authority of Christ’s vicar on earth.

It is and it remains the business of Catholic theologians to adhere faithfully to the teachings of the encyclicals and to do all in their power to bring this body of truth accurately and effectively to the members of Christ’s Mystical Body. >>


Great posts, R_C. I found them very educational myself! :thumbsup:

But we might also add - in these confused times - that it’s a sound principle that when a Church teaching is repeated and confirmed by several Popes - for example, the teaching on Natural Family Planning vs. artificial contraception - then it does the “liberal” no good to claim that “Humanae Vitae isn’t infallible, so I’ll pass.” :slight_smile:


nysacerdote #1
What are the ranking of authority in the different document forms, and how does this translate in to Papal Primacy and Papal Teaching Authority?

1) Re papal primacy:
This was established by Christ in installing Peter as His Supreme Vicar:
All four promises to Peter alone:
“You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church.” (Mt 16:18)
“The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”(Mt 16:18)
“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven." ( Mt 16:19)
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) [Later also to the Twelve]

Sole authority:
“Strengthen your brethren.” (Lk 22:32)
“Feed My sheep.”(Jn 21:17).

2) On teaching authority:
Vatican I in Pastor Aeternus teaches:
“Chapter 4.
On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff

9. Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. [My emphases].

“But if anyone – God forbid – should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema. ”

For papal infallibility to be exercised the Pope must teach:
(a) ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter), that is as Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians,
(b) speaking with Peter’s apostolic authority to the whole Church,
© defining a doctrine of faith and morals.

The CCC #88 (1997) clearly combines exactly with Bl John Paul’s *Motu Proprio *(= on his own authority) Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, 1998 (ATF).

The three levels of teaching are:
A) Dogma – infallible (Canon #750.1) to be believed with the assent of divine and Catholic faith.
B) Doctrine – infallible (Canon #750.2) requires the assent of ecclesial faith, to be “firmly embraced and held”.
C) Doctrine – non-definitive (non-infallible) and requires intellectual assent (“loyal submission of the will and intellect”, Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 25), not an assent of faith. [See the Explanatory Note on ATF by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith*]

Answer by David Gregson of EWTN on Nov-22-2002:
“You are correct in stating that the Pope exercises his charism of infallibility not only in dogmatic definitions issued, ex cathedra, as divinely revealed (of which there have been only two), but also in doctrines definitively proposed by him, also ex cathedra, which would include canonizations (that they are in fact Saints, enjoying the Beatific Vision in heaven), moral teachings (such as contained in Humanae vitae), and other doctrines he has taught as necessarily connected with truths divinely revealed, such as that priestly ordination is reserved to men. Further details on levels of certainty with which the teachings of the Magisterium (either the Pope alone, or in company with his Bishops) may be found in Summary of Categories of Belief.”


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