There are several levels of papal teaching: sacred, ordinary and general. Not all teaching documents that come from “Rome” or from “the Pope” have the same weight or the same required degree of personal adherence of the faithful. The Church in her experience distinguishes types of teaching. So, what are the differences between a bull, an encyclical and an exhortation issued under the name of the pope?
The following –in the order of importance– gives a sense of what I am talking about:
- Papal Bull is a generally a legal document covering any topic.
- Apostolic Constitution (often given as Papal Bulls) are used typically to make a change in a church law or to define something as definitive with regard to faith and morals, or changes in ecclesiastical circumscriptions, and the like…
- The Motu Proprio are legal acts not covered in the Code of Canon Law; the document is given to the Church by the Pope on his own initiative (without a special request of others) and is in conformity of Church Law but doesn’t change the Law unless expressly stated.
- An Encyclical (originally circular letters by bishops) is an exposition on a topic that regards a pastoral concern and giving insight into the Faith and ministry of the Roman Pontiff shared by the bishops, but only the papal version (vs. a translation) published in the Acta can be authoritative to resolve a particular issue or to advance matter of faith. This in the category of being of the ordinary magisterium of the pope and bishops.
- An Apostolic Letter is addressed to particular groups for a jubilee or a clear up a matter of concern under the notion of general teaching authority; the Letter does not have a solemn responsibility to make changes in doctrine but it may be used to communicate a matter of concern.
- An Apostolic Exhortation is published to encourage the faithful to live in a particular manner (greater conversion to Christ) or to do something of virtue. An Exhortation does not have the ability to change Church teaching de fide. The dogmatic teachings of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption could not be communicated to the Church as de fide in this form. For example, a post-synodal document offered to the Church which is typically a summary of a previous synod and hoping the faithful will do something helpful for the life of the church (e.g., the new evangelization, go to confession, rely on St Joseph, the moral life, preparation for a special event in the Christian life). This level is of ordinary teaching authority.
- Papal Addresses are given to groups like the Knights of Columbus, the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Science, the Congregation of Worship or some such significant gathering; papal addresses have a point to make.
- Papal Rescript answers a question or a request for dispensation.
- Apostolic Brief is a matter of minor importance but nonetheless there is a need among the faithful for a decision from authority.
Each document has a particular formula for addressing the recipient and authority of teaching.
Not every document listed above requires a complete agreement on our part. Some of what is given to us is the prudential judgement of the Holy Father (the Magisterial part of his office) while other documents are to be accepted de fide, that is, on faith and adhered to with one’s intellect and will: needed for salvation. The bulls and constitutions and the elements of faith and morals contained in the encyclicals are to be closely followed and accepted as needed for salvation. These documents, however, are not the same as defining dogma. For that we have the tool of papal infallibility and this tool is seldom exercised. Since the definition of infallibility was made at Vatican I, the Church has only defined two dogmas using the ex cathedra formulation. Both were Marian teachings in the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Assumption.
With regard to the documents noted above from the Apostolic Letters down, we are not required to give our complete consent intellect and will; we are, however, asked to sincerely and significantly consider what is being offered to live the Christian life with greater openness, integrity and holiness.
Theologians will speak of the teachings of the Church as part of the consistent teaching of the Church, based on biblical revelation which Catholics must receive as the ordinary papal teaching with the “religious submission of intellect and will” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25). What does this mean? Essentially, it means that faith and reason are united so as to form and to inform the way we live as disciples of the Lord and faithful members of the Church. The posture we hold is to have an open mind to what is proposed for our salvation and to allow our views and lives to be shaped by the teaching (this is receptivity). It is not an easy task and we understand that the religious submission of intellect and will is always a journey, and gradual conforming ourselves to what Jesus Christ expects of us: to be a person fully alive in God’s glory.