There are several levels of papal teaching. Not all documents that come from “Rome” or “the Pope” have the same weight or a degree of personal adherence of the faithful. The Church in her experience has A friend of mine asked me about the differences between a bull, the encyclical and the 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, changes in ecclesiastical circumscriptions, and the like…
  • The Motu Proprio are legal acts not covered in the Code of Canon Law
  • 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 bishops, but only the papal version can be authoritative to resolve a particular issue or to advance.
  • Apostolic Letters are addressed to particular groups for a jubilee or a clear up a matter of concern.
  • Apostolic Exhortation is published to encourage the faithful to live in a particular manner or to do something, e.g., post synodal documents offered to the church in 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).
  • Papal Addresses are given to groups like the Knights of Columbus, the plenary meeting of the Academy of Science, to 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 need 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. The bulls, constitutions and the elements of faith and morals contained in the encyclicals are to be closely followed and accepted as needed for salvation. However, these documents 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 from the letters down, we are not required to give our complete consent intellect and will to; 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, that Catholics must receive 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 inform the way we live. The posture we hold is to have have open our mind to to what is proposed for our salvation and to allow our views and lives to be shaped by the teaching. It is not an easy task and we understand that a 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.