Weighing the authority of Church documents

Not all statements or documents carry the same weight. Some are more authoritative than others and so Catholics need to respond to these documents in different ways.

The documents presented in this web-site are of various types. Some have been published by the Pope on his own authority, while others have emanated from the Second Vatican Council.

Among the documents published by a Pope on his own authority there are differences to note. Some are Encyclicals (letters) addressed to the Church, to his fellow bishops, or to all men and women of good will. Some are Apostolic Exhortations, which are words of encouragement to consider some special topic or act in certain ways. There are also Apostolic Letters addressing particular issues or groups and Apostolic Constitutions which deal with various structural issues, as well as Addresses to various gatherings and Homilies at Papal masses. There is a clear 'sliding scale' here with encyclicals at the top and homilies at the bottom. Nonetheless homilies may be an important way in which a Pope communicates these of great importance to Catholics.

Overall then, the highest level of authority lies with encyclicals and Catholics are expected to accept their teachings as demanding our loyalty and eliciting our assent. However, not all encyclicals give us infallible teachings, and even in those that do, not everything taught in them is infallible. We are required to consider the content and context of each document, especially the intention of the Pope in issuing the document, and the way in which the bishops and the whole Church receive the teaching. Many encyclicals are important and weighty documents, but it was not the intention of the pope to make a binding or infallible teaching in them. For example Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, was a very important document but there is no new teaching being proclaimed as binding on the Church.

Council documents also express the teaching authority of the Church. But as with Papal documents, they too have different levels of authority. The most authoritative are Constitutions, followed by Declarations and Decrees. By giving them different designations, the Council Fathers meant to indicate their level of authority as reflecting the depth of discussion and degree of unanimity they were able to achieve on the topics they considered. There are complex theological questions about the relationship of the authority of Council documents and papal authority which we do not enter into here.

For a fuller account see:
The Authority of Church Documents
Rules of Thumb for Reading Church Documents

Copyright © Australian Catholic University

Other Papal documents: