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An Overview of Encyclicals and Papal Documents

  • Papal Decrees
  • Bulls
  • Briefs
  • Rescripts
  • Papal Constitutions
  • Allocutions
  • Moto Proprio
  • Encyclicals

  • Encyclicals are among various
    types of documents written and promulgated by occupants of the See of Peter.   These classifications consist of the following:

    Papal Decrees: These are documents usually prepared by one of the offices or congregations in the Roman Curia to which the pope's approval is attached.  That is, the pope himself does not write the document, but he approves of their promulgation. These are papal replies to some particular difficulty submitted to the Holy See, but having the force of precedents to rule on all analogous cases.

    Bulls:These are official documents by which dioceses are established, dignitaries are appointed, and saints are canonized. Originally, the term applied to almost any document bearing the papal seal that was issued by the papal chancery.

    Briefs: Usually consist of special grants and less significant decrees.

    Rescript: Usually contains some favor, privilege, or dispensation which has been elicited by some previous appeal.

    Papal Constitutions: Usually contain decisions determining matters of faith or disciplinary purposes.

    Allocution: Allocution is a solemn form of address or speech from the throne employed by the Pope on certain occasions. It is delivered only in a secret consistory at which the cardinals alone are present. The term allocutio was used by the ancient Romans for the speech made by a commander to his troops, either before a battle or during it, to animate and encourage them. The term when adopted into ecclesiastical usage retained much of its original significance. An allocution of the Pope often takes the place of a manifesto when a struggle between the Holy See and the secular powers has reached an acute stage. It then usually summarizes the points at issue and details the efforts made by the Holy See to preserve peace. It likewise indicates what the Pope has already conceded and the limit which principle obliges him to put to further concessions. A secret consistory of cardinals, as opposed to a public and ceremonious one, is a meeting of those dignitaries in presence of the Pope to discuss matters of great importance concerning the well-being of the Church. At these secret consistories the Sovereign Pontiff not only creates cardinals, bishops, and legates, but he also discusses with the cardinals grave matters of State arising out of those mixed affairs, partly religious, partly civil, in which conflict can easily arise between Church and State. In such secret consistories, the cardinals have a consultative vote.

    When the Pope has reached a conclusion on some important matter, he makes his mind known to the cardinals by means of a direct address, or allocution. Such allocations, though delivered in secret, are usually published for the purpose of making clear the attitude of the Holy See on a given question. They treat generally of matters that affect the whole Church, or of religious troubles in a particular country where ecclesiastical rights are infringed or endangered, or where heretical or immoral doctrines are undermining the faith of the people. Most of the subjects presented to the secret consistory have already been prepared in the consistorial congregation, which is composed of a limited number of cardinals. These conclusions may be accepted or rejected by the Pope as he thinks proper. In matters of statecraft, the Pontiff also takes counsel with those most conversant with the subject at issue and with his Secretary of State. His conclusions are embodied in the allocution. Among papal allocation of later times which attracted widespread attention from the importance or delicacy of the matters with which they dealt, may be mentioned those of Pius VII on the French Concordat (1802) and on the difficulties created by Napoleon for the Holy See (1808); those of Gregory XVI referring to the troubles with Prussia concerning mixed marriages, and with Russia over forcible conversions to the schismatical Greek Church; those of Pius IX concerning the attacks on the Pope's temporal power, and of Pius X on the rupture with France occasioned by the breaking of the Concordat and the consequent separation of Church and State in that country.

    Motu Proprio: The name given to certain papal rescripts on account of the clause motu proprio (of his own accord) used in the document. The words signify that the provisions of the rescript were decided on by the pope personally, that is, not on the advice of the cardinals or others, but for reasons which he himself deemed sufficient. The document has generally the form of a decree: in style it resembles a Brief rather than a Bull, but differs from both especially in not being sealed or countersigned. It issues from the Dataria Apostolica, and is usually written in Italian or Latin. It begins by stating the reason inducing the sovereign pontiff to act, after which is stated the law or regulation made, or the favour granted, It is signed, personally by the pope, his name and the date being always in Latin. A Motu Proprio was first issued by Innocent VIII in 1484. It was always unpopular in France, where it was regarded as an infringement of Gallican liberties, for it implied that the sovereign pontiff had an immediate jurisdiction in the affairs of the French Church. The best-known recent example of a Motu Proprio is the instructions issued by Pius X on 22 November, 1903, for the reform of church music.

    The phrase motu proprio is frequently employed in papal documents. One characteristic result of its use is that a rescript containing it is valid and produces its effect even in cases where fraud would ordinarily have vitiated the document, for the words signify that the pope in granting the favour does not rely on the reasons alleged. When the clause is used in dispensations, the latter are given a broad interpretation; a favour granted motu proprio is valid even when counter to ecclesiastical law, or the decisions of the pope himself. Consequently, canonists call the clause the "mother of repose": "sicut papaver gignit somnum et quietem, ita et hæc clausula habenti eam.

    Encyclicals: Documents relating to doctrinal or moral matters, warnings, consolations, exhortations, and teachings. They are intended to give guidance to bishops and their flocks

    The word encyclical, although used from early days, was not common until the 18th century. It originally applied to pastoral letters written by bishops for the benefit of the souls entrusted to them within their particular diocese. Currently the term applies to letters written by the Bishop of Rome who has universal jurisdiction and can thus write letters to particular churches or to the universal church.  When a letter is addressed to the entire church, it is clear that it is a solemn occasion carrying great importance.  For example, Pope John Paul II began a recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) with the following words: "To all the Bishops of the Catholic Church Regarding Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church's Moral Teaching.

    At the most basic level an encyclical is a historical document directed to a set of concrete circumstances which will inevitably change with time.  It must be determined who is the intended audience for an encyclical.  They are usually addressed to bishops of a certain nation or of certain nations, at other times they are addressed to the universal church.   This is an important point because ideas and words used in one context vary in meaning, often significantly, when used in other contexts. For example, the Marxist use of the word democracy differs from the typical American usage.  Thus, an encyclical addressed to church leaders in a Communist country that employs the word democracy cannot be properly applied to the situation in the United States toward which the encyclical was not intended

    Thus, encyclicals are worded with precision and great care for a definite historical or cultural context.  Most often, an encyclical will employ rational arguments as well as appeals to faith.  In this manner, they are able to reach wider audiences, people who are moved by well documented reasons rather than by recourse to articles of faith. The encyclicals are not limited to theological or spiritual concerns; they address the increasingly complex world in which the church finds itself.  Sometimes they deal with strictly religious matters, at other times with temporal ones and even with artistic, scientific, economic or political matters that have an impact or bearing on the faith

    According to the church, there are four primary types of ecclesiastical matters subject to the authority and power of the pope.  These include faith and morals, administration, and discipline. An encyclical, since it is a papal pronouncement, carries with it the austere weight of the office which can include an infallible teaching.  When the pope defines truth concerning faith and morals, and clearly states that he is speaking with his full papal authority to the entire universal church, with the express purpose of defining a particular matter, his teaching is held to be infallible.  That is, infallibility is a necessity of the papal office given by God to assure that the church would be the pillar and support of the truth until the end of time.  The infallible proclamation is guaranteed by the necessity of such a definition and ratified by the supreme and sovereign authority of God himself for the good of the human race.

    In the absence of such a guarantee by God, the faith is left open to arbitrary bickering and disagreement leading oftentimes to division, anger, and bloodshed.  To preserve His church from these eventualities and to assure the unity that He prayed for to His Father, (John 17:11 - "I pray that they may be one, that they be so completely one, as you and I are one so that the world will know that it is I who have sent them.") Christ had to establish some guarantee of authority to the teaching entrusted by Him to His Church.   This guarantee is known as infallibility. Without it there could be no Catholic Church or any unified church anywhere.  The hundreds of modern Christian sects and denominations are ample proof of this verity. Jesus is the way and the life and the truth; He promised this truth to mankind and will continue to provide it until the consummation of time through what Catholics call the infallible magesterium that flows from him who occupies the weighty See of Peter.

    When the Roman pontiff speaks infallibly, he is said to speak ex cathedra. That is, when he implements the authority of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians, and defines a doctrinal matter pertaining to faith and morals, and it is clear that he is doing so, he is promised the unending inscrutable Divine assistance necessary to nourish the flock.  In this office, he is fulfilling in a more complete form that power granted to the Judaic high priests who were granted special graces to speak prophetically by the very virtue of their office.  For example, scripture informs us that the High Priest Caiaphas spoke prophetically, without even realizing the implications of his utterance, when he prophesied that it was better for one man to die for the nation than that the whole nation should perish.

    Since Christ left His church to fructify amidst the temporal realties of the world, it was necessary to establish, ordain, and empower a teacher to guide His people among the historical vicissitudes of time and culture.  It was necessary to sustain His flock by an infallible teacher that could rescue His children from the snares, wiles, and deceit of spiritual enemies and of ill intended men craftily employing demagoguery, rhetoric, and feeding on the ignorance of simple people. 

    This infallible authority of the popes can be used in encyclical letters, but it is rarely employed in that form. Some encyclicals are thought to carry such infallible potency and they are exercises of the Pope's extraordinary magesterium.  That is when he uses his papal prerogative to define, negate, and express an infallible truth outside of a council or outside of a unique repetition of an already accepted and defined truth.  That is, a pope might speak infallibly many times every day, but if these utterances are mere repetitions, no matter how unique, of previous truths already defined by the Church, he is said to speaking infallibly by virtue of the ordinary teaching magisterium attached to his office.   Any new definition or negation solemnly defined and addressed to the whole flock in matters of faith and morals is an exercise of his extraordinary magesterium which is rarely exercised

    Nonetheless, even if encyclicals are not always infallible documents, they are intended to be profound teachings uttered by Christ's Vicar and carrying the import and weight of his office. Since the pope is the supreme teacher and pastor of the flock, all Catholics are expected to reverently receive these teachings.  Generally speaking, the encyclicals do not contain solemn definitions like those promulgated by ecumenical councils. 

    Finally, it is necessary to add that the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra of necessity, that is, he cannot do otherwise--he is impelled by the very power and guarantee of Christ Himself.

    For example, David Currie writes in Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic about the sixth century heretic Vigilius who became pope.  During this time Theodora was the empress of the eastern Roman Empire.  Like others, she had adopted the heretical teaching Monophysitism which denied that Christ was both true God and true man.  She accepted His divinity but denied His humanity. Theodora was set on imposing her beliefs on the Western church.  To do this meant that she had to either change the thinking of the pope or impose her will upon him.

    The pope, Agapitus, refused to alter the traditional teaching that Christ had two natures, Divine and human.  Agapitus died on a visit to Constantinople to remove a heretical Eastern Bishop.  Vigilius, who had his eyes on the papal throne,  met in secret with the empress and agreed to enforce her heretical beliefs and restore the deposed bishop if she would back him for papal election.

    Before Vigilius could occupy the papal throne he had to travel all the back to Rome to claim it.  Before he could do this, another pope, Silverius, was legitimately elected and installed.   Silverius was as orthodox as Agapitus had been. Intrigue led to his being falsely accused of treason and then unlawfully stripped of his office by a secular general of the empress Theodora. At the trial Silverius refused to yield and so was exiled.  Vigilius took Silverius' place as an antipope.  In this position he promptly set about to restore the deposed bishop and promote Monophysitism.  The only problem was that he was really not pope. God's vicar was alive although exiled. It is most probable that Vigilius prompted Pope Silverius' death of starvation about a year after he helped to exile him.

    Interestingly, the Church of Rome, upon the death of Silverius, legitimately installed Vigilius as pope. As antipope he had been boldly proclaiming Theodora's heresy. However, as pope he was unable to comply with his promise.  He wrote a letter telling the empress now that he was pope he could never teach Monophysitism or support those who did. He even refused to accept a compromise solution proffered by the emperor himself. Up to this point his moral character was lax; he was guilty of simony and murder.  Yet God gave him the grace to endure martyrdom and more importantly, the necessity to teach the truth in matters of faith and morals.  He was arrested by the emperor's men while saying Mass in Rome and deported to Constantinople.  At no point after becoming pope, in spite of cruel indignities suffered for ten years, did Vigilius revert to the heresy embraced by the political powers and most of the Eastern Church where they presided.

    A man who a short time before was embroiled in the world's affairs and willing to lie and cheat to attain the papal throne to satisfy his own desire for power remarkably became a changed man once he occupied the See of Peter.  A remarkable change guaranteed by God because He is the way the life and the Truth and has promised to secure His church in this truth until the parousia.

    In spite of this moving account of Pope Vigilius, encyclicals are rarely infallible documents, when they are, they must carry distinct marks.  Infallible documents must deal with matters of faith and morals (not discipline or administration), they must use terms equivalent to declare, define, pronounce, and they must state the definite sanctions and censures incurred for non-belief or non-compliance.

    The social encyclicals contained in this series are not infallible documents, but they carry the weight of the papal office and provide needed guidance in the complex domains of social and political philosophy.  They are all the more poignant because of the errors they address, communism, liberalism, and socialism. They provide a needed critique of these ideologies and establish a viable blue print for development based upon the infallible and adamantine principles of justice and charity which give rise to derived secondary principles suitable to the modern world and expressed in the encyclicals waiting for men and women of good will to humbly study them and to deduce the specific determinations which will make them applicable in divergent cultures around the globe.  They do not provide the specific remedies, that is left to men and women of good will who must creatively apply the principles and teachings according to the restrictions of time and place in which they find themselves.  That is, the encyclicals provide a prescription for successful reformation but the principles cannot be applied without a thorough understanding of the milieu in which they must be applied. This necessitates descriptive and empirical studies of each separate environment by men and women learned in the social, political, and economic sciences as well as moral, social, and political philosophy.


    Electronic Format and Graphics Copyright © by The Kolbe Foundation August 14, 1999
    Represented by The Ewing Law Center and Guardian Angel Legal Services