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Catholicism - General Resources: Papal documents

Find authoritative sources that cover a broad range of topics in Catholicism.

Where to find Papal documents

A helpful site for church documents is Papal Encyclicals Online. You may browse by Church Council or by Pope. There is also a search engine, pictures of medieval Papal documents, etc.

"Denzinger" is a sourcebook of Catholic dogma comprised of the creeds of the faith, beginning with the twelve apostles, and documents of the Church's Magisterium, through the pontificate of Benedict XVI. It is arranged chronologically and includes papal bulls, encyclicals, conciliar decisions, doctrinal decrees, etc.  

If the document was issued after 1878, consult the Papal archive on the Vatican Website. Note that many of the older materials may not be available in English.

If the document was issued after 1930 consult the Catholic Periodical Literature Index (in print) for 1930-2004 or the ATLA Religion Database for 1981-present. Within ATLA, go to Advanced Search and under genre, choose "papal document." 

If the document was issued after 1740, check Papal Pronouncements: A Guide, 1740-1978 or The Papal Encyclicals, 1740-1981. Note that this latter set is available on Papal Encyclicals Online.

For documents before 1740, consult Papal Registers. For Papal Bulls (in Latin) from the time of Leo the Great to Benedict XIV, see this 19th-century Bullarum (aka Bullarium Romanum), available in our Special Collections. You may also search Google Books, Internet Archive and HathiTrust for digitized versions of Bullarium Romanum or Bullarum, diplomatum et privilegiorum. The English version for some older papal bulls may be found on Papal Encyclicals Online.

The Latin text represents the most authoritative version of a given document, with some exceptions; therefore, the Latin source is generally preferred for purposes of citation. Certain significant Papal documents may be published in English as standalone publications. Other sources may contain English translations of Latin originals. These include the periodicals The Pope Speaks (1954-2005), L'Osservatore Romano [English Edition] (1968-present), and Origins (1971-present).

Another way to search the Maly Catalog is via subject headings:

Types of Papal documents

Papal addresses and documents fall into certain recognized categories with levels of authority relative to each other. Below is a description of the major types of Papal documents, with those of greater solemnity near the top of the list (for more on "weight" of magisterial documents, see Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium). More details on some of these documents may also be found in the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

  • Apostolic Constitutions
  • Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutions) are considered the most solemn papal documents and concern weighty doctrinal or disciplinary matters that are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. Examples: Constitution on the Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium]; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
  • Encyclicals 
    Encyclicals (encyclica epistola) are papal letters of a pastoral nature, used in their current form since 1740. These letters offer counsel and shed light on existing doctrine as part of the Holy Father's ordinary teaching authority. Example: Humanae vitae, concerning the Church's teaching on birth control issued in 1968  by Pope Paul VI.
  • Motu Proprios
    Motu proprio is a legislative, apostolic letter written and signed by the pope on his own initiative. Originally used to settle the affairs of the Curia and administer the Papal States, they now handle legislative matters which are significant but do not merit a constitution. Motu proprios are generally brief, and handle specific issues relevant to the Church in a specific time in history. In recent years they have been one of the principal sources of new laws outside of the Code.
  • Other Apostolic Letters
    When an encyclical is written in response to a particular need, or when it is addressed to a specific group of persons, it is called an apostolic epistle (apostolica epistola). These epistles, pastoral in nature and primarily discussing social concerns, are not considered legislative or doctrinal documents but to give counsel in light of particular circumstances or situations.
  • Apostolic Exhortations
    Apostolic exhortations (apostolica exhortation) are papal reflections on a particular topic addressed to all of the clergy and faithful. The form was first used by Pope Pius XII in 1939. Exhortations generally encourage a particular virtue or mission, and are given on specific occasions. They do not contain dogmatic definitions or policies, and they are not considered legislative documents. Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. 
  • Decretal Letters
    Decretals, first used in the 2nd century, originally contained papal decisions related to questions of discipline and administration. During the Middle Ages they were often issued in the form of bulls. In modern times, they are reserved for solemn matters such as dogmatic definitions and canonizations. It is generally accepted that decretals belong to the extraordinary magisterium of the Holy Father; however, they are not considered legislative documents.
  • Allocutiones / Addresses
    Prior to the 19th century, the term "allocutiones" was generally reserved for solemn addresses given by the Holy Father to his cardinals. Today, however, a variety of less-formal papal allocutions and addresses are published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis and other sources. Their content is not necessarily tied to the Church or liturgy, but attempts to address specific issues or circumstances and is aimed at particular groups of people.
  • Papal Rescript
    A papal rescript generally answers a petition placed before one of the Roman Curiae or the Holy Father himself. It is signed by the cardinal prefect and the secretary of the relevant congregation, and also bears that congregation's seal.
  • Apostolic Brief
    Apostolic briefs, also called brevia, are a simple form of document dealing with matters of relatively-minor importance. This form emerged during the reign of Pope Martin V (1417-31) as a replacement for the ancient form of litterae.


The information for this guide was taken from Helen Hull Hitchcock's article on the authority of church documents and Jimmy Akin's book Teaching with Authority: How to Cut Through Doctrinal Confusion & Understand What the Church Really Says.