Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Types of Papal Documents

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Sources: Carlen, Claudia.  Papal Pronouncements, a guide, 1740-1978. Volume 1. Ann Arbor, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990; New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.


Litteras decretales (Decretal Letter) presently restricted to a solemn document that deals with matters such as dogmatic definitions and the official proclamation of beatifications and canonizations.

Constitutio apostolica (apostolic constitution) normally a doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncement, it is considered the most solemn type of document issued by a pope in his own name. Since 1911 it has also been used for the creation of new dioceses.

Litterae encyclicae (encyclical letter) normally addressed to the faithful through the bishops. When it is addressed to a particular need or primarily to the bishops of a region it is called an encyclical epistle. Though used from an early date, its present form was adopted in the nineteenth century. Encyclicals are typically pastoral in character.

Litterae apostolicae (apostolic letter) deals with executive and administrative affairs.

Motu propio this term came into use during the time of Innocent VIII, a motu propio was originally a simple decree. In recent years, they have been the source of new laws.

Adhortatio apostolica, adhortatio or hortatio (apostolic exhortation), an instruction given on a specific occasion.

Epistolae (simple letters) are addressed to one or several cardinals, bishops, religious, or lay people dealing with social matters.

Chirographa (autograph letters) usually addressed to  a cardinal with an informal statement on an important matter.

Angelus since the pontificate of Paul VI the message during the Angelus has been seen as a catechetical tool used by the pope to discuss current issues.


Finding Papal Documents

There are several aspects of a papal document that are needed in order to find them.


Most sources arrange papal documents chronologically. You should look for the date of issue and not the publication date. However, if you cannot find the document on the date it was issued, then look a few months after that date.


It is also helpful to know which pope issued the document. The Vatican website has a list of popes in order of their pontificate. There are also selected documents that were issued during their pontificate. Most documents released after 1898 can be found under the pope's name.


Most documents are referred to by the first few words of the document in Latin. However, that may not be the official title. Most sources list the document by their official title.

Type of document

The Vatican website organizes documents by pope and then type of document. Therefore, knowing the type of document is helpful in finding it.


Print Resources

Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum BX1747.5 D4 1976

Commonly known as Denzinger, theological works refer to it by the DS number. The volumes are in Latin with some Greek for early church councils.

Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Reference and Circulating BX825 A1990.



These resources are in the Reference section on the first floor of the library.

  • The Papal Encyclicals. Reference +BX 860 C3 1981. Volumes 1-5

  • The Encyclicals of John Paul II. Reference BX 860 1978 A213 1996

  • Marquette University Index. Reference +BX 81737 M37 1991. This series indexes documents published by the USCCB and its predecessors. It includes papal documents and statements from the USCCB.

  • The Catechetical Documents. Reference BX 1747.5 C36.  Documents relating to the catechetical ministry of the Church. Includes Papal and USCCB documents. Also includes commentary on each document.

  • The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church.  Reference BX 1747.5 C48 1996. A thematic presentation of the faith through excepts of historical proclamations of the church.

  • Catechism of the Church. Reference BX 1959.3 E5 2000

  • The Liturgy Documents Reference BX 1970 A513 Volumes 1-4. Documents relating to the Liturgy of the Church. Volumes 1 and 2 include Vatican II and important post-Vatican II documents. Later volumes include supplemental documents.


Church Councils

  • The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils BR203 L4 1996

  • Councils and Synods: With Other Documents Relating to the English Church BQX2006 C6 1964

  • Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils BX825 A1990

  • The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology BR2000 D34 1990

  • Handbook of Church History (10 Volumes) BQX77 J413 1965

  • A History of the Councils of the Church: From the Original Documents eBook

  • Sacroum conciliorum, nova et amplissma collectio. KBR200 M36 1960



  • The Papacy. Ref + BX 955.2 D53 2002 Volumes 1-3

  • Oxford Dictionary of the Popes. Ref BX 955.3 K45 2010.

  • The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages BQJ103 P33 1923

  • The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages BQX103 M3 1902

  • Papal Pronouncements: a Guide: 1740-1978 (Two Volumes) +BX850 C37 1990


Online resources