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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 6: September 2002

The Authority of Church Documents

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

With the multiplication of Church documents -- and commentaries and "interpretations" of them -- the level of authority of these documents is not always clear. A "primer" of the names and designation of some of the main categories of documents -- legislative, doctrinal (teaching) and "pastoral" -- may be useful to those threading their way through them.

At the top of the hierarchy of authoritative documents are apostolic constitutions and decrees issued by popes, such as the Second Vatican Council documents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was presented by the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum in 1992. These documents, along with the Code of Canon Law (1983) have binding authority on the entire Church. These are legislative documents, containing dogmatic or doctrinal elements.

Papal teaching documents, encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations, and "motu proprio" documents expound or explain existing law.

Instructions, issued by Congregations, with the approval of the pope, likewise explain Council documents or decrees. Examples are the Instructions on the implementation of the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

There are other explanatory documents that interpret regulations given in Canon Law or other official legislative documents of the Church. For example, official responses to questions (dubia) of bishops addressed to the Holy See.

The official documents issued by a national conference of bishops, usually called "pastoral letters", are explanations of how Church teaching applies to or is to be put into effect within a given country. Such documents must always be absolutely consistent with the teaching and law of the universal Church, and ordinarily require official confirmation by the Holy See (recognitio) to be effective. This is the case with all the liturgical documents and texts a national conference produces.

An example of a conference committee statement that was approved by the conference of bishops but did not have the approval of the Holy See is the 1990 Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, which was written by a sub-committee of the conference. It was superseded by the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam.

Documents issued by an individual diocesan bishop have authority within that diocese, provided that they do not conflict with universal teaching or law, or documents of the conference that have the recognitio of the Holy See.

A final category of documents, and these have no binding authority, are statements or "guidelines" of committees or subcommittees of the national conference issued without the approval of the conference. Such documents have often been accorded an authority that they do not possess, however. In the liturgy, examples of these non-binding statements of the US Bishops Liturgy Committee are Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, (replaced by the guidelines on church architecture, Built of Living Stones); Music in Catholic Worship, and Liturgical Music Today. These "guidelines" do not possess the authority of the bishops' conference.

A diocesan bishop has considerable freedom to adopt or adapt such guidelines as policies for his own diocese, however, which may give them an authority they do not otherwise possess.

Examples of statements that were issued without approval of the full body of bishops are Always Our Children (addressed to parents of homosexuals) and the recent Reflections on Covenant and Mission (issued by a "consultation" of Catholics and Jews).

In the case of Always Our Children, this committee statement drew sharp criticism from many bishops when they discussed it after it was already released. Nevertheless, it is still invoked by some as if it represented "the mind of the bishops".

The recent Reflections statement also met considerable criticism. A few days after it was released in August 2002, a "clarification" was issued by a Catholic delegate to the joint-commission, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore.

Following is an abbreviated glossary of the most common types of documents issued by the Holy See, and terms associated with them.

Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutiones): solemn, formal documents on matters of highest consequence concerning doctrinal or disciplinary matters, issued by the pope in his own name. They are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. (Examples: the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Apostolic exhortation (apostolica exhortatio): a papal reflection on a particular topic that does not contain dogmatic definitions or policy directives, addressed to bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the entire Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations are not legislative documents. (Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.)

Apostolic letter (apostolica epistola): a formal papal teaching document, not used for dogmatic definitions of doctrine, but to give counsel to the Church on points of doctrine that require deeper explanation in the light of particular circumstances or situations in various parts of the world.

Declaration (declamatio): may be a simple statement of the law, which must be interpreted according to the existing law; or an authoritative declaration that is retroactive and does not require further promulgation; or an extensive declaration, which modifies the law, is not retroactive and must be promulgated according to the law.

Decree (decretum): a statement involving Church law, precepts or judicial decisions on a specific matter. It is an ordinance given by one having the power of jurisdiction (such as a bishop within his particular diocese, the head of an office of the Roman Curia, or the pope), acting administratively to promote compliance with the law. A decree announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect.

Encyclical (encyclica epistola - literally, "circular letter"): a formal apostolic letter issued by the pope usually addressed to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the entire Church. Example, Humanae vitae, concerning the Church's teaching on birth control issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.

Instruction (instructio): explains or amplifies a document that has legislative force, such as apostolic constitutions, and states how its precepts are to be applied. (e.g., Liturgiam authenticam, on liturgical translation, an Instruction on the correct implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.)

Institutio: instituted arrangement or regular method, rules (as in Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani).

Motu proprio (literally, by one's own initiative): a legislative document or decree issued by the pope on his own initiative, not in response to a request. (Examples: Apostolos Suos; Misericordia Dei.)

Promulgation (promulgatio): the process whereby the lawmaker communicates the law to those to whom the law has been given. (The official effective date on which a document is promulgated may or may not coincide with the date on which a document is actually published.)

Recognitio: confirms the review of documents that are submitted by a conference of bishops to the relevant office (dicastery) of the Holy See. Recognitio is required before the provisions of documents that modify universal law may come into effect. Recognitio thus signals acceptance of a document that may have legislative force. (Recognitio is required for all documents that modify universal liturgical norms, for example.)

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