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Vatican Documents: How are they distinguished?

I made a comprehensive summary in tabular form on the different Vatican documents as follows:





Q: What are the Vatican documents
A: Vatican Documents include the following (in descending order of formal authority): 

1.APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS 
- Document of the highest authority, issued by the Pope, or by a Church Council with the Pope’s approval. 

- They have the authority of the ancient apostolic constitutions. 

- When used to proclaim a Church dogma, it is called a Dogmatic Constitution. 

- When used for pastoral teaching, it is called a Pastoral Constitution. 

- Ex. Dei Verbum, Gaudium et Spes 


2. ENCYCLICAL LETTERS 
- A letter written by the Pope to the entire Church, generally concerning matters of doctrine, morals or discipline, pastoral concerns, or significant commemorations. 

- Encyclicals are not divinely inspired and do not contain new revelation, but they are authoritative teaching instruments from the Vicar of Christ. 

- An encyclical letter is written for the whole Church, while an encyclical epistle is directed toward part of the Church, e.g., bishops or laity in a particular country, leaders of religious orders, priests, etc. 

- Ex. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letters have had a powerful impact on Church and also on non-Catholics via the public media, such as Laborem Exercens (1981) and Centesimus Annus (1991) on Catholic social teaching, Veritatis Splendor (1993) on the splendor of the truth, Evangelium Vitae (1995) on the value of human life, Ut Unum Sint (1995) on ecumenism, and Fides et Ratio (1998) on the unity of faith and reason. 


3. ENCYCLICAL EPISTLES 
- A letter written by the Pope to part of the Church, e.g., bishops or laity in a particular country, leaders of religious orders, priests, etc. 

Because encyclical epistles are directed to a particular audience within the Church, they receive a great deal of attention from those who whom they are directed. Naturally, however, they receive little attention from those outside the audience to which they are directed. 

A recent example would be Pope John Paul II’s encyclical epistle, Slavorum Apostoli on evangelization of the Slavic peoples by Saints Cyril and Methodius. It is addressed “to the bishops, priests, and religious families and to all the Christian faithful,” but certainly of more interest to the Slavic peoples than to the generality of Catholics. 


4.APOSTOLIC EXHORTATIONS 

- A letter written by the Pope to the Church encouraging its people to take some particular action. 

- They do not define the development of doctrine. 

- Ex. Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, January 22, 1999, encouraging the faithful to seek the living Christ and find conversion, communion and solidarity within the context of the Great Jubilee and the new evangelization. 


5. APOSTOLIC LETTERS 

Document issued by the Pope or by a Vatican dicastery, usually for lesser appointments, erecting or dividing mission territory, designating basilicas, approving religious congregations, and other uses at a comparable level of importance. 


6. LETTERS 
A letter written by the Pope, the head of a dicastery, or other Vatican office to a Vatican official, the head of a religious order or other dignitary. The contents are of interest primarily to those to whom they are addressed. Pope John Paul’s letters of the year 2001 or even St. Paul’s letter to Philemon are examples. 

Vatican offices also use letters to address points of doctrine or discipline that are not significant enough to require the Holy Father’s personal attention, or points that have already been addressed by the Holy Father but require clarification. These letters are often useful to active Catholics. A letter from the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard of January 16, 1948, Time of Pentateuch and Literary Form of First Eleven Chapters of Genesis, would be an example. 


7. MESSAGES 

A letter written by the Pope or the head of a dicastery. 

The contents are generally of transitory rather than permanent interest. Pope John Paul II’s messages are an example. 


TRIVIA: 
Did you know that the formal title of an encyclical is the first few words of its official text in Latin?


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