The weight of authority
behind a teaching of the Papal Magisterium depends on the dogmatic
history of the teaching and the intention of the Supreme Pontiff.
Papal addresses and documents invariably contain teachings in
several categories of authority. Some of these teachings will be "of
the faith" (de fide), requiring the assent of Catholics
by reason of the virtue of faith's obligation to God revealing.
Among such de fide teachings will be those which have been
solemnly defined (such as the divinity of Christ, or, the Immaculate
Conception of Mary), and those which, while they have not
been solemnly defined, belong to the infallible ordinary
Magisterium, having been taught "semper et ubique" (always and
everywhere). Examples of the latter include the evil of certain
sins, such as abortion or adultery, or the restriction of the
priesthood to men.
Papal addresses and documents may also contain teachings which
come from the common teaching of the Church, but which cannot yet be
said to be de fide, and even new insights and explanations
which manifest the mind of the Magisterium. Such authentic
teaching has a presumption of correctness and deserves the reverence
and submission of Catholics. By doing so peaceful communion in
matters of the faith is maintained throughout the Church, properly
gathered around the principle of unity in faith given by Christ to
the Church, Peter and his successors. On this point the Second
Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in
a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman
Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it
must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is
acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are
sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.
His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the
character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the
same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. [Lumen
Among the elements mentioned by the Council for determining the
mind and intention of the Pontiff is the character of the document.
Papal addresses and documents fall into certain recognized
categories with levels of authority relative to each other. The
following lists those categories from those with the highest weight
to those with the least.
A document issued Motu Proprio is from the Pope on his own
initiative, and not in response to a request or at the initiative of
others. Its legal determinations carry the full force of papal
authority, though it does not derogate from existing laws unless
specifically stated. It can be any category of document.
In teaching, it includes solemn Magisterial acts of the Pope; in
governance, erecting dioceses, changing their status, rules for a
papal election and the like.
A circular or general letter expressing the mind of the Pope,
generally on matters of faith and morals. It may be a letter to the
entire Church or an epistle to a particular Church or people (e.g.
Mit brennenden sorge, Pius XI's encyclical to the German people
Letters of less solemn authority than an encyclical, they may be
written on a doctrinal matter (e.g. Pope John Paul II's Letter On
the Beginning of the Third Millennium). They may also announce a papal act such
as declaring a person Venerable (heroic virtue) or declaring a
church a Basilica.
A category of document similar to an Apostolic Letter, which Pope
John Paul II uses to communicate to the Church the conclusions he
has reached after consideration of the recommendations of a Synod of
Bishops. He has also used it in other circumstances, such as to
exhort religious to a deeper evangelical life.
A joint statement of the Holy Father and
another religious leader concerning a common understanding of some
The homilies of the Pope on the Scripture readings at Mass.
General Audience - The opportunity to hear and/or greet the Holy
Father is called an audience. On Wednesdays, when he is in Rome, he
will have a General Audience, either in the Paul VI audience hall or
in St. Peter's Square. The discourses at these Audiences are
typically used to develop a theme over a long period. An entry
ticket, which is free, is required.
Private Audience - The Pope also holds private audiences with
individuals and groups, at which he will also speak on a pertinent
subject, such as on medical issues to groups of doctors, world
affairs to diplomats and Church teaching and procedures to curial
In settings outside Mass (at which his address is called a
homily) or outside the usual audience setting, the Pope may give a
discourse to groups of people, upon arriving or departing a place,
before or after Mass, at a rosary or in some circumstance not a
homily or an audience.
Written or spoken messages, often conveying a personal greeting,
to individuals or groups. Usually briefer than a letter or an