Categories of Documents

The following categories of papal documents are according
to relative degree of authority, greatest to least.






Motu Proprio - 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.

Apostolic Constitution - 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.

Encyclical - 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 to the German people on racism).

Apostolic Letter of less solemn authority than an encyclical, they may be written on a doctrinal matter (e.g. Pope John Paul's Letter on the Mystery of the Eucharist). They may also announce a papal act such as declaring a person Venerable (heroic virtue) or declaring a church a basilica.

Apostolic Exhortation - 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.

Common Declaration - joint statements of the Holy Father and other religious leaders.

Homily - 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 officials.

Discourse - 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.

Message - Written or spoken messages, often conveying a personal greeting, to individuals or groups. Usually briefer than a letter or an allocution.