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Canon Law

How to Find Papal Documents

What Information Do You Need?

To find Papal documents, the most important piece of information is the date.  Most sources of documents are arranged chronologically.  Sources often organize documents by their publication date, which may be somewhat later than the official date of issue. If you cannot find a document under its official date, you should check the several months or year following that date.  

[Pontifical Reign]
It is also helpful to know which pope issued the document. You may be able to determine this based on the document's date.  An up-to-date list of popes (in Italian) and the dates of their pontifical reigns may be found in the Annuario Pontificio [REF BQX 21 A55V3].

Many documents are commonly cited by a brief Latin name, which actually reflects the first few words of the text and may differ from the official title. Most sources will list documents by their official title, which tends to be longer and more descriptive. If you are not sure of the full title, some knowledge of the document's subject will be useful in identifying the correct document.

[Type of Document]
Finally, it may be helpful to know the type of document you are searching for (encyclical, constitution, etc.), as some sources are specific to a particular type of document. See the list below for more information about the different types of documents.

Be aware that some document sources are incomplete, especially older compilations. Even with a full citation, it may be difficult to locate a copy of a given document.  You may need to check several sources; you will also most likely need to inspect print sources in-person to determine if they contain the document(s) you need.

Types of Papal documents

Below is a list of the major types of Papal documents and their descriptions:

  • Papal Bull
    A bull is a formal papal document authenticated with a bulla or seal. Originally, metal was used for the seal, but today metal is used only for the most solemn bulls. Bulls typically begin with the issuing pope's name and the phrase, "episcopus servus servorum Dei", and conclude with the date. The content may cover any topic. Many important papal documents are issued as bulls. Bulls are generally cited using the first words of their text.
  • Apostolic Constitution
    Apostolic constitutions are the most solemn form of legal document issued by the pope in his own name. Frequently issued as bulls, they deal primarily with serious doctrinal matters. Since 1911 they have also been used for the erection of dioceses and provinces. Many important documents have been promulgated as constitutions, including The Code of Canon Law.
  • Motu Proprio
    Motu proprios are legislative, apostolic letters written and signed by the pope on his own initiative. Originally used to settle the affairs of the Curia and administer the Papal States, they now handle legislative matters which are significant but do not merit a constitution. Motu proprios are generally brief, and handle specific issues relevant to the Church in a specific time in history. In recent years they have been one of the principal sources of new laws outside of the Code.
  • Encyclical Letter
    Encyclicals are papal letters of a pastoral nature, used in their current form since 1740. These letters offer counsel and shed light on existing doctrine as part of the Holy Father's ordinary teaching authority. They do not belong formally to the deposit of revelation, and their teachings are not definitive unless specifically stated as such. Therefore, certain points of their teachings can often be changed.
  • Apostolic Epistle
    When an encyclical is written in response to a particular need, or when it is addressed to a specific group of persons, it is called an apostolic epistle. These epistles, pastoral in nature and primarily discussing social concerns, are not considered legislative documents.
  • Apostolic Exhortation
    Apostolic exhortations are papal reflections on a particular topic which are addressed to all of the clergy and faithful. The form was first used by Pope Pius XII in 1939. Exhortations generally encourage a particular virtue or mission, and are given on specific occasions. They do not contain dogmatic definitions or policies, and they are not considered legislative documents.
  • Decretal Letter
    Decretals, first used in the 2nd century, originally contained papal decisions related to questions of discipline and administration. During the Middle Ages they were often issued in the form of bulls. In modern times, they are reserved for solemn matters such as dogmatic definitions and canonizations. It is generally accepted that decretals belong to the extraordinary magisterium of the Holy Father; however, they are not considered legislative documents.
  • Allocutiones / Addresses
    Prior to the 19th century, the term "allocutiones" was generally reserved for solemn addresses given by the Holy Father to his cardinals. Today, however, a variety of less-formal papal allocutions and addresses are published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis and other sources. Their content is not necessarily tied to the Church or liturgy, but attempts to address specific issues or circumstances and is aimed at particular groups of people.
  • Papal Rescript
    A papal rescript generally answers a petition placed before one of the Roman Curiae or the Holy Father himself. It is signed by the cardinal prefect and the secretary of the relevant congregation, and also bears that congregation's seal.
  • Apostolic Brief
    Apostolic briefs, also called brevia, are a simple form of document dealing with matters of relatively-minor importance. This form emerged during the reign of Pope Martin V (1417-31) as a replacement for the ancient form of litterae.

Papal and Curia Pronouncements

Where to look for Papal Documents

Where Should I Look?

If the document was issued after 1898, first consult the Papal archive on the Vatican Website.

If the document was issued after 1930 consult the Atla Religion Database.

If the document was issued after 1740 and before 1978, check Papal Pronouncements: A Guide, 1740-1978 in 2 vols [REF Z 7838 D6C27P2 1990]

For documents before 1740, it is best to consult the appropriate Papal Registers or Bullaria collection.

The Latin text represents the most authoritative version of a given document, with some exceptions; therefore, the Latin source is generally preferred for purposes of citation. In most of the above sources, only the Latin text is available.  Certain significant Papal documents may be published in English as standalone publications. Other sources may contain English translations of Latin originals. These include the periodicals: 

  • The Pope Speaks (1954-2004) [PER BQV 102 P20], 
  • L'Osservatore Romano [English Edition] (1968-present) [PER BQV 102 O78],
  • and Origins (1971-present) [PER AP 20 O74]