The Roman Catholic Church produces a variety of documents and decrees and official interpretations that often create confusion in terms of their authority. The following is a list of the most common documents with a brief explanation of their authority:
(1) The most authoritative of all RC documents are apostolic constitutions and decrees issued by the pope. These documents are an expression of the magisterium or the official teaching office of the papacy and, as legislative documents, are binding on all catholics everywhere. Examples include:
- Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent
- Documents of the Second Vatican Council
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a product of the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum in 1992)
- The Code of Canon Law (1983)
- The papal decree on the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Pope Pius IX
(2) Papal encyclicals, teaching documents, apostolic letters and/or exhortations, and motu proprio (lit., "by one's own initiative") documents that expound or explain existing law.
- Encyclical (or encyclica epistola, lit., "circular letter") – These are formal apostolic letters sent out by the pope to both clergy and laity. E.g., Humanae vitae, sent by Pope Paul VI, addressed the issue of birth control and other matters of human sexuality (1968).
- Motu proprio – These are decrees or legislative documents issued by the pope at his own initiative rather than in response to a question that has been asked of him.
- Apostolic letters (apostolica epistola) are not dogmatic definitions of church doctrine but are papal teaching documents designed to help the church understand points of doctrine that require additional explanation and application to the changing circumstances in society and culture. Apostolic exhortations likewise serve to provide papal reflection on particular topics and are generally addressed to bishops, clergy, and all the faithful of entire church. These are not legislative documents.
(3) Often Congregations, with papal approval, will issue formal Instructions (instructio) that explain Council documents or decrees. An example of this would be the Instructions on the Implementation of the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).
- Included here are such documents as a Declaration (declamatio), which may be a simple statement of an already existing law; a Decree (decretum), which is a statement concerning church law, precepts, or judicial decisions on some specific matter (a decree often announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect); or a Promulgation (promulgatio) which is the process by which the lawmaker communicates the law and its effective date to those to whom the law has been given).
There are various other documents of the church such as those issued by a national conference of bishops (e.g., the recent declaration, or "pastoral letter", by the U.S. conference of bishops on how they intended to handle the sexual abuse scandal). Such documents must be consistent with already existent church teaching and law. An individual bishop can issue a document that has authority within his own diocese.