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The Authority of Church Documents
Adoremus Bulletin ^ | September 2002 | Helen Hull Hitchcock

Posted on 09/14/2002 10:52:49 AM PDT by Polycarp

Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 6: September 2002

The Authority of Church Documents

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

With the multiplication of Church documents -- and commentaries and "interpretations" of them -- the level of authority of these documents is not always clear. A "primer" of the names and designation of some of the main categories of documents -- legislative, doctrinal (teaching) and "pastoral" -- may be useful to those threading their way through them.

At the top of the hierarchy of authoritative documents are apostolic constitutions and decrees issued by popes, such as the Second Vatican Council documents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was presented by the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum in 1992. These documents, along with the Code of Canon Law (1983) have binding authority on the entire Church. These are legislative documents, containing dogmatic or doctrinal elements.

Papal teaching documents, encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations, and "motu proprio" documents expound or explain existing law.

Instructions, issued by Congregations, with the approval of the pope, likewise explain Council documents or decrees. Examples are the Instructions on the implementation of the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

There are other explanatory documents that interpret regulations given in Canon Law or other official legislative documents of the Church. For example, official responses to questions (dubia) of bishops addressed to the Holy See.

The official documents issued by a national conference of bishops, usually called "pastoral letters", are explanations of how Church teaching applies to or is to be put into effect within a given country. Such documents must always be absolutely consistent with the teaching and law of the universal Church, and ordinarily require official confirmation by the Holy See (recognitio) to be effective. This is the case with all the liturgical documents and texts a national conference produces.

An example of a conference committee statement that was approved by the conference of bishops but did not have the approval of the Holy See is the 1990 Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, which was written by a sub-committee of the conference. It was superseded by the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam.

Documents issued by an individual diocesan bishop have authority within that diocese, provided that they do not conflict with universal teaching or law, or documents of the conference that have the recognitio of the Holy See.

A final category of documents, and these have no binding authority, are statements or "guidelines" of committees or subcommittees of the national conference issued without the approval of the conference. Such documents have often been accorded an authority that they do not possess, however. In the liturgy, examples of these non-binding statements of the US Bishops Liturgy Committee are Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, (replaced by the guidelines on church architecture, Built of Living Stones); Music in Catholic Worship, and Liturgical Music Today. These "guidelines" do not possess the authority of the bishops' conference.

A diocesan bishop has considerable freedom to adopt or adapt such guidelines as policies for his own diocese, however, which may give them an authority they do not otherwise possess.

Examples of statements that were issued without approval of the full body of bishops are Always Our Children (addressed to parents of homosexuals) and the recent Reflections on Covenant and Mission (issued by a "consultation" of Catholics and Jews).

In the case of Always Our Children, this committee statement drew sharp criticism from many bishops when they discussed it after it was already released. Nevertheless, it is still invoked by some as if it represented "the mind of the bishops".

The recent Reflections statement also met considerable criticism. A few days after it was released in August 2002, a "clarification" was issued by a Catholic delegate to the joint-commission, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore.

Following is an abbreviated glossary of the most common types of documents issued by the Holy See, and terms associated with them.

Apostolic constitutions (apostolicae constitutiones): solemn, formal documents on matters of highest consequence concerning doctrinal or disciplinary matters, issued by the pope in his own name. They are published as either universal or particular law of the Church. (Examples: the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Apostolic exhortation (apostolica exhortatio): a papal reflection on a particular topic that does not contain dogmatic definitions or policy directives, addressed to bishops, clergy and all the faithful of the entire Catholic Church. Apostolic exhortations are not legislative documents. (Example: Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.)

Apostolic letter (apostolica epistola): a formal papal teaching document, not used for dogmatic definitions of doctrine, but to give counsel to the Church on points of doctrine that require deeper explanation in the light of particular circumstances or situations in various parts of the world.

Declaration (declamatio): may be a simple statement of the law, which must be interpreted according to the existing law; or an authoritative declaration that is retroactive and does not require further promulgation; or an extensive declaration, which modifies the law, is not retroactive and must be promulgated according to the law.

Decree (decretum): a statement involving Church law, precepts or judicial decisions on a specific matter. It is an ordinance given by one having the power of jurisdiction (such as a bishop within his particular diocese, the head of an office of the Roman Curia, or the pope), acting administratively to promote compliance with the law. A decree announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect.

Encyclical (encyclica epistola - literally, "circular letter"): a formal apostolic letter issued by the pope usually addressed to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the entire Church. Example, Humanae vitae, concerning the Church's teaching on birth control issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.

Instruction (instructio): explains or amplifies a document that has legislative force, such as apostolic constitutions, and states how its precepts are to be applied. (e.g., Liturgiam authenticam, on liturgical translation, an Instruction on the correct implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.)

Institutio: instituted arrangement or regular method, rules (as in Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani).

Motu proprio (literally, by one's own initiative): a legislative document or decree issued by the pope on his own initiative, not in response to a request. (Examples: Apostolos Suos; Misericordia Dei.)

Promulgation (promulgatio): the process whereby the lawmaker communicates the law to those to whom the law has been given. (The official effective date on which a document is promulgated may or may not coincide with the date on which a document is actually published.)

Recognitio: confirms the review of documents that are submitted by a conference of bishops to the relevant office (dicastery) of the Holy See. Recognitio is required before the provisions of documents that modify universal law may come into effect. Recognitio thus signals acceptance of a document that may have legislative force. (Recognitio is required for all documents that modify universal liturgical norms, for example.)

Copyright © 2002 Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy. All rights reserverd.

TOPICS: General Discusssion
KEYWORDS: catholiclist

1 posted on 09/14/2002 10:52:49 AM PDT by Polycarp
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To: patent; Siobhan; sitetest; JMJ333; narses; Catholicguy; *Catholic_list; Notwithstanding; ...
good article considering recent debates here over the relative authority of Church documents
2 posted on 09/14/2002 10:54:18 AM PDT by Polycarp
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To: Polycarp
Thanks for posting that.This will be very helpful when discussing changes in parishes or dioceses.The changes are often introduced as "mandated by 'official documents' in synch with Church teaching".Many times it is clear they are not but the average layman does not know where to begin to refute the facilitator's contention.With this we can simply ask whether this "paper"has received a "recognitio" from the Vatican.That should jump start some lively dialogue.

This list of the ordering and source of the authority of documents will be of immeasurable help in conforming "consensus" groups to Catholic teaching.Currently,the "consensus" is often reached by attributing the necessity for change on a fancy titled "paper" issued by a subcommittee of the USCCB and not at all conformed to the Church teaching.

Polycarp,thanks for posting this.I do believe one of the primary objectives of Vat II was to get Catholic laity more involved in the Church.However,the "other side" took advantage of the relative ignorance of the average layman to the "inner workings"of Church governance and consequently,many,both clerical and lay got blindsided.Thanks to rapid means of communications they are increasingly unable to pull the wool over our eyes.

3 posted on 09/14/2002 12:40:32 PM PDT by saradippity
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To: Polycarp
Is this James Hitchcock's wife?
4 posted on 09/14/2002 2:11:31 PM PDT by Desdemona
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To: Desdemona
5 posted on 09/14/2002 2:14:13 PM PDT by Polycarp
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To: Polycarp
Funny, I went to high school with their daughters.
6 posted on 09/14/2002 8:01:12 PM PDT by Desdemona
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To: Polycarp
"The recent Reflections statement also met considerable criticism."

n his speech at the Warsaw Ghetto on June 14, 1987, John Paul II discussed a Jewish “mission in the contemporary world before the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the church.” Note also these comments by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a recent book entitled, Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999): “[T]his means that all nations, without the abolishment of the special mission of Israel, become brothers and receivers of the promises of the Chosen People; they become People of God with Israel through adherence to the will of God and through acceptance of the Davidic kingdom” [27-28]; and “[E]ven if Christians look for a day when Israel will recognize Christ as the Son of God and the rift that separates them will be healed, they should also acknowledge God’s providence, which has obviously given Israel a particular mission in this “time of the Gentiles’

7 posted on 09/14/2002 8:33:34 PM PDT by Theresa
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To: Polycarp
I've got a real problem with this right from the start with the mention of how "binding" Vatican II is. How, if the Council was primarily pastoral and did not explicitly pronounce any binding doctrines? Is the journalist saying the whole Council itself is binding? How, if much of it is self-contradictory and vague? Shouldn't binding doctrines be first of all CLEARLY STATED?

Sometimes statements are too ambiguous to be deciphered. Let me give one example. Here is a quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium:

"The Church has always venerated the divine Scripture AS she has venerated the Body of the Lord, insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ." (Vatican Council II, revised edition, 1988, Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church, p. 762.)

What does the word "as" signify? Does it mean "in the same way as"? Or does it mean "just as also"? If the former, this is flat-out wrong--though it would flatter Protestant sensibilities which place as much emphasis in their worship service on Scripture as they do on the symbolic presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the "Lord's Supper." Clearly the text was left ambiguous as a sop to Protestants. The fact is the Catholic Church has NEVER revered the two in the same way. The Lord is present in Sacred Scripture VIRTUALLY, whereas He is present ACTUALLY in the sacred species. Every real Catholic has known the difference since time immemorial. So the words are a fudge, a sleight of hand to make it appear we make no real distinction whereas in fact the distinction is real and profound. Christ's Real Presence is far more important to us and the two were not ever treated as the same. The statement that the Church has "always" treated Scripture "as" she treated the Body of Christ depends on who is reading the statement.

That is just one example of the kind of inexact, non-scholastic, perfumed language the Council fathers were prone to using at Vatican II. But even when they were specific, how binding were their precepts, in fact? Didn't the Council urge us to give pride of place to Gregorian Chant in our liturgies, for instance? Was this something binding? How is it that it has been so blithely ignored by Modernist liturgists? Wasn't Latin also supposed to be retained? What about the Council's insistence that the "dogmatic principles which were laid down by the Council of Trent" for the Mass were supposed to be retained? Not only have they been ignored but they are everywhere even passionately resisted.

The truth is Vatican II issued NO BINDING doctrines. NONE. Both John XXII and Paul VI underscored the pastoral nature of the Council and the Fathers themselves called it a pastoral council. It was only later that liberals--who were the first to call the Council pastoral while it was happening--reversed course and began to call it dogmatic. So this article appears to be a lot of propaganda right from the start, more of the same old same old designed to keep ordinary Catholics in line. And, by the way, it might also be well to remember that pop religious articles in religious journals have NO authority whatsoever.
8 posted on 09/14/2002 11:17:53 PM PDT by ultima ratio
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To: Polycarp
Bump for read tomorrow.
9 posted on 09/14/2002 11:44:15 PM PDT by Salvation
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