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 Lumen Gentium,
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 gentium 25]
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.
The authority of documents is signaled by the type of document. Each type is used for a determined purpose, whether teaching or governance. They are generally listed as,
Decrees & Common Declarations
Addresses, including: Homilies, Audiences, Discourses and Messages.
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 Constitutions are used for the most significant exercises of authority. In teaching, it includes solemn Magisterial acts of the Pope, such as dogmatic definitions (Pius XII defining the Assumption of Mary); in governance, erecting dioceses, changing their status, rules for a papal election and the like.
Constitutions are also used by Ecumenical Councils for their weightiest magisterial actions, such as the First Vatican Council's teaching on Divine Revelation and Faith in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, its definitions of Papal Infallibility and Papal Primacy in Pastor Aeternis, and Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitutions on the Church, Lumen gentium, and on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium.
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 condemning racism).
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 teaching.
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.
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 allocution.