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A Guide to...Papal Documents & Church Research

This guide is a starting point for research focused on the Catholic Church, including its history, its theology, and, most significantly, documents issued by Popes and the various sections of the Roman Curia.

Papal Documents

What is a Papal Document?

Check the following resources for further information about the different types of Papal documents, their authority and their use:

Where Can I Find Papal Documents?

There are many different sources for Papal Documents. Check the box below for a list of specific sources available at Holy Cross.

Types of Papal Documents

Below is a list of the major types of Papal documents and their descriptions. Where possible, links to more detailed explanations are included. 

  • Allocutiones / Addresses
  • Encyclical Letter
    Encyclicals are pastoral letters, used in their current form since 1740. These letters offer counsel and shed light on existing doctrine as part of the Pope's teaching authority.  Because of this, they do not belong formally to the "deposit of revelation" (that is, they are not teachings issued ex cathedra or with infallibility), and their teachings are not definitive unless specifically stated as such. Therefore, certain points of their teachings can often be changed. [Learn More]
    • Apostolic Epistle
  • Motu Proprio
    Documents issued motu proprio are legislative, apostolic letters written and signed by the pope. Originally used to administer the Papal States, they now handle legislative matters which are not significant enough to merit an apostolic 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 Church laws outside of the Code of Canon Law. [Learn More]

  • 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.

Locating Papal Documents

What Information Do I 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.  A list of Popes in English, through Pope John Paul II, is available in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, under the entry "Popes, List Of."

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 on the preceding tabs or the titles in the Helpful Books box for more information about the different types of 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 Catholic Periodical & Literature Index -- 1981-present (online in Atla Religion) or 1930-2004 (in print).

If the document was issued after 1740 and before 1978, check Papal Pronouncements: A Guide, 1740-1978.

For documents before 1740, it is best to consult the appropriate Papal Registers or Bullaria collection. Many of these can be found using the other sources linked on this page, but it is highly recommended that you consult with the Religious Studies Librarian for help! 

The Latin text represents the most authoritative version of a given document, with some exceptions; therefore, the Latin version is usually the easiest to find and is the one generally preferred when papal documents (or any documents of the Church) are cited in an official capacity. 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), L'Osservatore Romano [English Edition] (1970-1998 + current issue), and Origins (1971-present).

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.

Searching for Papal Documents:

In the Catalog:

You will find that some Papal documents have been published in book format, often in English translation. Others may be found in collections of documents issued by specific Popes or on particular topics. 

Try using the Classic Catalog to search by Subject for one of these phrases (or click the links):  

ou can also try searching for the writings of specific popes by doing a 'Subject' or 'Author' search for that Pope. For example: 

If you are not sure of the full name to use, just type the Pope's name (for example "benedict xvi") and hit search. 

In Our Databases: 

Many more-recent Papal documents (1981-present) are indexed in the online database Atla Religion, as part of the Catholic Periodical & Literature Index. To locate them, on the Advanced Search landing page, in the lower-right corner of the search screen ,under Publication Types, choose "Papal Document." You can enter keywords or other search limits, or just press "Search" to retrieve all Papal documents in the database. 

The print version of CPLI also indexes Papal documents and tells you where you can find versions in different languages -- including such sources as Acta Apostolicae Sedis (see the box below), Origins, The Pope Speaks, and Osservatore Romano. To find documents using the print index, you can look under the subject, the title of the document (if known) or the name of the Pope who issued it. 

On the Web: 

There are several resources available on the open web for finding and reading Papal documents. These include:

Sources for Papal Documents

These works include many papal bulls, encyclicals, letters, and other proclamations.  They are listed in chronological order. Due to the rarity of these texts, many are available only online or through our Special Collections or Interlibrary Loan.

These works include many papal bulls, encyclicals, letters, and other proclamations. They are listed in chronological order. Due to the rarity of these texts, many are available only online or through our Special Collections or Interlibrary Loan.