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RELS 116: Catholicism (Clark)

Spring 2020

Official Vatican Publications

These series serve as the official published records of the Holy See. Most official letters and pronouncements of the Pope, as well as of various other Vatican offices and congregations, are published here in chronological order. Many of these documents are published in languages other than English; the majority are in Latin, the official language of the Church. 

Both series may be accessed online through the Vatican's online Resource Library

Sources & Kinds of Church Documents

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II on December 8, 1992, is a compendium of Catholic doctrine that serves as a reference text for teaching and particularly for preparing local catechisms." (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

The Papacy

For more information on locating documents issued by Popes, see this page.

Helpful Books: 

Types of Documents

Below is a list of the major types of Papal documents and their descriptions. Where possible, document types are linked to their corresponding entry in The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 


For more information on locating documents issued by Congregations, see this page. 

Congregations are departments within the Roman Curia, composed of cardinals and bishops assisted by other administrators, which are devoted to specific tasks or issues of the church. They and the other offices of the Curia "study the major problems of the present age...promote initiatives for the good of the universal Church...[and]review matters that the Christian faithful, exercising their own right, bring to the attention of the Apostolic See."(see Pastor Bonus Art. 13). Generally speaking, congregations defer to the authority of the Pope and must submit to their decisions to him for approval.

The congregations meet regularly, at least once per year and sometimes more, and will, on occasion, produce documents publishing their decisions, discussion and other important material. Below is a list of the active congregations: 

Congregation for the Bishops                          

Congregation for Catholic Education 

Congregation for the Causes of Saints

Congregation for the Clergy 

Congregation for Divine Worship & the Discipline of the Sacraments

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples

Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life & Societies of Apostolic Life

Congregation for the Oriental Churches



For more information on finding documents released by Church Councils, see this page. 

Councils (also sometimes known as synods in the Roman Catholic tradition) are gatherings of clergy, usually bishops, convened to make an important decision or decisions related to the faith. These councils are often gathered in cases of emergency. There are many different kinds of councils and synods. In addition to councils convened on special occasions, the Curia also includes pontifical councils, headed by Cardinals, which meet regularly to work on specific projects of the church. 

One of the more commonly-known types is the ecumenical council. These councils, sometimes also called general councils, are "assemblies of bishops and other invited persons who meet with and under the authority of the Roman Pontiff to discuss and determine matters of faith, morals, and discipline for the entire Catholic Church" (New Catholic Encyclopedia). While ecumenical councils are not convened very frequently, they often produce critical church doctrine and documents due to the high-stakes nature of their content. One of the most well-known ecumenical councils was the Second Vatican Council, but you may be familiar with the seven ecumenical councils of the early Church -- 1st Nicaea, 1st Constantinople, 1st Ephesus, Chalcedon, 2nd & 3rd Constantinople, and 2nd Nicaea.

Unlike ecumenical councils, which are universal, plenary councils usually pertain to specific nations, while provincial councils or synods pertain to specific provinces within the church (and, as you might guess, diocesan councils/synods relate to specific dioceses and are convened by the bishop of that diocese). 

Canon Law 

Canon Law is the body of ecclesiastical laws which govern the actions of the Catholic Church and its followers. In the earliest days of the Church, Canon Law existed as a loosely-defined body of literature, including the various papal, conciliar, etc. documents referenced on other pages of this guide. A single Code of Canon Law was established for the first time in 1917, and was revised in 1983. The 1983 Code of Canon Law is the Code currently in use by the Church.  The Code is interpreted and built upon by the various congregations, councils and tribunals of the Catholic Church as well as by the Pope himself. 

Like all official legal documents of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law was issued in Latin; however, officially-sanctioned translations are available in the local languages of the church's many dioceses, including English. 

Like civil law, church law is practiced by lawyers -- canon lawyers, to be specific. Canon lawyers obtain graduate degrees in Canon Law -- first at the licentiate, or masters, level, after which they can choose to pursue a doctorate. For more information about canon lawyers, or canonists, and what their work involves, see this article from EWTN

For more information on Canon Law, see this page, or visit this more-comprehensive guide created by the Catholic University of America Libraries.