10 must-read Vatican documents

Learning and growing in one’s faith is a lifelong process, and the good news for Catholics is that the teachings of the Church, articulated over centuries, provide seemingly endless resources for enriching that belief and understanding. The writings of Doctors of the Church and, more recently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church are just two distinct examples.

But for a Catholic seeking direct, authoritative reading on a range of topics at the heart of the Church’s life and witness, Vatican documents — particularly of the last century — provide a rich guide to what we believe and why. And with so much to choose from, a Catholic eager to learn more might need help navigating what is there.

This section offers 10 Vatican documents, including conciliar texts, papal encyclicals and other writings, spanning topics including divine revelation, peace, family life, evangelization and the modern world. Each entry also includes suggestions of further reading for those who want to go deeper.

Amy Marter contributed to this story.

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Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

THE CHURCH

Lumen Gentium • 1964 • Second Vatican Council • Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

Summary: The principle aim of Lumen Gentium is to define the Church and the various relationships between its members. Starting in Scripture, the document traces the establishment of the People of God in the Old Testament to the founding of the Church in the New Testament and various ways that we understand the Church. It then tackles the purpose of the Church, which is to lead all people to salvation, and who can be said to belong to the Church and to what degree. It describes the roles of the members of the Church in turn, from the hierarchy to priests, religious and the laity. In fact, the document is unique for the attention and importance it devotes to the laity in their role in the Church of bringing the Gospel into the secular world. The document also speaks of members of the Church no longer on earth (the saints and the souls in purgatory) and concludes with a beautiful meditation on Mary as role model for the Church.

This document is significant for emphasizing the role of the laity and their call to holiness within the Church, as well as for clearly stating the level of authority with which the pope and bishops speak in various circumstances.

“Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the Divine Victim to God, and offer themselves along with It. Thus both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion all take part in this liturgical service, not indeed, all in the same way but each in that way which is proper to himself. Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the people of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament” (No. 11).

You might also be interested in:

Mysticii Corporis Christi (1943), Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the unity of the Church in connection to the Eucharist
Ecclesiam Suam (1964), Paul VI’s encyclical on the Church, written during Vatican II
Christfideles Laici (1988), John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the role of the laity
Vita Consecrata (1996), John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the vocation of religious life
Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (1967) Paul VI’s encyclical on the Church’s teaching on the celibate vocation of the priesthood
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) John Paul II’s brief 1994 apostolic letter on why the priesthood is conferred only upon men

THE MODERN WORLD

Gaudium et Spes 1965 • Second Vatican Council • Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World

Summary: While Lumen Gentium is concerned with answering the questions of whom and what the Church consists, Gaudium et Spes devotes itself to the problems facing the modern world and how the Church can address those needs. The document itself is divided into two parts. The first addresses the general world view of modernity, particularly the questions that modern man faces and the guidance and answers the Church can provide. The second half examines particular problems of modernity.

“To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other” (No. 4).

You might also be interested in:
Humani Generis (1950), Pius XII’s encyclical on the relationship between intellectual life and the Church that emphasizes that there is no opposition between the Catholic faith and the theory of evolution, with limited caveats
Spe Salvi (2007), Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical that discusses the setting of the modern world and how the Church offers modern man reasons and the ability to hope in such circumstances
Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996), Pope John Paul II’s address that follows upon Humani Generis and the question of evolution in relation to Church teaching

REVELATION

Dei Verbum 1965 • Second Vatican Council • Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

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Summary: The Second Vatican Council took a renewed look at the role of Scripture and Tradition in the life of the Church by taking a view with Jesus Christ, rightfully, at the center of everything. God chose to reveal himself to us in his totality in the person of Jesus Christ. Everything flows from that — the Church, Scripture and the Church’s mission to communicate to others what has been revealed to us. The document reaffirmed everything in Scripture as having been inspired by the Holy Spirit and that the Gospels have a preeminent place among all Scripture. It said believers should have easy access to Scripture, and that the reading of Scripture is encouraged.

“God, who through the Word creates all things (see Jn 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom 1:19-20). ... He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom 2:6-7)” (No. 3).

You might also be interested in:
Redemptor Hominis (1979), John Paul II’s inaugural encyclical on Jesus Christ
Veritatis Splendor (1993), John Paul II’s encyclical on moral teaching in various areas of human life
Deus Caritas Est (2005), Benedict XVI’s first encyclical dealing with God’s love as the heart of Christian faith
Jesus of Nazareth (2007, 2011, 2012), a three-part book reflection on the life of Jesus written by Benedict XVI while pope

PEACE

Pacem in Terris1963 • John XXIII • Encyclical on world peace

Summary: The final encyclical of John XXIII paints a vision for global peace and justice, rooted in solidarity and human rights. Having lived through the horrors of World War II and seeing the Cuban Missile Crisis play out on his watch, Pope John urged people everywhere to recognize the global responsibility they have to their neighbors. Tellingly, Pacem in Terris was the first encyclical addressed not only to the hierarchy, clergy and laity of the Catholic Church but also “to all people of goodwill.”

The human rights that Pope John discussed in this encyclical include religious freedom, a value the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) would formally affirm two years later. John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, took up the prophetic call for peace and nuclear disarmament. Pope Francis called the latter a “moral imperative” in 2017.

“… [E]ach country’s social progress, order, security and peace are necessarily linked with the social progress, order, security and peace of every other country. From this it is clear that no State can fittingly pursue its own interests in isolation from the rest, nor, under such circumstances, can it develop itself as it should. The prosperity and progress of any State is in part consequence, and in part cause, of the prosperity and progress of all other States” (No. 130-31).

You might also be interested in:
Paul VI’s UN address (1965), famous for the appeal “Never again war!”
Paul VI’s World Day of Peace Message (1972), famous for the quote “If you want peace, work for justice.”
“The Challenge of Peace” (1983), pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops
Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress (2015)

EVANGELIZATION

Evangelii Gaudium 2013 • Francis • Apostolic exhortation on evangelization

Summary: The first major text of the pontificate of Pope Francis lays out his vision of a Church that goes out into the world and evangelizes amidst the mess of everyday life. Evangelii Gaudium challenges Christians to put their faith into concrete practice in the world, something he asserts is essential to the authenticity of the Christian witness.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (No. 49).

You might also be interested in:
John XXIII’s Opening Address at Vatican II (1962), which provided a prophetic, hope-filled vision and direction for the council
Ad Gentes (1965), Vatican II document on the Church’s missionary activity
Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation on evangelization in the modern world

ECOLOGY

Laudato Si’ • 2015 • Francis • Encyclical on the environment

Summary: Released three years ago, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”) offers a challenge to the “technocratic paradigm” it acknowledges at the heart of modern society, which consists of a “throwaway culture” that disregards the resources of the earth as well as the poor and marginalized members of the human family. Pope Francis’ emphasis is that the earth has been entrusted to man by God and as such, care for the earth is part of man’s responsibility toward his neighbor and future generations, but also towards God as Creator. Its topics range from encouraging changes on the international and political levels to an invitation to reconsider the beauty of creation and how to be more conscious of the effects of actions in daily life.

“Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (No. 111).

You might also be interested in:
Benedict XVI’s UN Address (2008), which touches on global issues including care for the environment

FAMILY

Humanae Vitae 1968 • Paul VI • Encyclical on family life

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Summary: Humanae Vitae provides the Church’s explanation on married love, writ large. In the document, Paul VI describes the nature of married love as free, total, faithful and fruitful. He also explains how the expression of love in the marital act has a two-fold purpose in expressing the love between husband and wife: their unity and ability to procreate. In condemning artificial birth control because it hinders the marital act from achieving its procreative purpose, Paul VI emphasizes the importance of the integrity of the marital act. Paul VI further predicted that widespread use of contraception could become mandated by political authorities and lead to general lowering of the standards of morality.

“This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment” (No. 9).

You might also be interested in:
Casti Connubi (1930), Pius XI’s encyclical on the divine institution of the sacrament of marriage
Familiaris Consortio (1981), John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the role of the family within the Church and society
Amoris Laetitia (2016), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation that poses how the Church can walk with families in difficult situations
Theology of the Body — General audiences (1979-84), John Paul II on the gift of human sexuality, from Genesis to the Gospels and the life of the Church

BIOETHICS

Evangelium Vitae 1995 • John Paul II • Encyclical on Bioethics

Summary: John Paul II’s argument in this encyclical could be summarized as the examination of two cultures: the culture of life and the culture of death, and indeed this is the encyclical from which those catch-phrases of the pro-life movement were coined. On the side of the culture of death, John Paul II details threats to life, primarily focusing on those at the beginning and end of life (abortion and euthanasia), and the underlying cultural ideology that advocates for the death of those it deems undesirable. In investigating the culture of life, John Paul II describes the Christian understanding of the sanctity of human life as intrinsically expressed in the mystery of the incarnation and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and how it can be cultivated in the various activities from individual sacrifices to family life, to the work of various professions and civic leaders.

“To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others” (No. 20).

You might also be interested in:
Letter to Families (1994), John Paul II affirms the dignity of human life nurtured in the family and addresses cultural challenges families face
Dignitatis Personae (2008), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dives into bioethical issues such as human cloning, in vitro fertilization and freezing embryos and how they pertain to human dignity
“To Live Each Day with Dignity” (2011), statement by the U.S. bishops on physician-assisted suicide

SOCIAL JUSTICE

Rerum Novarum 1891 • Leo XIII • Encyclical on capital and labor

Summary: As the world reeled from the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII responded by applying the teachings of the Church. He affirmed private property rights and the rights of workers to organize. Rerum Novarum is widely regarded as the birth of Catholic social teaching in the modern world, with successive popes building on its teaching.

“… [T]here is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice” (No. 19).

You might also be interested in:
Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pius XI’s encyclical written for the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, focusing on the Great Depression
Mater et Magistra (1961), John XXIII’s encyclical marking the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum
Populorum Progressio (1967), Paul VI’s social encyclical
Laborem Exercens (1981), John Paul II on the 90th anniversary
Solicitudo rei Socialis (1987), John Paul II’s encyclical to mark the 20th anniversary of Populorum Progressio
Centesimus Annus (1991), John Paul II on the 100th anniversary
Caritas in Veritate (2009), Benedict XVI’s social encyclical
“Economic Justice for All” (1986), pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops

CHRISTIAN UNITY

Ut Unum Sint 1995 • John Paul II • Encyclical on Christian Unity

Summary: Ut Unum Sint stresses the centrality of Christian unity and charts the progress that has been made in the path towards this unity since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II highlights that dialogue has the potential to foster deeper understandings of truths held in common but expressed in different ways. He expresses openness “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” (No. 95), since the primacy of the pope is a significant point in the discussion with Orthodox Christians.

You might also be interested in:
Unitatis Redintegratio (1964), Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, which lays some of the groundwork for this encyclical
Nostra Aetate (1965), Vatican II document dealing specifically with non-Christian religions
Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), a significant point in dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans on what they hold in common
Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church (2007), from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Dominus Iesus (2000), document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith