What Is a Papal Bull?

When Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy on April 11, 2015, he issued a Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus.

Like all Vatican documents, this papal bull is referred to by the incipit, the first words of the official Latin text. In English, the title is “The Face of Mercy.”

But what is a papal bull? How does it differ from other papal documents?

A papal bull is a pope’s official, formal decree establishing a religious order, clarifying a doctrine, ratifying other documents, founding a university, convoking a general council, declaring a jubilee or making a similar statement. The term bull refers to the lead seal, bulla, that was attached to the document to authenticate it. The seal depicts the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul with the name of the pope signing it, emphasizing the authority of the pontiff. Popes sign these documents as episcopus servus servorum Dei (“Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God”).

Because these documents have been issued since the sixth century, there are hundreds of papal bulls in the archives of the Vatican Library. Many of the papal bulls from the medieval era, for example, proclaim that the Jewish people are not to be blamed for the death of Jesus and that they must be protected by civil authorities. Other epoch-making papal bulls include:

• Pope Clement VI’s 1342 bull declaring the Franciscan order as the custodian of the Holy Land sites in the name of the Catholic Church (which it still is today).

• Pope Pius IV’s Benedictus Deus, which ratified all the decrees of the Council of Trent in 1564.

• Pope St. Pius V’s Regnans in Excelsis (“Reigning on High”) in 1570, declaring Elizabeth I of England a heretic and releasing her subjects from loyalty to her reign.

• Pope Gregory XIII’s reform of the Julian calendar in 1582, establishing the Gregorian calendar, which many Protestant countries in Europe did not adopt since it was proclaimed by the pope.

• Several bulls concerning the Society of Jesus, approving it (Pope Paul III in 1540), suppressing it (Pope Clement XIV in 1773), re-establishing it (Pope Pius VII in 1814) and reaffirming its papal privileges (Pope Leo XIII in 1880).

• Pope Pius IX’s Universalis Ecclesiae, re-establishing the Catholic hierarchy in England (1850).

While historians might be more interested in some of these documents, Pope St. Pius X’s 1910 Quam Singulari (“How Special”) established that children should make and receive their first Confession and holy Communion at the age of reason, about 7 years old. The Pope was concerned that overly strict disciplines were delaying reception of these sacraments until the early teenage years. Dying children were even refused Extreme Unction (the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick) and viaticum; Pope Pius’ bull includes stern language against such abuses.

Pope Pius X instructed pastors to set an annual date for first holy Communion and to catechize the first communicants so that they “will understand … those Mysteries of faith which are necessary as a means of salvation” and “can distinguish between the Bread of the Eucharist and ordinary, material bread.” These reforms established what many of us might take for granted today: annual first Communion Sundays, group pictures of girls in white dresses and veils and boys in suits, special gifts and family receptions — all because of a papal bull.

Other than bulls, popes issue encyclicals, apostolic letters, apostolic exhortations, motu proprios and apostolic constitutions, among other documents. A visit to the Vatican website page dedicated to Pope St. John Paul II, for example, reveals several means of communication. In addition to the traditional documents, St. John Paul’s page includes his Angelus messages and weekly audiences, sermons, books, prayers and speeches.

Of all the papal documents, we are perhaps most familiar with the encyclical.


An encyclical is a circular letter addressed by the pope to the bishops in a certain area, or all the bishops, all Catholics, even all people of good will, depending on the pope’s purpose in writing the letter. Pope Pius XI wrote Mit Brennender Sorge — note that this encyclical is in German — in 1937, addressing the archbishops and bishops in Germany, expressing his deep anxiety about matters of Church and state in Germany under Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist control. In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II addressed his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) “To the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women religious, lay Faithful, and all People of Good Will, on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.”

Encyclical letters have addressed subjects ranging from Marian devotion, including the Rosary, individual saints, support of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, study of the Bible, persecution of Catholics in Mexico, education, marriage, the priesthood, Dante, the Holy Land, war and peace, the Eucharist, and many aspects of Church teaching.

After Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum in 1891, two of his successors have commemorated this encyclical on Catholic social teaching: Pope Pius XI promulgated Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, celebrating its 40th anniversary; Pope John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus in 1991, celebrating its 100th.

Archbishop Loris Capovilla, 96, the former personal secretary of Blessed John XXIII, holds a copy of the papal bull opening the Second Vatican Council at his residence in 2012.

Humanae Vitae may be the most controversial encyclical of the past 50 years. Pope Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 document reaffirmed not only Church teaching against artificial contraception but also its teaching about marriage and procreation. Some Catholic theologians rejected Pope Paul’s message nevertheless.

There was a great deal of interest and even controversy surrounding Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which focused on the love of the family. Popes, however, have been writing such reflections since Pope John Paul II developed the practice of writing an apostolic exhortation after each synod of bishops had met to discuss certain subjects. Thus he wrote on catechesis, penance, the role of bishops, the consecrated life, the Catholic laity, the priesthood and other topics. These documents demonstrate the unity of the pope and the bishops on Church teaching.

In contrast, the motu proprio is issued by the pope on his own initiative. Among the most important are Tra le Sollecitudini, by Pope Pius X in 1903 in which he reaffirmed the traditions of using Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony at Mass; Pope Paul VI’s 1969 Mysterii Paschalis, which reorganized the liturgical year and issued a revised Roman calendar; and Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum in 2007, which granted greater freedom for the celebration of the Mass according to the “Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962,” the latest revision of Pope St. Pius V’s Tridentine Missal.

Apostolic Constitutions

The apostolic constitution represents the highest level of all the papal documents, setting out specific action, the promulgation of doctrine or important documents — in fact, an apostolic constitution may take the form of a papal bull, with its special seal and signature. Two Marian doctrines, designating her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, were proclaimed through apostolic constitutions; Pope John Paul II announced the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 with Sacrae Disciplinae Leges and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992 with Fidei Depositum. He also issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”) in 1991 to establish a closer relationship between Catholic universities and their local bishops.

Pope Benedict XVI announced a new initiative for “groups of Anglicans” to join the Catholic Church while retaining certain aspects of their Anglican patrimony in 2009 with Anglicanorum Coetibus. This apostolic constitution has been implemented through the establishment of three personal ordinariates: Our Lady of Walsingham in Great Britain, the Chair of St. Peter in North America and Our Lady of the Southern Cross in Australia.

Throughout the centuries, popes have used many vehicles for communicating with the hierarchy and the Catholic faithful, all providing guidance on Catholic teaching. Among these official documents, apostolic constitutions have the highest authority as they deal with doctrinal or disciplinary statements and issue legislation for the whole Church; the other documents offer guidance and instruction. Sermons, weekly audiences and Angelus messages, while not official documents, also offer us insight in how to follow Jesus through His Church.

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of “Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation,” available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas, and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.