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Papal Constitutions

Ordinations issued by the Roman pontiffs and binding those for whom they are issued

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Constitutions, PAPAL (Lat. constituere, to establish, to decree), ordinations issued by the Roman pontiffs and binding those for whom they are issued, whether they be for all the faithful or for special classes or individuals. From the earliest times, the Christians of the whole world have consulted the popes on all matters pertaining to faith, morals, and discipline. The earliest instance is the well-known appeal from Corinth to Pope Clement I, during the lifetime of St. John the Apostle, in the first century of the Christian Era. From that time on, requests for decisions on various ecclesiastical matters were addressed to the Holy See from all parts of the known world, and the answers that were received were reverenced as proceeding from the mouth of Christ’s chief Apostle and His vicar on earth. The fact that the decrees of Church councils, whether general, provincial, or even diocesan, were anciently as a rule forwarded to the pope for his revision or confirmation, gave occasion for many papal constitutions during the early ages. After the time of Constantine the Great, owing to the greater liberty allowed to the Church, such intercourse with the Apostolic See became more frequent and more open. St. Jerome, in the fourth century (Ep. cxxiii), testifies to the number of responses requested of the sovereign pontiff from both the Eastern and the Western Church during the time he acted as secretary to Pope Damasus. That these papal responses soon began to constitute an important section of canon law, is evident from statements in the letters of various Roman pontiffs. The decretalia and constitute of the Apostolic See were recognized as laws or as interpretations of existing canons binding the particular Churches to their observance. The fact that ecumenical councils required the papal confirmation before their decrees were valid (a principle expressly admitted by the early councils themselves) tended not a little to direct the attention of all Christians to the fullness of jurisdiction residing in the successor of St. Peter. Hence the professions of faith sent to the popes by newly elected bishops and by emperors on their succession to the throne.

Turning to the strictly canonical aspect of the case, the word constitution is derived from con (cum) and statuendo, and therefore means a common statute. It is consequently synonomous in most respects with law. In fact, a papal constitution is a legal enactment of the ruler of the Church, just as a civil law is a decree emanating from a secular prince. Reiffenstuel declares that the difference of name between ecclesiastical and civil statutes is very proper, since a secular ruler derives his authority immediately from the people, and hence it is really the people who make the laws, while the pope receives his power immediately from God and is himself the source whence all Church regulations proceed. As a matter of fact, however, while it is true that ecclesiastical laws are generally denominated “constitutions”, yet they are occasionally designated as “laws” in canonical jurisprudence (e.g. Can. Leges Ecclesiae, 3, Q. 6). It must not be supposed, however, that even in ecclesiastics l usage the word constitution is restricted to papal ordinances; it is also employed for conciliar, synodal, and episcopal mandates, though more rarely in later times the name canon is generally, though not exclusively,. given to conciliar decrees (see Ecclesiastical Canons). Letters emanating from the pope, though all designated constitutions, receive more specific names according to their form and their subject matter. As to their form, pontifical constitutions may be either Bulls or Briefs. The former are used for the more important and permanent decrees and begin: Pius (or name of pope) Episcopus, Servus servorum Dei; the latter are headed by the name of the ruling pontiff: Pius PP. X. Pope Leo XIII (December 29, 1878) made some changes in the exterior form of papal Bulls (see Bulls and Briefs). As to subject-matter, the term constitution, if used in a restricted sense, denotes some statute which the Vicar of Christ issues in solemn form either to the whole Christian world or to part of it, with the intention of permanently binding those to whom it is addressed. When the papal letters are addressed to the bishops of the entire Church, they are denominated Encyclicals. This is the most, usual form employed by the popes for treating questions of doctrine and discipline. When pontifical enactments take the form of responses they are called decretal epistles. If they be issued motu pro prio (that is without a request having been made to the Holy See), they are called decreta, though this name has also a more general significance (see Papal Decrees). Ordinances issued to individuals concerning matters of minor or transient importance are called Rescript (see Papal Rescripts).

Before issuing constitutions the pope usually takes counsel with his advisers. These counsellors have varied in the different stages of church history. During the first eleven centuries, the Roman presbyterate and the suburbicarian bishops were formed into councils by the pope whenever he wished to investigate matters of doctrine or discipline. The synodal letters, or constitutions, issuing from these assemblies owed their importance and binding force to the primatial jurisdiction of the throne of Peter, for these gatherings were not ecumenical councils in any sense of the word. History records a long list of these Roman councils from the second to the eleventh century. The papal constitutions issued at the close of their celebration were as various as the subject-matter of the councils. The paschal question, the baptism of heretics, the heresies of Sabellius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and others, the restoration of patriarchs and bishops to their sees, ordinances concerning the monastic state, the election of the pope, the right of investiture—all found treatment and decision in these Roman councils and gave occasion to important pontifical constitutions. These rulings were reverenced as law throughout the Universal Church, East and West, and constitute an important witness to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. After the eleventh century, these Roman councils grew more infrequent and finally ceased altogether. This was owing to the importance gradually accruing to the cardinals, who succeeded the Roman presbyterate as the senate of the pope. Consistories of the cardinal-bishops, -priests, and -deacons were held twice and then thrice a week in the Apostolic Palace; and to these consistories the pontiff proposed the questions submitted to the Holy See before he drew up his constitution deciding them. The consistory was the ordinary tribunal and audience of the pope for the transaction of all the business of the Universal Church. (See Cardinal.) From the sixteenth century to our own time, a third period in the methods of government and counsel is to be distinguished. The rise of the Sacred Rom al, Congregations, with their separate tribunals, their consultors, and trained officials, has brought about a change in the preparation of papal constitutions. It is to these congregations that the pope looks for aid in preparing the subject-matter of his letters to the Church. (See Roman Congregations.)

The binding force of pontifical constitutions, even without the acceptance of the Church, is beyond question. The primacy of jurisdiction possessed by the successor of Peter comes immediately and directly from Christ. That this includes the power of making obligatory laws is evident. Moreover, that the popes have the intention of binding the faithful directly and immediately is plain from the mandatory form of their constitutions. Bishops, therefore, are not at liberty to accept or refuse papal enactments because, in their judgment, they are ill-suited to the times. Still less can the lower clergy or the civil power (see Exequatur; Placet) possess any authority to declare pontifical constitutions invalid or prevent their due promulgation. The Gallican opinions to the contrary are no longer tenable after the decrees of the Council of the Vatican (Sess. IV, ch. iii). If a papal constitution, published in Rome for the whole Church, were not formally promulgated in a particular region, the faithful would nevertheless be bound by it, if it concerned faith or morals. If it referred to matters of discipline only, its observance would not be urgent, not because of any defect in its binding force, but solely because in such circumstances the pope is presumed to have suspended the obligation for the time being. This leads to the question of the proper Promulgation (q.v.) of papal laws (see Law). The common teaching now is that promulgation in Rome makes them obligatory for the whole world. The method employed is to affix the decrees at the portals of St. Peter’s, o St. John Lateran, of the Apostolic Chancery and in the Piazza de’ Fiori.


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