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Need Help? Defining and Locating Church Documents

By Darren G. Poley

What is usually meant by church documents?

Church documents are published statements, primarily on matters of faith and morals, which are publicly promulgated by some part of the official hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The hierarchy is the body of church leaders, called bishops, who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The hierarchy is headed by the visible head of the Catholic Church: the bishop of Rome, who is the supreme pontiff or simply the pope. A good starting point for research is ATLA Catholic Periodical and Literature Index. You can enter a keyword in the advanced search and under Publication Type, select either “Church Document” or “Papal Document.”

What are papal documents?

In addition to being the spiritual leader for over a billion Catholics worldwide, the pope is also the head of state for the Vatican City and chief officer of the Holy See, another name for the Catholic Church’s government commonly called The Vatican. The Vatican functions as the administration for the Catholic Church, a diplomatic entity as well as a religious organization. The documents signed by a pope are called papal documents. The official Vatican Web Site is an excellent place to look for papal documents from popes of the twentieth-century.

The most famous kind of papal document produced today is the encyclical, a public “letter” to his fellow bishops that is meant to be circulated and read by all. Encyclicals are theological in nature but are by no means the only source of Catholic doctrine. Search in Falvey’s catalog using “Catholic Church Doctrines Papal documents” as a subject. See also compilations of church doctrine such as the multi-volume Précis of official Catholic teaching or the one volume Catechism of the Catholic Church in English online and in print.

Are doctrines church documents?

Doctrines are teachings, and special gatherings of Catholic bishops called together by the pope called ecumenical or church councils are another source of doctrinal church documents. The documents of the second Vatican council, held in the 1960s and the most recent one, are on the Vatican Web Site, but are also in Favley’s reference collection alongside other books with church documents. The subject headings for searching for ecumenical councils in Falvey’s catalog takes a bit of deciphering. The descriptor for Vatican II, for example, is “Vatican Council (2nd : 1962-1965).” Keep in mind, however, this will also bring up records for things about the council, not just conciliar documents.

Departments of the Vatican such as “congregations” and regional groups of local bishops of the Catholic Church also occasionally produce documents. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes documents for the bishops in the U.S. Some deal with matters of discipline, but the procedural regulations of the Catholic Church as a whole are collectively called the Code of Canon Law, which is online and in print. While the writings of individual popes, bishops, theologians or canon lawyers can inform thinking about the teachings of the church, they are not considered church documents.

Are doctrines or promulgations of religious groups other than the Catholic Church considered church documents?

There are common teachings or statements from other religious bodies; cooperative affiliations, such as federations of like-minded religious denominations; or the World Council of Churches. Studies and texts of the Faith and Order Commission online are an example of these kinds of church documents.  Individual denominational church entities which are less centrally organized than the Catholic Church can also produce statements of belief or on matters of morality and discipline. A good directory of denominations with contact information is the Yearbook of American and Canadian churches.  Sometimes documents are as a result of inter-faith or ecumenical dialogue. See the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical documents series.

The Eastern Orthodox churches, divided on nationalistic lines, also produce documents. The Web can be an excellent resource, just be sure that you are getting documents from a trustworthy source, such as the Russian Orthodox Church itself. Anthologies of historically significant church documents of all kinds are also published. See, for example, the multi-volume Creeds & Confessions of faith in the Christian Tradition or the one volume Documents of the Christian Church.

Darren Poley is a Theology Liaison Librarian and can be contacted directly for research assistance by email or at 610-519-6371.

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Last Modified: January 24, 2013