Ecclesiastical letters are publications or announcements of the organs of ecclesiastical authority, e.g. the synods, more particularly, however, of popes and bishops, addressed to the faithful in the form of letters.
The popes began early, by virtue of the primacy, to issue laws as well for the entire Church as for individuals. This was done in the form of letters. Such letters were sent by the popes either of their own will or when application was made to them by synods, bishops, or individual Christians. Apart from the Epistles of the Apostle Peter the first example of this is the Letter of Pope Clement I (90-99?) to the Corinthians, in whose community there was grave dissension. Only a few papal letters of the first three Christian centuries have been preserved in whole or part, or are known from the works of ecclesiastical writers. As soon, however, as the Church was recognized by the State and could freely spread in all directions, the papal primacy of necessity began to develop, and from this time on the number of papal letters increased. No part of the Church and no question of faith or morals failed to attract the papal attention. The popes called these letters; with reference to their legal character, decreta: statuta: decretalia constituta, even when the letters, as was often the case, were hortatory in form. Thus Siricius, in his letter of the year 385 to Himerius of Tarragona [Jaffé, "Regesta Pontificum Romanorum" (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1885-88), I, no. 255]. Or the letters were called sententiœ, i.e. opinions (Syn. Tur., II, an. 567, c. ii); prœcepta (Syn. Bracar., I, an. 561, præf.); auctoritates [Zosimus, an. 417; Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 349]. On the other hand more general letters, especially those of dogmatic importance, were also called at times tomi; indiculi; commonitoria; epistolœ tractoriœ, or tractatoriœ. If the matter were important, the popes issued the letters not by their sole authority, but with the advice of the Roman presbytery or of a synod. Consequently such letters were also called epistolœ synodicœ (Syn. Tolet., III, an. 589, c. i). By epistola synodica, however, is also understood in Christian antiquity that letter of the newly elected bishop or pope by which he notified the other bishops of his elevation and of his agreement with them in the Faith. Thus an epistola of this kind had a certain relationship to the litterœ formatœ by which a bishop certified, for presentation to another bishop, to the orthodoxy and unblemished moral character of an ecclesiastic of his diocese. Closely related to the litterœ formatœ are the litterœ dimissoriœ (dimissorials) by which a bishop sends a candidate for ordination to another bishop to be ordained. While these names indicate sufficiently the legal character of the papal letters, it is to be noted that the popes repeatedly demanded in explicit terms the observance of their decrees; thus Siricius, in his letter of the year 385 to Himerius (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 255), and Innocent I in his letter of the year 416 addressed to Decentius of Gubbio (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 311). In the same manner they repeatedly required from the persons to whom they wrote that these should bring the letter in question to the notice of others. Thus again Siricius, in his letter to Himerius (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 255); and Pope Zosimus, in the year 418 to Hesychius of Sabona (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 339). In order to secure such knowledge of the papal laws several copies of the papal letters were occasionally made and dispatched at the same time. In this way arose the letters a pari: a paribus uniformes, ta isa (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, nos. 331, 334, 373). Following the example of the Roman emperors the popes soon established archives (scrinium) in which copies of their letters were placed as memorials for further use, and as proofs of authenticity. The first mention of papal archives is found in the Acts of a synod held about 370 under Pope Damasus I (Coustant, "Epistolæ Romanorum Pontificum", Paris, 1721, 500). Pope Zosimus also makes mention in 419 of the archives (Jaffé, "Regesta", 2nd ed., I, no. 350). Nevertheless, forged papal letters appeared even earlier than this. By far the greater number of the papal letters of the first millennium, however, have been lost. Only the letters of Leo I, edited by the brothers Bablerini, the "Registrum Epistolarum" of Gregory I, edited by Ewald and Hartmann, and the "Registrum Epistolarum" of Gregory VII, edited by Jaffé, have been more or less completely preserved. As befitted their legal importance, the papal letters were also soon incorporated in the collections of canon law (Maassen, "Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des kanonischen Rechts im Abendlande bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters", Graz, 1870, 231 sqq.). The first to collect the epistles of the popes in a systematic and comprehensive manner was the monk Dionysius Exiguus, at the beginning of the sixth century (Maassen, "Geschichte der Quellen", 422 sqq.). In this way the papal letters took rank with the canons of the synods as of equal value and of equal obligation. The example of Dionysius was followed afterwards by almost all compilers of the canons, Pseudo-Isidore and the Gregorian canonists, e.g. Anselm of Lucca, Deusdedit, etc.
With the development of the primacy in the Middle Ages the papal letters grew enormously in number. The popes, following the earlier custom, insisted that their rescripts, issued for individual cases, should be observed in all analogous ones. According to the teaching of the canonists, above all of Gratian, every papal letter of general character was authoritative for the entire Church without further notification. The names of the letters of general authority were very varied: constitutio (c. vi, X, De elect., I, vi); edictum (c. unic., in VIto, De postul., I, v); statutum (c. xv, X, De sent. excomm., V, xxxix); decretum (c. i, in VIto, De præb., III, iv); decretalis (c. xxix, in VIto, De elect., I, vi); sanctio (c. unic., in VIto, De cler. ægrot., III, v). Decrees (decreta) was the name given especially to general ordinances issued with the advice of the cardinals (Schulte, "Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des kanonischen Rechtes", Stuttgart, 1876, I, 252 sq.). On the other hand ordinances issued for individual cases were called: rescripta, responsa, mandata. Thus a constitution was always understood to be a papal ordinance which regulated ecclesiastical conditions of a general character judicially, in a durable manner and form, for all time; but by a rescript was understood a papal ordinance issued at the petition of an individual that decided a lawsuit or granted a favour. Compare the Bulls of promulgation prefixed to the "Decretals" of Gregory IX, the "Liber Sextus" of Boniface VIII, and the "Clementinæ"; also the titles, "De constitutionibus" and "De rescriptis" in the "Corpus Juris Canonici". Notwithstanding all this, usage remained uncertain (c. xiv, in VIto, De præb., III, iv). The above-mentioned distinctions between papal documents were based on the extent of their authority. Other names again had their origin in the form of the papal documents. It is true they all had more or less evidently the form of letters. But essential differences appeared, especially in regard to the literary form (stylus) of the document and the method of sealing, these depending in each case on the importance of the contents of the respective document. It was merely the difference in the manner of sealing that led to the distinction between Bulls and Briefs. For Bulls, legal instruments almost entirely for important matters, the seal was stamped in wax or lead, seldom in gold, enclosed in a case, and fastened to the document by a cord. For Briefs, instruments used, as a rule, in matters of less importance, the seal was stamped upon the document in wax. Curial letters (litterœ curiales or de curia) denoted particularly letters of the popes in political affairs. During the Middle Ages, just as in the early Church, the letters of the popes were deposited in the papal archives either in the original or by copy. They are still in existence, and almost complete in number, from the time of Innocent III (1198-1216). Many papal letters were also incorporated, as their legal nature required, in the "Corpus Juris Canonici". Others are to be found in the formularies, many of which appeared unofficially in the Middle Ages, similar in kind to the ancient official "Liber Diurnus" of the papal chancery in use as late as the time of Gregory VII. The papal letters were forwarded by the papal officials, above all by the chancery, for whose use the chancery rules, regulœ cancellariœ Apostolicœ, were drawn up; these rules had regard to the execution and dispatch of the papal letters, and date back to the twelfth century. Nevertheless, the forging of papal letters was even more frequent in the Middle Ages than in the early Church. Innocent III (in c. v, X, De crimine falsi, V, xx) refers to no less than nine methods of falsification. From the thirteenth century on to a few years ago it sufficed, in order to give a papal document legal force, to post it up at Rome on the doors of St. Peter's, of the Lateran, the Apostolic Chancery, and in the Piazza del Campo di Fiori. Since 1 January, 1909, they acquire force by publication in the "Acta Apostolicæ Sedis".
In the modern period also, papal letters have been and still are constantly issued. Now, however, they proceed from the popes themselves less frequently than in the Middle Ages and Christian antiquity; most of them are issued by the papal officials, of whom there is a greater number than in the Middle Ages, and to whom have been granted large delegated powers, which include the issuing of letters. Following the example of Paul III, Pius IV, and Pius V, Sixtus V by the Bull "Immensa æterni" of 22 January, 1587, added to the already existing bodies of papal officials a number of congregations of cardinals with clearly defined powers of administration and jurisdiction. Succeeding popes added other congregations. Pius X, however, in the Constitution "Sapienti consilio" of 29 June, 1908, reorganized the papal Curia. Papal writings are yet divided into Constitutions, Rescripts, Bulls, Briefs, and Apostolic Letters (Litterœ Apostolicœ). The Litterœ Apostolicœ are further divided into Litterœ Apostolicœ simplices or Brevetti, Chirographa, Encyclicœ (Encyclicals), and Motus Proprii. By Litterœ Apostolicœ simplices are understood all documents drawn up by virtue of papal authorization, and signed with the pope's name but not by the pope personally. Documents signed by the pope personally are called Chirographa. Encyclicals are letters of a more hortatory nature, addressed to all or to a majority of the higher officials of the Church. A Motu Proprio is a document prepared at the personal initiative of the pope, without previous petition to him, and issued with a partial avoidance of the otherwise customary forms of the chancery. By Constitution is understood, as in the Middle Ages, a papal document of general authority; by Rescript, a similar document applicable to an individual case. Bulls and Briefs are distinguished from each other by characteristics of form which have always remained essentially the same. The papal documents are still deposited in the Roman archives. There are no official collections of them corresponding to the medieval "Corpus Juris Canonici". The last official collection is that of the Constitutions of Benedict XIV (1740-1758). From the sixteenth century, on the other hand, private collections have appeared, some of which are called bullaria, from the more important part of their contents. Many papal betters are also found in the collections of the Acts of the Councils. The documents issued by the officials of the Curia and the Congregations of Cardinals contain either resolutions (decisions) for individual cases, or declarations (extensivœ or comprehensivœ) interpreting laws or decrees, which are entirely new laws. Some congregations of cardinals have issued official collections of their decisions.
Coustant, "Epistolæ Romanorum Pontificum et quæ ad eos scriptæ sunt a S. Clemente I usque ad Innocentium III" (Paris, 1721), goes to only 440; Schönemann, "Pontificum Romanorum a Clemente I usque ad Leonem M. genuinæ . . . epistolæ" (Göttingen, 1796); Thiel, "Epistolæ Romanorum Pontificum genuinæ . . . a S. Hilaro usque ad Pelagium II" (Brunsberg, 1868). From 1881 the Ecole Française of Rome has published, with particular reference to France, the "Registra" of Gregory IX, Innocent IV, Alexander IV, Urban IV, Clement IV, Gregory X, John XXI, Nicholas III, Martin IV, Honorius IV, Nicholas IV, Boniface VIII, and Benedict XI. The "Registra" of the Avignon popes are also in course of publication. Cf. "Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire", XXV, 443 sqq.; Hergenröther, "Leonis X Pontificis Maximi Regesta" (Freiburg, 1884-); "Regesta Clementis Papæ V cura et studio monachorum ordinis S. Benedicti" (Rome, 1885-); Pressuti, "Registrum Honorii III" (Rome, 1888-). There are innumerable collections of papal letters issued from a partisan point of view. All known papal letters up to 1198 are enumerated by Jaffé in the "Regesta Rom. Pont." The papal letters of 1198-1304 are found in Potthast, "Regesta Pontificum Romanorum ab anno 1198 ad annum 1304" (Berlin, 1874). Professor Paul Kehr is preparing a critical edition of all papal letters up to Innocent III. See the "Nachrichten", of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, 1896, 72 sqq.; "Pii IX acta" (Rome, 1854-); "Leonis XIII acta" (Rome, 1881); "Pii X acta" (Rome, 1907). For the Bullaria, see Tomasetti, "Bullarum, diplomatum et privilegiorum s. Romanorum Pontificum Taurinensis editio locupletissima" (Turin, 1857-); for collections of the Acts of the Councils, Mansi, "Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio" (Florence and Venice, 1759), goes to 1439. It is continued by "Collectio conciliorum recentioris ecclesiæ universæ", ed. Martin and Petit (Paris, 1905); "Decreta authentica S. Congregationis Indulgentiarum edita jussu et auctoritate Leonis XIII" (Ratisbon, 1883); "Jus Pontificium de Propaganda Fide Leonis XIII jussu recognitum" (Rome, 1888); "Decreta authentica Congregationis S. Rituum . . . promulgata sub auspiciis Leonis XIII" (Rome, 1898).
Just as the popes rule the Church largely by means of letters, so also the bishops make use of letters for the administration of their dioceses. The documents issued by a bishop are divided according to their form into pastoral letters, synodal and diocesan statutes, mandates, or ordinances, or decrees, the classification depending upon whether they have been drawn up more as letters, or have been issued by a synod or the chancery. The pastoral letters are addressed either to all the members of the diocese (litterœ pastorales) or only to the clergy, in this case generally in Latin (litterœ encyclicœ). The mandates, decrees, or ordinances are issued either by the bishop himself or by one of his officials. The synodal statutes are ordinances issued by the bishop at the diocesan synod, with the advice, but in no way with the legislative co-operation, of the diocesan clergy. The diocesan statutes, regularly speaking, are those episcopal ordinances which, because they refer to more weighty matters, are prepared with the obligatory or facultative co-operation of the cathedral chapter. In order to have legal force the episcopal documents must be published in a suitable manner and according to usage. Civil laws by which episcopal and also papal documents have to receive the approval of the State before they can be published are irrational and out of date (Vatican Council, Sess. III, De eccl., c. iii). (See EXEQUATUR.)
For the extensive literature on papal letters see works on papal diplomatics; GRISAR in Kirchenlex., s.v. Bullen und Breven (to 1884); PITRA, Analecta novissima Spicilegii Solesmensis. Aitera continuatio. Tom. I: De epistolis et registris Romanorum Pontificum (Paris, 1885); BRESSLAU, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland and Italien (Leipzig, 1889), 65 sqq.; GIRY, Manuel de diplomatique (Paris, 1894), 661 sqq.; SCHMITZ-KALLENBERG, Die Lehre von den Papsturkunden in Meister, Grundriss der Geschichtswissenschaft (Leipzig, 1906-), I, pt. I, 172 sqq.; cf. also, PFLUGK-HARTTUNG, Die Bullen der Päpste bis zum Ende des 12. Jahrhunderts (Gotha, 1901); STEINACKER, Mittelungen des Instituts für osterreichische Geschichtsforschung, XXIII, 1 sqq.; KEHR, Ergänzungsband d. Mitteilungen, VI, 70 sqq.; WERNZ, Jus decretalium, I (2nd ed., Rome, 1905-), 159 sqq., 311 sqq., 350 sqq., 379 sqq.; LAURENTIUS, Institutiones juris ecclesiastici (2nd ed., Freiburg im Br., 1908), no. 11 sqq., 23 sqq., 28 sqq.; SÄGMÜLLER, Lehrbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts (2nd ed., Freiburg, 1909), 85 sqq., 129 sqq., 153 sqq., 164 sqq.
APA citation. (1910). Ecclesiastical Letters. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09202a.htm
MLA citation. "Ecclesiastical Letters." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09202a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.