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So What Is An “Exhortation,” Anyway?

Antoine Mekary/ALETEIA

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 04/09/16

There’s some befuddlement out there on the Interwebs, and more than a few Catholics are referring again and again to “the pope’s latest encyclical” when they talk about Amoris Laetitia.

Some have taken to comparing it unfavorably to “other encyclicals.”

Let’s clear up the confusion.

First, Amoris Laetitia is not an encyclical. It is an Apostolic Exhortation. Our friends over at EWTN have thoughtfully compiled a list of different kinds of papal documents, to clarify what they are and the force they carry:

The weight of authority behind a teaching of the Papal Magisterium depends on the dogmatic history of the teaching and the intention of the Supreme Pontiff. Papal addresses and documents invariably contain teachings in several categories of authority. Some of these teachings will be “of the faith” (de fide),  requiring the assent of Catholics by reason of the virtue of faith’s obligation to God revealing. Among such de fide teachings will be those which have been solemnly defined (such as the divinity of Christ, or, the Immaculate Conception of Mary), and those which, while they have not been solemnly defined, belong to the infallible ordinary Magisterium, having been taught “semper et ubique” (always and everywhere). Examples of the latter include the evil of certain sins, such as abortion or adultery, or the restriction of the priesthood to men.Papal addresses and documents may also contain teachings which come from the common teaching of the Church, but which cannot yet be said to be de fide, and even new insights and explanations which manifest the mind of the Magisterium. Such authentic teaching has a presumption of correctness and deserves the reverence and submission of Catholics. By doing so peaceful communion in matters of the faith is maintained throughout the Church, properly gathered around the principle of unity in faith given by Christ to the Church, Peter and his successors. 

To the issue at hand:

Encyclical

A circular or general letter expressing the mind of the Pope, generally on matters of faith and morals. It may be a letter to the entire Church or an epistle to a particular Church or people (e.g. Mit brennenden sorge, Pius XI’s encyclical to the German people condemning racism).

Apostolic Letter

Letters of less solemn authority than an encyclical, they may be written on a doctrinal matter (e.g. Pope John Paul II’s Letter On the Beginning of the Third Millennium). They may also announce a papal act such as declaring a person Venerable (heroic virtue) or declaring a church a Basilica.Apostolic ExhortationA category of document similar to an Apostolic Letter, which the pope uses to communicate to the Church the conclusions he has reached after consideration of the recommendations of a Synod of Bishops. 

Wikipedia puts it this way:

An apostolic exhortation is a type of communication from the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It encourages a community of people to undertake a particular activity but does not define Church doctrine. It is considered lower in formal authority than a papal encyclical, but higher than other ecclesiastical letters, Apostolic Letters and other papal writings. Apostolic exhortations are commonly issued in response to an assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in which case they are known as post-synodal apostolic exhortations.

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