A term used to designate the documents (called also decrees) issued by the Roman Congregations in virtue of powers conferred on them by the Roman Pontiff. This subject will be treated under the following heads:I. KINDS;
In virtue of their governing and executive powers, the Congregations grant privileges and dispensations from ecclesiastical laws, or issue ordinances to safeguard their observance; in virtue of their power of interpreting laws they give authentic declarations; in virtue of their judicial power they give decisions between contending parties. All these powers, however, do not belong to each Congregation. (See CONGREGATIONS, ROMAN.) Again, their decrees are particular or universal, according as they are directed to individuals or to the whole Church. Particular decrees, containing simply an authentic interpretation of a universal law, are called equivalently universal. Finally, most decrees are disciplinary, dealing with positive ecclesiastical laws, which they explain, or enforce, or dispense from; but some are doctrinal, e.g., those which declare a doctrine to be untenable, or an act unlawful because contrary to a divine law.
The authority of these decrees is in a certain sense supreme, inasmuch as they come from the highest ecclesiastical tribunals; but it is not absolutely supreme, for the Congregations are juridically distinct from the Pope and inferior to him; hence their acts are not, strictly speaking, acts of the Roman Pontiff. The Congregations do not always make use of all the authority they possess. Hence it is from the wording of the documents, and by applying the general rules of interpretation, that we must judge in each case of the legal force of their decrees, whether they contain, for instance, orders or instructions, authentic interpretations, or only practical directions.(b) Authority of doctrinal decrees
Doctrinal decrees are not of themselves infallible ; the prerogative of infallibility cannot be communicated to the Congregations by the Pope. On the other hand, owing to the teaching power delegated to the Congregations for safeguarding the purity of Christian doctrine, exterior compliance and interior assent are due to such decrees. However, solid proofs to the contrary may at times justify the learned in suspending their assent until the infallible authority of the Church intervenes.(c) Authority of disciplinary decrees
Universal decrees bind either all the faithful, or such classes or persons as are directly concerned. Particular decrees affect, first of all, those to whom they are directed. As to other persons, we must distinguish various cases. A particular decree which grants a privilege or a dispensation affects others only by preventing them from disturbing the recipients. A particular decree containing a judicial sentence has not the force of a universal law, unless the same decision has been given repeatedly in similar cases, because such decisions rendered by courts that are supreme form a judicial custom, to which inferior judges must conform (1. 38. D. de legibus). Finally, when particular decrees are equivalently universal, canonists are divided as to the limits of their binding force. Most authors distinguish between comprehensive and extensive interpretations. The latter are held to bind only persons to whom they are directed, unless promulgated to the Universal Church, because, being extensive, they enforce a sense not included in the law and are equivalent to a new law ; the former are held to bind all without need of promulgation, because the sense explained in a comprehensive interpretation being already included in the law, such decrees are not new laws and do not need further promulgation. Many canonists follow an opposite view; without distinguishing between comprehensive and extensive interpretations, they maintain that any decree interpreting a law in itself obscure and doubtful binds only those to whom it is directed, unless promulgated to the Universal Church. They base their opinion upon the doctrine that, when a law is in itself doubtful and obscure an authentic interpretation, i.e., a declaration obliging people to put that law into practice in a certain definite sense, is equivalent to a new law ; hence the necessity of its promulgation. These authors, however, admit that no promulgation is necessary, either when the same declaration has been repeatedly given, so as to have established what is termed the Stylus Curiae (a custom similar to that mentioned above in connection with the authority of judicial sentences), or when the declaration in question, though given only once, has been universally accepted, so as to have become the common practice of the Church.
Their use is determined by their special character and value, according as they are sentences, or declarations and so forth. Moreover, besides settling the cases for which they are issued, they are often useful for professors of canon law and moral theology in discussing disputed questions, as well as for judges in the prudent administration of justice ; on the other hand, all, especially clerics, may find, even in those that are not universal, safe directions in matters of religion and morality. This directive effect is all the more reasonable as these acts come from men of learning and experience, well qualified for their offices, who devote the most careful study to each case, according to its relative importance. Decisions of lesser moment are given by the cardinal who is at the head of the Congregation, in a meeting ( congresso ) composed of the same cardinal, the secretary, and some other officials of the Congregation. More important matters are decided only by the general Congregation. Before the Congregation meets to take action in affairs of very great importance, each cardinal has been fully informed of the question to be treated, by means of a paper in which the matter is thoroughly discussed, and all points of fact and law connected with it are presented, with reasons for both sides. The cardinals then discuss the matter in their meeting, and the decision is reached by voting. These decisions are brought to the Pope for his consideration or approbation in all cases in which custom or law prescribes such procedure. Ordinarily this approval is not legally of such a character as to make these decrees "pontifical acts"; they become such only by the special confirmation, termed by canonists in forma specificâ , which is seldom given. Finally, the act is drawn up in due form, and, having been sealed and signed by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation and the Secretary, is dispatched to its destination.
All pending affairs are entered, under progressive numbers, in the register called Protocollo , with a short indication of the stage of the transaction. Suitable alphabetical indexes render easy the work of looking up details. All the documents relating to each case, from the first, containing the petition addressed to the Congregation, to the official copy of the final act, and forming what is technically called the posizione , are kept together, separate from all other documents, and are preserved in the archives of the Congregation, either permanently or for a definite period of time (ordinarily, ten years), when the documents are removed to the Vatican archives. This latter practice prevails in the Congregations of the Council, of Bishops and Regulars, and of Rites.
The archives of the Congregations are not opened to the public. If one wishes to study the documents, he should ask permission from the authorities of the Congregations. Ordinarily it is sufficient to ask it of the secretary; in the Congregations of Propaganda and of the Index the petition should be addressed to the Cardinal Prefect, and in the Congregation of the Holy Office, to the Congregation itself; finally, in the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, the matter has to be referred to the Pope. When there are sufficient reasons, which should be more or less grave according to the quality of the matter, the petitioner either will be allowed to inspect the original documents or will be supplied with authentic copies.
Many of the acts are accessible in the various collections, which several of the Congregations have permitted to be published. Some of these collections are also authentic, inasmuch as their genuineness and authenticity are vouched for by the authorities of the Congregations. Moreover, editors of periodicals on ecclesiastical subjects have been allowed for several years back to publish in their magazines the acts of the Congregations, and one of these periodicals, Acta Sanctae Sedis , has received the privilege of being declared "authentic and official for publishing the acts of the Apostolic See " (S.C. de Prop. Fid., 23 May, 1904). The following is a list of the chief collections:
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