What is a papal bull?
An instrument or document of the Catholic Church or royalty is called a papal bull. Originally, it was a circular plate or boss of metal. By the Middle Ages, it came to be a leaden seal which authenticated important writings, papers, and charters. After the thirteenth century, the name bull was a popular term for most papal documents.
The Catholic Church views the pope to be the "Vicar of Christ." In other words, Christ's representative on earth. According to the Catholic Church, there is a degree of infallibility associated with the position. Their statement from the Vatican Council in 1962-1965 says: "We believe in the infallibility enjoyed by the Successor of Peter when he speaks ex cathedra as shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, an infallibility which the whole Episcopate also enjoys when it exercises with him the supreme magisterium" (Vatican Council II, vol. 2, p 392).
Looking back at historical facts though, popes have contradicted other popes by changing views on prior decrees especially on matters of morals and faith. If the original decree was infallible, how can a later decree that changes positions be infallible also?
The Inquisition in 1471-1484, which was established by a Papal Bull under Sixtus IV, was called 'the greatest error in Church history' by Pope John Paul II. Thus opinions and contradictions mar the infallibility of the papacy.
The seals on the documents were mostly of lead but on documents with more importance than normal it was not rare to see gold seals. Now the lead seal has been replaced with a red ink stamp of Saints Peter and Paul with the reigning pope's name encircling the picture. The most important papers can still receive the lead seal.
The writings of the pope also include statutory decrees and Episcopal appointments to dispensations. The papal bulls are now issued as briefs.
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