With the release of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on April 8, one obvious question comes up: What other types of documents can the pope issue?

Based on the reason or need, the pontiff has many types of documents at his disposal. However, before addressing the various papal documents, it’s important to remember that official church documents can come from four basic areas in the Catholic Church.

One is from the bishops. These documents, either issued by individual bishops or by national conferences of bishops, explain how church teaching will be put into effect in a diocese or particular area. Often referred to as a pastoral letter, each must receive official confirmation from the Vatican to have authority.

A second official church document is issued by offices of the Holy See and authorized by the pope. Called a curial document, this type of communication provides instruction, such as to explain or clarify documents issued by a council or decrees by a pope. A curial document also includes a “recognitio,” or an acceptance by the Holy See of a document sent to it for review, and a “dubia,” which is an official response to questions sent to the Vatican by bishops seeking more information on various topics.

Conciliar documents are another type of official church documents and are issued following the work of a church council.

The last type of official church document includes the largest of the four areas: papal documents. Papal documents are issued directly by the pontiff and typically fall into certain recognized categories with different levels of authority.

1. The first type is a papal bull. It is typically used to address a wide range of situations, such as an excommunication to canonizations of saints. Written on parchment with a seal or bulla attached featuring cords of silk, a papal bull makes a dramatic presentation and is typically reserved for solemn announcements. In 1950, the dogma of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother was issued through an apostolic constitution with a papal bull.

2. As suggested, an apostolic constitution is a second type of papal document and deals with serious doctrinal matters. When issued, it can define dogma, change canon law or establish new ecclesiastical structures.

3. If the pope wants to write a pastoral letter to the entire church, he would typically use this third type of papal document called an encyclical letter. Usually this document offers some type of teaching or counsel on doctrine. An example is Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, an encyclical that first introduced Catholic social teaching.

4. Similar to an encyclical in its pastoral nature, an apostolic letter or epistle is written by the pope to address a specific person or group of people on an issue or issues of concern.

5. Another document that the pope can send is called a declaration. This can be in the form of a simple statement of a law or a longer declaration that could modify a church law. Declarations are not issued as much as they once were in the early history of the church.

6. A sixth type is the motu proprio. This is a decree issued by the pontiff and is meant to handle specific issues related to the church. When restrictions were relaxed during the celebration of the Mass, Catholics heard about it in a motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict XVI.

7. An apostolic exhortation, issued recently by Pope Francis, is an exhorting or urging by the pope. Typically, it contains papal reflections on a certain topic and may also offer encouragement and instruction to everyone in the church. The “Amoris Laetitia” or “the Joy of Love” draws together the results of two recent synods on the family and also contains the pope’s thoughts on providing comfort and compassion to every family.

8. Finally, for those times when the pope doesn’t write a papal document, he can still make a formal oral announcement. Called an allocution, this is a way for the pope to address a group on a certain topic. The first pope to use it was Pope Pius IX when he addressed the cardinals.