Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Decretals
DECRETALS, in canon law, are the answers sent by the Pope to applications made to him as head of the church, chiefly by bishops, but also by synods, and even private individuals, for guidance in cases involving points of doctrine or discipline. In the early days of the church these replies came to be circulated throughout the various dioceses, and furnished precedents to be observed in analogous circumstances. From the 4th century onwards they formed the most prolific source of canon law. Decretals (decreta constituta decretalia, epistolæ decretales, or shortly decretalia, or decretales) ought, properly speaking, to be distinguished, on the one hand from constitutions (constitutiones pontificæ), or general laws enacted by the Pope sua sponte without reference to any particular case, and on the other hand from rescripts (rescripta), which apply only to special circumstances or individuals, and constitute no general precedent. But this nomenclature is not strictly observed.