Difference Between Doctrine and Dogma

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Dear Catholic Exchange:

Can you please explain to me the difference between Catholic Dogma and Doctrine? I was told that one could be questioned but the other couldn't (as far as a believing Catholic goes).

I would appreciate some light being shed on this or references I can read.

Thanks so much.

Diana Dages

Dear Ms. Dages,

Greetings in Christ. I hope this response will adequately address your question.

The term “doctrine” can be used generally to refer to all of the Church’s teachings. In addition, we can say that dogma is a subset of doctrine — all dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas. A doctrine is a teaching of the universal Church proposed as necessary for belief by the faithful. Dogmas, properly speaking, are such teachings that are set forth to be believed as divinely revealed (Catechism, no. 88; cf. 891-892). When differentiating from dogma, we use the term “doctrine” to signify teachings that are either definitively proposed or those that are proposed as true, but not in a definitive manner (cf. Catechism, nos. 88, 891-92).

For Catholics, there is an important difference between the teachings that we must believe, which are infallible and unchangeable (doctrine), and the rules that we must obey but which are changeable (disciplines). Finally, there are areas where we are free to believe or not believe without offending against faith (theological opinions).

Christ and the apostles guided by the Holy Spirit passed on the Church’s doctrines in explicit and/or implicit form (Catechism, nos. 74-83). We say implicitly because, over time, the Church has come to an increasingly better understanding of her doctrines through the development of doctrine, e.g., regarding the nature of God and the Persons of the Trinity, and also how Christ is both God and man. Collectively, the Church’s doctrines make up the deposit of faith and a Catholic must believe them (see Catechism, nos. 891-892, 2035-36; cf. nos. 74-90).

The magisterium (which is the pope and the bishops in union with him) is the guardian of this teaching, not its author and arbiter (Catechism, no. 85-87). The magisterium is preserved by the Holy Spirit from formally teaching anything on faith and morals that was not at least implicitly taught by Christ and the apostles (cf. Catechism, no. 67). The magisterium cannot formally teach anything that contradicts the truths revealed by Christ. The Gospels clearly show how Christ gave this teaching authority to the apostles and their successors (see Mt 10:40, Mt 28:19-20, Lk 10:16, Jn 13:20, Jn 16:11). For more on non-revealed truths that the Church teaches definitively, i.e., truths necessarily connected with the deposit of faith, see our FAITH FACTS on the Infallible Magisterium and Papal Authority. See also Pope John Paul II’s motu propio Ad Tuendam Fidam (“To Protect the Faith”) on www.vatican.va.

In addition to teaching authority, Christ gave the apostles authority to govern His Church (Mt 18:16). “Discipline” refers to the exercise of this authority. The Church needs rules to preserve inner unity here on earth, help her members achieve perfection, and provide a protective framework within which doctrinal teaching can be lived. Disciplines, the rules promulgated by the magisterium, provide this (see FAITH FACT on Necessity of Law and Right Order for further discussion). Discipline includes such things as Canon Law, priestly celibacy, and certain liturgical norms, and does not come directly from the deposit of faith but from the prudential decisions of the magisterium. Disciplines are authoritative and binding in conscience for as long as the magisterium affirms them. Disciplinary forms can be changed when the magisterium deems this necessary, i.e., allowing the reception of Communion in the hand. Prudence is to be exercised, however, for disciplines can be closely related to doctrinal concerns. Only the magisterium has the authority to “bind and loose” in the domain of discipline, and this extends to bishops' conferences and individual bishops in certain circumstances (cf., for example, Congregation for Divine Worship, “Ceremonial of Bishops,” no. 7).

The magisterium can, in addressing the changing needs of the Church, change or modify a discipline or Church law which no longer seems to address a specific need, i.e., veils for women in Church or the 24-hour fast before Communion. The magisterium cannot change dogma or doctrinal truth which originates from the teachings of our founder, Jesus Christ, e.g., divorce, (Mt 5: 32) or homosexual activity (Rom 1:18-32 and 1 Tm 1:10).

Finally, there is the category of theological opinion. There are many theological questions which the Church has not definitively answered one way or another. A wide range of theories or opinions on these questions are perfectly legitimate, provided the theory does not contradict any other doctrinal teaching of the Church. Such opinions must be held with a due tentativeness or reserve, ready to submit faithfully to the final judgment of the magisterium. The danger here is to treat what is merely an opinion as a doctrine (as some did with St. Thomas’s theory of limbo) or to hold on to a mere theological opinion after the Church has declared a theological question settled (for instance, in the contemporary case of the priestly ordination of women).

No formally defined dogma or formally taught doctrine has ever been reversed or contradicted by any later teaching. Indeed, truth cannot contradict truth. Doctrines and dogmas never proclaim anything “new” about the faith. Over time and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church comes to an ever-deeper and fuller understanding and expression of the same essential truths (Catechism, no. 66).

For your further reading, you may wish to consult Sermon 15 of Newman’s Oxford University Sermons. Or, for more extensive reading on the subject, you may want to read Newman’s book The Development of Christian Doctrine (ISBN: 026800921X). This is a very helpful book by an eminent convert to Catholicism and highly learned scholar. Benedictus Books at (888) 316-2640 gives a discount of 10% to CUF members.

Please feel free to call us at 1-800-MY FAITH with any further questions on this or any other subject. If you have found this service to be helpful, please consider a donation to CUF to help sustain this service. You can call the toll-free line, visit us at www.cuf.org, or send your contribution to the address below. Thank you for your support as we endeavor to “support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.”

United in the Faith,

Elizabeth Hruska

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

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