Dogma, doctrine, and discipline

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion floating around about the categories of Church teaching so I thought I might try to make some sense of it. I’ll try and avoid excessive detail.

The Catholic Church has a hierarchy of the categories of teachings that include (from top to bottom) dogmas, doctrines, disciplines, and devotions.

Dogmas are the fundamental teachings of the Church. The basic catalog is the articles in The Apostles’ Creed (The Apostles’ Creed is a sort of pageant that has one article or verse for each of the twelve apostles—but that’s a post for another time). There are many other dogmas including Transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, and others. Oddly, there doesn’t appear to be a completely inclusive list of Church dogmas and scholars and clerics differ somewhat on what the dogmas of the Church actually are. Dogmas are universal and unchanging. So long as Catholicism remains Catholicism you won’t see a change in the dogmas of the Church. Canons of Church councils are dogmatic.

Doctrines are, broadly, the teachings of the Church. Every dogma is a doctrine but not every doctrine is a dogma. A doctrine may apply to a specific community within the Church. It may be binding and authoritative to them and not to other communities within the Church. Papal encyclicals are doctrinal. Doctrines may be different within different communities within the Church and may change over time. For example, Pius IX (IIRC) taught against political democracy. John Paul II taught in favor of political democracy.

Disciplines are practices that spring from the magisterium—the teaching office—of the Church and definitely have changed over time. The disciplines of indulgences and fasting have changed enormously since the Middle Ages, for example.

That women are not ordained and that priests are not allowed to marry are matters of discipline. These practices are authoritative and binding but may (and in my view are likely) to change in time.

Does that help?

9 comments… add one
  • “That women are not ordained and that priests are not allowed to marry are matters of discipline. These practices are authoritative and binding but may (and in my view are likely) to change in time.”

    This is incorrect. True, whether or not we have married priests is simply a matter of ecclesiastical rule. It can be altered without affecting dogma. (This also explains why there are some married Catholic priests already.) Not so with “women’s ordination” which is dogmatically proscribed.

  • Hey, my years in the seminary finally has paid off!

  • That women are not to be ordained is absolutely the teaching of the Church and I fully accept it. Whether John Paul II was speaking ex cathedra in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994, continues to be obscure. O-S was released as an Apostolic Letter rather than an Apostolic Constitution. All prior ex cathedra statements have been in the form of Apostolic Constitutions. Not all Apostolic Constitutions are held to be infallible pronouncements (even by the most conservative theologians). A quick reading of O-S suggests that JPII used the words to be definitively held rather than the normal formula of infallibility We define. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his response to Responsum Ad Dubium retained the ambiguity.

    It appears to continue to be arguable that JPII was declaring in his own (fallible) opinion as a theologian rather than in his infallible position as Pope. The discussion (at least for the time being) does not seem to have ended.

  • Yes, but the all male priesthood is not a matter that required ex cathedra pronouncements to ensure its status as dogma. A lot of writers sympathetic to female ordination attempt to make the case that EVERYTHING is an open question as long as a Pope from the first Vatican Council onward has not spoken “ex cathedra” on the matter. This simply is untrue. (Actually its intellectual poppycock!)

    The constitution of the priesthood is clearly constituted in divine law. It was recognized as such in the Apostolic Canons as well as the first Council of Nicea. The pronouncements of the council of Nicea have been reaffirmed by every subsequent council. Its status as a “general dogma” of the Church is unassailable.

  • D.S. Link

    How about the difference between ‘doctrine’ and ‘creed’, is one singular and the other collective, or?

  • Rodolfo Martinez Link

    Jesus instituted the sacraments. He chose the matter and the form. The Church does not have the authority to change either the matter or the form of the sacraments. The Church does not have the authority to use tortillas for example (or any other substance) in place of bread for the sacrament of communion. Jesus chose men (not women) for the sacrament of the priesthood. Therefore, the Church has no authority to ordain women.

  • I came here trying to find out whether the Church’s position on capital punishment is dogma, doctrine, or just Church teaching based on learned opinions.

    Some tortillas are made from wheat flour, why would they not be acceptable?

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