What Are Dogma, Doctrine, and Theology?

By Jimmy Akin

Many people are curious about the difference between dogma and doctrine. I’m asked about it surprisingly often.

It would be nice if the Church had an official dictionary I could use to answer this question, but it doesn’t.

Instead, it uses terms in documents and most of the time it expects you to already know them. Sometimes it gives you a partial definition, or at least clues about what a word means, but in general it leaves the writing of dictionary-style definitions to the writers of Catholic dictionaries.

Recently I wrote a study of the terms “dogma,” “doctrine,” and “theology.” You can read it here, but in this post I’ll give you with the results in an easy-to-read form.

So let’s get started . . .

What Is Theology?

The broadest of the three categories is theology. The name “theology” is derived from a couple of Greek words (theos and logos) which combine to mean “the study of God.”

You could study God in different ways, though. You might study him based on what he has revealed in his word, which is found in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition.

Or you could study him in other ways, such as using philosophical reasoning without divine revelation–the way that Plato and Aristotle did.

To keep the philosophical study of God separate from theology, it is customary to add a qualifier and say that theology is the study of God based on divine revelation.

That’s the standard, brief definition of what theology is (see, for example, the glossary at the back of an English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

You’ll note that it does not say anything about who is studying God. You don’t, for example, have to be the pope or even a bishop to do theology.

Some people–theologians–do it professionally, and others do it informally.

In the broadest sense, any person who is reasoning about God based on divine revelation is doing theology–though that’s very far from saying that they are doing it well, as the enormous amount of theological confusion that is out there illustrates.

Precisely because of that theological confusion, God has given the Church a teaching authority–the Magisterium (from the Latin, magister = teacher).

This leads us to the next concept . . .

What Is Doctrine?

The term “doctrine” comes from the Latin word doctrina, which simply means “teaching.”

As used today, though, the word means a bit more than that. Ideas developed by a faithful Catholic theologian may represent Catholic theology but that do not make them Catholic doctrine.

For that the intervention of the Magisterium is needed, so a basic definition of the term is that a doctrine is a proposition (or set of propositions) taught by the Magisterium of the Church.

In some cases the term “doctrine” may be used to refer to things that have been infallibly taught by the Magisterium. It may even be used as a synonym for “dogma,” but it is easy to show that this is not always the case.

For example, the Code of Canon Law provides that:

Can. 749 §3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.

All dogmas are infallibly defined, as we will see, so this reveals that there can be doctrines that are not infallible and thus that are not dogmas.

 What Is Dogma?

The Greek word dogma originally meant “opinion,” but it has come to mean something much more specific.

The current understanding of “dogma” arose in the 1700s (so be warned that earlier documents, such as the writings of the Fathers or Medievals like St. Thomas Aquinas tend to use the term in the broader sense of just a theological opinion).

Cardinal Avery Dulles explains the present meaning of the term:

In current Catholic usage, the term “dogma” means a divinely revealed truth, proclaimed as such by the infallible teaching authority of the Church, and hence binding on all the faithful without exception, now and forever. [The Survival of Dogma, 153].

There are two essential elements here: First, a dogma must be divinely revealed. That is to say, it must be found explicitly or implicitly in the deposit of faith that Christ gave the Church. This is found in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition. If something is to be a dogma, it must be in one of those two places–or in both of them.

Second, a dogma must be infallibly taught by the Magisterium as divinely revealed.

This is an important qualifier, because the Magisterium is capable of infallibly defining certain things that aren’t divinely revealed. According to Church teaching, the Magisterium is able to infallibly teach both things that have been divinely revealed and truths that have a certain kind of connection with them, so that they may be properly explained and defended.

Dogmatic Facts?

For example, suppose a particular pope or ecumenical council tried to infallibly define a particular teaching but that later a question arose about whether he was really a valid pope or whether it was really an ecumenical council.

If the Magisterium did not have the ability to infallibly settle that question then the status of the previous definition would be uncertain, which would defeat the point of infallibly defining it.

To resolve this kind of situation, God gave the Church the ability not only to define dogmas but also the fact that a particular man was a valid pope or that a particular council was ecumenical.

These facts were not revealed by God as part of the deposit of faith that Christ gave the Church, though. They’re facts that deals with later history, after the close of public revelation.

Still, they are facts that are necessary to properly defend a dogma, and so they are called “dogmatic facts” (facts connected with dogmas).

This is just one kind of example of non-revealed things that the Church can infallibly define. There are others.

The point, though, is that the Church can infallibly define certain things that are not divinely revealed and thus things other than dogmas.

Thus for the Church to define a dogma, it must not only infallibly teach that a particular point is true but that it is a divinely revealed truth.

From Theology to Dogma

The Church is not in the habit of leaping straight to the dogma stage. It tends to define dogmas only rarely, and usually only when there is a controversy about them that needs to be settled.

Most of the time it leaves particular matters at the level of non-infallible doctrine.

Or it leaves it as a matter freely discussed by theologians but not taught by the Church–ie., at the level of a theological opinion.

Historically, the progression often works like this:

1) A theologian or theological school proposes a way of understanding the revelation God has given the Church.

2) If it deems this a valuable and important contribution to the understanding of divine revelation, the Magisterium may begin to teach this authoritatively, raising it to the level of non-infallible doctrine.

3) Particularly if a controversy over the teaching arises at some point in Church history, the Magisterium may choose to settle the matter infallibly by defining the matter.

4) The Magisterium may infallibly define the matter with or without defining that it is a divinely revealed truth, but if it does the latter then it elevates the matter to the level of dogma.


France Pilgrimage Itinerary

Day 1 | Monday, May 11: Depart for Lourdes

Depart for your overnight flight from Tulsa to Europe.
Dinner and breakfast will be served on board.

Day 2 | Tuesday, May 12: Arrive Lourdes

Upon arrival in Europe you will connect with your flight to Pau Airport. Upon arrival in Pau, you will find your luggage and exit the baggage claim into the arrivals hall where you will be greeted by a tour guide and/or driver. You will be escorted to the vehicle which will then take you on your scenic drive to Lourdes. Once you arrive to check in to your hotel, you will have time to relax or explore before dinner.

Days 3-4 | Wednesday, May 13-Thursday, May 14:


During the next two days in Lourdes you will have time to pray with your fellow pilgrims from around the world. During your trip you will have an opportunity to: Attend Mass at the Grotto, watch a video presentation telling the story of Lourdes, and walk in the footsteps of St. Bernadette. See Boly Mill where St. Bernadette was born, and the “Cachot,” an abandoned prison where Bernadette’s impoverished family lived. Join your prayers with those of pilgrims from around the world as you pray for the sick, drink water from the miraculous spring or submerge yourself in the healing baths. Experience Christ’s love as you walk the life-sized Stations of the Cross overlooking the holy Grotto. Kneel in the chapel built on the very rock of the Grotto, in obedience to the request of the “Immaculate Conception.” Evenings are free for optional Blessed Sacrament Procession before dinner. Your role in the universal church will have new meaning as you join the candlelight procession and group rosary.

Day 5 | Friday, May 15: Lourdes – Paris – Lisieux (St.

Terese the Little Flower)

After an early breakfast, we make our way to Pau Airport for our short flight to Paris. Upon arrival we will visit the Sacre Coeur Basilica for Mass, time for adoration. We will then depart for our final destination of Lisieux in time for dinner and overnight.

Day 6 | Saturday, May 16: Lisieux – Normandy

Beaches – Paris

After breakfast, we will enjoy a tour of the home of St. Therese whom Pope Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern times.” Her extraordinary love for God and service to humanity comes alive as you visit the Basilica of Saint Therese, one of the biggest and most magnificent religious structures built in the 20th-century. We will also stop at Les Buissonets, St. Therese’s family home, there on display are relics, clothing, and personal objects belonging to the “little flower.” Before leaving, tour the ancient Cathedral of St. Peter and the Carmelite Convent. We continue on to the Normandy beaches, best known for the “D-Day landings”. Visit the enormously impressive American cemetery at Omaha Beach, and it is here where we will celebrate Mass. Continue on to Paris and arrive late in the evening for dinner and overnight.

Day 7 | Sunday, May 17: Paris (Half Day Tour)

After Mass, we will view the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Labouret whose guardian angel led her to the chapel where the Blessed Virgin displayed a vision of the miraculous medal and later the green scapular. The Virgin promised bountiful graces for all who wore these. Next we depart on our sightseeing tour which includes the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysees and the Louvre. Enjoy other sights on this mostly panoramic tour. This evening, dinner will be on your own, so you will have the opportunity to enjoy any Restaurant or Café that you would like to. Return to your Hotel at your own leisure, and overnight.

Day 8-9 | Monday, May 18-Tuesday, May 19:

Paris (FREE Days)

After Mass each day, the remainder of the day will be free for you to spend at your own leisure. (You will have the opportunity to return to any sights that you would like to spend more time at, example: Go up to the top floor of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame etc. Or, you can make your way to the Louvre or D’Orsay Museums and take a tour. Expenses and tickets on your free day are at your own expense). Return to your hotel for dinner and overnight.

Day 10 | Wednesday, May 20: Depart Paris – Tulsa

After breakfast, we transfer to Paris Airport for our return flight home to Tulsa. Though our pilgrimage has come to an end, memories, blessings and graces will last a lifetime.

Choosing the “Better Part”

Has any saint received more negative press than Martha? All she did was ask Jesus to tell her sister to help her with the chores, and she ended up being branded as spiritually dull, overly anxious, or even worse, spiteful. After all, Jesus rejected Martha’s request and even told her that her own priorities were out of order.

What was wrong with Martha’s behavior? Why did she receive this unexpected rebuke from Jesus? Was it sinful for her to have wanted everything to be perfect for such an important guest as Jesus? Was it sinful to clean and cook? Don’t we all act this way when family or close friends come to visit our home?

In fact, Jesus was probably pleased by the way Martha tried to make everything just right. He probably felt honored by her desire to serve him so graciously. So why did Jesus say what he said? Because he wanted Martha—and all of us—to know that there is a point where our tasks consume us, rob us of our peace, and separate us from God.

We are all guilty of being distracted. We are all guilty of working on the things we consider vital and important—only at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. This month, we want to put ourselves in Martha’s shoes and look at the way our responsibilities in the world can distract us and block us from receiving Jesus and all that he wants to give us.

Active and Contemplative. In a sense, we can say that Martha represents all of the members of the church who feel led to spend their lives on the active work of the church. Those of us in this category want to serve Jesus and his people with our whole heart. On the other hand, Martha’s sister Mary represents those of us who tend toward thecontemplative side of Christianity. Those of us in this category place a high value on being with Jesus, talking with him, and listening for his still, small voice.

Of course, very few of us are 100 percent active or 100 percent contemplative. Most of us who tend toward the active category do spend time in prayer. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine even Martha on her knees at different times. Similarly, most of us who tend toward the contemplative category do spend some time in active service. We really can’t assume that Mary failed to carry some share of work around the house or in the neighborhood. So to be accurate, we should be clear that we are talking about degrees of activity and service versus degrees of contemplation and prayer.

What was at the heart of Jesus’ rebuke to Martha? It was the way she became distracted from the Lord and his words, not her heartfelt desire to serve, that he sought to correct. Martha was immersed in the preparations. The demands of service overwhelmed her and made her anxious and judgmental toward her sister. As a result, Martha sank into a pool of self-pity and self-righteousness, prompting Jesus’ response. We can just imagine, after this episode, Jesus telling her, “Don’t lose your peace, Martha. Don’t go overboard and let your desire to serve me overshadow all the ways that I want to serve you.”

Isn’t it amazing? From our earliest days, we are taught to give and give and give. It’s as if the service is in our blood. That’s probably why Martha felt justified in her request to Jesus. The problem was that she didn’t grasp Jesus’ teaching that it is more critical for him to serve us than for us to serve him. In truth, we really cannot “outgive” Jesus.

Two Levels of Distractions. As the story of Mary and Martha demonstrates, being distracted from the Lord means being preoccupied with someone or some thing to such an extent that we experience a degree of separation from Jesus. Sometimes these distractions come from evil temptations, while at other times they come from our own motivations and mind-sets.

Clearly, not all distractions are alike. On one level, there are times when the sinful lures of the world distract us and turn our attention away from Jesus. But on a deeper level, we can also be distracted by our own good intentions, as Martha was. On this level, even our work, our families, and our service to the church have the potential to distract us from Jesus.

At the lower level, it’s temptations toward immorality, gossip, deceit, and the like that distract us from the Lord. These temptations tell us that we need to do this certain action to feel fulfilled, or that we have a right to do it, even though we know that it may well be opposed to the way Jesus wants us to think and act. Whether they come from the devil or from our own fallen nature, these temptations deceive us by encouraging us to focus only on the supposed benefits of the temptation. Then, when we have given in to them, they prey upon our consciences, often leading to a bitter aftertaste filled with guilt and shame.

This was the problem King David faced not long after he became ruler of all Israel. While his entire army was out fighting the Ammonites, David stayed home. With nothing to motivate him to keep his eyes fixed on God, and an idle mind, he fell into adultery with Bathsheba. Then, in an attempt to cover up his sin, he arranged the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. Normally a fair and just man, David couldn’t see anything wrong with what he did. His conscience became so dulled that he let his mind wander unchecked, to the point where he justified deception, adultery, and even murder.

Generally, the “lower-level” distractions such as the ones David faced are not too hard to spot. By contrast, the “higher-level” ones—the ones that are rooted mostly in good intentions—are more murky. At this level, we can become distracted from the Lord when we allow our responsibilities, our goals, and the normal demands of life to dominate our minds and preoccupy us. This was why Jesus rejected Martha’s request. If she had prepared a simpler meal, if she had held on to her peace and found the time to sit with Jesus as Mary did, it’s likely that Jesus would not have chided her.

Facing Our Distractions with Hope. If we want to grow closer to Jesus, then we need to address both the lower-level distractions and the higher-level ones. Jesus told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more (John 8:11). He told the man at the pool of Bethsaida to avoid further sin (5:14). He even told the apostles to stop fighting among themselves and to concentrate on serving each other instead (Luke 22:24-26). In the same way, Jesus wants us to examine ourselves and see if we are being distracted by any of these lower-level lures.

At the same time, we need to be on guard against the “good” distractions, such as our work, our financial responsibilities, our marriages, and our families. As important as these activities and responsibilities may be, they too have the power to turn our attention away from Jesus by offering us a false sense of security or fulfillment.

It sounds like a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? But before you lose hope and conclude that you can’t manage all the distractions in your life, consider this: Jesus was tempted by one empty promise after another. He knows firsthand how difficult it is to resist temptation. He also knows how much we are tempted every day. Just think: Jesus knew all of this when he spoke to Martha, and still he called her to change. Evidently, Jesus believed that Martha could change. And what’s even more encouraging, we can bet that Jesus was ready to help Martha overcome her distractions—just as he stands ready even today to give us the grace we need to overcome.

God didn’t give up on David, Moses, or Paul, even though they all had innocent blood on their hands. He didn’t give up on the Samaritan woman, even though she had been divorced five times and was currently living in sin. He doesn’t give up on any sheep that wanders away and gets lost. And he won’t give up on us.

Jesus told Martha about a better way, and he wants to show us this way. He has but one purpose in mind: to tell us that we are God’s beloved children and that he always holds us close to his heart. So whether we face lower-level distractions or higher-level ones, we can deal with them and be freed from their influence. And as that happens, we will find ourselves more and more willing—even eager—to spend time each day sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. And that can only result in one thing: Our relationship with him will grow more and more intimate by the day.

( From The Word Among Us: A Catholic Devotional Magazine based on the Daily Mass Readings)