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.
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.