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Doctrine, Dogma, Infallible Statement
Question from Don on 12/5/2008:

Mr. Donovan. I have been following these forums for several years and am still confused over the difference between a doctrine, a dogma and an infallible statement.

It seems that there is the mistaken belief by many that ONLY an infallible statement need be followed be a Catholic. And even then, there's often confusion over what's an infallible statement from the Magisterium.

I would greatly appreciate explanations of these three. Thank you.

Answer by Colin B. Donovan, STL on 3/10/2009:

These are terms that are easily confusing.

Doctrine. The word doctrine comes, by way of the Latin doctrina, from the Greek word doxa, meaning belief. The doctrine(s) of the Church, therefore, are those teachings which must be believed by the faithful. These include 1) dogmas, teachings which the Church has solemnly defined as formally revealed by God, and, 2) other teachings definitively proposed by the Church because they are connected to solemnly defined teachings. The first (dogmas) can be called doctrines of divine faith, the second doctrines of catholic faith. Together they are said to be "of divine and catholic faith." Both kinds of doctrine require the assent of faith. Both are infallibly taught by the Church. Dogmas require it because they are formally revealed by God. Doctrines definitively proposed by the Church require it, because the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals is itself divinely revealed. A side note, doctrine shares the same root as orthodox, meaning correct belief. Those who hold the Church's doctrines faithfully are thus orthodox.

Dogma. Dogmas, therefore, are those doctrines solemnly proposed by the Church as formally revealed in Scripture or Tradition. This may have been done by papal pronouncement (Pius IX: Immaculate Conception), by a General Council (Chalcedon: Christ is two natures in one Divine Person), or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (killing an innocent human being is gravely immoral).

Definitively Proposed. Doctrines that are definitively proposed are no less certain, even though they are not proposed as formally revealed by God. They are connected to dogmas, however, by either historical or logical connection. An example of logical necessity would be the reservation of priesthood to men in the witness of Scripture and Tradition. The Church has not yet taught that it was formally revealed by God, but such dogmatization is possible. Papal infallibility was similarly infallibly taught by the Church before it was proposed as formally revealed by God. An example of historical necessity would be the election of a Pope or the celebration of a General Council. While a portion of the Church could elect an antipope, or hold a false council, the Church as a whole could not err in this way without compromising Christ's revealed promise to be with the Church until the end of time.

Infallible. As noted above, all that the Church teaches as being of "divine and catholic faith" is taught infallibly. Infallibility is not limnited, therefore, to extraordinary acts of proposing dogmas, whether by popes or councils. Those looking to believe only such "infallible" statements deceive themselves. In both the category of divinely revealed and definitively proposed doctrines there are many which are taught only by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church. This means that the Church has "always and everywhere" taught it as true, and, therefore, that the contrary position has never been taught. Perhaps, the most debated example is contraception. At no time in history has the Church taught that contraception is morally licit. Whenever in the Fathers, Doctors or the Magisterium it has been discussed it has always been as an evil. There is no formal declaration, no extraordinary act, but it is certainly infallibly taught from the beginning of the Church, to Paul VI, to today.

Authoritative. Finally, the Church teaches things which are neither proposed as formally revealed or definitively proposed. This is the category of authoritative teaching. Anything in the Catechism or a pope's writings and addresses that is not "of divine and catholic faith" if clearly meant to take a position, without deciding it by proposing it as revealed or as definitive, is authoritively taught. It should receive "religious obedience of intellect and will," as opposed to the assent of faith. Such obedience is an act of justice. It shows the respect Catholics owe the Pope, and it humbly acknowledges that by charism and grace of vocation the Pope is more likely to be right than those who disagree with him. As Vatican II noted, the weight to be given such teaching is "according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression." Thus, more weight would have to be given to something taught many times by successive popes than to something taught once by one pope.

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