Roman Catholic dogma

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Statue of Saint Peter at his basilica in Rome. "I say to thee, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." (Gospel of Matthew 16:18f)

In the Roman Catholic Church, a dogma (plural dogmata) is an article of faith revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church presents as necessary to be believed if one freely chooses to be a Catholic.[1] For example, Christian dogma states that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basic truth from which salvation and life is derived for Christians. Dogmata regulate the language, how the truth of the resurrection is to be believed and communicated. One dogma is only a small particle of the living Christian faith, from which it derives its meaning.[2] Roman Catholic Dogma is thus: "a truth revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church declared as binding."[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.[4]

The faithful are required to accept with the divine and Catholic faith all which the Church presents either as solemn decision or as general teaching. Yet not all teachings are dogma. The faithful are only required to accept those teachings as dogma, if the Church clearly and specifically identifies them as infallible dogmata.[5] If a Catholic were to willfully deny any particular dogma they know is taught dogmatically by the Church, they would no longer be a part of the Church, since heresy immediately separates one from the Church.[6]

Not all theological truths are dogmata. The Bible contains many sacred truths, which the faithful recognize and agree with, but which the Church has not defined as dogma. Most Church teachings are not dogma. Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out that in the 800 pages of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, there is not one new statement for which infallibility is claimed.[7]

Elements: Scripture and Tradition[edit]

The concept of dogma has two elements: Immediate divine revelation from Scripture or Sacred Tradition, and, a proposition of the Church, which not only announces the dogma but also declares it binding for the faith. This may occur through an ex-cathedra decision by a Pope, or by an Ecumenical Council.[8]

The Holy Scripture is not identical with divine revelation, but a part of it.[9] Scriptures were written later by apostles and evangelists, who knew Jesus. They give infallible testimony of his teachings.[9] Scripture thus belongs to Tradition in the larger sense, where it has an absolute priority, because it is the Word of God, and because it is the unchangeable testimony of the apostles of Christ, whose fullness the Church preserves with its tradition.[10]

Dogma as divine and Catholic faith[edit]

Dogma is considered to be both divine and Catholic faith. Divine, because of its believed origin and Catholic because of belief in the infallible teaching binding for all.[11] At the turn of the 20th century, a group of theologians called modernists stated that dogmata did not fall from heaven but are historical manifestations at a given time. Pope Pius X condemned this teaching as heresy in 1907.[12] The Catholic position is that the content of a dogma has truly divine origin. It is considered an expression of an objective truth and does not change.[13] The truth of God, revealed by God, does not change, as God himself does not change; Heaven and earth will disappear but my words will not disappear.[14]

However, new dogmata can be declared through the ages. For instance, the 20th century witnessed the introduction of the dogma of Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950.[15] However, these beliefs were already held in some form or another within the Church before their elevation to the dogmatic level. A movement to declare a fifth Marian dogma for Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix is underway.[16]

Early uses of the term[edit]

The term Dogma Catholicum was first used by Vincent of Lérins (450), referring to “what all, everywhere and always believed” [17] In the year 565, Emperor Justinian declared the decisions of the first ecumenical councils as law because they are true dogmata of God [17] In the Middle Ages, the term Doctrina Catholica, (Catholic doctrine) was used for the Catholic faith. Individual beliefs were labeled as Articulus Fidei ( part of the faith)

Ecumenical Councils issue dogmas. Many dogmata - especially from the early Church (Ephesus, Chalcedon) to the Council of Trent - were formulated against specific heresies.(Holy Spirit only emanating from father and not from Father and Son) Later dogmas (Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary) express the greatness of God in binding language. At the specific request of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council did not proclaim any dogmas. Instead it presented the basic elements of the Catholic faith in a more understandable, pastoral language, without changing the teachings of the Church.[2] The last two dogmas were pronounced by Popes, Pope Pius IX in 1854 and Pope Pius XII in 1950 on the Immaculate Conception and the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary respectively. They are cornerstones of mariology

To some, this raises the question, why “new” dogmas are formulated almost 2000 years after the resurrection of Christ. It is Catholic teaching that with Christ and the Apostles, revelation is completed. Dogmata issued after the death of his apostles are not new, but explications of existing faith. Implicit truth are specified as explicit, as it was done in the teachings on the Trinity by the ecumenical councils. Karl Rahner tries to explain this with the allegorical sentence of a husband to his wife “ I love you” this surely implies, I am faithful to you.[18] In 450 Vincent of Lérins asked in his famous Commonitory, Will there be no progress in religion in the Church of Christ? Of course there will be progress. There will be much progress, but it will be progress in truth and faith, not change. Progress means addition, change means alteration. [19]

But he warns: “What is entrusted to you, not what you invented. What you received, not what you imagined, not a matter of reason but of teaching, not your preferences but public tradition, what you were given, not what you produced, …you received gold, give gold back.” [20] The Church uses this text in its interpretation of dogmatic development: The first Vatican Council stated in 1870 that within the limits of the statement of Vincent of Lérins, dogmatic development is possible,[21] Vatican II confirms this view in Lumen Gentium.[22]

Theological certainties[edit]

The Magisterium of the Church is directed to guard, preserve and teach divine truths which God has revealed with infallibility (De fide). A rejection of Church Magisterial teachings is a de facto rejection of divine revelation. It is considered the mortal sin of heresy if the heretical opinion is held with full knowledge of the Church's opposing dogmata. The infallibility of the Magisterium extends also to teachings which are deduced from such truths (Fides ecclesiastica). These Church teachings or Catholic truths (veritates catholicae) are not a part of divine revelation, yet are intimately related to it. The rejection of these "secondary" teachings is not heretical, but involves the impairment of full communion with the Catholic Church.[23]

There are three categories of these "secondary" teachings (Fides ecclesiastica):

  • Theological conclusions: (conclusiones theologicae) religious truths, deduced from divine revelation and reason.
  • Dogmatic facts (facta dogmatica) historical facts, not part of revelation but clearly related to it. For example the legitimacy of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, and the Petrine office
  • Philosophical truths, such as existence of the soul, "freedom of will", philosophical definitions used in dogmas such as transubstantiation
Theological certainty Description
1. De fide Divine revelations with the highest degree of certainty, considered Divine revelation (and infallibly asserted)
2. Fides ecclesiastica Church teachings, which have been definitively decided on by the Magisterium in an infallible manner
3. Sententia fidei proxima Church teachings, which are generally accepted as divine revelation but not defined as such by the magisterium
4. Sententia certa Church teachings which the Magisterium clearly decided for, albeit without claiming infallibility
5. Sententia communis Teachings which are popular but within the free range of theological research
6. Sententia probabilis Teachings with low degree of certainty
7. Sententia bene fundata A well-reasoned teaching which does, however, not arise to being called probable
8. Opinio tolerata Opinions tolerated, but discouraged, within the Catholic Church

In addition, sentences (up to probabilis) are called pious if they resonate in a special manner with the faithful people's religious feeling.

Papal bulls and encyclicals[edit]

The oldest surviving panel icon of Christ Pantocrator, c. 6th century.

Pope Pius XII stated in Humani Generis, that Papal Encyclicals, even when they are not ex cathedra, can nonetheless be sufficiently authoritative to end theological debate on a particular question:

The end of the theological debate is not identical however with dogmatization. Throughout the history of the Church, its representatives have discussed whether a given Papal teaching is the final word or not.

In 1773, Father Lorenzo Ricci, hearing rumours that Pope Clement XIV might dissolve his Jesuit order, wrote "it is most incredible that the Deputy of Christ would state the opposite, what his predecessor Clement XIII stated in the Papal Bull Apostolicum, in which he defended and protected us." When a few days later he was asked if he would accept the Papal Breve, reverting Clement XIII and dissolving the Jesuit Order, Father Ricci replied, whatever the Pope decides must be sacred to everybody.[24]

In 1995, questions arose as to whether the Apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which upheld the Catholic teaching that only men may receive ordination, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of Our ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) We declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.[25]

Critics of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis[26] point out, that it was not issued under the extraordinary papal magisterium as an ex cathedra statement, and so is not considered infallible in itself. Its contents are, however, considered infallible under the ordinary magisterium. The American Cardinal Avery Dulles, in a lecture to US bishops, stated that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is infallible, not because of the Apostolic Letter or the clarification by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger alone but because it is based on a wide range of sources, scriptures, the constant tradition of the Church, and the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church: Pope John Paul II had identified a truth infallibly taught over two thousand years by the Church.[27] Many Catholics believe that it meets all the criteria of an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement, even aside from its repetition of universal magisterial teaching.

Apparitions and revelations[edit]

Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Lourdes apparitions occurred four years after the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Private revelations have taken place within the Church since the very beginning - for example, Our Lady of the Pillar appeared to James the Greater - but are not a part of Apostolic Tradition, since that would imply divine revelation is incomplete, which in turn would imply God can perfect himself.[28]

The church distinguishes between the apparitions within divine revelation - such as the risen Jesus' apparitions to the Apostles and the sign of the woman in the Book of Revelation - and apparitions without divine revelation - such as Our Lady of Fatima and the apparitions to Saint Mary Magdalen - because the age of divine revelation was closed with the completion of the New Testament when the last of the Apostles died.[29]

While Our Lady of the Pillar appeared during the Apostolic Age, the apparition is not a dogma - since it is not part of the Catholic Faith, in the Bible or in Apostolic Tradition - but is a local tradition, which is distinct from Apostolic Tradition.[30]

Ecumenical aspects[edit]

Protestant theology since the reformation was largely negative on the term dogma. This changed in the 20th century, when Karl Barth with his Kirchliche Dogmatik, stated the need for systematic and binding articles of faith.[31] The Creed is the most comprehensive – but not complete[32] - summary of important Catholic dogmas. (It was originally used during baptism ceremonies). The Creed is a part of Sunday liturgy. Because many Protestant Churches have retained the older versions of the Creed, ecumenical working groups are meeting to discuss the Creed as the basis for better understandings of dogma.[33]


  1. ^ The terms dogma, truth, divine truth, infallible etc., are to be understood as relating only to Catholic doctrine.
  2. ^ a b Beinert 90
  3. ^ Schmaus, I, 54
  4. ^ Catechism 88
  5. ^ Schmaus, 54
  6. ^ Question 554, Baltimore Catechism: "Q. 554. Could a person who denies only one article of our faith be a Catholic? — A. A person who denies even one article of our faith could not be a Catholic; for truth is one and we must accept it whole and entire or not at all."
  7. ^ Dulles, 147
  8. ^ Ott 5
  9. ^ a b Heinrich, 52
  10. ^ Heinrich 52
  11. ^ Ott, 5
  12. ^ encyclical Pascendi.
  13. ^ Ott 6
  14. ^ Mk 13,31
  15. ^ Mark Miravalle, 1993, Introduction to Mary, Queenship Publishing ISBN 978-1-882972-06-7 page 51
  16. ^ Mark Miravalle, 1993 "With Jesus": the story of Mary Co-redemptrix ISBN 1-57918-241-0 page 11
  17. ^ a b Beinert 89
  18. ^ Schmaus, 40
  19. ^ Commonitorium22
  20. ^ Vincent of Lérins Commonitorium 22 BKV 55
  21. ^ Beinert 96
  22. ^ Lumen Gentium 12
  23. ^ Fundamentals of Catholic dogma by Ludwig Ott, 1964, Herder, ASIN: B002BZOUAI pages 9-10
  24. ^ Ludwig von Pastor, Geschichte der Päpste, XVI,2 1961, 207-208
  25. ^ (Declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam.)
  26. ^ such as the Catholic theological society of America George Weigel, Witness to Hope, A biography of Pope John Paul II Harper New York 2005, p. 732, 733
  27. ^ Weigel, 732, 733
  28. ^ Catechism 67 Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".
  29. ^ Catechism 66 "The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
  30. ^ Catechism 83 Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.
  31. ^ Zollikon Zürich 1032-1970 Beinert 92
  32. ^ Additional dogmas are in part precisation of clauses contained in the creed. However this may be, all of them follow technically from the clause "and the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church", in which the claim of the Church to lay down revelation infallibly is contained.
  33. ^ Beinert 199


  • Wolfgang Beinert Lexikon der katholischen Dogmatik, Herder, Freiburg, 1988
  • Avery Dulles, The Survival of Dogma, Faith, authority and dogma in a changing world, Image Book, New York, 1970
  • Avery Dulles, The Changing forms of faith, Alexandria, Virginia, 1970
  • Avery Dulles, Doctrinal authority of the Church, in Theology in Revolution, Alba House, Staten Island, 1970
  • J. B. Heinrich, Lehrbuch der katrholischen Dogmatik, Verlag der Aschaffendorfischen Buchhandlung, Münster 1900 (1939)
  • Ludwig Ott Grundriss der Dogmatik Herder, Freiburg 1965
  • Karl Rahner, Theology and the Magisterium, Theological digest, 1968, 4-17
  • Karl Rahner, Historical dimensions in Theology, Theology digest, 1968, 30-42
  • Karl Rahner, What is a dogmatic statement, Theological Investigations, 5 1966, 42-66
  • Francis Simmons, Infallibility and the Evidence, Springfield, Ill, 1968
  • Michael Schmaus, Katholische Dogmatik, München 1955 (1982)