Roman Catholic dogma

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Statue of Saint Peter holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven. (Gospel of Matthew (16:18–19)

In the Roman Catholic Church, a dogma 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.[lower-alpha 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. Dogmas 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.[1] Roman Catholic Dogma is thus: "a truth revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church declared as binding."[2] 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.[3]

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 dogmas.[4] 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.[lower-alpha 2]

Not all theological truths are dogmas. 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 Second Vatican Council documents, there is not one new statement for which infallibility is claimed.[6]

Elements: Scripture and Tradition

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.[7]

The Holy Scripture is not identical with divine revelation, but a part of it.[8] Scriptures were written later by apostles and evangelists, who knew Jesus. They give infallible testimony of his teachings.[8] 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.[9]

Dogma as divine and Catholic faith

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.[10] At the turn of the 20th century, a group of theologians called modernists stated that dogmas did not fall from heaven but are historical manifestations at a given time. In the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, Pope Pius X condemned this teaching as heresy in 1907. 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.[11] The truth of God, revealed by God, does not change, as God himself does not change; "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away".[12]

However, truths of the faith have been declared dogmatically throughout the ages. The instance of a Pope doing this outside an Ecumenical Council is rare, though there were two instances in recent times: the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 and the Assumption of Mary into heaven in 1950.[13] A Pope cannot make infallible proclamations without ascertaining that they are beliefs already held in some form throughout the Catholic church. Both Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII consulted the bishops worldwide before proclaiming these dogmas. A movement to declare a third Marian dogma for Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix was underway in the 1990s,[14] an issue handled very delicately by the Bishops at Vatican II.[15]

Early uses of the term

The term Dogma Catholicum was first used by Vincent of Lérins (450), referring to "what all, everywhere and always believed".[16] In the year 565, Emperor Justinian declared the decisions of the first ecumenical councils as law because they are true dogmata of God[16] 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 dogmas - 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.[1] 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. Dogmas 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.[17]

In the 5th century Vincent of Lérins wrote, in Commonitory, that there should be progress within the Church, "on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, [...] of individuals [...] as well of [...] the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning."[18] Vincent commented on the First Epistle to Timothy (6:20) that Timothy, for Vincent, represented "either generally the Universal Church, or in particular, the whole body of The Prelacy", whose obligation is "to possess or to communicate to others a complete knowledge of religion" called the deposit of faith. According to Vincent, the deposit of faith was entrusted and not "devised: a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition." Vincent expounded that you "received gold, give gold in turn," and not a substitute or a counterfeit. Vincent explained that those who are qualified by a "divine gift" should "by wit, by skill, by learning," expound and clarify "that which formerly was believed, though imperfectly apprehended" – to understand "what antiquity venerated without understanding" and teach "the same truths" in a new way.[19] The Church uses this text in its interpretation of dogmatic development. In 1870, the First Vatican Council quoted from Commonitory and stated, in the dogmatic constitution Dei Filius, that "meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained" once they have been declared by the Catholic Church and "there must never be a deviation from that meaning on the specious ground and title of a more profound understanding."[20][21] In 1964, the Second Vatican Council further developed this in Lumen Gentium.[22][lower-alpha 3]

Theological certainties

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 dogmas. 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

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:

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me" (Luke 10:16); and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.[24]

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 the Jesuit order, wrote "it is most incredible that the Deputy of Christ would state the opposite, what his predecessor Pope 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 brief, reverting Clement XIII and dissolving the Jesuit Order, Ricci replied, whatever the Pope decides must be sacred to everybody.[25]

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".

Critics of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis point out, that it was not promulgated under the extraordinary papal magisterium as an ex cathedra statement, and therefore is not considered infallible in itself.[26] Its contents are, however, considered infallible under the ordinary magisterium. 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 identified a truth infallibly taught over two thousand years by the Church.[26] Many Catholics believe that it meets all the criteria of an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement, even aside from its repetition of universal magisterial teaching. Other Catholics believe the opposite.

Apparitions and revelations

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.[lower-alpha 4]

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.[lower-alpha 5]

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.[lower-alpha 6]

Ecumenical aspects

Protestant theology since the reformation was largely negative on the term dogma. This changed in the 20th century, when Karl Barth, in Kirchliche Dogmatik, stated the need for systematic and binding articles of faith.[30] The Creed is the most comprehensive – but not complete[lower-alpha 7] – 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.[31]


  1. The terms dogma, truth, divine truth, infallible etc., are to be understood as relating only to Catholic doctrine.
  2. "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."[5]
  3. "The entire body of the faithful [...] cannot err in matters of belief" when the people of God manifests "discernment in matters of faith when [...] they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals." That discernment "is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres [...] to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life."[22]
  4. 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".[27]
  5. "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.[28]
  6. 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.[29]
  7. 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Beinert 90
  2. Schmaus, I, 54
  3. Catechism 88
  4. Schmaus, 54
  5. Baltimore Catechism. Question 554. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Dulles, 147
  7. Ott 5
  8. 8.0 8.1 Heinrich, 52
  9. Heinrich 52
  10. Ott, 5
  11. Ott 6
  12. Mark 13:31
  13. Mark Miravalle, 1993, Introduction to Mary, Queenship Publishing ISBN 978-1-882972-06-7 page 51
  14. Mark Miravalle, 1993 "With Jesus": the story of Mary Co-redemptrix ISBN 1-57918-241-0 page 11
  15. Lumen Gentium, 62
  16. 16.0 16.1 Beinert 89
  17. Schmaus, 40
  18. Commonitorium n. 54
  19. Commonitorium n. 53
  20. Dei Filius
  21. Denzinger, n. 3020
  22. 22.0 22.1 Lumen Gentium. n. 12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Fundamentals of Catholic dogma by Ludwig Ott, 1964, Herder, ASIN: B002BZOUAI pages 9-10
  24. Pope Pius XII (1950). Humani generis. n. 20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Ludwig von Pastor, Geschichte der Päpste, XVI,2 1961, 207-208
  26. 26.0 26.1 such as the Catholic theological society of America Weigel, George (2005). Witness to Hope : a biography of Pope John Paul II. New York: Harper. pp. 732–733.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Catechism 67
  28. Catechism 66
  29. Catechism 83
  30. Zollikon Zürich 1032-1970 Beinert 92
  31. Beinert 199


  • Beinert, Wolfgang (1988). Lexikon der katholischen Dogmatik (in German). Freiburg: Herder.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Denzinger, Heinrich; Hünermann, Peter; et al., eds. (2012). Enchiridion symbolorum: a compendium of creeds, definitions and declarations of the Catholic Church (43rd ed.). San Francisco: Ignatius Press. ISBN 0898707463. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dulles, Avery (1971). The survival of dogma : faith, authority and dogma in a changing world. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. OCLC 610489855.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  • Dulles, Avery (1970). "The magisterium and authority in the Church". In Devine, George (ed.). In theology in revolution: proceedings of the College Theology Society. Staten Island: Society of St. Paul. pp. 29–45. ISBN 9780818901768. College Theology Society annual convention, Chicago, April 6–8, 1969.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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