Dogma, Doctrine, and Theology: What Are They? by James Atkins


Dogma, Doctrine, and Theology: What Are They?

What is the difference between dogma and doctrine?

What is the difference between doctrine and theology?

For that matter, what is the difference between dogma and theology?

We have a sense that all three of these terms are connected with religious belief, but what specifically do they mean, and how do they differ from one another?

By James Atkins

That’s what we’re going to try to sort out!

Let’s get started . . .

The Difference Illustrated

If you Google the three terms on the Vatican web site (, you find that they do not appear with the same frequency. While “dogma” and “theology” occur about as often as each other, the term “doctrine” appears far more frequently (about 2.5 times as often). Here are the results as of the day I originally performed this test (9/8/12):

Dogma: 2,340 results

Doctrine: 6,510 results

Theology: 2,580 results

The fact that these terms don’t all occur with equal frequency indicates a difference in the way that the terms are used. But what is the difference?

Is it just that they have different connotations–that “doctrine” sounds better and so it gets used more frequently?–or is there a difference in the basic meanings of the terms?

The Original Meaning of the Terms

A common way of trying to figure out the meaning of words is by looking at the origin of the word–what it originally meant. Among linguists, this is known as the word’s “etymology.”

What is the original meaning of our three terms?

Dogma: This is derived from the Greek word dogma, which means “opinion.” In our context, it would mean “opinions about God” or “opinions deriving from God.”

Doctrine: This is derived from the Latin word doctrina, which means “teaching.” In our context, it would refer to “teaching about God” or “teaching derived from God.”

Theology: This is a compound of two Greek terms: theos, which means “God,” and logos, which means “word.” The suffix -logy, however, came to mean “study of,” and so “theology” could be understood to mean “the study of God.”

This exercise sheds some light on our question, but not enough.

The ultimate origin of a word does not tell us how it is being used today.

As linguists are fond of pointing out, the meaning of a word is determined by its (current) usage, not its (historical) origin.

Otherwise the term “nice,” which derives from the Latin term nescius, would mean “foolish” or “stupid” (its meaning in Old French) or at least “ignorant” or “unknowing,” from its Latin rootsne- (“not”) and scire (“to know”).

Thus, setting aside the original roots of “dogma,” “doctrine,” and “theology,” how are they used today?

The Catechism’s Glossary on “Theology”

Most English editions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church carry a glossary which provides definitions for the three terms. Here is how it defines “theology”:

THEOLOGY: The study of God, based on divine revelation (236, 2033, 2038).

The numbers at the end of this entry refer to paragraphs in the Catechism that deal with theology, but the basic definition is “The study of God, based on divine revelation.”

236 The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). “Theology” refers to the mystery of God’s inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and “economy” to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God’s works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works. So it is, analogously, among human persons. A person discloses himself in his actions, and the better we know a person, the better we understand his actions

2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men

2038 In the work of teaching and applying Christian morality, the Church needs the dedication of pastors, the knowledge of theologians, and the contribution of all Christians and men of good will. Faith and the practice of the Gospel provide each person with an experience of life “in Christ,” who enlightens him and makes him able to evaluate the divine and human realities according to the Spirit of God.80 Thus the Holy Spirit can use the humblest to enlighten the learned and those in the highest positions.

This definition is very close to the one we would suspect based on the word’s origin: “the study of God.” It adds that this study is “based on divine revelation” rather than (for example) merely philosophical arguments.

It’s a broad definition.

You will note that it does not mention who is doing the study.

There is no mention, for example, of the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. Anyone who is studying God in light of divine revelation would seem to be doing theology, according to the glossary of the Catechism.

Where Did the Glossary Come From?

It is worth noting, at this point, that the Catechism’s glossary came about in a specific way.

According to the USCCB web site:

Even before the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a Glossary had been proposed to provide assistance to those who would use the new Catechism. This Glossary has been prepared by Archbishop William J. Levada, who served as a member of the Editorial Committee of the Special Commission of the Holy See for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It has been reviewed by the NCCB ad hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, as well as by the chairman and staff of the NCCB Committee on Doctrine. . . .

It is important to remember that this Glossary, like the Catechism’s Indexes, is an additional instrument by which readers may find assistance in their use of the Catechism itself. While the Glossary is faithful to the language of the Catechism, it does not participate in the approval of the text of the Catechism given in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum of Pope John Paul II [Source].

Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the same kind of approval that the Catechism does, and so the glossary is not on the same level as the Catechism, it still serves as a useful guide to how the Church uses the terms that it covers.

So what does the glossary say about the latter two terms: “doctrine” and “dogma”?

The Catechism’s Glossary on “Doctrine” and “Dogma” 

Here is what the Catechism’s glossary says regarding “doctrine” and “dogma”:

DOCTRINE/DOGMA: The revealed teachings of Christ which are proclaimed by the fullest extent of the exercise of the authority of the Church’s Magisterium. The faithful are obliged to believe the truths or dogmas contained in divine Revelation and defined by the Magisterium (88).

This definition is not as helpful as it could be, and that’s understandable. It’s trying to get across some very technical concepts in a very small number of words, and it’s trying to do it as non-technically as possible.

It also appears to use the terms “doctrine” and “dogma” as synonyms–meaning the same thing.

They might well mean the same thing in some contexts, but as we will see, it is easy to demonstrate from contemporary Church documents that they are also used differently.

The Catechism on Dogma

The glossary’s definition points us to paragraph 88 of the Catechism itself, which says:

88 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.

This has to be parsed with some care. The Catechism is stating that “The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent” in two ways:

1) “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,” and

2) “when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.”

These are the two kinds of propositions that the Church may infallibly define: dogmas and those truths that have a necessary connection with them.

We’re at the point of having a basic definition of what dogmas are: [a] “truths contained in divine revelation” and [b] that have been proposed by the Magisterium “in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith.”

Or, as Cardinal Avery Dulles explains:

In current Catholic usage, the term “dogma” means [a] a divinely revealed truth, [b] 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].

This is a fairly non-technical way of presenting the standard formulation of what a dogma is, though when churchmen and theologians talk among themselves, there is another way of putting it.

Another Explanation

The term of art that is used to express the idea of a dogma is that it is a truth which must be believed with “divine and catholic faith” (Latin, fides divina et catholica). This formulation is found in the First Vatican Council, which held:

Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are [a]contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and [b] which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium [Dei Filius 3:8].

Note the two criteria [a] and [b], which identify the propositions that must be believed with divine and catholic faith. These are the same two conditions, expressed in slightly different words, as those found in the glossary to the Catechism.

We find a similar formulation in the Code of Canon Law, which provides:

 Can. 750 §1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things [a]contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and [b] at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

These are converging ways of saying the same thing. But why the term “divine and catholic faith”?

“Divine and Catholic Faith”

Here the current Canon Law Society of America commentary has a helpful explanation:

The faith is called “divine” because it responds to God’s self-revelation, and “catholic” because it is proposed by the Church as divinely revealed [New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, 914].

Can.  914 It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible. It is for the pastor to exercise vigilance so that children who have not attained the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed do not approach holy communion.

“Divine faith” is thus the response due to God’s revelation. Whatever is contained in the Church’s deposit of faith, whether in sacred Scripture or sacred Tradition, is divinely revealed and calls for belief as a matter of faith in God as the Revealer of the particular truth. If God says it, we are obligated to believe it.

“Catholic faith” is called for whenever the Church has infallibly proposed something as divinely revealed in a way that binds all of the faithful.

These two thus correspond to he conditions [a] and [b] found in the less technical definitions of what a dogma is.

You’ll note that it is possible for something to require the first response without the second. Anything that God has revealed through Scripture or Tradition, whether the Church has infallibly proposed it as such or not, calls for divine faith. But because it can be difficult for us to correctly identify and understand God’s revelation, he has given the Church the gift of infallibility so it can clear up disputes and misunderstandings.

Because of the gift of infallibility in defining matters of faith and morals, when the Church does infallibly proclaim something as divinely revealed, it always is.

Doctrine vs. Dogma

In the Catechism’s glossary it seemed to suggest that the terms “doctrine” and “dogma” can be used synonymously, but a look at other documents reveals that this is not always the case. For example, the Code of Canon law provides:

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

This indicates a wider use of the term “doctrine,” because all dogmas are infallibly defined. Yet here it is indicated that there are doctrines which are not to be regarded as infallibly defined.

The same is indicated a few canons later:

Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.

The Church’s infallibility is engaged when the pope or the college of bishops proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals by a definitive act (CIC 749 §1-2), so again we have an indication that the Magisterium can proclaim “a doctrine . . . concerning faith or morals” in a non-infallible and thus a non-dogmatic way.

Can. 749 §1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

  • 2. The college of bishops also possesses infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively; or when dispersed throughout the world but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals, they agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively.
  • 3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.

It thus appears that there are some doctrines that fall into the realm of dogma and others that don’t, either because they are not infallibly proclaimed by the Church or because they are not infallibly proclaimed as divinely revealed (they might merely be things necessarily connected with revealed truths–see above).

 Putting It All Together

With this as background, we are in a position to see how dogma, doctrine, and theology are related.

The broadest category is theology, and it includes any study of God based on divine revelation.

Theology does not require an action of the Magisterium. It can be done by ordinary theologians or, for that matter, by ordinary members of the faithful.

More narrow is the category of doctrine. This includes those teachings which are proposed by the Magisterium.

While an ordinary theologian may be able to do Catholic theology, he is not able to form Catholic doctrine. The intervention of the Magisterium is necessary for that.

Most narrow is the category of dogma. This includes those doctrines which the Magisterium definitively (infallibly) proposes as divinely revealed and which are, therefore, divinely revealed.

One still has to be sensitive to the way that these words are being used in context. They have not always had these precise meanings, so they may not be used this way in historical documents. Even today they are sometimes used in different senses. But this provides a basic sketch of the principles involved in how the three relate. END QUOTES


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