Confusion about Dogma, Doctrine, Disciplines

Numerous times I have heard people say “The Church changed it’s mind about receiving the Eucharist in the hand, it can change it’s mind about other things. Some day they’ll say that contraception is okay.”

On this forum, I have seen people post the same sentiments, but I have not wanted to go off topic to explain how they are talking about two different things. Eucharist in the hand is a Discipline, Contraception is a Doctrine.

The Church uses Dogma, Doctrine, and Discipline to teach us about the way to heaven.

Dogma is a truth that is found in the Bible and has remained unchanged throughout the ages. A dogma taught by the Church is that Jesus is God. Another dogma is that sodomy is wrong. They are basic truths from the Bible that cannot be changed.

Doctrine is a truth defined by the Catholic Church that may have been speculated upon at one time, but has been ultimately defined by the Catholic Church. Doctrine does not change once it’s been defined. The Immaculate Conception and the Prohibition of Artificial Birth Control are Doctrines of the Church. The Church has studied the Natural Law and has made these conclusions. They are now set in stone.

Disciplines are rules or regulations that the Church practices. They are more like procedures. These can be changed. Things that fall under disciplines are: saying the Mass in Latin or English, altar girls, Designation of Holy Days of Obligation, married clergy, and removal of the altar rails.

The Church can change the way we go to confession, a discipline, but it can not change the fact that we are expected to go to confession, a dogma.

It may streamline the procedures for an annulment, a discipline, but it can not do away with annulment and what it means, doctrine.

I think the confusion arises from some of the Church documents which are marked “Doctrine” or “(Dogmatic) Creed” but have many anathemas. One can argue these anathemas can be removed or relaxed by more current Canon laws but the underlying doctrine still applies. The challenge is to define the doctrine in such a way it can’t be changed. Most often than not the translation of how it’s expressed in English clouds the issue.

I have posted this on a lot of forums, including over at amazon–it tends to silence those who want to conflate the definitions because that’s what’s their position is based on:

Credit to David Currie from his book Born Fundamentalist, Born-Again Catholic for these clarifying categories.

  1. “Deposit of Faith”: The entirety of Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. Also known as “Public Revelation”. INFALLIBLE. CANNOT be added to or subtracted from. All dogmas and doctrines must be based on the Deposit of Faith (Because female ordination is not found in and is actually contradicted by the Deposit of Faith it can NEVER be authorized).

  2. “Dogma”: Formally defined teachings (doctrines) on matters of faith and morals declared binding on all believers without exception. INFALLIBLE. Cannot contradict Deposit of Faith or prior proclaimed dogmas. Promoted by either a reigning Pontiff’s (“ex cathedra”) declaration or by an Ecumenical Council of Bishops ratified by a reigning Pontiff

  3. “Doctrine”: Formally or informally defined teachings of the Church. NOT infallible. Formally defined teachings, promoted by Papal or Ecumenical Councils must be held by all believers while they are promoted. Informal doctrines (such as “Limbo” was) are not binding on believers. Doctrines can be changed, abandoned, even condemned (99+% of the time when someone says the Catholic Church has changed an “infallible teaching”, the change actualy refered to a Doctrine or a Discipline). Doctrines RARELY become Dogma

  4. “Discipline”: Rules meant to keep Catholics on the straight and narrow. NOT infallible but binding on believers while they are promoted. Promoted by Papal, Councilor, or Episcopal pronouncement. Disciplines can be either universal or particular, and can be altered, relaxed, or abandoned. Examples include priestly celibacy and Lenten fasting.

  5. “Devotions”: Popular and voluntary worship practices and associated beliefs that do not contradict Deposit of Faith, Dogma, or currently promoted Doctrines or Disciplines. Includes 99% of Marian devotions (including the Rosary), First Fridays, and belief in Church sanctioned “private revelations” such as Lourdes and Fatima

While NOT considered infallible, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd paperback printing onwards) is not known to contain any errors regarding declared dogmas and doctrines.

Lion’s explanation is correct, but in everyday use the term “doctrine” is often applied to dogma. You rarely see the word “dogma” in Church documents.

The distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings is pretty much irrelevant to the guy in the pew. There is a common misconception that Catholics are not required to accept any teachings which are not recognized as infallible. This is absolutely false - we are expected to accept ALL Church teaching.

If you read something from an Ecumenical Council and it has an anathema attached then you are reading a Canon (as in Canon Law), not a doctrine. All Canon Law can (and does) change and even gets abolished (but, of course, not any underlying doctrines).

FWIW, the 20th (and final) Canon of the Council of Nicea says that we can’t kneel on Sunday.

However, the reality is that a non-infallible doctrine has never been changed, abandoned or condemned.

I am sorry, but the bolded section is simply WRONG. Doctrine cannot be changed. Not ever. (Limbo was never a doctrine, simply theological speculation). Doctrine can develop to cover changing circumstances but it can never be abrogated or outright “changed”. Please don’t take my word for it. See here:

1 Like

DOGMA: “A truth revealed by God, and solemnly defined by the Church. Found either directly within Public Revelation or implicitly derived from it.”
Dogmas are always infallible, as proceeding either from an ex cathedra pronouncement or a Conciliar decree.
Examples include the Trinity, Christ’s divinity and Mary as the Mother of God.

DOCTRINE: "A teaching regarding a matter of faith or morals, which although certain, may not be solemnly defined”.
All Dogma are Doctrines, but all doctrines are not Dogma. Doctrines may or may not be “infallibly defined” but are still binding.
Examples include church teaching on abortion, contraception, and usury.
Doctrine can not change but it may “develop” with the times.

DISCIPLINE: “A practical dictate based on doctrine, usually an application of doctrine, which is subject to change”.
Examples include priestly celibacy, fasting before communion, and abstaining from meat on Fridays (already has changed).
Also always binding.

Dogma, Doctrine, Discipline and Devotion

A dogma is 1) a divinely revealed truth which 2) has been proclaimed as such by the infallible teaching authority of the Church.
*]A dogma must be found explicitly or implicitly in the deposit of faith given to the Church by Jesus in Sacred Scripture and/or Sacred Tradition.
*]A dogma must be infallibly taught by the Church as divinely revealed.
All dogmas are infallibly taught as divinely revealed truths, but not all infallibly defined truths are taught as divinely revealed. In the latter case, the infallibly taught truth would not be considered a dogma.

A doctrine is a way of understanding divine revelation and which is taught authoritatively by the Magisterium of the Church. Doctrine may be defined either infallibly or non-infallibly. All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas.

A discipline is a rule of the Church which requires obedience due to the authority given to the Church by Jesus. Disciplines may be changed during the course of history based upon the needs of the Church. Examples of Church disciplines include fasting during Lent and the celibacy of priests in the Latin rite.

A devotion is a religious exercise or practice other than the regular corporate worship of a congregation. Devotions directed toward God are rightly called worship while devotions directed toward saints are classified as veneration.

Except Limbo.

Was limbo doctrine, or theological speculation?

Wikipedia says:

In the theology of the Catholic Church, Limbo (Latin limbus, edge or boundary, referring to the “edge” of Hell) is a speculative idea about the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the Damned. Medieval theologians of western Europe described the underworld (“hell”, “hades”, “infernum”) as divided into four distinct parts: Hell of the Damned (which some call Gehenna), Purgatory, Limbo of the Fathers or Patriarchs, and Limbo of the Infants. However, Limbo of the Infants is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

It’s funny how when a Pope writes about artificial birth control, it’s a doctrine, but when Popes (seven of them!) and Doctors of the Church teach about Limbo of the Infants, it’s just theological speculation.

It’s funny how something that was described in every Catechism since the Middle Ages (including the Baltimore Catechism) becomes “theological speculation” when it gets left out of the latest Catechism.

Persons, such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief they will go to some place similar to Limbo [of the Fathers], where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of the happiness of heaven. Baltimore Catechism, Q637]

It’s funny how the work of just two respected theologians (Ludwig Ott and Josef Ratzinger) can overcome the accumulated work of hundreds of theologians who came before them.

If you were living in the late Middle Ages and spoke against the Limbo of the Infants you would be labeled a heretic. If you spoke against the Limbo of the Infants in 1885 (when the Baltimore Catechism was published) you would be labeled a heretic.

Limbo (both of the Fathers and of Infants) was clearly a doctrine of the Church. It was the common teaching for centuries. Catholics are still free to believe and advocate Limbo. But the Church has abandoned this teaching. The Church does not teach that Limbo is untrue, but, unlike past centuries, the Church no longer teaches that it is true.

1 Like

I’m afraid I have no idea on this one. The statement you attribute to me was actually from Wilipedia!

Limbo was NEVER an infallible or non-infallible teaching of the Church. It was only ever a theological hypothesis.
Catholics have always been free to believe or not believe in Limbo for Infants. Had it been a teaching (even a non-infallible one) Catholics would have been bound by it.

According to the vatican, limbo was a theory that was never entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Church. It was speculated on in the Middle Ages and mentioned in some teachings, but it was always a theory.

Prohibition of artificial birth control has been proclaimed a doctrine of the Church. It can not and will not change.

Yeah, well, you can’t trust everything you read on Wikipedia. If you quote it, you ought to cite it (to keep from looking like an idiot when your source turns out to be wrong). Before I recently corrected it (see my edit in the History for Aug 10), the Wikipedia article on Transubstantiation stated that the word itself was not used in any definition by the Council of Trent. It was, in fact, used in the title and text of the Fifth Chapter (the title of which is “On Transubstantiation”) of the Thirteenth Session of Trent, and reaffirmed in Canon 2 of this same Session.

Well, I never said Limbo was a dogma (at least not according to Lion’s precise definition, which the Church Herself does not typically follow). I said it was a doctrine. It was the unanimous teaching of the Catholic Church for many centuries, and was embraced by multiple Popes, Doctors, Saints, and theologians of the Church without dissent.

But I will play along: would you care to cite me JUST ONE teaching that was EVER “entered into the dogmatic definitions of the Church?” JUST ONE?

Because that would suggest that the Vatican actually has such a list of dogmatic definitions. But any first-year theology student will tell you that no such list exists, and it is not even *possible *that such a list could be created.

So, if you know of such an official list, please share it with us, and shake the foundations of the Church!!! You have the power!!!

Look at post #10 more carefully. I wrote “from Wikipedia”…

Umm, scuse me, but weren’t you raised (as was I) in Catholic primary school? I seem to recall that you said you were. Back in the late 60’s or early 70’s? I thought we were about the same age.

When you were taught the Baltimore Catechism, did you feel at liberty to tell [your version of Sister Mary Tomassene] (may she rest in peace) that you didn’t believe in the Limbo of Infants?

Did you feel free to not believe this doctrine, which was plainly presented before you as the “common belief” of the Church? Did your Sister Teachers explain that this “common belief” was somehow optional? My Sister Teachers did no such thing. EVER.

Did you feel competent to judge the doctrinal status of your Catechism? Do you feel qualified to do so today?

If the modern CCC taught the same thing that the Baltimore Catechism taught (as well as centuries of Popes, Doctors, Saints, and theologians who preceded it), would you say the same thing? Would you continue to say it was just a theory?

Is there anything ELSE in the modern CCC that you think is just a theory? Or, do you define a “theory” as something that was taught and believed unanimously for centuries, but then abandoned in the modern CCC?

I was a born and brought Methodist who became a Catholic in 1992 at the age of 44.
When I first heard about Limbo for Infants I was told in no uncertain terms by more than one priest at the time that it was never Church doctrine but only ever a theological hypothesis. Everything I have read since that time confirms it.
Thinking you were obliged to believe it does not make it so. Catholics have never and still are not bound to believe in Limbo for Infants.

Where does Creation or the theory of evolution fall?

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit