Dogma vs. Doctrine, etc

I realize that I don’t really understand the various levels of Catholic teaching

When I read a book like the Glories of Mary, I just accept what is taught as beautiful and true. But I want to know more because I’m pressed by Protestants sometimes who claim that docttrines are in a “gray area”

I tried to look at previous threads and various online articles at EWTN, NCRegister etc, but I’m still unclear.

Some places seem to say that all doctrines are infallible, others say they are not.

And why isn’t there some sort of list of where the various Catholic ideas stand? Without this, the discussion seems so abstract and hard to understand.

One site said that the prohibition on contraception is only “common teaching”, another said it was infallibly taught by the ordinary Magisterium I believe.

It all left me really confused. Thank God I have the Blessed Mother to help me.

How does one know for example if something is taught by the “Ordinary Magisterium”? And if it is, how does one know if it is infallibly taught or not? (Or is anything taught by it infallible?)

We laymen don’t have to worry too much about the levels of teaching, because we have to assent to all of it, whether it’s infallible or not (CIC, Can. 752).

That said, it’s valid to ask, what is that teaching to which we must give our assent?

Church teaching is what the pope and bishops assert officially on faith or morals, in agreement with one another (Lumen Gentium 24 ff). The pope, however, can define things unilaterally in virtue of his office (Pastor Aeternus 9). Some examples (at various levels) are decrees of Councils and papal encyclicals (which may contain both infallible and non-infallible elements). Even the day-to-day teaching and preaching of bishops can contain infallible teaching when they agree with one another on what must be definitively held (LG 25).

The Catechism nicely summarizes the Church’s teaching on many topics, but bear in mind it’s not totally exhaustive, does not go into theological detail, and ranges from dogma to (in some places) theological opinion.

Devotional books are informed by Church teaching, but they are also asserted by individuals, often laymen, and are therefore informed by personal experience and opinion. This is valuable for what it is, but it is not coming out of the Magisterium, and therefore does not have the same assurances of divine assistance, nor is it binding on the faithful. (That said, you’re pretty safe with St. Alphonsus, or any other Doctor of the Church; but always defer to the Magisterium.)

As to a list of teachings and their respective levels, again, this is more for theologians to worry about, but you can find a (non-infallible) summary in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. There are some websites which have compiled lists with the various levels, ranging from dogma to opinion.

Thanks, I have Fundamentals by Ott so I can look at that.

What does it mean to give our assent to something that might be wrong?

Can doctrines ever be fallible? If so, what are some examples?

Could you give some examples of fallible teachings which we must still give our assent to?

Also, for example, St. Alphonsus says that Mary is the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Is that fallible or infallible?

Or the idea that Mary is the New Eve?

We do this all the time. What are considered facts of science at one time may years later be shown wrong (e.g. bloodletting). But until this is shown, it is most reasonable to go with the best information we have.

Yes. Pius XII taught (I think in Mystici Corporis Christi) that by doing good works in a state of grace, we merit further graces. Ott ranks this as sententia probabilis (probable opinion). Ott’s classification is not infallible, but I think it’s pretty reliable.

You can find more examples in Ott.

See above. And Ott. (Look for statements with lower levels of authority. Here’s a list of the grades of teaching.)

I don’t think either of those teachings has been defined.

That said, just because something isn’t infallibly defined, doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that we can just dismiss it on those grounds. It might be defined infallibly in the future. Humani Generis 19-20 says that even an encyclical (not infallible in itself) demands our assent, and can close a theological question without making a solemn definition.

As an example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that contraception and direct sterilization are unacceptable morally and that for these teachings, at least, we “are to adhere to it with religious assent” (See CC 892).

**2399 **The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).
There are infallible and fallible teachings. Canon law (CIC 750-752) shows these two categories, infallible in CIC 750, fallible in CIC 752:

Canon 750 § 1. Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn Magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal Magisterium, which in fact is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred Magisterium. All are therefore bound to avoid any contrary doctrines.

Canon 750 § 2. Furthermore, each and everything set forth definitively by the Magisterium of the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals must be firmly accepted and held; namely, those things required for the holy keeping and faithful exposition of the deposit of faith; therefore, anyone who rejects propositions which are to be held definitively sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

**Canon 751 **Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

**Canon 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.


**891 **“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith."420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

**892 **Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

418 LG 25; cf. Vatican Council I: DS 3074.
419 DV 10 § 2.
420 LG 25 § 2.
421 Cf. LG 25.
422 LG 25.

The teachings of the Magisterium are either infallible or non-infallible.

  1. Infallible - no possibility of error; requires the full assent of faith
  2. Non-infallible - limited possibility of error; requires religious assent

the Magisterium teaches infallibly in any of three ways:
A. Papal infallibility - solemn definitions of the Pope
B. Conciliar infallibility - solemn definitions of an Ecumenical Council
C. the ordinary and universal Magisterium - when the Pope and the Bishops dispersed in the world are in agreement on one position, definitively to be held.

Doctrine is any teaching, infallible or non-infallible. Dogma is just the infallible teachings.

Thanks guys. I’m trying to assimilate this is well as I can with my limitations.

How does one know if the Pope and Bishops throughout the world are in agreement on one position, definitively to be held (i.e. they are excercising the Ordinary Magisterium)?

And if they are, how does one know if it is an actual dogma or only something definitively proposed?

Sorry if these questions are obtuse. Still trying to understand it all.

Also, if the Catechism mixes dogmas with other teachings, such as doctrines definitively proposed, or teachings which are theological opinions, how does one know which are which?

This is why the Church has theologians. It is not necessary for every Catholic to know by heart every single magisterial statement ever asserted and its respective level of authority on a scale of 1 to 10 (though such information has value and a proper role in the life of the Magisterium). In our day-to-day lives it is sufficient to know the Creeds and what we learn from sermons and in our religious education classes. Ongoing study, yes. Theology, as our vocations permit.

If we know the mind of the Church, the spirit of its doctrine, and have a sense of the faith (the natural outgrowth of years of good formation), then these things largely fall into place (i.e. how central or important a given teaching is). We know, for example, that what an approved apparition is quoted as saying is worthy of belief, but not in itself dogmatic teaching. We know that when a spiritual writer says something that we’ve never heard before, it may be his own opinion (worth looking into). The problem is that many Catholics do not get a solid formation, but that’s another topic.

That said, it is valid to ask whether something is an article of faith, or just requires religious assent (obsequium religiosum). The Catechism doesn’t have a footnote for every single teaching or assertion, but it does have a lot of footnotes, and that will tell you where the assertion comes from, whether a Church Father or a Magisterial document or some other source. Bear in mind, just because a Church Father is cited as the source, doesn’t mean it’s only his opinion; he may be expounding something that belongs to Sacred Tradition. How does a simple layman know the difference? In general, we don’t. But if it made it into the Catechism, you’re safe accepting it as Church teaching. If you feel you really need to know more about a certain point, ask a priest or theologian.

Thanks Ad Orientum,

That’s helpful. I’m sure I"m overthinking things to some extent. Two of the books I rely on most are the Glories of Mary and True Devotion to Mary. Of course I look things up in the Catechism when I want to check to make sure something is true. But I’ve never found any opposition between these books and the Catechism.

One of the interesting things Liguori says is that Mary was holier in the first instant of her conception than all the rest of the saints in Heaven combined. Now, I don’t remember whom Liguori cites in support of this, and I don’t know where this would stand as to level of teaching, but I don’t think it would be heresy, since this would still leave Mary infinitely short of being God. I think that at a minimum it would be pious opinion. Whether it is worded just right or not, it would at least express the truth that the Mother of God’s holiness is so great that we cannot comprehend it.

What would you say about this issue?

I think what you are describing with doctrine is

Can Dogma Develop? also covers doctrine

The CCC covers doctrine, dogma and discipline




We have some examples of Material Dogmas: Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary prior to 1854 definition, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary prior to 1950 definition.

Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott:

p. 6:
c) According to the mode by which the Church proposes them, as: Formal Dogmas (dogmata formalia) and Material Dogmas (dogmata materialia). The former are proposed for belief by the Teaching Authority of the Church as truths of Revelation; the latter are not so proposed, for which reason they are not Dogmas in the strict sense.

p. 7:
2) Material Dogmas are raised to the status of Formal Dogmas.

The closest thing I can find off the cuff is a passage in Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, the encyclical in which he solemnly defines the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The relevant passage reads:

Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully.

Two things to bear in mind here. First, this passage is not part of the dogmatic definition itself, and therefore does not invoke ex cathedra infallibility. It is possible that the teaching is infallible on other grounds; in any case it is part of the ordinary magisterium to which we must give our assent.

Second, I am not sure the encyclical says explicitly that the plenitude of her sanctity was present at the moment of her conception. It does say her freedom from original sin was present from that moment, but that isn’t the same thing. Eve was created free of original sin also, but without the plenitude of sanctity Mary has.

In other words, in theory, Mary might have attained the status of being holier than all other saints put together, after growth in holiness over a period of time. St. Gabriel called her “full of grace” when she was probably a teenager, though. What St. Alphonsus says makes sense, and in my opinion is consonant with the Church’s teaching as found in Pius IX.

It may be a moot point; whether she was “more glorious than the Seraphim” from the moment of her conception, she certainly is now.

No dogma has to be affirmed, nor anyone anathematized, nor the word “define” or “definition” be used for an infallible papal teaching – only that the Pope is handing down a certain, decisive judgment for the whole Church, that a point of doctrine on faith or morals is true and its contrary false. The words *ex cathedra *are never included.

Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, 25) reaffirms this teaching: “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32) – he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.”

**The three levels of teaching from Ad Tuendam Fidem are:
**1) Dogma – infallible (Canon #750.1) to be believed with the assent of divine and Catholic faith.
2) Doctrine – infallible (Canon #750.2) requires the assent of ecclesial faith, to be “firmly embraced and held”.
3) Doctrine – non-definitive (non-infallible) and requires intellectual assent (“loyal submission of the will and intellect”, Vatican II, *Lumen Gentium 25), not an assent of faith. See the Explanatory Note on ATF by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at

Contraception has been infallibly condemned both in *Casti Connubii *(Pius XI), 1930, and in Humanae Vitae (Paul VI), 1968.

The extraordinary Magisterium was in fact exercised as Dr David M. Gregson explains.
In Casti Connubii, Pius XI, declared “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” Casti Connubii, 56, 1930].

Pius XI in Casti Connubii, refers to the “doctrine handed down from the beginning without interruption” which fact alone makes it an infallible teaching according to the “universality of time” which argument was used also by Pius XII for the dogma of Our Lady’s Assumption (1950).

Furthermore, it is infallible because of the “universality of the present” — because Vatican II declared unequivocally that “In questions of birth regulation, the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law.” Gaudium et Spes, 51; footnote 14 refers to “Casti Connubii” and further teaching by Pius XI and Paul VI]. So the bishops of the Church in Ecumenical Council, approved by the Pope, give this teaching.

In fact, *Casti Connubii *of Pope Pius IX, 1930, infallibly condemned contraception (#56) “as any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

Pope St John Paul II also firmly stated that the ban on contraception “cannot be questioned by the Catholic theologian,” much to the consternation of Father Charles Curran and his dissenting brethren.[14]
[14] “Pope Warns Theologians not to Question Ban on Contraception.” The Wanderer, November 24, 1988, Page 1.

Thanks Ad Orientum! Glory be to God!

Thanks Steve B. I read the Can Dogma Develop article so far. It was helpful.

Thanks Abu, that helps me.

Everything taught by Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture on faith, morals, or salvation is material dogma. Then material dogmas become formal dogmas when they are infallibly taught by the Magisterium.

Thanks for this summary, Ron. It’s helpful

Ad Orientum,

Thank you, I did notice that Ineffabils Deus does compare and contrast Mary with Eve, thus suggesting that Mary is the New Eve as the Catechism says. So obviously I am obliged to agree that Mary is the New Eve, even though this has not been infallibly taught.

*Hence, it is the clear and unanimous opinion of the Fathers that the most glorious Virgin, for whom “he who is mighty has done great things,” was resplendent with such an abundance of heavenly gifts, with such a fullness of grace and with such innocence, that she is an unspeakable miracle of God – indeed, the crown of all miracles and truly the Mother of God; that she approaches as near to God himself as is possible for a created being; and that she is above all men and angels in glory. Hence, to demonstrate the original innocence and sanctity of the Mother of God, not only did they frequently compare her to Eve while yet a virgin, while yet innocence, while yet incorrupt, while not yet deceived by the deadly snares of the most treacherous serpent; but they have also exalted her above Eve with a wonderful variety of expressions. Eve listened to the serpent with lamentable consequences; she fell from original innocence and became his slave. The most Blessed Virgin, on the contrary, ever increased her original gift, and not only never lent an ear to the serpent, but by divinely given power she utterly destroyed the force and dominion of the evil one.

Yes, it does seem that the New Eve doctrine is at least part of the ordinary magisterium, requiring religious assent, even if it’s not one of the Marian dogmas requiring the assent of faith (Mother of God, Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception, Assumption). Some would say the Mediatrix doctrine is a material dogma; the same might be said of the New Eve doctrine. It is possible that the New Eve doctrine has been taught infallibly by unanimous agreement. You might consult Ott on this point. Currently I can’t find my copy.

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