Hmmm. It seems like 99% of Church doctrine could be changed.

There have been a flurry of recent threads related to infallible teaching, which got me to pondering about the nature of such teaching.

It seems that the Catholic Church could (in theory) change 99% of Her doctrine.

For the purposes of this post, I will use the term “dogma” to refer to teachings that have been promulgated infallibly (and are recognized as such), and “doctrine” to refer to other teaching. It seems to me that the Church has very little dogma.

And, just to make sure it is clearly understood: Catholics are bound by ALL Church teaching. The distinction between dogma and doctrine is pretty much irrelevant to Catholic laypeople (unless they are reading this thread).

The Church often uses the term “irreformable” instead of “infallible.” “Irreformable” means it cannot be reformed (changed). If dogma is irreformable, it stands to reason that doctrine is reformable - it can change.

First, I must dispel the misconception that some people have that everything a Pope or (especially) an Ecumenical Council teaches is automatically considered infallible. This is not true. Popes and Councils CAN teach infallibly, but often they do not, and no form of Church teaching is deemed dogma by default (based solely on the source of the teaching). If someone wants to claim otherwise, please provide a citation.

Furthermore, when a Pope or Council DOES teach infallibly, we can’t assume that *everything *contained in the document(s) is infallible. For example, Pope Pius-9 taught the infallible doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus. That’s a rather lengthy document - sixteen letter-sized pages at 12-point type. Most of it is historical context, witness of various Fathers and Saints, etc. NONE of that material is taught infallibly (and it’s possible that some of that historical background could contain factual errors). Of that entire document, one sentence is singled out and defined infallibly. When we say that Ineffabilis Deus is infallible, what we really mean is that one sentence from Ineffabilis Deus is infallible.

Likewise, if an Ecumenical Council taught infallibly, it is possible that only a very small portion of the Council’s resolutions could be considered dogma - maybe only one sentence, or maybe only one word (like, oh, “Subsistit” (subsists in), for example).

The First Vatican Council formally defined the criteria for a teaching to be infallibly promulgated. Some people have taken those criteria and created “checklists” to apply to prior teaching. This is not a conclusive way to categorize doctrine - it is merely a personal opinion.

Various theologians (notably Ludwig Ott) have likewise categorized various teachings according to a specific hierarchy of truths (usually conceived by the author - Ott’s hierarchy is quite elaborate). With all due respect to Dr. Ott et. al., those classifications are still their personal opinions (their opinions are probably better than mine, but they are not authoritative).

Canon Law says,

No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident. [Canon 749 §3]

Canon Law does not tell us what “manifestly evident” means, but I guarantee that it has nothing to do with my Vatican-1 checklist or Dr. Ott’s book. I would say that “manifestly evident” means that the Church herself has officially and specifically defined the teaching as dogma. Nobody else in the world has the authority to do this.

This “manifestly evident” is not itself a requirement for a teaching to be dogma, but is required for us to UNDERSTAND it to be dogma. That means we ought not claim that something is dogma unless it is “manifestly evident.” If the infallible nature of the teaching is not “manifestly evident” in the teaching itself, it must be later defined.

The modern Church had adopted a sort of vocabulary when teaching infallibly, using the criteria established by Vatican-1. (Ineffabilis Deus was promulgated shortly before the Council, but theologians had been kicking this around for some time.) It’s pretty clear (manifestly evident) when the modern Church intends to teach infallibly.

As we go back in time, it is not as “manifestly evident” which teachings are intended to be dogma. Ecumenical Councils often attach anathemas to those who refuse to accept certain teaching, but I have never seen anything that says a person can only be anathematized for rejecting dogma - I see no reason why a person could not be anathematized for rejecting doctrine (especially doctrine from an Ecumenical Council - very high in the hierarchy of truth).

Since the vast majority of Catholic doctrine has been promulgated without the benefit of Vatican-1’s clarity, and since the Church very rarely “elevates” established doctrine to dogmatic status, it seems that the vast majority of Catholic teaching cannot be “understood” as dogma, and thus it could (in theory) change.

Why am I wrong?

What is the 1% you feel is unchangeable?

The nature of infallible teaching (per Vatican-1), Assumption, Immaculate Conception, the inherit sinfulness of artificial birth control, and that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women.

Those are the only teachings that I can think of that are “manifestly evident” as dogma. But I don’t want the conversation to devolve into discussions about specific doctrines.

How about the entire creed:

One God,
Three persons,
God from God,
Jesus begotten not made,
One in being with the Father etc?

I believe you are wrong because your conclusion is based a false assumption as you state in the sentence above. Dogma being irreformable does not preclude doctrine from being irreformable.

The Creed is a teaching of an Ecumenical Council (two, actually). But has the Church ever said the teaching was promulgated infallibly?

Nicea promulgated one creed and twenty canons. None of the canons can be regarded as infallibly pronounced (they are all rules - the last one says you can’t kneel on Sunday).

I considered that my premise might be flawed, but I don’t think it is. Otherwise, EVERYTHING that the Church teaches is irreformable (because it’s all doctrine). EVERYTHING that a Pope or Ecumenical Council teaches would be infallible. This is clearly contrary to reality.

I believe that a lot of doctrine IS infallible (and thus irreformable) and we just don’t know it (yet). But only the Church can tell us which doctrines those are. Until that happens, there is a possibility that any particular doctrine could change.

No the creed is a gathering together of the teaching about the Truth of the Church by a council or two.

I don’t think it needs to be stated infallibly, since it is the Truth.

For instance: If I told my wife that I vow on a stack of bibles to be faithful to her she’s going to be worried about what I just got up to!

Figure out the instances where the Church teaches infallibly (and why it took so long to formulate the doctrine of infallibility, and the context in which it was promulgated) and then you might be on the way to answering your own question.

Regarding bolded above. If this is the case then your Topic sentence cannot be true.

However, it takes a very long time for anything in the Church to change.


This is an interesting topic It can run deep and damages the church.Maybe my post isnt the direction you wanted to go with the OP but I believe liberals in the church with their own agenda do pose logical opposition to the meaning or definition on certain church teachings. Which makes it difficult to argue whats really meant by the wording. It could go both ways just depends on your bias.
Twisting the truth to corroborate with how they want to live their lives and therefore have
justification to do so. VII

St Thomas wrote, “the vice of falsehood is perpetrated by anyone who offers worship to God on behalf of the Church in a manner contrary to that which is established by the Church with divine authority, and to which the Church is accustomed”.

Most pure substances come in very small amounts. What I mean by that is if the majority
of people jump on a bandwagon thats one bandwagon you would probably want to stay off of.

St. Vincent of Lerins’ guide to orthodox teaching; his famous maxim, the Vincentian Canon, by which he hoped to be able to differentiate between true and false tradition: **quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus credituni est **(“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”)

So The Immaculate Conception, The Assumption etc., have always been believed in the Catholic Church from the very beginning…

Jimmy Akin talks specifically about Papal infallibility here, but I think what he says can definitely be applied to infallibility in general.

A snippet:

It is certainly true that papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, but I regret to say that this statement falls into a common misunderstanding of it: namely, the idea that it has only been exercised twice. This claim is commonly made by dissident Catholics who wish to minimize the practical impact of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and the claim has been so commonly made that even many orthodox Catholics have absorbed it and repeat it in good conscience.

But it isn’t true.

Papal infallibility has been exercised far more than two times. In fact, it had been used many times prior to 1870, when it was defined by the First Vatican Council. This was the clear understanding of the council, as shown–for example–by reading the later Archbishop Gasser’s relatio to the council fathers. This was a briefing given to the bishops at Vatican I to ensure a common understanding of the proposals regarding papal infallibility they were voting on. It is reprinted in the excellent book The Gift of Infallibility (which is the best book on the subject), and in the course of the relatio, Gasser alludes to the numerous times papal infallibility had been used before the Council.

I think this is such a complex subject that honestly canon lawyers are really the only people who truly understand it.

I have to disagree with you.

Theres a lot of things implemented by the people themselves. Holding hands,orans posture,alter girls,extra ordinary Eucharistic ministers every mass on the weekends.

With over 2000 years of history it took less than 40 years to adopt the worldly spirit into our church.Preservation of tradition is the minority.

For those that remember how out of touch so called “Lifeteen mass” got and the church had to step in.

Bishop of Phoenix Thomas J. Olmsted has issued a decree of excommunication to Monsignor Dale Fushek, founder of LifeTeen, and Father Mark Dippre for their establishment of and leadership in an “opposing ecclesial community.”

No suprise to me but there were thousands that had no problem with the teens running up to the alter in their skull tee shirts and mini skirts,drums and electric guitars.Looked more like a protestant teen rally than a dignified catholic mass.

In the 70s I can remember having to navagate around the people staying in the pew during communion now EVERYONE goes.Is everyone all of a sudden with out sin?

It’s altar not alter.

Sounds like the waking thought of the next famous heretic. :eek:

Ah, but at one time, you could have made a pretty convincing case that the idea of Limbo was also such a longstanding and accepted tradition. It has been taught and believed by centuries of Popes, Saints (including Doctors of the Church) and laypeople. But, today, the Church has virtually abandoned support for this idea. This is a pretty good example of a “doctrine” (not dogma) which has been changed (or, at least, abandoned).

Maybe support for “always” is weak (we cannot find Limbo explicitly taught in the writings of the Fathers), but the same could be said for teachings accepted as dogma (such as the teaching that Baptism by heretics is valid - which is actually contrary to EVERY Early Father who spoke on the matter (prior to the Pope’s pronouncement), according to Jurgen’s doctrinal index).

And, besides - WHO is competent to say that any particular doctrine has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all?” This type of teaching is called Sensus Fidei (the sense of the Faithful), and it occupies a position in the hierarchy of truth, but can the Faithful (today) competently define what has always been held by the Faithful? I maintain that only the Church can make this determination (as with all other forms of teaching). And I maintain that the Church has rarely made this determination.

I don’t think so David. Dogma & doctrine develop as we come to better understand them, but they do not change.

I found these responses to this issue up in the Ask An Apologist forum.
Can Dogma Develop?
Is there room for disagreement with the Church?

Papal Infallibility
Can a pope be a heretic?

You posted this reply about the same time as I replied to fms, so you probably had not seen my post when you composed yours.

It would be hard to argue that the idea of Limbo was not (at one time) a “doctrine” (non-infallible teaching, but a teaching nonetheless) of the Church. It has NEVER been dogmatically defined, but the idea was held, believed, and taught by centuries of Popes, Saints, and laypeople. At one time (and for a very long time), practically every Catholic believed this idea. If that’s not doctrine, I don’t know what is.

The Church has never said that Limbo is a false idea (so, technically, the doctrine has not changed), but you gotta admit that the (very) modern Church has completely abandoned the idea (and that is, at least, a type of change).

BTW - I prefer your old avatar. I hardly recognized you.


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