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?