Quick Question about Dogma

Can a Pope define something ex cathedra (as dogma), that was not already left in the deposit of faith by the time the last of the apostles died?

I thought the answer was a blatant no but I have some (Catholic) friends who are convinced that a Pope can define a dogma that was not part of the “deposit of faith”.

I was convinced that a Pope cannot define as dogma something outside the “deposit of faith” because all of our dogmas come from the apostles and the “deposit of faith” even if they aren’t defined as dogma until modern times.

If one looks up in Wikepedia the subject “Catholic Dogma” one can find a good treatment of this subject. “To some, this raises the question, why “new” dogmas are formulated almost 2000 years after the resurrection of Christ. It is Catholic teaching that with Christ and the Apostles, revelation is completed. Dogmata issued after the death of his apostles are not new, but explications of existing faith. Implicit truth are specified as explicit, as it was done in the teachings on the Trinity by the ecumenical councils. Karl Rahner tries to explain this with the allegorical sentence of a husband to his wife “ I love you” this surely implies, I am faithful to you…” I suggest a reading of the entire article.

The Wikipedia explanation is actually a pretty good one, and the Rahner example is helpful, because it shows that dogmatic clarification is often a matter of correcting misunderstandings.

So, for instance, suppose a husband says, “Well, I love you dearly, but I still want to run off and have flings with other women once in a while.” At that point we have to clarify the nature of marital love.

Similarly, Christians from the beginning confessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and referred to the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ. There was an implicit relationship between the celebration of bread and wine and the OT sacrifices (via the sacrifice of Christ, which the OT sacrifices prefigured and the NT Eucharist commemorated), and thus between OT priests and NT presbyters/bishops. But all of this needed to be clarified, and that’s the role of the Magisterium.


It sounds like you certainly got it ! There were many councils in the first centuries of Church history that made clear, and defined, what the Church held was that which was handed down by the Apostles. These counsels usually took place when arguments, or heretical misunderstandings of doctrines of the faith arose. The formulas of faith became a formal refinement in understanding of that which was already present in the deposit of faith. The Trinity was defined as three persons in one God, where there is one God because of one Divine Nature where nature is what one is, and persons is who one is. Jesus Christ was defined as one person (who he is) with 2 natures (what one is) - Divine and human. The Pope (The Bishop of Rome, and thereby successor of Peter who Jesus appointed head of the Apostles as recorded in St. Mathew) is able to define dogmas of faith as are Councils of Bishops in Union with him. Thus, we have, for instance Pius XI defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854, a doctrine which had a very long history in the Church and that I see as being the ultimate conclusion of the angel addressing Mary as “Full of Grace” in the Gospel of Luke.

ALL doctrine develops. There is not a single doctrine that was understood, in its current form, in the Apostolic era.

It’s a tricky question.

Anything the Church declares to be infallible must be something already contained within the original deposit of faith known to the original Apostles (presumably there was an original apostle who witnessed the Assumption of Mary into heaven).

On the other hand, there will always be new issues that arise, where someone will ask, “Ah, but when the original apostles said X, did they really mean that what we now know about Y was also true?” Thus, there will always be a need to ask questions about what the deposit of faith really means.

Also, one should always remember that words and language are imperfect symbols for the objective truth, and that sometimes it’s difficult to read into ancient writings and know exactly what message the author intended to convey. But the spirit of faith still lives with the Church to interpret the same old deposit of faith, but in new ways to address new problems and issues.

Most of the time it’s a matter of negative theology, where the Church says, “No, A, B, & C are definitely not consistent with the deposit of faith.” But every now and then, there does arise the need for statements of positive theology, such as with the doctrines of papal infallibility or the assumption of Mary. The original apostles of the Church would have known these things, but they did not write them down explicitly at the time… or if they did, those writings did not survive the ravages of time.

This is a common misconception. It is not found within the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The “deposit of Faith” contains an embryonic understanding of doctrine. For example, that Christian Baptism leads to salvation, which was known in the Apostolic age. But not regarding the validity of Baptism by heretics (valid), or the possible permanent loss of Baptismal Grace through sin (nope). These two doctrines regarding Baptism were absolutely unknown in the Apostolic age. They are doctrines which caused considerable dispute in the Early Church. For example, St. Cyprian of Carthage (my favorite Early Father) was absolutely opposed to the idea that Baptism by heretics could be valid (he would not even use the word “Baptize” in this context - he referred to “those made wet by heretics.” I think that’s funny).

There is not one single doctrine that was understood in the Apostolic era in the same manner that we understand it today.

**ALL doctrine (each and every doctrine of the Church) has developed ** beyond its Apostolic understanding. This development happens under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

The Church has never taught that the Apostolic Church had a fully-formed understanding of ANY doctrine. For that matter, the Church has never taught that She currently has a fully-formed understanding of ANY doctrine. ALL doctrine develops, and this is an ongoing process.

I don’t want to get bogged down in word games, but there is definitely a sense in which infallible pronouncements of the Church cannot represent anything new. The application of the deposit of faith to certain questions might be novel, but the deposit of faith itself does not change.

I also completely disagree that the “two doctrines regarding Baptism were absolutely unknown in the Apostolic age.” There is evidence for knowledge of both in the writings of Paul, and bringing up a 3rd century bishop who fell into confusion doesn’t change that.

It is certainly true that doctrine develops, and that our understanding of the deposit of faith develops along with it, but the deposit of faith itself is unchanging, and there is a real distinction between evolving doctrine on the one hand, and new revelation on the other hand, that needs to be respected. How a person chooses to describe this distinction in words does not seem like the most important issue to me (because it’s largely semantics), so long as a person admits that such a distinction exists and must be respected as something limiting what the Church is allowed to declare as infallible teaching.

There is nothing in Paul’s epistles that says that Baptism by heretics is valid. If there were, third century Bishops would have cited it. Perhaps you can do us the courtesy of citing it yourself.

There were no heretics Baptizing people in the Apostolic age. It never came up. The first visible, distinctive heresy was gnosticism, in the mid-second century.

ALL doctrine develops, and this is an ongoing process.

You are making claims for things that you cannot possibly know with certainty.

I can say, with absolute certainty, that (in my own words) “there is nothing in Paul’s epistles that says that Baptism by heretics is valid,” as you claimed.

If I am wrong, cite it and prove me wrong.

It’s a simple request.

Right, but the underlying principle that leads to the validity of heretical baptism is that baptism is the work of Christ, and that is in Scripture.

I’m not quite sure what you are talking about in the second phrase. By “nope” do you mean the unrepeatability of baptism? Again, that seems to me to follow from the nature of baptism.

I’m usually arguing the other point of view in this forum (i.e., usually up against people who see Catholic dogmas as having been present far more explicitly at the beginning than they were). But I think you are giving the impression that you think dogmas can simply be defined out of thin air. I doubt you think this, but by separating out secondary propositions from the primary one I think you give this impression. In other words, there’s one truth really, and specific propositions emerge from it.


All doctrine develops. We have no doctrine that was as fully understood in the Apostolic age as it is today.

In Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating (President of Catholic Answers and our host on this Forum) described doctrine like a sapling (he might have said acorn) which grows into a mature oak. It never ceases to be the same tree - it did not change from an elm to an oak. But it grows and develops and matures.

The necessity of Baptism is part of the deposit of Faith - it is the acorn. Our understanding of baptism by heretics is one of the branches that grew from the young tree - it was unknown in the Apostolic age, developing in the Third Century. The modern Church says it is possible to attain salvation apart from Christian water Baptism - this is one of the later branches in our understanding of the sacrament of salvation. Nothing about our understanding has changed, but it has grown.

All doctrine develops. This is an ongoing process. The Church has never taught that the Apostolic Church understood doctrine as fully as we do today.

(I think Keating did say acorn. That would be biologically imprecise. An acorn has to be pollinated and planted in order to grow, and it becomes “alive” only after being pollinated.)

Yes, I think he said acorn (and I think Newman used the analogy first, though maybe it’s just that others use it to explain Newman).

I’m not disputing development. I’m disputing the semantic point of saying that a doctrine was simply “unknown.” We don’t disagree in substance. I just want to make sure that non-Catholics reading this don’t get the idea that the Catholic Church just “makes stuff up.”

The point is that each new development is an elaboration and explanation of something that was already there.


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