Heresy for Dummies

A Basic Guide to Catholic Dogma, Doctrine and Teaching

After the death of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict the XVI, print and broadcast media pundits regularly bandied about phrases like “defender of church doctrine” and “watchdog of church teaching.” After a few days of taking in the breaking news, the differences between terms like “dogma” and “doctrine” and “teaching” seemed to blur. Parsing the distinctions between the terms can be tricky. In addition, there is no existing definitive list of all the Catholic dogmas, doctrines, teachings and practices. But it’s still worth taking a closer look at the way we define what provides the backbone of the Catholic faith, articulated by the Second Vatican Council as “an order or ?hierarchy’ of truths.” (Unitatis Redintegratio , no. 11)


Doctrines help the Church remain faithful in its attempts to understand and interpret the great mystery of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, (1 Cor 15:3-4) the core of the Catholic Christian faith. All doctrines are conceived with the sole purpose of helping Christians plumb the depths of this great mystery.

When a pope exercises his papal infallibility [freedom from error in teaching the Church about faith and morals], he speaks ex cathedra , “from the chair” of authority as earthly head of the Church. A pope has relied upon infallibility in his teaching role only one time since 1870, when it was defined by the First Vatican Council: Pope Pius XII declared in 1950 that Mary’s Assumption into heaven was a part of the Catholic faith.”

A doctrine is a belief or teaching that receives the official approval of the Church, whether through a pronouncement of an ecumenical council (literally, meaning a council drawn “from the whole wide world”, a pope, or a body of bishops in union with the pope (such as a regional group of bishops).

Normally a doctrine is formulated in response to an unorthodox challenge or to give a culturally and historically suitable expression to a universally held doctrine.

Often it will take decades or even centuries of discussion, prayer and discernment before the Church’s teaching authority is prepared to speak on a controversial matter.

Example of doctrine: Apostolic Succession is the belief that the teaching authority of the pope, bishops, and priests of today’s church has been passed down in an unbroken line of succession that can be traced all the way back to Christ’s original apostles.

An expert says: “Doctrine is not a part of divine revelation but it is derived from it or supports it. The Creed doesn’t say ?I believe in God and all the bishops,’ but the fundamental structure of authority in the church, which includes the bishops?one is not supposed to disagree with that.” ?Dennis Doyle, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton


Derived from the Latin dogmat, this word literally means “what seems right.” A dogma is a doctrine that is taught definitively and with the fullest solemnity. Formal rejection of a dogma is what we call heresy.

The word “dogma” did not acquire its present meaning until it was formally adopted by the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). According to Vatican I, which also articulated the concept of papal infallibility, a dogma must meet the following conditions:

1. It must be contained in Sacred Scripture or the postbiblical tradition of the Church, and thus considered to be revealed by God.

2. It must be explicitly proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief.

3. This must be done either in a sol emn decree or in the Church’s ordinary, universal teaching.

A dogma is “irreformable,” meaning it is not subject to review by a higher authority in the church. One must examine an individual doctrine to see if it meets the necessary criteria. Every dogma is a doctrine, but not every doctrine is a dogma. (Remember that square/rectangle rule you learned in grade school? Think of the dogmas as the squares and the doctrines as the rectangles.)

When a pope exercises his papal infallibility [freedom from error in teaching the Church about faith and morals], he speaks ex cathedra , “from the chair” of authority as earthly head of the Church. A pope has relied upon infallibility in his teaching role only one time since 1870, when it was defined by the First Vatican Council: Pope Pius XII declared in 1950 that Mary’s Assumption into heaven was a part of the Catholic faith. (Until this time, this belief had been reflected in Catholic customs and traditions but not explicitly expressed in doctrine or dogma.)

Examples of dogma:

  • Jesus is 100% human and 100% divine. This dogma was defined by much debate at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The council was convened in response to a priest from Alexandria, Egypt , named Arius, who was teaching that Jesus was first among created beings but not equal to God. This council gave us what we now profess in church called the “Nicean Creed.”
  • The Assumption of Mary. The body of the mother of Jesus was assumed into heaven after her earthly life ended. Promulgated by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950.

An expert says: “A dogma is something that is at the core of the faith and is divinely revealed?on the level of what is in the Nicene Creed.” ?Dennis Doyle, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton.


A more general term used to describe the Church’s interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures and its own Tradition, that is, what it has traditionally been taught about a topic in question. Just as attorneys examine past precedent when making decisions about important cases, the Church looks to the past for future guidance in matters of faith and morals. Catholics believe God has spoken to people throughout history and continues to speak to people today. The sum of what God has taught us down through the ages is what we call Tradition.

Catholic traditions (with a lower-case “t”), practices like celebrating Mass in the vernacular, priestly celibacy or receiving Communion in the hand, are customary ways of practicing or expressing matters related to faith.

Click here to read more about the difference between Tradition and traditions.

An expert says: “The basic dignity of the human person is an example of an ordinary church teaching, the idea that we have obligations to one another; that the economy is in service of the human person; that we are to avoid the extremes of socialism on one hand and laissez faire capitalism on the other.” Dennis Doyle, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton.

Discerning the difference between a dogma, doctrine and teaching is no easy task. In addition, the late Pope John Paul II, in a 1994 apostolic letter on the question of the ordination of women, introduced a new term. In the letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II declared that that Church had no authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and that that judgment should be “definitively held” by the church’s faithful. What “definitively held” means has been the subject of much debate amongst theologians, since the late pontiff appears to have stopped one step short of declaring the church’s stance as infallible teaching.

A multitude of doctrines, dogmas and teachings have developed over the thousands of years since the time of Christ. Many doctrines, like the importance of personal prayer or injunctions to love one’s neighbor and serve the poor, have never been officially defined, though they are treasured and respected as contributing to the core of the Catholic faith. Others have been defined very explicitly. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which expresses that Mary was conceived without original sin, is an example of a dogma that was promulgated in a very specific manner, relatively late in the church’s history (on December 8, 1854). New expressions of dogma and doctrine will continue to develop in the future, since Christ’s teachings need to be translated into different languages and expressed in different cultural and historical settings, all the while remaining faithful to the original revelations and teachings of Christ.

In parsing the differences between concepts like dogma, doctrine and teaching, it is important to remember their larger context. On this matter, Dr. Dennis Doyle offers some sound advice. “It is very important for young Catholics not to make too much of [the distinctions between these categories], but on the other hand, to give them the seriousness they deserve. It’s also important to ask ourselves “What does it mean to live a Christian life? What does it mean to live a sacramental life? Doctrines and dogmas and teachings are only one aspect of the Christian life.”

Sources: Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Catholicism, by Richard P. McBrien, Encyclopedia of Catholicism, edited by Richard P. McBrien, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism, by Bob O’Gorman and Mary Faulkner, The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Michael Glazier and Monika Hellwig.