Church teaching can seem like a maze of different statements with different weights assigned to each one. People debate whether “such-and-such a teaching” is binding or merely a personal opinion of the pope.
A lot of the confusion surrounds the terms “dogma” and “doctrine.” Perhaps you know that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a dogma, but wonder how that differs from other teachings that are doctrines.
Here are the differences between doctrine and dogma.
What’s a dogma?
A dogma is the most authoritative teaching made by the Church. It is when the pope — and sometimes the bishops in union with him — teach infallibly that a certain belief is part of divine revelation and binding on the universal Church for all times and places. Dogmas must be adhered to with a divine and catholic faith by all in the Church. In other words, they require the highest level of assent.
Theologians don’t agree on the number of dogmas, but they generally agree that the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception are defined as such. There are, of course, other dogmas, such as the divinity of Christ.
Also note that the Church can infallibly define things that — while not directly being divinely revealed — have a necessary connection to divine revelation. This includes certain philosophical propositions that have a bearing on revealed truth.
What’s a doctrine?
Dogma is a kind of doctrine, but doctrine is a much broader category of teaching. Doctrine includes other beliefs that are taught authoritatively, but not infallibility. This means that there are elements of these non-infallible beliefs that may change over time even though the core of the teaching still reflects some aspect of the deposit of faith.
In other words, you are required to adhere to a non-infallible doctrine when it is taught, but it may be that the Church changes aspects of it and no longer requires adherence to those elements.
A caution about terminology.
The understanding of dogma and doctrine presented here is what you’ll find in modern Catholic theology. However, these words were used much more loosely in the past, an aspect that continues in some writings today. You’ll often find them used interchangeably or with broader definitions. Just keep that in mind.
Bonus: theological opinions
There’s another category of papal teaching called “theological opinions.” These teachings are not binding on the faithful. They are merely an expression of a pope’s theological views. However, in the cases of holy popes such as St. John Paul II, they do deserve a fair hearing.