Catholic Information


The word dogma (Gr. dogma from dokein) signifies, in the writings of the ancient classical authors, sometimes, an opinion or that which seems true to a person; sometimes, the philosophical doctrines or tenets, and especially the distinctive philosophical doctrines, of a particular school of philosophers (cf. Cic. Ac., ii, 9), and sometimes, a public decree or ordinance, as dogma poieisthai. In Sacred Scripture it is used, at one time, in the sense of a decree or edict of the civil authority, as in Luke, ii, 1: "And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree [edictum, dogma] from Caesar Augustus" (cf. Acts 17:7; Esther 3:3); at another time, in the sense of an ordinance of the Mosaic Law as in Eph., ii 15: "Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees" (dogmasin), and again, it is applied to the ordinances or decrees of the first Apostolic Council in Jerusalem: "And as they passed through the cities, they delivered unto them the decrees [dogmata] for to keep, that were decreed by the apostles and ancients who were at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4). Among the early Fathers the usage was prevalent of designating as dogmas the doctrines and moral precepts taught or promulgated by the Saviour or by the Apostles; and a distinction was sometimes made between Divine, Apostolical, and ecclesiastical dogmas, according as a doctrine was conceived as having been taught by Christ, by the Apostles, or as having been delivered to the faithful by the Church.

Text Font Face
Text Size
(for printing)
BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
But according to a long-standing usage a dogma is now understood to be a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful. It might be described briefly as a revealed truth defined by the Church -- but private revelations do not constitute dogmas, and some theologians confine the word defined to doctrines solemnly defined by the pope or by a general council, while a revealed truth becomes a dogma even when proposed by the Church through her ordinary magisterium or teaching office. A dogma therefore implies a twofold relation: to Divine revelation and to the authoritative teaching of the Church.

The three classes of revealed truths

Theologians distinguish three classes of revealed truths: truths formally and explicitly revealed; truths revealed formally, but only implicitly; and truths only virtually revealed.

A truth is said to be formally revealed, when the speaker or revealer really means to convey that truth by his language, to guarantee it by the authority of his word. The revelation is formal and explicit, when made in clear express terms. It is formal but only implicit, when the language is somewhat obscure, when the rules of interpretation must be carefully employed to determine the meaning of the revelation. And a truth is said to be revealed only virtually, when it is not formally guaranteed by the word of the speaker, but is inferred from something formally revealed.

Now, truths formally and explicitly revealed by God are certainly dogmas in the strict sense when they are proposed or defined by the Church. Such are the articles of the Apostles' Creed. Similarly, truths revealed by God formally, but only implicitly, are dogmas in the strict sense when proposed or defined by the Church. Such, for example, are the doctrines of Transubstantiation, papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, some of the Church's teaching about the Saviour, the sacraments, etc. All doctrines defined by the Church as being contained in revelation are understood to be formally revealed, explicitly or implicitly. It is a dogma of faith that the Church is infallible in defining these two classes of revealed truths; and the deliberate denial of one of these dogmas certainly involves the sin of heresy. There is a diversity of opinion about virtually revealed truths, which has its roots in a diversity of opinion about the material object of faith (see FAITH). It is enough to say here that, according to some theologians, virtually revealed truths belong to the material object of faith and become dogmas in the strict sense when defined or proposed by the Church; and according to others, they do not belong to the material object of faith prior to their definition, but become strict dogmas when defined; and, according to others, they do not belong to the material object of Divine faith at all, nor become dogmas in the strict sense when defined, but may be called mediately-Divine or ecclesiastical dogmas. In the hypothesis that virtually revealed conclusions do not belong to the material object of faith, it has not been defined that the Church is infallible in defining these truths, the infallibility of the Church, however, in relation to these truths is a doctrine of the Church theologically certain, which cannot lawfully be denied -- and though the denial of an ecclesiastical dogma would not be heresy in the strict sense, it could entail the sundering of the bond of faith and expulsion from the Church by the Church's anathema or excommunication.


The divisions of dogma follow the lines of the divisions of faith. Dogmas can be (1) general or special; (2) material or formal; (3) pure or mixed; (4) symbolic or non-symbolic; (5) and they can differ according to their various degrees of necessity.

(1) General dogmas are a part of the revelation meant for mankind and transmitted from the Apostles; while special dogmas are the truths revealed in private revelations. Special dogmas, therefore, are not, strictly speaking, dogmas at all; they are not revealed truths transmitted from the Apostles; nor are they defined or proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful generally.

(2) Dogmas are called material (or Divine, or dogmas in themselves, in se) when abstraction is made from their definition by the Church, when they are considered only as revealed; and they are called formal (or Catholic, or "in relation to us", quoad nos) when they are considered both as revealed and defined. Again, it is evident that material dogmas are not dogmas in the strict sense of the term.

(3) Pure dogmas are those which can be known only from revelation, as the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.; while mixed dogmas are truths which can be known from revelation or from philosophical reasoning as the existence and attributes of God. Both classes are dogmas in the strict sense, when considered as revealed and defined.

(4) Dogmas contained in the symbols or creeds of the Church are called symbolic; the remainder are non-symbolic. Hence all the articles of the Apostles' Creed are dogmas -- but not all dogmas are called technically articles of faith, though an ordinary dogma is sometimes spoken of as an article of faith.

(5) Finally, there are dogmas belief in which is absolutely necessary as a means to salvation, while faith in others is rendered necessary only by Divine precept; and some dogmas must be explicitly known and believed, while with regard to others implicit belief is sufficient.


As a dogma is a revealed truth, the intellectual character and objective reality of dogma depend on the intellectual character and objective truth of Divine revelation. We will here apply to dogma the conclusions developed at greater length under the heading of revelation. Are dogmas considered merely as truths revealed by God, real objective truths addressed to the human mind? Are we bound to believe them with the mind? Should we admit the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental dogmas?

(1) Rationalists deny the existence of Divine supernatural revelation, and consequently of religious dogmas. A certain school of mystics has taught that what Christ inaugurated in the world was "a new life". The "Modernist" theory by reason of its recent condemnation calls for fuller treatment. There are different shades of opinion among Modernists. Some of them do not, apparently, deny all intellectual value to dogma (cf. Le Roy, "Dogme et Critique"). Dogma, like revelation, they say, is expressed in terms of action. Thus when the Son of (God is said "to have come down from heaven", according to all theologians He did not come down, as bodies descend or as angels are conceived to pass from place to place, but the hypostatic union is described in terms of action. So when we profess our faith in God the Father, we mean, according to M. Le Roy, that we have to act towards God as sons; but neither the fatherhood of God, nor the other dogmas of faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection of Christ, etc. imply of necessity any objective intellectual conception of fatherhood, Trinity, Resurrection, etc., or convey any idea to the mind. According to other writers, God has addressed no revelation to the human mind. Revelation, they say, began as a consciousness of right and wrong -- and the evolution or development of revelation was but the progressive development of the religious sense until it reached its highest level, thus far, in the modern liberal and democratic State. Then, according to these writers, the dogmas of faith, considered as dogmas, have no meaning for the mind, we need not believe them mentally; we may reject them -- it is enough if we employ them as guides for our actions. (See MODERNISM.) Over against this doctrine the Church teaches that God has made a revelation to the human mind. There are, no doubt, relative Divine attributes, and some of the dogmas of faith may be expressed under the symbolism of action, but they also convey to the human mind a meaning distinct from action. The fatherhood of God may imply that we should act towards Him as children towards a father -- but it also conveys to the mind definite analogical conceptions of our God and Creator. And there are truths, such as the Trinity, the Resurrection of Christ, His Ascension, etc. which are absolute objective facts, and which could be believed even if their practical consequences were ignored or were deemed of little value. The dogmas of the Church, such as the existence of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection of Christ, the sacraments, a future judgment, etc. have an objective reality and are facts as really and truly as it a fact that Augustus was Emperor of the Romans, and that George Washington was first President of the United States.

(2) Abstracting from the Church's definition, we are bound to render to God the homage of our assent to revealed truth once we are satisfied that He has spoken. Even atheists admit, hypothetically, that if there be an infinite Being distinct from the world, we should pay Him the homage of believing His Divine word.

(3) Hence it is not permissible to distinguish revealed truths as fundamental and non-fundamental in the sense that some truths, though known to have been revealed by God, may be lawfully denied. But while we should believe, at least implicitly, every truth attested by the word of God, we are free to admit that some are in themselves more important than others, more necessary than others, and that an explicit knowledge of some is necessary while an implicit faith in others is sufficient.


Revealed truths become formally dogmas when defined or proposed by the Church. There is considerable hostility, in modern times, to dogmatic religion when considered as a body of truths defined by the Church, and still more when considered as defined by the pope. The theory of dogma which is here expounded depends for its acceptance on the doctrine of the infallible teaching office of the Church and of the Roman pontiff. It will be sufficient to notice the following points, (1) the reasonableness of the definition of dogma; (2) the immutability of dogma; (3) the necessity for Church unity of belief in dogma (4) the inconveniences which are alleged to be associated with the definition of dogma.

(1) Against the theory of interpretation of Scripture by private judgement, Catholics regard as absolutely unacceptable the view that God revealed a body of truths to the world and appointed no official teacher of revealed truth, no authoritative judge of controversy; this view is as unreasonable as would be the notion that the civil legislature makes laws and then commits to individual private judgment the right and the duty of interpreting the laws and deciding controversies. The Church and the supreme pontiff are endowed by God with the privilege of infallibility in discharge of the duty of universal teacher in the sphere of faith and morals; hence we have an infallible testimony that the dogmas defined and delivered to us by the Church are the truths contained in Divine revelation.

(2) The dogmas of the Church are immutable. Modernists hold that religious dogmas, as such, have no intellectual meaning, that we are not bound to believe them mentally, that they may be all false, that it is sufficient if we use them a guides to action; and accordingly they teach that dogmas are not immutable, that they should be changed when the spirit of the age is opposed to them, when they lose their value as rules for a liberal religious life. But in the Catholic doctrine that Divine revelation is addressed to the human mind and expresses real objective truth, dogmas are immutable Divine truths. It is an immutable truth for all time that Augustus was Emperor of Rome and George Washington first President of the United States. So according to Catholic belief, these are and will be for all time immutable truths -- that there are three Persons in God, that Christ died for us, that He arose from the dead, that He founded the Church, that He instituted the sacraments. We may distinguish between the truths themselves and the language in which they are expressed. The full meaning of certain revealed truths has been only gradually brought out; the truths will always remain. Language may change or may receive a new meaning; but we can always learn what meaning was attached to particular words in the past.

(3) We are bound to believe revealed truths irrespective of their definition by the Church, if we are satisfied that God has revealed them. When they are proposed or defined by the Church, and thus become dogmas, we are bound to believe them in order to maintain the bond of faith. (See HERESY).

(4) Finally, Catholics do not admit that, as is sometimes alleged, dogmas are the arbitrary creations of ecclesiastical authority, that they are multiplied at will, that they are devices for keeping the ignorant in subjection, that they are obstacles to conversions. Some of these are points of controversy which cannot be settled without reference to more fundamental questions. Dogmatic definitions would be arbitrary if there were no Divinely instituted infallible teaching office in the Church; but if, as Catholics maintain, God has established in His Church an infallible office, dogmatic definitions cannot be considered arbitrary. The same Divine Providence which preserves the Church from error will preserve her from inordinate multiplication of dogmas. She cannot define arbitrarily. We need only observe the life of the Church or of the Roman pontiffs to see that dogmas are not multiplied inordinately. And as dogmatic definitions are but the authentic interpretation and declaration of the meaning of Divine revelation, they cannot be considered devices for keeping the ignorant in subjection, or reasonable obstacles to conversions, on the contrary, the authoritative definition of truth and condemnation of error, are powerful arguments leading to the Church those who seek the truth earnestly.


It is sometimes charged that in the Catholic Church, in consequence of its dogmas, religious life consists merely in speculative beliefs and external sacramental formalities. It is a strange charge, arising from prejudice or from lack of acquaintance with Catholic life. Religious life in conventual and monastic establishments is surely not a merely external formality. The external religious exercises of the ordinary Catholic layman, such as public prayer, confession, Holy Communion, etc. suppose careful and serious internal self-examination and self-regulation, and various other acts of internal religion. We need only to observe the public civic life of Catholics, their philanthropic works, their schools, hospitals, orphanages, charitable organizations, to be convinced that dogmatic religion does not degenerate into mere external formalities. On the contrary, in non-Catholic Christian bodies a general decay of supernatural Christian life follows the dissolution of dogmatic religion. Were the dogmatic system of the Catholic Church, with its authoritative infallible head, done away with, the various systems of private judgment would not save the world from relapsing into and following pagan ideals. Dogmatic belief is not the be-all and end-all of Catholic life; but the Catholic serves God, honours the Trinity, loves Christ, obeys the Church, frequents the sacraments, assists at Mass, observes the Commandments, because he believes mentally in God, in the Trinity, in the Divinity of Christ, in the Church, in the sacraments and the Sacrifice of the Mass, in the duty of keeping the Commandments, and he believes in them as objective immutable truths.


But, it is objected, dogma checks investigation, antagonizes independence of thought, and makes scientific theology impossible. This difficulty may be supposed to be put by Protestants or by unbelievers. We will consider it from both points of view.

(1) Beyond scientific investigation and freedom of thought Catholics recognize the guiding influence of dogmatic beliefs. But Protestants also profess to adhere to certain great dogmatic truths which are supposed to impede scientific investigation and to conflict with the findings of modern science. Old difficulties against the existence of God or its demonstrability, against the dogma of Creation, miracles, the human soul, and supernatural religion have been dressed in a new garb and urged by a modern school of scientists principally from the discoveries in geology, paleontology, biology, astronomy, comparative anatomy, and physiology. But Protestants, no less than Catholics, profess to believe in God, in the Creation, in the soul, in the Incarnation, in the possibility of miracles; they too, maintain that there can be no discord between the true conclusions of science and the dogmas of the Christian religion rightly understood. Protestants, therefore, cannot consistently complain that Catholic dogmas impede scientific investigation. But it is urged that in the Catholic system beliefs are not determined by private judgment, behind the dogmas of the Church there is the living bulwark of her episcopate. True, behind dogmatic beliefs Catholics recognize ecclesiastical authority; but this puts no further restraint on intellectual freedom -- it only raises the question as to the constitution of the Church. Catholics do not believe that God revealed a body of truths to mankind and appointed no living authority to unfold, to teach, to safeguard that body of Divine truths, to decide controversies; but the authority of the episcopate under the supreme pontiff to control intellectual activity is correlative with, and arises from their authority to teach supernatural truth. The existence of judges and magistrates does not extend the range of our civil laws -- they are rather a living authority to interpret and apply the laws. Similarly, episcopal authority has for its range the truth of revelation, and it prohibits only what is inconsistent with the full scope of that truth.

(2) In discussing the question with unbelievers we note that science is "the observation and classification, or co-ordination, of the individual facts or phenomena of nature". Now a Catholic is absolutely free in the prosecution of scientific research according to the terms of this definition. There is no prohibition or restriction on Catholics in regard to the observation and co-ordination of the phenomena of Nature. But some scientists do not confine themselves to science as defined by themselves. They propound theories often unwarranted by experimental observation. One will maintain as a "scientific" truth that there is no God, or that His existence is unknowable -- another that the world has not been created; another will deny in the name of "science" the existence of the soul; another, the possibility of supernatural revelation. Surely these denials are not warranted by scientific methods. Catholic dogma and ecclesiastical authority limit intellectual activity only so far as may be necessary for safeguarding the truths of revelation. If non-believing scientists in their study of Catholicism would apply the scientific method, which consists in observing, comparing, making hypotheses, and perhaps formulating scientific conclusions, they would readily see that dogmatic belief in no way interferes with the legitimate freedom of the Catholic in scientific research, the discharge of civic duty, or any other form of activity that makes for true enlightenment and progress. The service rendered by Catholics in every department of learning and of social endeavour, is a fact which no amount of theorizing against dogma can set aside. (See FAITH, INFALLIBILITY, REVELATION, SCIENCE, TRUTH.)

Publication information Written by Daniel Coghlan. Transcribed by Gerard Haffner. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

Acta et Decreta Concilii Vaticani in Coll. Lac. (Freiburg im Br., 1870-90), VII; SUAREZ, Opera Omnia: De Fide Theologicâ; DE LUGO, Pera: De fide; VACANT, Etudes th&eaccute;ologiques sur les constitutions du concile du Vatican (Paris, 1895); GRANDERATH, Constitutiones dogmaticae Sacrosancti Ecumenici Concilii Vaticani ex ipsis ejus actis explicatae atque illustratae (Freiburg im Br., 1892); SCHEEBEN, Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik (Freiburg im Br., 1873); SCHWANE, Dogmengeschichte (2nd ed., Freiburg, 1895); MAZZELLA, De Virtutibus Infusis (Rome, 1884); BILLOT, Tractatus de Ecclesiâ Christi (Rome, 1903); IDEM, De Virtutibus Infusis (Rome, 1905); NEWMAN, Idea of a University (London, 1899).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

This page - - - - is at
This subject presentation was last updated on - -

Copyright Information

Send an e-mail question or comment to us: E-mail

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet