Discipline, Doctrine and Amoris

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It is very easy to get lost in the complexity of the Catholic faith. Among the faithful, and those on the outside, or not-so-faithful, it is easy to misunderstand why some things in the Catholic faith have changed over the years, while some things have not. Sometimes it is confusing as to why something believed in the early centuries is given a more detailed explanation in later centuries.

I have encountered those who refuse to take seriously unchangeable dogmatic teaching because they mistakenly believe it might change in the future, like the disciplines and practices surrounding the Mass after Vatican 2.  In recent controversies involving the ambiguous language of Pope Francis’ Amoris Latitiae, some have fallen into the trap of believing that earlier unambiguous and binding teaching can be reversed. We will attempt in this article to explain the different kinds of belief in the Catholic Church, what can and cannot change, and what Catholics are required to believe.


Let’s start with Church Discipline, often used interchangeably, although imprecisely with practices and customs.  Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia defines “discipline” as an “instruction, system of teaching or of law, given under the authority of the Church [which] can be changed with the approval of proper authority, as opposed to doctrine, which is unchangeable”. The biggest example of this is, of course, the Mass which changed dramatically following Vatican 2.  Under the authoritative direction of the Pope and bishops, the Church can change her discipline to better reach the faithful in the times in which we live.

There was a belief that creating the Novus Ordo, which employed the vernacular and a greatly simplified ritual, would better reach our separated brothers and sisters (the Protestants) and make the Mass “more relevant” to the Catholic faithful. It is the subject of another article to discuss whether or not that turned out to be an effective change, but alas the Church did have the authority to make this change and they did. Many traditionalists insist that Pius V created an unchangeable doctrine when he wrote Quo Primum which unified various aspects of the Tridentine Rite (pre-Vatican 2 Mass) using the words “in perpetuity.” This, of course, is mistaken because the document was not intended to speak to faith and morals, only discipline, which made the document subject to change by another pope. Again, this is a subject over which many arguments still rage on.

Other lesser examples of disciplines that have been changed include the suspension of a 24 hour fast before Mass and the universal requirement for abstaining from meat on Fridays. The bottom line is that disciplines and practices in the church have changed, and will change in the future.


Doctrine, on the other hand, cannot change, even by order of the Pope. It is the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, handed down to us through the bishops and pope from Jesus and the Apostles, and it never changes. All Christians must believe church doctrine. St. Jude in his epistle says that doctrine is “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).  Jesus himself promised that these truths would be protected and revealed in more detail by the Holy Spirit, so we know with confidence what has been passed down has not been adulterated, as in a game of “telephone.” The church through her teaching office identifies doctrine from both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, which have both been passed down. Doctrines are definitively proposed by the Church because they are closely associated with solemnly defined teachings.


An important classification of doctrine is Dogma, which is solemnly defined teaching. Dogma can be defined by a papal pronouncement (Assumption of Mary) or by a General Council (Chalcedon: Christ is two natures in one Divine Person), or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (killing an innocent human being is gravely immoral). (Thank you, Colin Donovan, from EWTN for your clear definitions.) In the case of a solemn papal pronouncement, (1) The pope must speak as pastor and teach of the whole Church; (2) he must act in the fullness of his apostolic authority; (3) he must clearly express that he intends to bind as revealed truth a doctrine of faith or morals. When these conditions are met, the pope has made a “solemn judgment” which is infallible.  (Pastor Aeternus, First Vatican Council).

If the dogma is declared as a part of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, (1) the teaching is proposed as revealed truth and (2) is in accord with the universality of Catholic Tradition. Vincent of Lerins in his Commonitorium (A.D. 434) sets forth these criteria when he writes, “What all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.”  {John Salza}

Dogmas start out as definitively proposed doctrine, but often by historical necessity (a heresy, or controversy within the church) are declared as the solemnly defined revelation of God. An example of this is the Immaculate Conception which was believed by all Catholics as a part of the universal ordinary magisterium but was declared dogma by Pope Pius XI. Definitively proposed teachings which could someday become dogma include the all-male priesthood or Mary as the Mediatrix of all Graces. Again, these are already items we are required to believe but could be elevated to dogma in the future if necessity demanded it.

There are over 300 solemnly defined dogmas in the Catholic Church. Some of them can be explored here.

What We Must Believe

According to Dei Filius from the First Vatican Council, teach that both kinds of doctrine described above are infallible and we have a duty to believe with divine and Catholic faith these teachings which the Church “puts forward to be believed as revealed truth, either in a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

“Both kinds of doctrine require the assent of faith. Both are infallibly taught by the Church. Dogmas require it because they are formally revealed by God. Doctrines definitively proposed by the Church require it because the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals is itself divinely revealed.” (Colin Donovan)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 88) restates it:

“The Church’s magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.”

Ordinary Magisterium

So far above, we’ve discussed doctrine which is definitively proposed, and a kind of doctrine, namely dogma, which is solemnly defined by either papal pronouncement or the ordinary and universal magisterium (always believed by Christians everywhere). We must give our assent of faith to both of these kinds of teaching; our consciences cannot contradict these teachings. But what about teachings from the Ordinary Magisterium? The Ordinary Magisterium is basically that day to day teaching, often appearing in papal documents such as an apostolic exhortation (such as Amoris Latitiae and Familius Consortio).

Such teachings must still be given “internal religious assent” (obsequium religiosum), unless sufficient study shows objective reasons to propose corrections to the teaching. In other words, if such teaching does not align with the previously expressed doctrine of the church, it may be questioned.

How does this apply to Amoris Latitiae?

Amoris is an encyclical and falls into the category of teaching from the Ordinary Magisterium. As Cardinal Burke pointed out, the language of the document does not declare it to be a solemn declaration (dogma), nor does the more controversial ambiguities lend themselves to the ordinary universal magisterium (believed “by all, always and everywhere.”) Such a teaching must still be given “internal religious assent” (obsequium religiosum) unless sufficient study shows objective reasons to propose emendations and corrections to the teaching.

This lack of alignment, of course, is why the four Cardinals have proposed their Dubia (doubts) to the Holy Father, about its teaching on the Eucharist. They are looking for a linkage back to the perennial teaching of the Church, and want the Pope to confirm this. The ambiguities, and the division that has occurred within the Church (many bishops giving Communion to the divorced and “remarried”, because of Amoris are what have led to the recent documents correcting the Holy Father

Let us pray this controversy and division within the Church are quickly resolved, the dissidents are corrected, and that the Holy Father clarifies that Amoris should, in fact, be interpreted in light of definitive and solemnly defined previous teaching.

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4 thoughts on “Discipline, Doctrine and Amoris”

  1. There is a scholastic axiom: “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur”. (Whatever is received is received in the mode of the recipient). A modern day example is an alcoholic. One can give him a lecture that shows conclusively that his addiction to alcohol is progressively getting worse; is irreversible; and absolutely life threatening. Yet his addiction (his mode) is so strong that he denies what is blatantly obvious to all who have to deal with him. The Catholic church has used Latin as the common language for its theology (and its metaphysical philosophy) because of its exactitude. English is more vague So much so that the Latin verb ‘recipere’ is translated variously as – to take, get, bring, rescue, regain, recover, seize, occupy, accept, receive, assume. In the case of “Amoris laetitia’ I find none of the language creates ‘controversial ambiguities’. Because of my experience I find it hard to understand what the dubia prelates are getting at. And more perplexing, Why have they gone about raising them and publicising them in such a way that is sure to stir up controversy – the bread and butter of modern media? I am inclined to believe that they read the pastoral exhortation with closed minds and attitudes (like the alcoholic’s) that were resistant to change. The alleged ambiguities in Amoris laetitia, in my view, are ‘ad modum recipentium’ (in the minds of these particular dissidents) and not in the message itself. As I read Jim’s article (A clear statement of the Church’s way of communicating its teachings) I kept hoping he would produce at least one example of an alleged ambiguity. But he didn’t and that is why I just had to comment.

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