What is Doctrine?

Cardinal Marx gives ‘no change’ group a basic theology lesson
 by Christopher Lamb 

Due to its fiery exchanges between conservatives and progressives some have likened the Synod on the Family to the Second Vatican Council.

While the synod is certainly in keeping with the spirit and mission of Vatican II there is one key difference and that is on theology.

At the council there was a team of periti -theological advisers – that included the future Pope Joseph Ratzinger and the Jesuit giant theologian Karl Rahner. Also present was Yves Congar, the Dominican whose ecclesiology has inspired Pope Francis. In many ways the work of the council was the fruit of these theologians labours in the years leading up to the gathering.

During the synod, however, it is the lack of first rate theologians that is noticeable with the exception of the German speakers. Cardinals Walter Kasper, Gerhard Muller and Christoph Schonborn have all been professors.

It is the development of good theology that might be able to provide some openings at the synod. In their small group reports the German speakers have reflected on Thomas Aquinas and the notion that principles of justice need to be applied to particular situations – there isn’t one overarching principle that everything fits into. This would allow, as the German speakers propose in their latest report, for an internal forum solution for giving communion to the divorced and remarried. This could be done on a case-by-case basis when a person reflects and forms their conscience with the help of a priest. The Church’s teaching on marriage would not be altered as this is about pastoral responses to particular situations rather than a shift in a general principle.

Yet this development of theology – which has won the backing of all the german speakers including the conservative Cardinal Muller, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – is unnerving to some who cannot countenance any development.

At a press briefing today Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, pointed out that “doctrine and theology are not the same” adding that “many people talk about doctrine but they have no idea what it is.”


Doctrine, he explained, is the tradition of the Church which is “not a closed shop, it is a living tradition” while doctrine needs to be lived rather than read in a book. He pointed to the difference between the First Vatican Council – which defined papal infallibility – and the Second Vatican Council, which stressed the collegiality between the Pope and bishops. Both express the truth, but in different ways. 

The cardinal added: “We don’t own the truth, the truth is owning us. The truth is a person we meet.”

Of course the synod is not defining doctrine and is there to advise the Pope but his remarks provided some balance to those voices inside and outside the synod hall who use sentences such as “the Church has always taught that” or “the Church can never change.”

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  1. The Collins dictionary gives the meaning of “doctrine” as a creed or body of teachings of a religious, political, or philosophical group presented for acceptance or belief; dogma
    2. a principle or body of principles that is taught or advocated
    It would appear from this that doctrine is the basic body of teaching that does not change eg. “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” etc. If you add in tradition and various innovations and fads you are expanding the meaning of the word. I would have thought that doctrine was the rock which is the basis of faith.

  2. I am really pleased that this important question, “What is doctrine”–at least important to me– is getting a decent airing on this site as it had caused me to pause, at least momentarily, in the last couple of weeks. But you know there are dozens, if not hundreds, of scholar-priests in Ireland — many of them, I am sure, members of the ACP and many of them, almost certainly, readers if not contributors to this site — who could put this issue to bed very easily once and for all. I am starting to sound like Eddie now.

  3. Con Devree says:

    I would like to juxtapose two quotations from Christopher Lamb (above) with two from Cardinal Muller.
    (Lamb 1) At a press briefing today Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, pointed out that “doctrine and theology are not the same” and (Lamb 2) …this development of theology – which has won the backing of all the german speakers INCLUDING THE CONSERVATIVE CARDINAL MULLER, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith …
    (Muller 1): TO journalists Feb. 25: “Doctrine and pastoral care are the same thing. Jesus Christ as pastor and Jesus Christ as teacher with his word are not two different people.”
    (Muller 2): To the International Theological Commission in late 2014: “Any separation of theory from practice of the faith would be a subtle, but serious Christological heresy.”
    “In true theology, the understanding of the faith is never separated nor opposed to the pastoral care and experience of faith. Theology always has a profound pastoral dimension”

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