Adjusting Doctrines as the Church Ministers to the Modern World
by James Magner, MD

Ordination of women? Married priests? Rethinking contraception? These are only three of dozens of issues being discussed by Catholic laypersons and clergy in recent years. How did longstanding church practices come into place? Are they just traditions or are they formal doctrines? Should they and can they be changed?

A key point of context for a reflection about appropriately and sensitively adapting doctrines to modernity is that many developed countries have become more secular during the last century. The devaluing of the spiritual has been seen as progress by some, but the consequences have been serious. Traditional families are stressed, illicit drug use and alcoholism have increased, episodes of depression are common, suicide rates are high, crime impacts many, and the emphasis on a materialistic view of the world has confused and distressed people about the ultimate meaning of their lives. In these circumstances, a strong and credible Christian ministry to humanity is vital, yet religious institutions have been plagued by serious and embarrassing scandals as church attendance has fallen for most denominations.

I am not in this article strongly advocating for any specific doctrinal change, but I want to point out that Catholic doctrines have changed countless times over the centuries, and I believe that the valuable influence and credibility of the church could be greatly strengthened by reflecting now on a number of doctrines that potentially could be—dare I use the word?—updated.

I should start by stating that I am not formally trained in theology or church governance, but I am a concerned Catholic layman who genuinely wants to aid a struggling Catholic Church. I’m not a radical, and my intentions are entirely constructive. So I want to share some thoughts about what I have learned in recent years.

Let’s start with the definition of a word that is unfamiliar to many laypersons: magisterium. This term refers to the teaching authority of the church, and the concept is rooted in the New Testament texts about Jesus giving the commission to Peter and his faithful apostles to inform the world about Christ and the Kingdom. They also were to perform vital actions like the Eucharistic celebration: “Do this in memory of me.” Christ’s new church was given authority and duty.

The astonishing resurrection of Jesus gave a jump-start to the evangelization effort. But perhaps the apostles had not fully anticipated the numerous new issues that soon would arise: As apostles died, should new ministers of the church be appointed, and how? Must all new male converts be circumcised? Animal sacrifices to pagan idols were common, and the resulting meat was at times an important source of community meals, but did Christians need to refrain from eating this valuable commodity? The new Christians had to establish—hold on to your hats!—processes and rules.

Using now a bit more modern wording, it is said that the magisterium establishes a doctrine if the great majority of bishops and the pope accept it and there is no longer any serious dissent to the concept.

A distinction has been drawn for centuries between Catholic doctrines versus dogmas. Doctrines are the numerous teachings or beliefs taught by the magisterium of the church. In contrast, dogma is the divinely revealed truth declared as such by the infallible teaching authority of the church. Dogma is a carefully and narrowly defined subset of doctrines, and these are few in number.

Potentially adding to confusion for the uninitiated, there are also two additional subcategories: “infallible doctrines” (not divinely revealed, but taught by the magisterium as absolutely correct), and “theological opinion” (these are just opinions of clergy that are open for discussion). Examples of each, courtesy of the Catholic Encyclopedia, may help to clarify things:

Infallible dogma

  • The divinity of Christ (divinely revealed and declared by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD)
  • Assumption of Mary (divinely revealed and declared as dogma by Pius XII in 1950)

Infallible doctrine

  • Catholic priests must be male (declared by the magisterium in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; see “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei,” multiple editions including 1988. Also promulgated in the Motu proprio by John Paul II on May 18, 1998, and see the subsequent article by Cardinal Ratzinger [later pope] about the dissent to the Commentary). (By the way, if this specific example implying that there has been some theological back and forth seems mind-numbing, investigation by me into some of the details finds that it truly is. More about this in a bit.)
  • Anglican orders are invalid (declared in the same Doctrinal Commentary)

Non-infallible doctrine

  • Bishops have a different rank than priests in holy orders (though not infallible, this question was settled at Vatican II, Lumen gentium, Pope Paul VI, November 21, 1964)
  • Mormon baptism is invalid (first decreed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a non-infallible doctrine, June 5, 2001)

Theological opinion

  • There are nine choirs of angels (John Paul II general audience, August 6, 1986)

Thus, the topic of dogma and doctrine is a bit complex. The interested reader may want to consult the results the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1991).

Ordination of Women to the Catholic Priesthood

I suspect that the average lay Catholic reader has little interest in the details of how church doctrines or dogmas are made, but my curiosity was raised a year ago when I heard an informal conversation among laypersons in which it was stated that the church is “locked in” to having only male priests because of prior formal infallible declarations. I am not here advocating either for or against the Catholic ordination of women, but I was curious to learn why some persons believed that the ordination of women actually will never be possible.

A further look into Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter about dissent regarding the doctrine that priests must be male is enlightening. Uploaded to the internet by Fr. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M., this July 22, 1998, letter is available here.

Ratzinger refers first to the 1989 Professio fidei, which has three concluding paragraphs for the sake of understanding the different degrees of authority for doctrines and the kind of assent required of the faithful. He then explains a second document, Donum veritatis (May 24, 1990), which explores the ecclesial vocation of the theologian. Basically, Ratzinger wants to clarify the methods of looking into doctrinal questions by theologians, implying perhaps that some sorts of speculations and criticisms by theologians are not welcome.

Apparently, Ratzinger was not pleased with a book by Fr. Francis A. Sullivan titled Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (Paulist Press, 1996). In brief, Fr. Sullivan claims that as a theologian it is his right to use the best possible hermeneutic principles to determine the relative degree of authority attached to various statements of the magisterium. Moreover, Fr. Sullivan stated in earlier lectures, and later in his book, that his review of the evidence is that John Paul II was not speaking ex cathedra (in other words, that he was not invoking infallibility) when he made his comments about the inability to ordain women. Instead, the pope’s statement should fall into the lesser category of “ordinary papal teaching.”

On October 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Reply to the “dubium” affirming that “the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women belongs to the deposit of the faith and has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” The Congregation did not say whether or not their opinion was that the teaching was divinely revealed. Fr. Sullivan denies that the teaching has been infallibly taught. He writes:

The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul II evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

As a non-expert in this area, I just want to bring these materials to the attention of those interested. This is clearly a debate that will continue for years. In future installments of this essay, I will to move on to some other controversies that I found intriguing. ♦

James Magner, MD, is an endocrinologist and scientist who spent years studying the biochemistry and physiology of the pituitary hormone, TSH, and providing medical supervision for several projects within the pharmaceutical industry. He is an avid chess player and expert poker player who placed 27th in the world in 2015. Dr. Magner is married and has two adult daughters. Seeking Hidden Treasures, his third book and debut collection of fiction, was published in 2019 by Archway Publishing. He is a member of the board of directors of Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Lothar Wolleh, “Dispersion of the Fathers, Second Vatican Council”

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1 reply
  1. Ray Temmerman
    Ray Temmerman says:

    The question of the ordination of women seems to me to be an example of the claim that doctrines divide, when (it seems to me), doctrines that appear to divide are primarily doctrines which express an already-existing division, i.e. the doctrine does not make the division, but expresses an already existing one.
    Similarly, the claim that the doctrine on ordination of women is an infallible doctrine should be questioned (as F Sullivan rightly has) as to whether there has been any true canvassing of the world-wide body of bishops for their honest assessment of the doctrine. Without that assessment, it cannot be said that the doctrine has been infallibly set forward. Such an infallibility requires at the very least the reasonable certitude that there is no disagreement. Without canvassing the bishops, there can be no such reasonable certitude, just a best guess (or perhaps a wish) – and without that reasonable certitude, this form of infallibility cannot reasonably be asserted.
    That doesn’t mean the doctrine is wrong. It means the assessment of the doctrine has not been carried out, and so the infallibility claimed is non-existent. Whether or not the doctrine is right remains to be determined.
    Thanks to James Magner MD for this excellent article.


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