Sunday, September 19, 2010

Catholics, you must understand this!

Do you know the difference between a doctrine and a discipline?

If not, you need to!

I have found that until a Catholic understands the distinction, he will be at a great disadvantage when someone challenges him on Church teaching, or when his own doubts creep in.

Here we go....


A doctrine is an unchanging Truth, part of what we call The Deposit of Faith (a.k.a. Sacred Tradition). The Deposit of Faith is the body of truth (faith and morals) that Christ left to His Apostles. The Apostles' successors (Popes and bishops) have preserved and passed this body of truth down through the generations. When Jesus promised His Apostles that the Holy Spirit would come to "lead you to all Truth" (John 16:13), He was talking doctrine.

Doctrine can be better understood over time, and through the centuries the Church has fleshed out its richness (this is called development of doctrine), but its essence does not change. Indeed, the Deposit of Faith can never be contradicted, reversed, added to, or subtracted from. The Holy Spirit sees to that.

Some examples of doctrines: The Ten Commandments; the truth and meaning of human sexuality; the nature of Christ and the Trinity; the Marian doctrines; the basic elements and nature of the seven Sacraments; the male-only priesthood, the Cycle of Redemption.

Hint for thinking of "faith and morals": 
Faith = The Creed (what we believe)
Morals = The Ten Commandments (how we live)


A discipline is a rule or regulation which can and often does change. This is the "binding and loosing" authority that the Church received when Jesus said to Peter and the Apostles, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven" (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:18). These rules/disciplines can be changed, but when they are in effect, the faithful are bound to them. Why do they exist? To help the faithful in each era become holy. Depending on times and cultures and circumstances, Popes and bishops will bind or loose the faithful according to the needs of the people of God at that time.

Some examples of disciplines: Canon Law; days of fasting and abstinence; Holy Days of Obligation; regulation of religious orders; priestly celibacy; liturgical rubrics (i.e., language of the liturgy, words/prayers/readings for liturgical celebrations, postures and gestures, etc.).

So, when someone says to you, "The Church is not the True Church because it changed its rules on eating meat on Fridays!" you say, "That's a discipline, and it can change!"

And when someone says, "The Church is going to change its teachings on contraception and homosexuality!" you say, "Those are doctrines, and they will never change!"

Any questions? I love questions!


  1. Yep ... a good reminder for many and good info for many more!
    Kinda what I call BIG "T"/LITTLE "T"

  2. Battle Beads, so funny you mention that! I almost put that in the post! Like you, I call it "Big T Tradition" and "Little t tradition"!

    1. Well Leila .. yanno what they say dontcha??? "Great minds think alike!" ;) Blessings!

  3. Very good reminder Leila! Thank you!

  4. Yes, the big T, little T is how we try to explain it as well. Maybe that's an RCIA thing because I remember Sister using that to describe it in RCIA.

  5. Well, I'm going to man up here and admit that I have never had this explained to me so well! Having no formal theological training, this has always been very fuzzy for me. I learn so much from you, Leila! Thank you!

    So it makes sense that priestly celibacy would be a discipline considering that there have been times in the Eastern Church when priests were allowed to marry, right?
    However, it bothers me a little bit because celibacy in the priesthood seems so important, and now it feels like people who are pushing for this discipline to be reversed may have some cause to think it should be...
    Also, what is a Dogma? I'm kind of embarrassed to ask this, and I thought about emailing you instead, but I'm guessing that I am not the only one with this question... :)

  6. Don't be embarassed Megan. I'm right there with you! ;)

    Okay, so give us more of when someone says this, I say that... ;)

    I love the end part because it was so easy to understand the difference between dicipline and doctrine.

    Hanging Catholic head in shame... ;)

  7. You have a great way of teaching so that it us understandable. Thank you, Leila!

  8. Love this explanation! So many don't understand that even something as wonderful as priestly celibacy could change, and it wouldn't "threaten" the "status" of the Church. Media often portrays the Church as in some sort of identity crisis over these issues when really, so many issues *can* be and should be re-evaluated and revisited every so often.

  9. Megan - I think the reason we get so upset over priestly celibacy being challenged is because nowadays it's challenged in a way that completely disregards the Church's unchanging teachings about sexuality... like saying it's "unrealistic" to expect men to be celibate or that celibacy somehow "causes" abusive tendencies or it's unhealthy etc. Those arguments are offensive and totally miss the point of the Church's teachings on sexuality and gift.

    I am with you on Dogma... how is it different than doctrine? I never quite got it...

  10. Thanks Leila! Being a newbie I'm still learning so much! Thank you for putting in in such a simple way!

  11. Only the Church did NOT change the rule about eating meat on Fridays. The Church just generously widened the rule to say that one could eat meat on Fridays *as long as* one substituted another form of penance in its stead.
    That rule still exists.

    (For an example, you might use the fact that unlike the early church, men and women can sit in the same pew together. Early on, this was not done - hence, the "bride's side" and "groom's side.")

  12. Cathy, yes... but with a modification: I would say that the Church did not change her rules on mortification on Fridays. A mortification, in remembrance of Christ's crucifixion, is still required, though it doesn't have to be abstention from meat (as in Lent). Thanks for clarifying! :)

  13. I always learn so much from you.

    And whoa with your blog... you're like blogging queen!! New layout... new links... you've come a long way, baby!

  14. Great question about "dogma".... I wanted to make this post as short and simple as possible, so I didn't include the asterisk that I originally had, but I knew it would come up in comments, ha!

    I use the word "doctrine" but there is no hard and fast "word" that is used to mean what I am talking about (thus, Deposit of Faith, Big T Tradition, etc.).

    Dogma is definitely unchanging doctrine, but I think of dogma as those things which are the most important things (think specific items of the Creed, and things that have been formally pronounced by the Pope, ex cathedra. I am not sure if doctrine and dogma can be used interchangeably, but for purposes of understanding this concept, I sort of use them interchangeably in my mind.

    (Actually, I don't use the word "dogma" at all, if I'm being honest!)

  15. Sarah, brilliantly said, about married priests!! I agree. Thank you for saying it so well.

    We have a wonderful priest at our parish who is married with six children (just ordained last weekend, sixth baby born three days before that!). He is a former Anglican priest, and the Pope gave permission to be ordained a Catholic priest. He is WONDERFUL (and he told me yesterday he reads the Bubble! I was so excited and honored!!!). We have another married priest (convert) in our diocese as well. Years ago, he inspired the vocation of our pastor (who is celibate and totally faithful to the Magisterium), as well as several other priests (one of whom I saw publicly thank him during an interview on EWTN).

    Also, we have Eastern rite priests in town who are married. My parents attend a Melkite Catholic Church down the street from me, and their pastor is married.

    Now, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the discipline of priestly celibacy, and I am thrilled that it won't be changing as the norm anytime soon, if ever (that would be a terrible move in my opinion!). It has served the Church well for so many reasons. But I am not bothered by the occasional married priest, which is also a blessing to our Church.

    I may do a whole post on this, as there is much more to say.

    Great comments!!

  16. L, Good point. It just drives me to the brink of insanity when prots say, "Oh, yeah, you USED to go to hell for meat on Fridays but not anymore. So the people who went to hell in 1950 for eating a burger - are they still there?"
    You are STILL in a state of sin if you ignore the Friday penance/mort rule, even in fabulous modern 2010.

    Also, one of the most amazing priests I've ever known was an Anglican priest-convert.
    I don't know if he'll ever be canonized, but I know he was a saint. (I don't throw that term around lightly, talking about how "so-and-so" is a saint. I really mean it.
    For one, he was a soul-reader in confession. He did it to me, my husband, and several other people I talked to.
    I KNOW!
    I was blessed to know him and honored to be a penitent of his. I still think of him all the time and ask for his intercession frequently.

  17. Cathy, that ("Did he eat a burger and go to hell?!") reminds me that I need to do a whole post on what is a mortal sin! Thanks for the inspiration! :)

    And, just for extra clarity to those who might still be confused... even if the mortification rules changed or if they didn't change, or if the Church decides to drop that altogether, the point is that the eating meat (or not) and mortification (or not) on Fridays is still a discipline and not a doctrine.

    Wow, you were blessed to have such a priest!! Amazing!!!

  18. Thanks, Shannon! I always like my blog to remind me of an ice cream shop, or fresh fruit or something. :)

  19. Since we've gotten to the topic of married priests...

    I agree that many of the Anglican converts who have been married priests and fathers have been amazing examples of faithful married and fatherly love (and they're not allowed to remarry if their spouse passes away).

    HOWEVER, there is a flip side to this, and I have come to realize that our Mother Church has been WISE in not allowing Roman Catholic priests to marry.

    We had a married priest (former Anglican) in my home parish for several years. In the past few years, his marriage has fallen apart and the fallout of this has caused major issues in the parish, as the bitterness of the situation has poisoned many within the parish. He's not leading the parish anymore (some sort of "leave of absence," if you will).

    While I have seen the blessings such a priest can bring to a parish and the Church, I'm happy to keep it few and far between!

    1. Eastern Catholics are just as Catholic as you are, and I think they should be everywhere. But I still think celibate Latin priests should be the norm. Catholic means "universal" and I LOVE the married priests I have met in other lung of the Church

  20. Leila - I too love, love, love priestly celibacy and do not think it would be wise to do away with it!

    That said, we have some amazing married priests in our area too. Widowers with grown children as well as converts. I am so glad the Church is wise enough to take things case by case.

    Also, I think sometimes we forget that deacons receive Holy Orders too. Being a "married minister" is not uncommon even in the West. But I think it takes a special calling for both husband and wife to embrace the diaconate or in rarer cases, the priesthood.

  21. I'm getting caught up! Great post, L! Love your series!

    And I"m with Lisa. I think of that unfortunatel experience often when people argue that priests should be married. Even when this priest was still married, he was the first to tell you that priests should NOT be married. At Theology on Tap once, he said he always felt like he was in the wrong spot. When he was at home, he felt he should be ministering to someone in need. When he was with a parishioner in need, he felt he should be home with his wife and kids who needed him. It's not a good situation.

  22. Good info to know Leila, thanks! My dear priest once said that he believes in his lifetime priests will be persecuted and/or under criminal charges for refusal to marry same sex couples. Can you believe it will come down to that??

  23. Oh, yes. A post on venial vs. mortal sin would be good.

    Allie - I SERIOUSLY doubt any challenge of that nature would be successful. Ever.

  24. Love these little lessons, I can handle these bit sized pieces. I think I knew this at one time, but I like it explained this way.

  25. Yes, I love how you explain it so clearly :)

    As always, an excellent lesson!

    Ditto the idea to do mortal vs. venial sin and also about the priesthood and not marrying.

  26. Agree ... ideally (?), the anglican priest's wife has gone on to her reward and his kids are grown, as was the case with our priest. He was utterly devoted to Mother Church, with no barriers.

  27. What a great post! Thanks for the simple, clarity of it - why can't books just put it this way? Hey, maybe you should write a book!

  28. I knew the difference. ;-)

    Ladies, I ask for your fervent prayers for a friend of both me and A Thorn in the Pew:

    Prayers, Please, for Red Diva

    She is not Catholic but a friend of both of us, and she is dying. Thank you.

  29. My brother sent me to your post as part of my cathechism. He's gotten permission from his priest to catechize me "long-distance", and I may very well be Catholic at Christmas. Pretty exciting, huh?

  30. That's awesome, Monica! You have an excellent cathecist & brother.

  31. Monica!! That is so very exciting!! God is good!!! And I agree that your brother rocks! :)

  32. Monica! That rocks, we felt you were a convert in the happening!

    Converts make the best Catholics, I can't wait to learn from you! ;)

    So excited!

  33. I'm learning so much from these blogs and the responses to my own blog. Thank you, Leila, for explaining the differences between doctrine and Discipline. My question has to do with homosexuality, as that is a difficult topic for me. You said these doctrine's come from Christ to the apostles, but I have not come across any references to homosexuality in the New Testament. I'm sure I'll be doing a blog on this topic, but wanted your feedback when you have a moment.

  34. Dear Lisa,

    Jesus has said that what you eat does not matter, but what comes out of a person's mouth and mind is what truly defiles or edifies a person. So I would rather listen to Jesus than to a Church which makes rules and traditions which Jesus said ' You nullify the Word of God' by your traditions. It is not by what you eat on friday, but how you live( your thought life, your words, your actions ) that matters in His sight. Also If you read Paul's letter to the Corinthians and to Titus, he says marriage or celibacy is not the criterion to serve God. In fact he warns to stay away from people who forbid to marry. So pl. read your bible before you guide or misguide others.

  35. Christian, no one is saying that any particular food defiles you, so you miss the point there.

    Jesus founded a Church, so I would rather listen to the Church than a self-appointed preacher. (Remember, the Bible says that the Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth, and Jesus said that he who won't listen even to the Church should be treated like a tax collector or prostitute. So, we must be grounded in the Church, and listen to her.

    No one ever said that marriage or celibacy was a criterion to serve God, so you've missed that point.

    No one is forbidding anyone to marry. Priesthood is voluntary and no one has to become a priest and take that vow.

    We read our Bibles as Catholics, and in fact it was Catholics who canonized and promulgated the New Testament. The Bible was never meant to be personally interpreted outside of the Church. You should read up on the Early Fathers, who lived in the First Century and who were taught by the Apostles themselves. They will help you understand the right way to interpret the Bible and view the Church.

    Does your Church bind and loose? If so, on what issues? If not, why not?

    You might like this recent post, about authority:

    And, I hope to do a "Where we got the Bible" post soon, as well as a post on the establishment and authority of the Church.

    Stay tuned and thanks!

  36. Cathy I'm going to disagree with you on the meat on non-Lenten Fridays rule. I'm with Jimmy Akin on that one; also, a very faithful priest explained it to me this way. In the United States, the bishops highly recommend a penance of some sort; the idea of offering a different one was to free us from a legalistic understanding to understand the true purpose of penance. We should all want to do a Friday penance, but when meat was removed as a requirement, it seems like it leaves people floundering around (sorry--no pun intended!) as to what to do, and being human, I sort of think--yeah, I should really do that--and then I don't get around to it. But in the United States, it is not binding on pain of sin--on *non-Lenten* Fridays. I'm the worst at this--we shouldn't be minimalists--but we can't stretch the truth about what Mother Church requires because we think it's really, really important. I checked with our Archdiocese once also, and they agreed with this. So yes--we *should* want to do it to grow closer to Christ, but it's not under pain of sin.

  37. And when someone says, "The Church is going to change its teachings on contraception and homosexuality!" you say, "Those are doctrines, and they will never change!"

    Is that true? So the Church can never ever change its stand on contraception and homosexuality? Then I can never ever accept Church doctrine.

  38. Bill absolutely true! The Church can never and will never change the moral law. It's unchanging, set by God himself.

    Heck, if the Church, which has been ruled for two thousand years by men, has not declared that masturbation is moral, then we can really see that the moral law is set in stone, no? That alone is proof that something supernatural is protecting Church teaching, lol!

  39. It's funny how an article that was last commented on in April 2012 becomes useful in September 2013.

    OK. This is what I now believe. There is no God. There never was one. But the Jews made one up and we've gone with it ever since. Jesus believed himself to be the son of this God and got himself executed for that belief (or for the troubles caused by his being accepted as the Messiah. Not a good thing to be under the rule of the Roman Empire).

    Somehow, and we don't know exactly how, word spread that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. From this came the Catholic Church, whose main mission today seems to be to tell people how they should live their lives.

    Enter Bill S. Raised Catholic. Convinced that a man rising from the dead and ascending into heaven is a physical impossibility, he rejects everything he was ever taught by a Catholic mother who dies at 39 and 12 years of Catholic education.

    I guess that I should accept the teachings of my mother and the Catholic Church on how to live my life even if I believe that nothing that is physically impossible has ever happened nor will it ever.

  40. Dear Bill,

    I saw your comment at the end of this post some 4 years later. I lost my father to a brain aneurysm. It's so easy to reach out and blame God for the suffering in life. I had been blaming God for my sufferings since age 14, and was only returned to his grace, through my suffering 20 years later.

    I feel your pain regarding your mother and will be praying for you with my wife tonight. No matter what your beliefs, you are loved! God bless you, brother!


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