Theological definition (Catholicism)

Theological definition (Catholicism)

The precise scope of theological definition, in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, is an aspect of the papal magisterium, and was clarified by the First Vatican Council. Dogmatic definition in its Catholic theological sense is an irrevocable decision, by which the supreme teaching authority in the Church decides a question appertaining to faith or morals that binds the whole Church.

Papal infallibility

The Vatican Council (Sess. iv, cap. iv) handed down the doctrine of papal infallibility in the following terms:

"The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedrâ, that is to say, when in the exercise of his office of pastor and teacher of all Christians he, in virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, defines that a doctrine on faith or morals is to be held by the whole Church, by the assistance of God promised to him in the person of Blessed Peter, has that infallibility with which it was the will of Our Divine Redeemer that His Church should be furnished in defining a doctrine on faith or morals."

From this explanation, four conditions are required for a theological definition.

(1) It must be a decision by the supreme teaching authority in the Church

There are two organs of supreme doctrinal authority, viz.: the pope, speaking in his official capacity of pastor and teacher of all Christians, and the bishops of the Catholic Church dispersed throughout the world or assembled in a general council. The pope, as successor of St. Peter, has definitive authority, as supreme pastor of the whole Church. The bishops of the Catholic Church assembled with the pope in a general council have the same doctrinal authority with which the pope is endowed; and so have the bishops dispersed throughout the Catholic world when, in conjunction with the pope, they teach a doctrine of faith or morals to be irrevocably held by all Christians. These two supreme teaching authorities are the organs of active infallibility from which a theological definition can proceed.

(2) The decision must concern a doctrine of faith or morals

Faith means the speculative doctrines of revelation; morals, the practical doctrines of revelation. Faith is what we have to believe, morals what we have to do to obtain eternal life. Both faith and morals are parts of the deposit Christ left for the guidance of His Church; so far as the obligation of assent is concerned, there is no difference between them; the distinction is made for the sake of convenience rather than for the sake of any substantial difference between them so far as they are the objects of active infallibility. Doctrines of faith or morals formally revealed are the direct object of infallibility, while doctrines that are only virtually revealed, or are only intimately connected with revelation, such as dogmatic or moral facts, are called the indirect object of infallibility. The Church has authority to issue definitions in connexion with both the direct and the indirect objects of active infallibility. It is not, however, de fide that the Church has infallible authority over the indirect doctrines of faith and morals, though it cannot be denied without theological censure.

(3) The decision must bind the Universal Church

Decrees that bind only a part of the Church are not definitions; but only those that command the assent of all the faithful. It is sufficient if it is made clear that the supreme teaching authority means to bind the Universal Church. Thus, St. Leo addressed his dogmatic definition to Flavian, yet it was considered as binding the Universal Church; and Pope Innocent sent his decree to the African Church alone, yet St. Augustine exclaimed: Causa finita est, utinam aliquando finiatur error! (Serm. ii, de Verb. Ap., c. vii).

(4) The decision must be irrevocable or, as it is called, definitive

Arguments contained in conciliar definitions are proposed by the supreme teaching authority in the Church, they concern faith and morals, and they bind the Universal Church; yet they are not definitions, because they are not definitively proposed for the assent of the whole Church. The definitive nature of a decree does not prevent the defined doctrine from being examined anew and defined again by the pope or a general council.

Arguments from Scripture, tradition, or theological reason, do not come under the exercise of definitive authority. Incidental statements, called obiter dicta, are also examples of non-definitive utterances. Only the doctrine itself, to which those arguments lead and which these obiter dicta illustrate, is to be considered as infallibly defined.



 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). "Theological Definition". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.  This entry cites:

    • Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology (New York, 1896), I;
    • Wilhelm and Scannell, A Manual of Catholic Theology (New York, 1898), I;
    • Denzinger, Enchiridion (Freiburg, 1899).

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