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Theological Definition

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The Vatican Council (Sess. iv, cap. iv) solemnly taught 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 teaching we obtain an authoritative notion of the meaning of definition in its theological, as distinct from its philosophical, or canonical, sense. It is an irrevocable decision, by which the supreme teaching authority in the Church decides a question appertaining to faith or morals, and which binds the whole Church. From this explanation it will be seen that four conditions are required for a theological definition.

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, in the exercise of which he speaks neither as a private individual, nor as a mere theologian, nor as Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, nor as Metropolitan of the Roman Province, nor as Primate of Italy, nor as Patriarch of the Western Church, nor as head of any Roman Congregation, but 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 alone a theological definition can proceed.

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, in order to obtain eternal life. Both faith and morals are parts of the deposit which 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 which are formally revealed are called the direct object of infallibility, while doctrines which 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.

The decision must bind the universal Church

Decrees which bind only a part of the Church are not definitions; but only those which command the assent of all the faithful. It is not, however, absolutely necessary that the decree should be directly sent or addressed to the whole Church; it is quite sufficient if it is made clear that the supreme teaching authority means to bind the Universal Church. Thus, St. Leo addressed his famous dogmatic definition to Flavian, yet it was rightly 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).

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 lack this fourth condition — they are not definitively proposed for the assent of the whole Church. Two things are implied by the statement that a decree, to be a definition, must be final and irrevocable. The decree must be the last word of supreme teaching authority; there must be no possibility of re-opening the question in a spirit of doubt; the decree must settle the matter for ever. The decree must also, and in consequence of its final nature, bind the whole Church to an irrevocable internal assent. This assent is at least an assent of ecclesiastical faith; and in doctrines which are formally revealed it is also an assent of Divine faith. When the definition commands an irrevocable assent of Divine faith as well as of ecclesiastical faith, the defined dogma is said to be de fide in the technical sense of this phrase. It is well to note that 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; what it excludes is a re-opening of the question in a spirit of doubt about the truth of the doctrine which has been already definitively settled.

It has been sometimes said that it is impossible to know whether or not a theological definition has been issued; but very few words are needed to show that the assertion is without foundation. At times, doubt will remain about the definitive nature of a decree, but as a rule no possibility of doubt is consistent with the terminology of a definitive decree. Thus in the doctrinal teaching of a general council, anathema attached to condemned errors is a certain sign of an infallible definition. Words also like those in which Pius IX solemnly defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin give irrefutable proof of the definitive nature of the decree: "By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, We declare, pronounce and define the doctrine . . . to be revealed by God and as such to be firmly and immutably held by all the faithful." No set form of words is necessary; any form which clearly indicates that the four requisite conditions are present suffices to show that the decree is a definition in the strict sense. It should be noted that not everything contained in a definition is infallibly defined. Thus, 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. (See INFALLIBILITY; THEOLOGICAL CENSURES; DOGMATIC FACTS; BEATIFICATION AND CANONIZATION; FAITH.)


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).

About this page

APA citation. Harty, J. (1908). Theological Definition. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Harty, John. "Theological Definition." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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