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Dogmatic Facts

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By a dogmatic fact, in wider sense, is meant any fact connected with a dogma and on which the application of the dogma to a particular case depends.

The following questions involve dogmatic facts in the wider sense: Is Pius X, for instance, really and truly Roman Pontiff [1909], duly elected and recognized by the Universal Church? This is connected with dogma, for it is a dogma of faith that every pontiff duly elected and recognized by the universal Church is a successor of Peter. Again, was this or that council ecumenical? This, too, is connected with dogma, for every ecumenical council is endowed with infallibility and jurisdiction over the Universal Church. The question also whether canonized saints really die in the odour of sanctity is connected with dogma, for every one who dies in the odour of sanctity is saved.

In the stricter sense the term dogmatic fact is confined to books and spoken discourses, and its meaning will be explained by a reference to the condemnation by Innocent X of five propositions taken from the posthumous book of Jansenius, entitled "Augustinus". It might be asked, for example, whether the pope could define that Jansenius really was the author of the book entitled "Augustinus". It is conceded that he could not. He may speak of it as the work of Jansenius, because, in general repute, at least, it was regarded as the work of Jansenius. The precise authorship of a book is called a personal fact. The question turned on the doctrine of the book. The Jansenists admitted that the doctrine enunciated in the condemned propositions was heretical; but they maintained that the condemned doctrine was not taught in the "Augustinus". This brings us to what are called "particular facts of doctrine". Thus it is a fact that God exists, and that there are Three Persons in God; here the same thing is fact and dogma. The Jansenists admitted that the pope is competent to deal with particular facts of doctrine, but not to determine the meaning of a book. The controversy was then carried to the meaning of the book. Now it is conceded that the pope cannot define the purely internal, subjective, perhaps singular meaning, which an author might attach to his words. But the pope, in certain cases, can determine the meaning of a book judged by the general laws of interpretation. And when a book or propositions from a book are condemned, "in the sense of the author", they are condemned in the sense in which the book or propositions would be understood when interpreted according to the ordinary laws of language. The same formula may be condemned in one author and not in another, because, interpreted by the context and general argument of the author, it may be unorthodox in one case and not in another. In the strict sense, therefore, a dogmatic fact may be defined as "the orthodox or heterodox meaning of a book or proposition"; or as a "fact that is so connected with dogma that a knowledge of the fact is necessary for teaching and conserving sound doctrine". When we say that a book contains unorthodox doctrine, we convey that a certain doctrine is unorthodox; here we have close connection between fact and dogma.

The Church and dogmatic facts

Jansenists distinguished between "fact" and "dogma". They held that the Church is infallible in defining revealed truth and in condemning errors opposed to revealed truth; but that the Church is not infallible in defining facts which are not contained in Divine revelation, and consequently that the Church was not infallible in declaring that a particular doctrine, in a particular sense, was found in the "Augustinus" of Jansenius. This would confine the infallible teaching of the Church to mere abstract doctrines, a view that cannot be accepted. Theologians are unanimous in teaching that the Church, or the pope, is infallible, not only in defining what is formally contained in Divine revelation, but also in defining virtually revealed truths, or generally in all definitions and condemnations which are necessary for safe-guarding the body of revealed truth. Whether it is to be regarded as a defined doctrine, as a doctrine de fide, that the Church is infallible in definitions about dogmatic facts, is disputed among theologians. The reason of this difference in opinion will appear below (3). The Church, in all ages, has exercised the right of pronouncing with authority on dogmatic facts; and this right is essential to her teaching office. She has always claimed the right of defining that the doctrine of heretics, in the sense in which it is contained in their books, or in their discourses, is heretical; that the doctrine of an orthodox writer, in the sense in which it is contained in his writings, is orthodox. We can scarcely imagine a theory like that of the Jansenists advanced within the sphere of the civil authority. We can scarcely conceive it to be held that a judge and a jury may pronounce on an abstract proposition of libel, but cannot find that a particular paragraph in a book or newspaper is libellous in the sense in which it is written. If the Church could not define the orthodox or unorthodox sense of books, sermons, conferences, and discourses generally, she might still be infallible in regard to abstract doctrine, but she could not fulfil her task as practical teacher of humanity, not protect her children from actual concrete dangers to their faith and morals.

Faith and dogmatic facts

The more extreme Jansenists, distinguishing between dogma and fact, taught that the dogma is the proper object of faith but that to the definition of fact only respectful silence is due. They refused to subscribe the formula of the condemnation of Jansenism, or would subscribe only with a qualification, on the ground that subscription implied internal assent and acquiescence. The less extreme party, though limiting the Church's infallibility to the question of dogma, thought that the formula might be signed absolutely and without qualification, on the ground that, by general usage, subscription implied assent to the dogma, but, in relation to the fact, only external reverence. But the definitions of dogmatic facts demand real internal assent; though about the nature of the assent and its relation to faith theologians are not unanimous. Some theologians hold that definitions of dogmatic facts, and especially of dogmatic facts in the wider acceptation of the term, are believed by Divine faith. For instance, the proposition, "every pope duly elected is the successor of Peter", is formally revealed. Then, say these theologians, the proposition, "Pius X has been duly elected pope", only shows that Pius X is included in the general revealed proposition that "every pope duly elected is the successor of Peter". And they conclude that the proposition, "Pius X is successor to Peter", is a formally revealed proposition; that it is believed by Divine faith; that it is a doctrine of faith, de fide; that the Church, or the pope, is infallible in defining such doctrines. Other theologians hold that the definitions of dogmatic facts, in the wider and stricter acceptation, are received, not by Divine faith, but by ecclesiastical faith, which some call mediate Divine faith. They hold that in such syllogisms as this: "Every duly elected pontiff is Peter's successor; but Pius X, for example, is a duly elected pontiff; therefore he is a successor of Peter", the conclusion is not formally revealed by God, but is inferred from a revealed and an unrevealed proposition, and that consequently it is believed, not by Divine, but by ecclesiastical faith. It would then also be held that it has not been formally defined de fide that the Church is infallible in the definition of dogmatic facts. It would be said technically to be theologically certain that the Church is infallible in these definitions; and this infallibility cannot lawfully be questioned. That all are bound to give internal assent to Church definitions of dogmatic facts is evident from the correlative duties of teacher and persons taught. As it belongs to the duty of supreme pastor to define the meaning of a book or proposition, correlatively it is the duty of the subjects who are taught to accept this meaning.

About this page

APA citation. Coghlan, D. (1909). Dogmatic Facts. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Coghlan, Daniel. "Dogmatic Facts." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rev. Paul J. McDonald.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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