Is It a Doctrine or a Discipline?


As a volunteer in my kids’ confirmation class, I was disappointed to discover recently that one of the class’s textbooks included in its definition of "doctrine" the notion that doctrines "could possibly change." Properly explained, this notion would have been acceptable. For example, the book might have clarified that doctrines can and do develop over time, but they do not change in the sense that the Church flip-flops on issues. Unfortunately though, not only did it not make such a clarification, the book cited as an example of a changeable doctrine that "women cannot be priests in the Catholic Church."

Of course, Catholics in the know recognize the absurdity of this. Not only did Pope John Paul II address this doctrine in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) attested to the certitude of the doctrine that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women in his Responsum ad Dubium on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1995: "This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium . . ."

Could it be that the author of the confirmation textbook mistakenly believed this issue to be a practice imposed by the Church—not really a doctrine at all?

In contrast to the doctrine of male ordination is the often-misunderstood practice of celibacy in the priesthood. It is widely known that, in general, only men who are willing to commit to lifelong celibacy are selected for ordination to the priesthood throughout most of the Catholic Church. As an apologist, I often find it necessary to explain that priestly celibacy is not a doctrine of the Church. To the contrary: It is more accurately described as a discipline. And, as such, it could theoretically change—the Church could choose to ordain married men.

What’s the Difference?

When discussing our Catholic faith, we must understand the difference between doctrine and discipline and be able to distinguish which of the two any particular matter may be.

Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia defines "discipline" as an "instruction, system of teaching or of law, given under the authority of the Church [which] can be changed with the approval of proper authority, as opposed to doctrine, which is unchangeable" (334).

Discipline, then, is man-made and can be changed as often as the Church desires. This is not to say that the authority to enact discipline is man-made. In fact, Scripture itself records the Church’s God-given authority to enact discipline: "[W]hatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18; see also 16:19). Now, this power to bind and to loose extends beyond discipline, but it certainly includes the authority to enact discipline as well.

Doctrine, on the other hand, is the teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals. All such teaching—or at least the basis for it—was handed down to the Church by Jesus and the apostles prior to the death of the last apostle. Scripture refers to doctrine as "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). As mentioned before, doctrine can develop over time as the Church comes to understand it better—but it cannot change. No one—not even the pope—has the authority to change doctrine.

Subject to Future Change

That the Church possesses both doctrines and disciplines might seem simple enough on the surface; however, distinguishing between the two is not always a simple task—even when discussing matters with fellow Catholics. The poorly chosen example in the confirmation textbook shows just how difficult.

Another common example within the Church today concerns the changes to the way the Mass is celebrated that were promulgated by Pope Paul VI in the late 1960s. There are some today who question the pope’s authority to institute the liturgical changes he did because they claim that in 1570, Pope St. Pius V defined certain elements of the Mass’s celebration as doctrine. Pius’ directives were promulgated "in perpetuity" and are said by some to be unchangeable doctrine.

In actuality, Pius V’s Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum concerned disciplinary matters, not teachings on faith or morals. Evidence of this is that teaching on faith or morals would not—indeed, could not—allow for such exceptions as "unless approval of the practice of saying Mass differently was given" or "unless there has prevailed a custom of a similar kind" or "We in no wise rescind their above-mentioned prerogative or custom." Such matters of Church discipline always remain subject to future change by equal or greater authority. In light of this, wording such as "in perpetuity" must be understood as "from now on, until this or another equal or greater authority determines otherwise." Pope Paul VI certainly held equal authority to that of Pope St. Pius V. Therefore, changes to the Mass under his authority were licit and valid and were an example of disciplinary changes, not doctrinal changes.

If doctrinal and disciplinary matters can be so confusing among Catholics who have the tri-part authority of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium to guide us, how much more confusing must such matters be for our non-Catholic brothers and sisters who rely entirely on their own interpretations of Scripture alone?

Sola Scriptura Blurs the Distinction

Let’s go back to the question of priestly celibacy. As Catholics, we know this practice to be a matter of discipline, not doctrine. But non-Catholics often fail to understand the concept of discipline and unwittingly think we believe priestly celibacy to be a doctrine of our faith, and so they cite Scripture to prove that such a "doctrine" is anti-biblical.

The following two Bible verses are often raised: "Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher" (1 Tim. 3:2, emphasis added). And "Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well" (1 Tim. 3:12, emphasis added).

Many non-Catholics interpret these verses so literally as to mean that bishops and deacons—and priests for that matter—must be married. Scripture plainly says so!

But such verses are of little consequence when one understands that priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. Scripture doesn’t explicitly tell us that, but it doesn’t have to. Catholics do not rely on Scripture alone for settling such matters. But it’s easy to see how those who do might come to erroneous conclusions. This is a good example of why we should heed Peter’s warning about Paul’s letters: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:16).

No Answers at Bible Study

I once attended a non-Catholic Bible study where this lack of understanding was abundantly evident. (I don’t often attend non-Catholic Bible studies, nor I do encourage other Catholics to do so.) A woman asked a pointed question that the leaders of the Bible study were at a loss to answer: "Why are women allowed to speak in our church?"

She went on to quote the following passages:

  • As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor. 14:33-35)
  • [I]n every place the men should pray . . . Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim. 2:8,11-12)

To them Scripture seemed clear enough: Women are to keep silent in church. This, naturally, led to discussion of other biblical "teachings" about women:

  • Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing. (1 Pet. 3:3)
  • [W]omen should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire. . . (1 Tim. 2:9)
  • [A]ny woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. (1 Cor. 11:5-6)

It seemed reasonable for the participants to conclude that women who recognize solely the authority of Scripture are morally prohibited from braiding their hair, wearing jewelry, and wearing fine clothing. They are morally obliged to wear a veil when praying—or else shave their heads.

As the leader was at a loss to explain why their church did not teach these doctrines, I pointed out that, as a Catholic, I recognize that it is sometimes necessary to look beyond Scripture for an understanding of such passages. The cases cited were not really doctrines at all, but rather disciplines, which could (and would) later be changed. But looking outside Scripture for an explanation requires the recognition of such authorities as Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching, neither of which were welcome in their church.

Authority Delineates Discipline

A similar problem arises when one considers the dictates of the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in the Book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas, having been confronted in Antioch with an argument between Jewish converts and Gentile converts about whether the Gentiles must observe certain Jewish laws (especially concerning circumcision), went to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the other apostles. The council concluded with the following statement in a letter: "[I]t has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well" (Acts 15:28-29).

Here we have what seems to be the apostles teaching, at a Church council, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that it is immoral, among other things, to consume blood or to eat the meat of an animal which has been strangled. Yet, how many Christians are cautious enough to be certain that their food does not contain blood or that the animal they are consuming was not killed by strangulation? Doesn’t their Bible teach that they should?

They have unknowingly subscribed to the idea that the apostles imposed these requirements as disciplines which could later be changed.

Other examples could be cited, but the point is clear: Scripture itself is not always sufficient to distinguish between authentic Christian doctrine and authoritatively imposed discipline. Quite simply, the Bible is not the single-source answer to all questions concerning the Christian faith. One must look also to Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching. One must look to the Catholic Church.

We as Catholics, too, must recognize within our own Church the authority to teach doctrine, impose discipline, and discern between the two.


Jim Blackburn is a cradle Catholic who was born and raised in Illinois. After graduating from Southern Illinois University, Jim ran his own brokerage firm for twelve years. During that time, he studied Catholicism and other faiths, eventually becoming an apologist for Catholic Answers. In...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 6.