Dear Friends in Christ,
Last week I wrote to you about the difference between doctrine and discipline, but in addition to that distinction, we must also distinguish several different types of doctrine in the Church. Catholic tradition identifies at least four levels of teaching authority, with each type calling for its own level of acceptance, and understanding the differences among these four kinds of teaching is essential to being a mature disciple of the Lord Jesus.
At the highest level of teaching, the Church proposes dogmas and solemn definitions based on divine revelation, and these require of us divine and Catholic faith. For example, the Church teaches that the Lord Jesus was conceived without a human father and is the incarnate or enfleshed Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the God-man, who suffered and died for us and rose from the dead. Another example is that the one, only, living and true God is a communion of three divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These examples are doctrines that must be believed by the divine gift of faith (de fide credenda), and the failure to believe such doctrines makes one a heretic and excludes one from communion with the Church.
At the second level of doctrine are the definitive truths of faith that must be held by faith (de fide tenenda) because they are proposed by the Church with the divine authority given to her by the Lord Jesus. Examples of this type of doctrine are that only baptized men may be ordained to the priesthood, that euthanasia is intrinsically immoral, and that abortion is murder. Failure to believe such doctrines excludes one from full communion with the Church.
The third level of doctrine is the ordinary authoritative teaching of the faith that requires religious assent of the intellect and will because the matter being taught is directly connected to divinely revealed truth. Examples of such doctrine are the teaching of the Church on medical ethics connected to new technology and the social teaching of the Church that emerged in the 19th century.
The last kind of doctrine is made up of prudential interventions of the Church in areas of public policy, and these call for the respectful attention of Catholics but not for the assent of faith or the assent of the intellect and will. For example, when bishops take a position on public policy concerning immigration, climate change, or capital punishment, these are prudential interventions derived from the Gospel, but reasonable people are free to disagree without damaging their communion with the Church.