A few days ago I promised to respond, in a series of posts, to objections to the Catholic faith communicated to me by a Pastor friend. The initial post can be read here and I highly recommend reading it for context and framing. This post is in essence the second in the series and the first to deal directly with one of the numerous objections (though due to length, only in part) Pastor Pete communicated to me in email. Here's his relevant objection, his first of six sent to me that day:
I don’t believe in the assumption of Mary. The doctrine was not even official Catholic doctrine until November 1, 1950. This is church dogma. I may be confused by what Catholic Church means by dogma. I assume it means those things are non-negotiable matters of faith. Doesn’t one have to accept church dogma or risk not truly being Catholic? I can only assume that a great many Catholics (ancient as well as more modern) denied this doctrine before November 1, 1950. What about them? Are they retroactively excommunicated? What about current Catholics that don’t hold to this doctrine? Are they really Catholics or do they just think they are and won’t find out until after they are dead that they got this one wrong and are bound for hell? My view of Mary disqualifies me – correct?
I'll first deal with what admittedly is indeed confusing and that is the difference between dogma and doctrine. Here's what the Catechism has to say about dogmas:
The dogmas of the faith88 The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.
The bolded words (above and below) are my own doing, attempting to place emphasis on that which I believe has relevance to my attempt to adequately respond to Pastor Pete.
A doctrine is a teaching of the universal Church proposed as necessary for belief by the faithful. Dogmas, properly speaking, are such teachings that are set forth to be believed as divinely revealed (Catechism, no. 88; cf. 891-892). When differentiating from dogma, we use the term “doctrine” to signify teachings that are either definitively proposed or those that are proposed as true, but not in a definitive manner (cf. Catechism, nos. 88, 891-92).
My personal take-away from both links, to directly respond to Pastor Pete's questions, are that excommunications can only be applied to living persons and that, given what we've learned from the definition of terms provided by the relevant links, any Catholic who willfully denies any doctrine, and in this case, a dogma, of the Church has in essence automatically excommunicated themselves.
The person who holds something contrary to the Catholic faith is materially a heretic. They possess the matter of heresy, theological error. Thus, prior to the Second Vatican Council it was quite common to speak of non-Catholic Christians as heretics, since many of their doctrines are objectively contrary to Catholic teaching. This theological distinction remains true, though in keeping with the pastoral charity of the Council today we use the term heretic only to describe those who willingly embrace what they know to be contrary to revealed truth. Such persons are formally (in their conscience before God) guilty of heresy. Thus, the person who is objectively in heresy is not formally guilty of heresy if 1) their ignorance of the truth is due to their upbringing in a particular religious tradition (to which they may even be scrupulously faithful), and 2) they are not morally responsible for their ignorance of the truth. This is the principle of invincible ignorance, which Catholic theology has always recognized as excusing before God.