Development of Doctrine or Change in Teaching?

Can Church doctrine change over time? Could so-called “same-sex unions” one day be seen as a legitimate development of the Church’s teaching on marriage?

During the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican, the phrase “doctrinal development” was bandied about by some bishops. For instance, Reinhard Cardinal Marx of Germany, responding to a question at a press conference last Friday, said that church doctrine can change over time: “Saying that the doctrine will never change is a restrictive view of things…” The Church’s doctrine, Cardinal Marx added, “doesn’t depend on the spirit of time but can develop over time.” 
There is, unfortunately, a lack of clarity in Cardinal Marx’s statements, for he seems to identify development with change. Is development of doctrine the same as a change in doctrine? Can Church doctrine change over time?

More precisely, does doctrinal development mean that doctrines may change over time in the sense of being substantially transformed, implying a change in the very essence of the teaching? For instance, could so-called “same-sex unions” one day be seen as a legitimate development of the Church’s teaching on marriage? If so, would this development really be legitimate? Rather, wouldn’t it be a corruption of dogma since it asserts the contrary of the teaching’s essence on marriage that regards sexual differentiation as a fundamental prerequisite for attaining the two-in-one-flesh union of marriage (Gen 1:27, 2:24).

The issue is not whether doctrines can develop. For instance, Gerhard Cardinal Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is not arguing against doctrinal development, as some of his critics have implied. In his just published book, The Hope of the Family (Ignatius, 2014), he affirms that “dogma develops and is evolving.” Yet, he rightly sees that doctrinal development has to be homogeneous with the essential principles of the teaching. Thus, doctrinal development, according to Müller, cannot be legitimate when it occurs “in a way that contradicts basic principles [of the teaching] [. . .] that would conclude or affirm the contrary.” This important point has been obscured or even lost in the recent discussion about doctrinal development.

But this point has not been lost in the Church’s teaching regarding doctrinal development. This teaching has its roots in the work of the fifth century monk, Vincent of Lérins (see Commonitórium primum, 23). Vincent wrote: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].”

In a nutshell, development may only legitimately occur within the boundaries of the doctrine because only then will it not conclude or affirm the contrary of the teaching. Vincent’s point here is supported by a distinction he insists on between progress and change. Vincent writes: “But it [progress of religion] must be such as may be truly a progress of the faith, not a change; for when each several thing is improved in itself, that is progress; but when a thing is turned out of one thing into another, that is change.” This is the main Lérinian point that Cardinal Müller made.

This Lérinian point was affirmed by Vatican Council I (1869-1870) in Dei filius, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith (Denzinger 3020). Significantly, Pope St. John XXIII also appealed to this Lérinian point in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. In that famous statement at the beginning of the Council, he said: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another.” Again, doctrinal development cannot be legitimate when it would conclude or affirm the contrary of the truth of its basic principles.

But of course this Lérinian point does not mean that we cannot grow in our understanding of the doctrine. Vincent affirms that doctrine develops and is progressing. Nor does it mean that we cannot formulate the truth of this doctrine differently—always with the aim of keeping the same meaning and the same judgment. We may come to deepen our understanding of the doctrine and then formulate it in a new way that may more effectively communicate to the surrounding culture. But on this view the truth itself does not vary with time and place, but only the formulations.

What is essential for properly addressing the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity, between that which is unalterable (unchangeable) and alterable? The brief answer to this question here must be that we distinguish between propositions and sentences, between form and content, context and content, linguistic formulation and propositional truth. Propositions—contents of thought that are true or false, expressible in various languages, but more than mere words, expressing possible, and if true, actual states of affairs—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies (propositions are not linguistic entities). Because dogmatic truths are unalterable truths, we can appreciate that truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression, and hence we should never attribute the relativity characteristic of language to propositional truths of faith.

So, how does Pope Francis stand with respect to the question of doctrinal development? What is his response to the question as to how we can allow for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental doctrinal unity? Briefly put, he is a Lérinian. He writes (in On Heaven and Earth, a work co-authored with Rabbi Skorka): “In the third and fourth centuries the revealed truths of faith were theologically formulated and transmitted as our nonnegotiable inheritance.” He is quick to add, however:

That does not mean that throughout history, through study and investigation, other insights were not discovered about these truths: such as what Christ is like, or how to configure the Church, or how and what should be true Christian conduct, or what are the commandments. All of these are enriched by these new explanations. There are things that are debatable, but—I repeat—this inheritance is not negotiable. The content of a religious faith [fides quae creditor] is capable of being deepened through human thought, but when that deepening is at odds with the inheritance, it is a heresy.

Yes, Bergoglio resists doctrinal rigidity, immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression. He explains: “At any rate, religions refine certain expressions [of the truth] with time, even though it is a slow process because of the sacred bond that we have with the received inheritance [of revelation].” Thus, Bergoglio affirms here a growth of human understanding, its refinement, maturation, and development of the dogmas of the Christian religion. Still, in his view, truth itself is unchangeable, but “we grow in the understanding of the truth”, as he says in his August 2013 interview, “A Big Heart Open to God”. In that interview, Pope Francis cites the passage from the Commonitórium primum cited above. This passage seems to be a favorite of Bergoglio/Francis because it is also cited in On Heaven and Earth

He continues: “St. Vincent of Lérins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. . . . So we grow in the understanding of the truth. . . .Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” Notice that Francis does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only the formulations, namely, “the forms for expressing truth . . . in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching.”

Like Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis, and Gerhard Cardinal Müller, let’s strive to be clear about the Church’s Lérinian understanding of doctrinal development, especially when discussing the weighty matters addressed in the just concluded Synod, with an eye toward the Synod of Bishops in 2015.

About Eduardo Echeverria 11 Articles
Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.