Pope Francis and Vincent of Lérins
In his October 11th address to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis returns to the main source of theological guidance in his own thought on the matter of doctrinal development, namely, the monk and theologian St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). Thomas Guarino was the first theologian to draw attention to the importance of Vincent in the pope’s thought in the September 2013 First Things essay “Pope Francis Looks to St. Vincent of Lérins”. I developed this connection in Chapter 1 of my book Pope Francis and the Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015).
How do we account for legitimate theological pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth? The thesis of my book is that Pope Francis’s response to this question is carried out in light of the Lérinian legacy of Pope John XXIII. The theologian of Lérins very carefully balances growth and preservation, tradition and innovation, continuity and discontinuity, unity and diversity. The Lérinian legacy is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences, which was presupposed by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.
Pope Francis’s explicit support for the Lérinian legacy stretches back to his pre-papal writings (e.g., On Heaven and Earth, 26) and continues in the same Lérinian vein in a later interview (A Big Heart Open to God, 62-63) and figures prominently in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium. Indeed, in Evangelii gaudium (no. 41n45), he refers to John XXIII’s address precisely where the latter distinguishes between truths and its formulations. John stated: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I (Dei Filius 4.13-14), and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23.3 of Vincent of Lérins: “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.”
Vincent’s crucial point here is about meaning-invariance and hence unchanging truth and, as John XXIII put it, “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men.” Of course, Pope John was not simply urging the Council to repeat what everyone already knew. This is another important aspect of the Council. “What is needed is that this doctrine is more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it.”
Bernard Lonergan, remarking on the intention of John XXIII in calling the Council, stated: “There was no point, he said, in their gathering together merely to repeat what anyone could find in familiar theological handbooks.” Indeed, “[w]hat is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times.” Therefore, to carry out this task faithfully and responsibly John calls this Council to distinguish between unchanging truth and its formulation, or, as Lonergan remarks, “between the unchanging deposit of faith and the changing modes of its presentation,” yet those new formulations must keep the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia). This distinction is crucial for understanding the continuity and material identity of dogma over time.
Contours of the Lérinian legacy
Now the thesis of my book is that Pope Francis stands in the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II. For example, in his encyclical Laudato Si’ he explicitly appeals to Vincent after the following statement: “Christianity, in fidelity to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ, continues to reflect on [contemporary] issues in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations. In doing so, it reveals its eternal newness” (no. 121). Endnote 98 of the encyclical explicitly refers to the Commonitorium Primum, 23.29, of Vincent of Lérins. In his address via video to the International Theological Congress held at the Pontifical University of Buenos Aires on September 1-3, 2015, Pope Francis looks again to Vincent. As in the encyclical Laudato Si’, in his address to the International Congress, Pope Francis cites from Vincent’s work in Latin, but I will give the English translation of the clauses he selects (emphasis added) setting them within the context:
Thus it behooves the dogma of the Christian religion, too, to observe these laws of progress; it [Christian religion] may be consolidated with years, expanded with time, grow loftier with age; yet must remain incorrupt and undefiled: it may attain to fullness and perfection in all the proportions of its parts, and as it were in all its proper members and senses, but can admit nothing more in the way of change, can suffer no loss of any property, no variation in its definition.
Francis explains: “The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete, thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth, always in development, according to the law that Vincent describes as: ‘annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate’ (Commonitorium primum, 23: PL 50, 668): it is strengthened over the years, it expands over time, it deepens with age. This is the theologian who has an open mind.” Of course Vincent holds that inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of dogmatic truth (for more on this point, see Thomas G. Guarino’s 2013 book Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine).
Like Vincent and John XXIII, Pope Francis urges the theological transmission of revelation to be pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion of doctrine. As he writes in Evangelii gaudium:
Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources [of faith] and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new.’ (no. 8).
This is Francis’s call to return to the authoritative sources of faith, that is, ressourcement for faithfully revitalizing our thought and practice.
Pope Francis looks to Vincent because he is persuaded that a Lérinian approach to doing theology in the stream of the Church’s living tradition avoids the temptations of rigidity or immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression because it may lead to petrification, on the one hand, or relativism, on the other. Since Francis is not a doctrinal relativist, he does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only its formulations, urging an expansion of its expression, namely, as he puts it, “seeking ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” In a nutshell, this is the hermeneutics of continuity in renewal. So, we can say with justification that Pope Francis is a man of the Council. In particular, Francis stands with John XXIII who framed the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity in light of the Lérinian principle, allowing for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth. Says Francis, “This is a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony.” Or as Francis states in his recent Address:
The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine (emphasis added).
In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis expresses the same point about development:
The Church … needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of the truth …. Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance [in expression], this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But such variety [of expression] serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel” (no. 40).
This is not doctrinal relativism. Francis makes clear that “we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” 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 … the received revelation” (On Heaven and Earth, 26-27). Thus, he adds, “we grow in the understanding of the truth” (A Big Heart Open to God, 62).
In the interview found in A Big Heart Open to God, Pope Francis cites a passage from the Commonitórium primum of Vincent of Lérins, which seems to be a favorite of his because it is also cited in On Heaven and Earth (26), and once again, in his address at 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vincent states: “Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.” Pope Francis continues in this interview:
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. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgments. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. …Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning (A Big Heart Open to God, 62-63).
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” (A Big Heart Open to God, 63). Indeed, he aligns himself with John Paul II making clear that it is the expression—not the truth—that changes: “Let us never forget that ‘the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning’ [Ut Unum Sint, no. 19]” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 42). Elsewhere he adds, “It [the task of evangelization] constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it can bring” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 45, emphasis added).
Thus, the greatest danger, according to Pope Francis, is that even “with the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity” we may “hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance.” As I argued in my book, Pope Francis and the Legacy of Vatican II, I think we need to understand that he is a man of the Lérinian legacy of Pope John XXIII.
In particular, Vincent’s point about the nature of development is supported by a distinction he insists on between progress and change, the import of which is not lost on Francis who, like Vincent, compares the transmission of faith with the biological development of man. Hence, development must be organic and homogeneous. 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.” In other words, the import here of this distinction is that (as Guarino notes) “‘development’ can never mean a substantial transformation, a change in the very essence of a church teaching. The theologian of Lérins very carefully balances growth and preservation.”
Vincent distinguishes between “progress” and “change.” Regarding the former, he understands the development of faith as progress that is organic and homogeneous and occurring within the boundaries of the dogma. In other words, the faith remains identical with itself in its progress. He distinguishes this idea of development from another in which an understanding of faith’s development involves “a thing [being] turned out of one thing into another, that is, of change.” The point here is made clear by Vincent: progress in understanding may result in new modes of expression, but such expressions are authentic and legitimate only if they keep the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia]. In other words, the same datum of faith is said in different ways. In short, truth is unchangeable, development of dogma is not a development of truth, or a change in Church teaching, but a development in the Church’s understanding of the truth.
Pope Francis affirms a legitimate diversity of theological formulations of unchanging truth, but is mindful that the diversity must be consistent, complimentary, and commensurable with the truth. He says, “We need to listen to and complement one another in our partial reception of reality and the Gospel” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 40n44).
Lérinian Legacy and capital punishment
Against the background of the Lérinian legacy of Pope Francis’s thought, I shall now turn to his brief comments about the death penalty. Considering the Lérinian distinction between “progress” and “change” defined above, the question arises whether the Pope’s call for abolishing the death penalty, its radical revision, indeed, the reversal of the teaching of the Catholic tradition on capital punishment, is progress or change?
Francis states that abolishing capital punishment is a harmonious development of doctrine because it is a perception of the true significance of the dignity of the human person. “It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Therefore, abolishing the death penalty, adds the pope, is “not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.” And on the general point of doctrinal development, Francis explains: “Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.”
In sum, the death penalty, urges Francis, “is per se contrary to the Gospel.” Its acceptance reflects a “mentality more legalistic than Christian,” overvaluing the law that “prevent[s] a deeper understanding of the Gospel,” and hence ignoring “the primacy of mercy over justice.” Francis concludes, “No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.”
It is not possible, within the framework of this article, to discuss the question regarding the morality of capital punishment. Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette have done that exceptionally well in their powerful new book, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius Press, 2017). Here, I simply want to argue that, in light of the Lérinian distinction between “progress” and “change”, Francis’s call for abolishing the death penalty is clearly a change and not progress, and hence it is in contradiction with the Church’s teaching. This is so for several reasons.
First, there is a clear contradiction between historic Catholic teaching and calling for the unqualfied abolition of the death penalty because the latter, Francis now insists, is always wrong. The Church has never taught that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust, and certainly not as contrary to the Gospel. Indeed, as Cardinal Avery Dulles remarked in summarizing the judgment of Scripture and tradition (which includes natural law arguments), as it is reflected in magisterial teaching: “we can glean some settled points of doctrine.” And:
It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.
Second, the teaching of recents popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have argued for a moratorium against the state’s right to exercise the death penalty as a matter of prudential judgment and not of moral principle. Clearly, John Paul explicitly affirmed the state’s right to exercise the death penality in cases of absolute necessity. Despite Francis’s claim to the contrary, he is in contradiction not only with “settled points of doctrine” (to use Dulles’s words) but also with the 1995 Encylical Evangelium Vitae (nos. 55-56), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2266-2267), and the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine (no. 405).
Third, as a matter of moral principle, the most important natural law defense of the death penalty is regarded as a matter of retributive justice. As Christian ethicist J. Daryl Charles correctly notes:
Retribution as a justification for punishment is lodged in two unbending ethical realities: the degree of wrongness of the criminal act, and the degree of the individual’s criminal responsibility in committing such an act. Retribution, then, requires that wrongdoers get no more and no less than what is proportionate—or just—to their crime.
This sort of justice is integral to Catholic moral thinking about a free and just society, and hence the difference between private and public spheres. Furthermore, Francis’s charges against the supporters of “settled points of doctrine” raise many questions. For instance, does Francis hold that mercy releases the demands that justice imposes? Does mercy triumph over judgment both in the context of personal relationships (private sphere) as well as in the duties of the state (public sphere)? Moreover, is it fair to reduce the question of moral principle and hence of justice to a legalistic mentality?
I’m sure there are other reasons, but at least for these three reasons I think that Pope Francis cannot provide a Lérinian justification of the abolition of capital punishment as a matter of doctrinal development. Clearly, Francis’s position involves change and not progress. Thus, the pope will have to find another way to justify his call for abolishing the death penalty.