The recent Vatican News article by Sergio Centofanti titled “Development of doctrine is a people walking together”, gives a brief account of doctrinal development. Centofanti’s account, however, is troubling and lacking for many reasons.
The Holy Spirit versus the letter?
One serious problem is that it opposes the “Holy Spirit” and the “letter” of the text. Doctrinal development, states Centofanti, is a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church involving “Fidelity to Jesus [meaning thereby] fidelity to His people, the people of God walking together toward Christ, united with His Vicar and with the Successors of the Apostles.” Twice Centofanti explicitly opposes the work of the Holy Spirit to the “letter” of the text. He never tells us what the “letter” of the text is, but of course the “letter” of the text is the literal sense, meaning thereby the sense intended by the author and expressed in language. Centofanti states:
It is necessary to understand when a development of doctrine is faithful to tradition. The history of the Church teaches us that it is necessary to follow the Spirit, rather than the strict letter. In fact, if one is looking for non-contradiction between texts and documents, they’re likely to hit a roadblock. The point of reference is not a written text, but the people who walk together.
Fidelity to Jesus does not, therefore, mean being fixated on some text written at a given time in these two thousand years of history. (emphasis added)
It is true that doctrinal development must be faithful to tradition. However, exactly what Centofanti means by faithfulness to tradition is unclear. This is particularly the case since he claims that we will not be able to find consistency and coherence throughout the living tradition of the Church. He seems to be suggesting that material continuity in dogma/doctrine is difficult to find, perhaps nearly impossible. Thus, suppose I consider Heinrich Denzinger’s Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, will I not be able find material continuity in dogma? Centofanti suggests that this might be a futile undertaking.
I am not of course suggesting that there is not development. But there is development without change even when there is reversal in Church teaching. Centofanti completely overlooks the distinctions between development, continuity, change, and reversal. He focuses on examples of reversals (unbaptized babies, the exegesis of 1 Timothy 11-12 regarding the place of woman in the Church, and religious liberty) but never refers to the theological notes that qualify certain teachings as infallible such that they possess the highest degree of certainty. This means that he fails to account for development, clarifications, reformulations, while nevertheless maintaining the stable continuity of fundamental meaning and truth of authoritative dogmas/doctrines. I will return to this point below.
However, I reject Centofanti’s next claim that the Church teaches, in the matter of doctrinal development, that “It is necessary to follow the Spirit, rather than the strict letter.” This opposition could not be further from the truth. His claim logically would rob Scripture and the letter (the literal sense) of Scripture of its authority as the norma normans non normata [the norm of norms which cannot be normed] for the Church and also for the Magisterium. He seeks to justify his claim by aligning himself with Benedict XVI and with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In a 2009 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church, Benedict writes:
The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 – this must be quite clear to the Society [of Saint Pius X]. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.
Centofanti highlights two things from this passage: “not freezing the Magisterium in a given age; and at the same time remaining faithful to tradition.” He interprets the first to mean that the Church’s “point of reference [in doctrinal development] is a not a written text, but the people who walk together.” Thus, if I understand Centofanti correctly, the point of reference of doctrinal development is the working of the Holy Spirit in the experience of those who walk together under the Spirit’s leading in the life of the Church. He attempts to justify the turn to the Spirit’s leading in the experience of those walking together by suggesting that the verbal character of Scripture remains external to divine revelation, the Word of God. In support of this view he cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book,” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, “not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living.” If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open (our) minds to understand the Scriptures.” (§108)
Now, there are two things wrong with Centofanti’s reading of this passage. First, he leaves out of his citation the crucial qualifier at the start of the passage, “Still…” That means that prior to the quoted passage, the Catechism (§§105-107) makes clear that the verbal character of Scripture is constitutive of revelation, of the Word of God, according to the Church’s teaching in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II:
God is the author of Sacred Scripture. “The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (Dei Verbum §11)
“For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.” (Dei Verbum §11; cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pt 1:19-21; 3:15-16)
God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”
The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” (Dei Verbum §11)
“Still,” the qualifier of the verbal character of revelation is not meant to dethrone Scripture’s normative and authoritative priority in the life of Church. Rather, it means to explain why the Word of God’s living reality comes to realize its purpose—living contact with the Father’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit—only when it is fully present, making itself known, to man in faith. This is why the Scriptures call the Word of God the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17), “living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:32). This is the concrete, living reality of the Word of God to which the Apostles bore witness and to which the living Spirit in the Church continues to bear witness.
But in the teaching of Dei Verbum and hence of the Catechism, the living Spirit in the Church is harmonized with the abiding authority and normativity of God’s verbal revelation, as the enduring truth of this revelation is transmitted through the Church’s living tradition. How does the critical, normative, and authoritative Scripture function, according to Centofanti, over the life and experience of those walking together in Christ and toward Christ? He never answers this question.
Let us remember that Dei Verbum affirms the primacy of the authority of God (in particular, the authority of his Word), that is, of divine revelation over the authority of the Church, whose authority comes from Christ. Dei Verbum, §10 does not support the position of solum magisterium because it states the “task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church.” Dei Verbum asserts not only that its authority is derived from Christ, and hence is not self-referential, but also that the Church is a servant, indeed, a minister of God’s Word.
That is, the concrete official and public locus of ecclesial authority—the Magisterium—is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Furthermore:
This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (Dei Verbum §10)
It seems to me that these two claims—the one claiming the Christocentric source of ecclesial authority and the other that the church is a servant of God’s word, possessing ministerial authority—should certainly give Centofanti pause to reconsider the distance between his own position and that of the Catholic Church.
Two approaches to doctrinal development and two examples
There are two points about doctrinal development that we need to keep in mind when thinking about the matter of development. Centofanti ignores them both and hence he cannot account for reversals while maintaining material continuity, identity, and universality of dogmatic truths.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his now famous 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, distinguished two contrary hermeneutics of Vatican II. Distinguishing these hermeneutics is crucial for addressing the question of true and false development. Indeed, it is crucial for addressing the central problem of Vatican II, according to Msgr. Thomas Guarino: “How are tradition and novelty, continuity and discontinuity, theologically reconciled?”
Benedict stated that
there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.
Significantly, the opposing hermeneutics of Vatican II (to that of discontinuity and rupture) is not that of mere continuity of tradition, and its enduring doctrinal truths taught by the Magisterium. Rather, Benedict wants to account for reversals, for the historically conditioned formulations of dogma/doctrine, with their possible correction and modification, while sustaining the permanence, or continuity, of meaning and truthHence, this hermeneutics is about reform and renewal, indeed, of creative retrieval of the authoritative sources of the faith, in short, of ressourcement, to go faithfully forward in the present. This hermeneutics is at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s Lérinian hermeneutics.
Second, Centofanti’s account of doctrinal development bears no relationship to either John Henry Newman’s well-known 1845 work An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine or the Lérinian hermeneutics of Vatican II. He shows no knowledge or even understanding of these approaches utilized by the Catholic Church—down to and including Vatican II—as the only legitimate ways to address the central problem of Vatican II, of continuity and discontinuity, of tradition and novelty. These approaches clearly do not enter into his formulation of doctrinal development.
The limitation of this article prohibit me from discussing either approach in detail. But it is important to get a sense of both approaches, particularly with respect to what is missing in Centofanti’s approach. I borrow here a few paragraphs from earlier articles of mine on Newman and Vincent of Lérins (AD 434).
St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) developed necessary but not sufficient “tests” or indications for distinguishing true and false doctrinal development in his Essay. There are seven of these “tests”: Identity of Type, Continuity of Principle, Assimilative Power, Logical Coherence, Fecundity, Conservation, and Vitality. They are necessary but not sufficient because “ecclesial warrants” (as Guarino calls them) are also necessary to assess doctrinal development. Warrants such as Sacred Scripture, ecumenical councils, doctors of the Church, the Christian faithful, and the Magisterium. Still, all these “tests” and attendant warrants help us to distinguish “development” from change; that is, proper growth in understanding (which may involve correction, modification, and complementary formulations) from improper mutations and corruptions.
In particular, Newman says, “A true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.” (emphasis added). The “continuity of principle” and “identity of type,” or what Oliver Crisp calls a “dogmatic conceptual hard core,” is what Newman refers to when he speaks of what must be conserved.
Fundamental to doctrinal development is the idea of “propositional revelation.” Newman held that revealed truths, what he called “supernatural truths of dogma,” have been “irrevocably committed to human language.” God’s written revelation, according to Ian Ker’s reading of Newman, “necessarily involves propositional revelation.” This propositional revelation in verbalized form, or what Newman called the “dogmatical principle,” is at once true though not exhaustive, “imperfect because it is human,” adds Newman, “but definitive and necessary because given from above.”
For example, Jesus Christ reveals the truths about marriage by referring back to the creation texts of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. Here we have Newman’s “dogmatical principle” at work. “Male and female he created them” and “for this reason . . . a man will be joined to his wife and the two [male and female] will become one flesh.”
Marriage is a two-in-one-flesh union between a man and a woman. The truth of this judgment is grounded in objective reality, according to the order of creation–the way things really are. Its contact with reality is the basis of this teaching’s vitality. Jesus unites the concepts of indissolubility, twoness, and sexual differentiation, and hence we have the “identity of type” that must be conserved in the development of doctrine.
Vatican II’s starting point for dealing with doctrinal development is the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations that Pope John XXIII invoked in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, his opening address at Vatican II. John XXIII stated:
What 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. For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while 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, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason, Dei Filius (1869-70), which is earlier invoked by Pius IX in the 1854 bull, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 encyclical, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins. Vincent asks whether there is no progress in religion—which he distinguishes from change:
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 within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia).
Development must occur within the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].” Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those re-formulations preserve the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths, even with the reformulations’ correction, modification, and complementation. According to Vincent’s interpretation of dogma, and of Vatican II’s teachings, linguistic formulations or expressions of truth can vary in our attempt to deepen our understanding, as long as they maintain the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth (eodem sensu eademque sententia).
The matter of reversals
Third, there is the matter of reversals. In conclusion, let me briefly give two examples of reversals in Church teaching that leave us with a surface contradiction between, for example, Pius XI’s encyclical Mortalium animos of 1928 and Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio, and Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical Mirari vos and Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae. The former set deal with ecumenism; the latter with religious liberty. Properly understood, contra Centofanti, there exists no real contradiction and hence there is no change in the material continuity, identity, and universality of truths pertaining to Catholic ecclesiology and freedom and truth.
There are several hermeneutical principles for interpreting ecclesial texts. First, we must consider the historical context in which the document is presented, particularly if its statements are polemical and antithetical. All truth formulated for polemical reasons is partial—albeit true. This means that what these documents fail to say is not necessarily denied; furthermore, what they did say, albeit insufficiently and imperfectly, must be interpreted with respect to the “full doctrine and the full life of the church,” as Yves Congar rightly stated in True and False Reform in the Church.
A corollary of this hermeneutical principle is, secondly, the distinction between the truth and its formulations, context, and content, reminiscent of Vincent of Lérins. The import of this distinction is, according to Berkouwer, that it “implies that the Church’s formulation of the truth could have, for various reasons, actually occasioned misunderstandings of the truth itself.” In other words, the formulation or expression itself of the truth could be characterized by one-sidedness such that it is not “elevated above historical relativity in its analysis of the rejected errors.”
This brings us to Congar’s distinction of two types of one-sidedness. He explains: “First, there is the possibility that this formulation, made in reaction to an error characterized by unilateralism, should itself become unilateral in its expression. Next, there is the possibility that the condemnation might include in its condemnation of the erroneous reactive element the seeds of truth as well, whose original ambivalence unfortunately became deviant” (True and False Reform in the Church, 205-208).
Applying these principles to Mirari vos, the understanding of religious liberty in 1832 entailed religious “indifferentism” (§13). Indifferentism supported religious relativism—all religions are equally vehicles of salvation, equally true—relativism about truth, a subjectivist religious epistemology, and the privatization of Christianity. These views are still rejected as erroneous by Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty. Still, Gregory XVI’s reaction to this error and all its entailments was characterized by one-sidedness because he did not consider that there were elements of truth in the view that he was condemning. Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humaane did not suffer from that one-sidedness. We live in a free society that is pluralistic. In that society, one is free to hold religious or irreligious views. The exercise of that freedom does not entail that I am justified in holding those views, nor that those views that I hold are true. By the terms of our free and open society, I am at liberty to persuade that person that he is not justified in holding his views, but neither are they true. Here are the epistemic and moral conditions under which I may discover the truth and be justified in holding something to be true:
Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it. (Dignitatis Humaane §2)
Still, “Error has no rights.” It is the person who has rights to hold even views that we judge to be unjustified and false. We are talking here of legal rights, not epistemic rights. “It is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions” (Gaudium et spes §28).
Regarding ecumenical relations, we may apply the same principles. In Mortalium animos, Pius XI rejects ecumenism because the understanding available in 1928 entailed ecclesial relativism or pluralism, indifferentism, the branch theory of Christianity, reconciliation without repentance, the denial that the Church is one, a true reality, concretely existing here and now. These entailments of ecumenism at the time in which Pius rejected ecumenism, are still rejected in the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.
The key point is that in Vatican II’ decree the Church reversed herself on ecumenism, freeing its understanding of the entailments described above, and embraced ecumenical relations at the heart of Catholic ecclesiology—the One Church, the many churches—recognized ecclesial elements of truth and sanctification outside the visible boundaries of the Church, and still rejected ecclesial relativism. In other words, the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church alone in a singularly unique way unable to be affirmed of any other ecclesial community (Lumen Gentium §8). It possesses the fullness of the means of salvation. Thus, subsists means that the “Church of Christ is one, indivisible, unique and irrepeatable, and that its one reality exists concretely as the Catholic Church,” as Stephen A. Hipp states in The One Church of Christ, Understanding Vatican II. These two are one in their concrete being, an identical subject. Hence, there is no multiple subsistence ecclesiology. Still, it doesn’t follow from this first principle of ecclesiology that the historic churches of the Reformation or that of Eastern Orthodoxy are not churches in any real sense whatsoever, such that there exists an ecclesial wasteland or emptiness outside the Church’s visible boundaries. Thus, the Church reversed itself on ecumenism without changing the first principle of Catholic ecclesiology in its doctrinal development.
These two examples illustrate Benedict XVI’s “hermeneutics of reform and renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”
Respectfully, Sergio Centofanti needs to take another serious look at doctrinal development because the reflections in his article are unjustified and false—and certainly misleading. And they don’t help to alleviate the confusions in the Church today.
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