‘Development of doctrine’: An excuse to change Church teaching?

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The concept of the “development of doctrine” has become an important topic of discussion for many people in the Church, including theologians, when considering whether changes can be made to Catholic teaching. Since the Church’s foundation, the debate over what can change and what should remain the same has been present.

Yet while most Catholics agree we can always grow in our understanding of Christ’s teachings, can we know whether a new theory, claiming to be in line with the Gospel, is actually such, or something completely different from what Jesus intended to teach his Church?

The Denver Catholic spoke with Dr. Sean Innerst, professor at St. John Vianney Seminary and the Augustine Institute in Denver, regarding this topic.

In response to the previous question, Dr. Innerst first pointed out the meaning of doctrine and its importance, and subsequently specified the difference between authentic growth and corruption.

“Doctrine is a word that just means ‘teaching,’ and usually refers to that which we have received from God in Revelation — in the Old and New Testaments, and everything received through Christ, who is the fullness of Revelation,” he said. “This teaching, contained in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition, was consigned by Christ to the Church through the apostles and has been handed on to us now.”

He noted that doctrine is also what we adhere to in the Christian act of faith and a subject for prayer and meditation. “The act of faith — an act of willed intellectual assent which grace makes possible — has to be made with reference to something.” That “something” is the doctrine or teaching given to us in public Revelation; that is, in the Revelation given by Christ to his apostles — also referred to as the “deposit of faith” — and communicated to us orally and in writing.

Today, a common misconception is that doctrines or dogmas are restrictions that bind the intellect. In reality, they are lights that free man from ignorance and guide him in his walk with God, Dr. Innerst said, quoting the Catechism: “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” (CCC 89).

“The doctrines of the Church are a light to the mind, they inflame the heart, they move the will, and can even move our emotions. They’re freeing and enlarge human life, they are not restrictions,” Dr. Innerst reiterated.

Evolution vs. Development

The concept of the development of doctrine is sometimes misunderstood as an “evolution of doctrine,” Dr. Innerst pointed out.

The theory of evolution of doctrine holds that religious teaching is meant to change naturally into something “better” and even completely different.

This theory can be traced back to Darwin’s Origin of Species, which claimed that “there is a principle at work in nature which can make something that was one thing now become something entirely different,” Dr. Innerst said. “[This view, coupled] with a progressivist notion that all change is for the good, has been applied well beyond the realm of the ‘origin of [animal] species’ and now to virtually everything in human life and has gotten into the thinking of some Catholics.”

He said that such a view, when applied to religious truths, is called “modernism,” which was condemned by Pope Pius X in his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis in 1907.

“The Church has a different view. Change is inevitable in time: Conversion is a change, a good change, but sin is also a change, and that’s a bad change,” Dr. Innerst explained. “But God is eternal, immutable, unchanging, and what he reveals to us as true is like himself, stable and sure”.

Authentic development

“St. Vincent of Lérins — a fifth century French monk and early proponent of the development of doctrine — said that in order to determine the true Catholic faith, we must believe that which has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone — as a moral whole — with the understanding that there may be some who have been mistaken or purposely heretical,” he added.

However, the saint also knew that this did not make doctrine completely static. “He says we can expect the Church’s comprehension to grow and flourish because of the graced reflection upon it of the Doctors and saints who explore the faith more deeply,” Dr. Innerst explained. It’s simply not the kind of change that the modern evolutionist ideology proposes.

So, authentic development of doctrine is, “strictly speaking, an increase of understanding in that which has already been revealed,” he stated.

This type of change can be described as a “principle of organic growth,” which St. Vincent recognized, and Bl. John Henry Newman later explained more completely. The principle helps explain how something can grow and yet remain the same, as humans grow but remain themselves.

“St. Vincent says that doctrine can only develop in accord with its own proper kind: The deposit of faith remains what is was, but our faith in it expands,” Dr. Innerst explained. “This is very much like the principle of the mustard seed in the Gospel as it applies to the Church herself. We can and should expect growth but not fundamental alteration. There is a ‘genetic code’ in the seed that is planted in public Revelation. Everything is already present in that first seed.”

However, the fact that everything was already present in the seed of public Revelation does not mean that Jesus revealed everything explicitly, Dr. Innerst explained. “That which Jesus revealed implicitly and is present in the seed can only be seen at full [bloom] with the passage of time and based upon the need of the Church at the time.

“The Church deepens her reflection on the content of faith, especially when it’s challenged. But she never says, ‘We’ve changed the faith to comport with or even to combat this heresy.’ It explains more deeply what was already there, what we received from Jesus and the apostles.”

For this reason, there must be a “demonstrated continuity” in such organic development.

“A new teaching cannot suddenly explode out of nowhere as a novelty. There is no novelty in Church teaching. The Gospel is new and always new, but there is no novelty: Nothing new is being injected. It’s a subtle, but important difference.”

There are numerous examples of authentic development throughout Church history. One of them is the infallibility of the pope, declared dogmatically by the First Vatican Council in the 19th century. The assertion of Peter’s infallibility comes from the Scriptures.

“It’s already present in Matthew 16 that Peter is going to be the foundation of the Church, that he’s going to receive the keys, that what he binds on earth will be held to be bound in heaven,” Dr. Innerst said.“It’s also clearly there in Luke 22, when Jesus says to Peter: ‘Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail (which is the root of “infallibility”), and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ (Lk 22: 31-32).

“So, although Peter is humanly fallible in terms of his sin, his faith remains infallible by virtue of a special charism received from Christ. In this way, he will be able to confirm his brethren as the foundation stone, the rock upon which Christ built his Church, when he teaches in a formal, solemn way. But what the exercise of that ministry will look like is not that clear in the first century, only later does it become explicit. That’s development of doctrine.”

Lastly, Dr. Innerst explained how to avoid the error of importing an evolutionary concept of doctrine.

“In theology and teaching, we don’t strive for novelty, we strive for fidelity to Tradition, to the original deposit present in the Bible and Tradition of the Church — the two means of transmission of Revelation — and also to that same Tradition expressed throughout history in solemn proclamations, the Doctors of the Church, councils, magisterial statements,” he concluded. “That’s the way you make sure you’re not running off the rails, that you’re not injecting something foreign into the faith.”

COMING UP: Denver’s first Catholic classical high school opens under patronage of Our Lady of Victory

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Nearly half a millennium ago, thousands of Catholics heeded Pope Pius V’s call to pray the Rosary requesting Our Lady’s intercession for the deliverance of Europe from Turkish invasion.

In a miraculous triumph, at what came to be known as the “Battle of Lepanto,” the outnumbered Christian “Holy League” overcame the Turkish forces, winning Our Lady of the Rosary a new advocation: Our Lady of Victory.

Today, Denver’s new and first Catholic classical high school has chosen Our Lady of Victory as its patroness, with the mission of developing the whole person and forming students who are holy, well-educated and prepared to engage the present culture and contribute to society.

Our Lady of Victory High School is part of the Chesterton Schools Network, which encourages parent-led Catholic schools across the nation, inspired by the life and work of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote a poem about the victory at Lepanto.

Although the school is not an archdiocesan high school, it has been officially recognized by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila as a Catholic school. This fall’s inaugural 9th grade class will launch at the St. Louis Parish School building in Denver with nearly 20 students.

“Chesterton’s model of joyful Catholicism draws upon the classical tradition but is very evangelical: It engages the culture with a joyful approach to being Catholic… rather than a reactionary one,” said Dr. R. Jared Staudt, President of the school, Director of Formation at the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. “We want to form saints to go out and do great things for the Lord within our culture.”

The classical education approach highlights the trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).

“We emphasize Socratic dialogue as well as the trivium: how to read texts carefully and understand them through grammar, how to think about them in a coherent manner through logic, and then how to express yourself well in writing and speech through rhetoric; but also the quadrivium: How do we understand the logical order and beauty of the universe?” Dr. Staudt explained.

The benefits of this type of education are many, he assured.

“It’s not just a practical output, but about forming strong dispositions of thinking, of being able to evaluate things, being able to form a plan of action for your life that will translate into being successful in the future.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things,” Dr. Staudt said.

Part of what makes this goal possible is the communion between faith and reason. Students begin the school day with daily Mass; read Homer, Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, etc.; and study the Bible and the Catechism. They participate in a curriculum where history, philosophy, literature and theology are “braided together,” as their website states.

Part of what makes it unique is also its approach to the fine arts and to mathematics and science.

“We emphasize the fine arts because we want the students to be engaged with beauty and wonder… We want to humanize them, to make them more fully alive,” Dr. Staudt said.

“I would say we also approach math and science from that perspective. We take math and science very seriously, but not as something dry and textbook based, but something that is engaging the beauty, the logic, the wonder of the universe, and the fact that we can logically understand [it] because it is itself something that is a creative work of a mind, of God’s mind, and his beauty is impressed within it.”

As part of this approach, the school has implemented in its unique formation a lot of time in the outdoors, beginning the year with a three-day backpacking trip with the students and ending with a whitewater rafting trip.
The school also plans on having retreats throughout the year, attending and hosting fine arts events and providing service opportunities for its students.

“I think that’s truly part of what makes us unique, that we want to develop the whole person: body, mind and soul,” Dr. Staudt explained.

“It’s about becoming the person that God wants us to become… We emphasize the fundamental things that shape who we are, so that, secondarily, we are also good at doing things.”

The seed for the foundations of the school began with the desire of a group of Denver Catholic parents for a holistic, classical formation for their children, also motived by the need for a Catholic high school in the South Denver metro area.

Hoping to open a Catholic classical high school for their children in the future, six dads organized a series of monthly talks titled “The First Educators” at St. Mary Parish in Littleton from September to November 2018 as a first step to help in this direction.

Little did they know that their dream would become reality only a few months later, with the help of Dr. Staudt, the Chesterton Schools Network and the support of other parents around the archdiocese.

With six experienced teachers on board, the mission-driven school is set to begin forming students in the classical tradition.

“We want them to be holy. I would say that is our biggest overarching goal, that we want to form saints in the sense that they are thinking people who are well-educated and well prepared to engage the world and make a contribution in society – but [in a way] that holiness integrates everything else that we do,” Dr. Staudt concluded.

For more information, visit ourladyofvictorydenver.com.