‘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: The Vatican’s Choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?

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In mid-May, Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled a plan to bypass Hong Kong’s legislature and impose draconian new “national security” laws on the former British colony. Putatively intended to defend Hong Kong from “secessionists,” “terrorists,” and “foreign influence,” these new measures are in fact designed to curb the brave men and women of Hong Kong’s vibrant pro-democracy movement, who have been aggravating the Beijing totalitarians for a long time. With the world distracted by the Wuhan virus (which the Chinese government’s clumsiness and prevarication did much to globalize), the ever-more-brutal Xi Jinping regime evidently thinks that this is the moment to crack down even harder on those in Hong Kong who cherish freedom and try to defend it.

This latest display of Beijing’s intent to enforce communist power in Hong Kong coincides with the most recent persecution of my friend, Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy and I have only met once. But I have long felt a kinship with this fellow-Catholic, a convert who first put his considerable wealth to work in support of important Catholic activities and who is now risking all in support of the pro-democracy movement in Kong Kong. Arrested in February, and then again in April, Jimmy Lai has been charged with helping organize and lead “unauthorized protests.” That he was in the front ranks of pro-democracy demonstrations is true. The question is, why do the Chinese communists regard peaceful protest in support of freedoms Beijing solemnly promised to protect as treasonous?

In late May, the thugs in Beijing tightened the ratchet of repression another notch: Jimmy Lai’s case was transferred to a court that could give the 72-year old a five-year sentence, or even consecutive sentences. But what else could be expected from a regime that was already trying to bankrupt Lai’s pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, by pressuring both Chinese and international firms to stop buying advertising space there? Shamefully, far too many have kowtowed to those pressures, and a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed article reported that Apple Daily is now cut off from 65% of the Hong Kong advertising market. Meanwhile, Beijing, while trying to reassure the business community that everything will be just fine, warns business leaders (as well as diplomats and journalists) not to “join the anti-China forces in stigmatizing or demonizing” the new national security laws.

The Xi Jinping regime may be less stable than it wants the world to think it is. Secure regimes do not increase repression, as Beijing has done for several years now. Moreover, labeling all criticism of the Xi Jinping government as “anti-China” is not the play a regime confident about its legitimacy and stability would make. Such tactics seem clumsy; they bespeak sweaty nervousness, not calm self-assurance.

The attempt to break the Hong Kong democracy movement is one facet of a broader campaign of repression that has not spared Chinese religious communities on the mainland. One million Muslim Uyghurs remain penned in Xinjiang concentration camps, where they are being “educated.” Protestant house churches are under constant threat. And repressive measures continue to be taken against Catholics and their churches, despite the almost two-year old (and still secret) agreement between the Holy See and Beijing. That agreement, which gave the Chinese communist party a lead role in the nomination of bishops, looks ever more like one in which the Vatican gave away a great deal in return for hollow promises; Chinese Catholics who do not toe the party line as the Chinese communist party defines that line are still persecuted. The effects of this sorry affair on the Church’s evangelical mission in the China of the future – hopefully, a post-communist China – will not be positive.

Around the world, voices have been raised in support of Hong Kong’s brave pro-democracy demonstrators. Has the Holy See’s voice been heard? If so, I missed it and so did many others. Are strong representations in favor of religious freedom and other basic human rights being made by Vatican officials behind the scenes in Beijing and Rome? One might hope so. But if the Holy See’s current China policy is in fact a reprise of its failed Ostpolitik in central and eastern Europe during the 1970s, those representations are more likely tepid and wholly ineffectual.

With one of its most courageous Catholic sons now in the dock and facing what could be life-threatening imprisonment, the Vatican now faces a defining choice: Jimmy Lai or Xi Jinping?