‘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 shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.