‘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.”

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If you haven’t had a chance to sign the petition to get Initiative 120 on the ballot this year, this weekend will present many opportunities to do so.

Initiative 120 is a ballot initiative that seeks to prohibit abortions after 22 weeks through birth, with the only exception being if the mother’s life is at risk.

See below for a full list of locations throughout Colorado so sign petitions for Initiative 120.

Sign the Petition | Drop off Notarized Packets | Notary on Site

Aurora – Queen of Peace Catholic Church
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM
13120 E Kentucky Ave, Aurora 80012
In the Narthex

Broomfield – Nativity of our Lord Catholic Church
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
900 W Midway Blvd, Broomfield 80020
Reception Desk Lower Level

Denver – Catholic Charities Office
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
4704 N. Harlan St, Denver 80212 Suite 550

Lakewood – Colorado Christian University
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
8787 W. Alameda Ave, Lakewood 80226
Beckman Center – See Map
Enter campus off Garrison, go east on Cedar

Lone Tree – Panera Bread Atrium
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
9233 Park Meadows Dr, Lone Tree 80124

Windsor – Coffee House 29
11:00 AM – 2:00 PM
1039 Main St #K, Windsor 80550
Behind McDonald’s

CO Springs So Central – Pikes Peak Citizens for Life
9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
707 N Nevada Ave #R, Colorado Springs 80903

CO Springs North – Colorado Christian University Satellite
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
1125 Kelly Johnson Blvd. Suite 105 Co Springs 80921

Castle Rock – Calvary Chapel
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
1100 Caprice Dr, Castle Rock 80109
In the Lobby

Grand Junction – The Pregnancy Center
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
930 Main Street, Grand Junction 81501
970-241-7474

Saturday, 2/15 Signing Only Events**

Colorado Springs – David C Cook Foundation
10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
4050 Lee Vance Dr. Colorado Springs 80918 Upper/east parking lot
720-899-0897

Greeley – Centerplace Shopping Center
1:30 – 3:30 PM
2700 47th Ave, Greeley 80634
Enter off 47th Ave – Look for the sign east of the bank in the parking lot

** No notary at these locations

Sunday, 2/16 Signing Event**

Glenwood Springs – New Creation Church
8:30, 10:30 AM and 6:00 PM Services
44761 US-6, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601
217-891-6116

Ongoing Opportunities to Sign

Aurora – Iglesia Rey de Reyes Church
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Saturdays 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
380 S Potomac Street #110 Aurora, 80012
720-899-0897

Boulder – Boulder County GOP Office
Weekdays (M-F) 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
619 Ken Pratt Blvd, Longmont 80501

Greeley – Farmers Insurance
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM, Saturdays 9:00 AM – noon
2990 W 29th St. #1, Greeley 80631

Loveland – Loveland Glass
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
630 W 1st Street, Loveland 80537

Windsor – Guardian Self Storage
Mondays and Thursdays 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM Through February 15th
760 E. Garden Dr., Windsor 80550

Colorado Springs – Eddington Eye Care
Weekdays (M-F) 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Exception, Thursdays, open 10-6)
6130 Barnes Rd. Suite 128, Colorado Springs 80922

Castle Rock – Calvary Chapel
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Wednesdays 8:00 AM – 3:00 PM
1100 Caprice Dr. Castle Rock 80109 (Reception Desk)

Ft. Collins – Larimer County GOP Office
Weekdays (M-F) 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM
4020 S College Ave #11, Fort Collins 80525

Woodland Park – Charis Bible College
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
800 Gospel Truth Way, Woodland Park 80863

Estes Park – Ponderosa Realty
Weekdays (M-F) 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
1751 N Lake Ave. Suite 104, Estes Park 80517

Pueblo – A Caring Pregnancy Center
Weekdays (M-Th) 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM
500 Colorado Ave, Pueblo 81004

Montrose – Life Choices Family Resource Center
Tuesdays & Thursdays 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Wednesdays 10:00 AM – 7 PM
155 Merchant Drive, Montrose 81403
970-249-4302

Pueblo West – Majestic Baptist Church
Sundays 9:30 – 11:30 AM
494 E Hemlock Dr, Pueblo West 81007

Julesburg – Benson Ag Land Realty
Weekdays (M-F) 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM, 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM
200 W 4th Street, Julesburg 80737

Denver – La Prensa de Colorado Newspaper
Monday – Thursday from 12:00 PM to 6:30 PM or by appointment
7290 Samuel Drive, #105 Denver 80221
303-287-4105