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

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: From the wilderness to the Promised Land: Learn your faith in the SJV Lay Division

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One of the famous episodes in the Old Testament is the wandering of Israel in the wilderness. The descendants of Abraham, whom God promised land to come to his descendants, wander for 40 years before they enter that land. A time of great miracles, to be certain – the manna in the wilderness, the rock that gushed forth water. But also a time of hardship and death – many battles that were lost, plagues that come up on the people. All of which is why the wilderness is associated with a time of great testing in the Scriptures.

We may seem like we are in our own wilderness today, aimlessly wandering without a sense of where life is going. Know that we, too, at the Lay Division of the Seminary, particularly our Biblical and Catechetical School instructors, intimately felt this great testing this past academic year. For the first time ever, we had classes online, by sheer force of circumstance in a world of coronavirus restrictions. In many ways, we felt our own desert wondering – unable to see students in person, unable to have normal interactions with students, lecturing to a little dot on a computer screen, seeing black screens with everybody muted, with no idea if students were smiling, laughing, crying, sleeping, or whatever else may be! This was, in many respects, wandering in the wilderness institutionally. Thankfully, the one thing that we can say for certain is that all of our lives fall under God’s infinitely wise, lovingly providential hand. It’s not merely cliché to say that God will bring good out of evil, but a true statement. And so we trust. God knows, and God takes care of all those who are faithful. And God works all things for good for those who trust in Him.

This upcoming academic year will be the start of a slow reintegration of our classes into parishes. However, we will still keep an online presence, with half of our classes returning to in-person locations throughout the Archdiocese of Denver and half remaining online. Certainly one of the positives about teaching classes online, and perhaps the good that God will bring for us institutionally out of our wilderness of this past year, is that it allows for expansion to reach potential students who otherwise aren’t capable of attending our in-person classes. Given that, taking a class with us will never be easier! It doesn’t matter what part of Colorado you live in — you can take a class online with us!

If you’ve never heard of who we are, then let me briefly introduce our institution: we are the Lay Division at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary for the Archdiocese of Denver. This makes our seminary unique: not just the formation of future clerics, but also a division dedicated to the formation of the laity. Our mission is to put people in contact and communion with Jesus, who alone leads us to the heart of the Father in the Spirit. We do this through various offerings which study God’s call to each and every person to have a personal relationship with him in the Church that he established with the Precious Blood of Jesus. Our two flagship programs are the Denver Catholic Biblical School, a four year study of the Sacred Scriptures, and the Denver Catholic Catechetical School, a two year study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We also offer various other programs of study – year long “Enrichment Courses” in different topics of the faith, short courses throughout the year, lecture series throughout the liturgical seasons, and day-long workshops. Wherever you’re at in your faith, we have something for everybody!

Classes for this upcoming year begin on Monday, Sept. 13. Visit sjvlaydivision.org to see all of the options for classes, locations/online times, information sessions, and to register. Make the choice to study with us to learn your faith and come to know and love Jesus Christ!