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Change we can believe in: The difference mercy makes

In a recent spat with a group of tenured theologians, Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and Catholic, raised some important issues concerning the Church and change. Douthat self-identifies as conservative both in his politics and in his faith, and the current pontificate seems to be a source of recurrent anxiety for him. He saw the Synod on the Family in October as a “plot to change Catholicism”, and “the chief plotter [was] the pope himself”. Francis was looking to destroy the Church’s doctrine on marriage completely by pushing through a proposal to admit remarried divorcees to communion. Progressive theologians argued that any such change would be merely pastoral, but according to Douthat, that was “basically just rubbish”.

In the course of this contretemps Douthat stoutly defended his right to comment on theological matters. Catholicism, he wrote, is not “an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts”. I think he’s right. I don’t have a theological qualification any more than he does, but I’m happy to think that the Church is a better – if a messier – place with him, myself and a host of other lay, non-theologian Catholics knocking out articles, blogposts, and social media comments when our concern for our faith leads us to do so.

But the most obvious and compelling argument in Douthat’s support is that canon law is on his side. From canon 212: “In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [the Christian faithful] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful…”

This canonical endorsement, however, can serve another purpose too, one less congenial to Douthat’s argument on the substantive issue, namely the development of doctrine. Is it the case, as Douthat insists, that development is only meant “to deepen church teaching, not reverse or contradict it”? Well, yes and no. Important qualifications are needed. Canon 212 and the surrounding canons, for example, illustrate a configuration of development that does indeed entail reversal and contradiction. The 1983 Code takes it as given that all members of the Church, prior to any specification of their vocation by way of sacrament or vows, are included in a common category, the Christian faithful, which constitutes the fullness of the Christian calling,  incorporation in the body of Christ, and a share in his priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions.

Contrast this with Pope Pius X’s unequivocal magisterial pronouncement in Vehementer Nos (1906):

[T]he Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.

So much for lay Catholic journalists and bloggers. Pius was evidently channeling a doctrinal tradition which began to form even as far back as the third century, when Origen, still a layman, was excoriated by his bishop for preaching in the presence of bishops. By the middle ages it was a given that, as Gratian’s Decretum put it, ”There are two kinds of Christians, clerics and lay people”. And few Catholics in the mid-19th century would have taken theological exception to Monsignor George Talbot’s notorious put-down: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all.”

What undid this tradition, of course, was the work of ressourcement in the decades leading up to Vatican II – the return to biblical and patristic sources and the affirmation of history as an authentic locus theologicus. The new ecclesiology was not merely an incremental step beyond the ecclesiology of preceding decades. It was not simply about the explicitation of latent content. Instead it involved rejecting the dominant articulation of the Church’s self-understanding and reaching back over centuries to recover long-eclipsed content of the depositum. It meant recovering, against Pius’ dualism, the idea of the Church as “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, as first and foremost the one “people of God”. It meant discovering once again the early Church’s sense of the radical primacy of baptism – baptism as not merely an entry-level sacrament, but as the introduction to the fullness of Christian life.

And it also meant re-appropriating the Petrine doctrine of the common priesthood of the faithful, lost in part because (to borrow from de Lubac) we learned our catechism against the Reformation for so long. The Church lost any interest in drawing out the richness of this doctrine once it had been appropriated as a core doctrine of the Reformers.

Twentieth-century ecclesiology therefore underscored the fact that settled doctrines could be diminished, abandoned, derailed, occluded, even forgotten, and sometimes for very lengthy periods of time. Any credible theory of development had to include the possibility of retrieving what had been lost, not as an exercise in archaeologism but in response to the promptings of one’s own time. As a living organism the Church “grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances” (Mediator Dei, 1947). In other words, she pays attention to “the spirit of the age”.

Attending to the spirit of the age does not entail, as Douthat and many of his fellow-travellers fear, capitulating to an alien culture. The age we live in constitutes for us (to use the language of Hans-Georg Gadamer) a ‘standpoint’, a ‘horizon’, and this both enables and limits us in our understanding of Christian revelation. Understanding is about (again, Gadamer) a ‘fusion of horizons’ – the horizons of scripture, the lived reality of the Church, and our own time. New realities, new cultural perspectives in our world ask new questions of the original deposit and of the Church’s traditions. Interpretation never ends.

So where does this leave the criterion of continuity? Understood correctly, it still holds good. It contributes to the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, which Pope Benedict advocated in his 2005 Christmas message, pitching it against the unacceptable ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’. The pope’s main concern was Dignitatis Humanae, with its upturning of the 19th century condemnations of freedom of religion and of conscience. It was – still is – a stumbling block for radical Catholic traditionalists. It looks like a rupture with the past. It sounds like heresy. And yet it’s neither.

In Benedict’s account of things, the condemnations were due to a historically-conditioned response by the popes to an emergent radical secularism which seemed chronically inimical to the Church. But times changed. New models of the modern state emerged, ones which were “not neutral regarding values but alive, drawing from the great ethical sources opened by Christianity”. And so the Church went from roundly condemning freedom of conscience and of religion, calling them “an insanity”, to declaring them “greatly in accord with truth and justice”.

How is this possible? Where is the continuity? According to Benedict: “A discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance.” And he adds: “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.”

Continuity and discontinuity at different levels – this takes us into an interpretive minefield. How do these levels relate to the council’s notion of a ‘hierarchy of truths’? Or to the analogia fidei, whereby doctrines are understood in the light of other doctrines, thereby preserving the symphonic nature of truth. Or, indeed, how do they connect with the International Theological Commission’s distinction (2007 document on the salvation of unbaptised infants) between the common doctrine of the Church and the faith of the Church? That same document also notes that development may engage “some foundational doctrinal principles which remain permanent, and some secondary elements of unequal value”. How are these told apart? It’s not always an easy business to tell continuity from corruption.

Nor is it even a given, as Douthat supposes, that when a proposition appears to go directly against the words of Christ that there is corruption or heresy. Where, for example, would that leave us on the matter of oath-taking (Matt 5:34 – “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”)? Or on the question of the absolute necessity of water for baptism, without which salvation is impossible (John 3:5 – “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”)? In these cases, attending to rhetoric, genre criticism, and other hermeneutical tools helps us to qualify our understanding.

Consider another configuration of development, namely that the signification of a doctrine may change substantially even without the doctrine changing at all. By way of analogy, take St Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan when it was erected in the mid-19th century. Imagine how it dominated the skyline on the northern edge of the city, how effectively it would have connoted the grandeur and the sublimity of the divine. But then skyscrapers were built all around it, and they towered above it as the city pressed north. St Patrick’s didn’t change, but it came to have a completely different contextual meaning, perhaps even opposite to the one intended by its builders.

Take then the great maxim of St Cyprian in the 3rd century that extra ecclesiam nulla salus – that there is no salvation outside the Church. Over the hundreds of years that followed this came to be interpreted narrowly as an expression of the absolute necessity for all people to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. In solemn language this was declared definitively by both Pope Boniface VIII (1302) and the Council of Florence (1441). And yet other truths of faith later sat up alongside it and changed its role in the system. It could not, for example, be interpreted against the meaning of the truth that God wants all people to be saved. In fact, the universal salvific will of God stands, in the ‘hierarchy of truths’, as more central, more foundational, than extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

But then the age of discovery opened up new worlds. How could the centuries-old civilisations of far-off quarters ever have been subject to the Roman Pontiff? Did God not desire their salvation too? Gradually it came to be acknowledged that nobody could be held responsible for not joining the Church if they had not been given sufficient reason to understand its necessity. And over the following centuries new times made new demands on the doctrine. Fresh currents of thought concerning conscience, free will, cultural conditioning, and moral psychology, as well as advances in theology, all submitted it to a series of new interrogations. And eventually we arrive at Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, in which he confirms the old doctrine but places another one next to it. “It is necessary to keep these two truths together,” he writes, “namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for salvation.”

So the doctrine remains the same and yet it is altogether different. In the language of Pope Benedict’s hermeneutics of reform, the underlying reality, namely that the Church is the indispensable sacrament of salvation for all humanity, stays intact. But the concrete historical application of that reality has changed substantially. We have gone from declaring in 1441 that “not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics” may not be saved to saying in 1990 that all of them have a “real possibility of salvation”.

A comparison with Pope Francis is possible here. From the beginning of his papacy he has kept his focus above all else on the difference that God’s mercy makes. We have always believed in God’s mercy, of course, but perhaps we haven’t yet learned how consequential it is. Perhaps we have tended to see God’s justice as circumscribed by God’s mercy, and God’s mercy as circumscribed by God’s justice. But there are no circumscriptions in God. Is it not the case that God’s justice is infinitely merciful and God’s mercy is infinitely just? And in God’s justice and mercy, God desires – infinitely desires – that all may be one, that all would come to the knowledge of the truth. We have our doctrines on marriage and the Eucharist, but is it possible that we have come to see them in a way that limits to some extent the saving grace of God? What happens if we foreground mercy, if we let it stand next to these other doctrines, if we let it provide a hermeneutic for understanding them? How does that affect the doctrinal and disciplinary skyline? It should occasion no surprise that a universal pastor would think like this, and there is nothing in this form of reflection that need compromise the dynamics of development.

All said, it is just not good enough to go about insisting that “discipline can change, doctrine can’t” or that (pace Douthat) “the pope is supposed to have no power to change Catholic doctrine”. History tells a more complex story. And this is why Douthat’s claim that “within the framework of Catholic tradition, the conservatives have by far the better of the argument” is specious. In fact, he himself hits on the main reason why in his recent Erasmus lecture: “Conservative Catholics,” he said, “need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine”. Yes, they do. They are unlikely to devise one, however, without a keener sense of the difference history makes – not just the difference that the lessons of history make, but the difference that our radical historicality, as well as that of the Church on earth, makes to our reception of revelation and to our understanding of tradition.

Newman, in his Essay on Development, issues an ever-timely warning against presuming that overt similarity is necessarily a sign of continuity or identity. Doctrinal corruptions, he says, often look externally more like the original doctrine from which they are drawn than true developments or “changes consistent with” the doctrine do. He then notes that  “One cause of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past”.

Indeed. Christian history is replete with instances of people and movements breaking from the Church because they believed it had departed from its foundational charisms. Think of the Waldensians, the Reformed Churches, the Jansenists, the Gallicans, and the Old Catholics. Yves Congar noted, in The Meaning of Tradition, this secessionist tendency of those who “oppose progress and adaptation in the name of fidelity to the past”.

A progressive tendency in theology may indeed expose one to pitfalls, but it would be naive and dangerous to neglect the enormous damage that can be wrought by some kinds of conservatism. Pope Francis’s vision of mercy is radical and powerful – powerful enough to bring about real change. That is not a bad thing.

About Dermot Roantree

Dermot Roantree is content editor with Irish Jesuit Communications. He has a doctorate in Modern History and many years of teaching and of e-learning projects behind him. He is married with two children.