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Church doctrine: The same but different

Change we can believe in, No. 2

Semper eadem. Always the same. The Church, like Jesus Christ in the Pauline dictum, is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” [Hebrews, 13:8]. This is how things have always been understood in Christianity. The Word became flesh, dwelt amongst us, and left us a definitive revelation, a ‘deposit of faith’, one which St Paul urged Timothy to guard well, avoiding all “profane novelties” [1 Tim, 6:20]. So, no change. The message seems crisp and clear.

And yet, as we know, interpreting this message has been a fraught business right from the start. These days, during the first half of the Synod in Rome, Catholic news sites, blogs, and comment boxes, those of a traditionalist bent, have been boiling over with dark ruminations and dire warnings about change. Hell will not prevail against the Church, but it may prevail against the Pope. What are we to do if the Pope falls into heresy? Or apostasy? Cardinal Kasper and his supporters are not only trying to change the Church, they are creating a new religion. The working document of the Synod undermines all Catholic doctrine on family and marriage. This pope doesn’t care about preserving the Church’s doctrine. This pope can’t change doctrine, but he can change discipline so much that doctrine will be undermined and weakened. A schism is coming; we must adhere to the Tradition and treat the novelties as heresy to be resisted.

It should be noted that many of the purveyors of these opinions are also quick to lash into the Second Vatican Council for turning its back on received doctrine and discipline. It endorsed a whole new theology, it was more iconoclastic than the reformers, it abandoned the tradition and fell in love with the world, and so on. So what they understand by being faithful to the deposit tends to be problematically narrow.

Why ‘problematically’? To begin with, consider the fact that one hundred years before Vatican II, during the lead-up to the First Vatican Council, it was the liberal Catholics who were alarmed at the prospect of the Council Fathers embracing unwarranted change. They saw papal infallibility as a novel doctrine, one that was being pushed by bullying prelates who were more concerned about galvanising papal power than about discerning the tradition of the Church. And their fears were realised. Papal infallibility was promulgated in Pastor Aeternus, a dogmatic conciliar constitution.

Most of the ‘inopportunist’ Catholics had their reasons to accommodate the new dogma, but some, such as Ignaz von Döllinger, refused to do so and were excommunicated. And both Döllinger’s excommunication and the Council decrees themselves appalled the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, an Anglican with strong Catholicising tendencies. “Rome,” he cried, “has substituted for the proud boast of semper eadem, a policy of violence and change in faith”.

Certainly semper eadem had always been a proud Catholic boast, but neither theologically nor historically was it adequately theorised or explained. Gladstone was far from being the first or the only one who believed the Church was anything but ‘ever the same’. His imputation of “change of faith” was consistent with the attitude of all the Reformed churches. They mostly rested their justification for breaking from Rome on the conviction that Rome had long since broken from the original body of revealed truths, that she had repeatedly introduced new doctrines and changed old ones. And it wasn’t just the Reformers. The Cathars, the Anglicans, the Jansenists, the Gallicans, and the Old Catholics – all of them, each for their own reasons, levelled the same charge against Rome.

So how could the Church explain its claim? The usual explanation was that the magisterial rulings of popes and councils merely constituted new expressions of revealed truth. It was all there in the original revelation, and aspects of it would be formulated as the need arose. There would be nothing new, merely old doctrines expressed in new ways. And the great canon of St Vincent of Lérins was invariably invoked: Church teaching was nothing but that which had been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone.

Where, however, did this leave the great christological, trinitarian and marian doctrines that only emerged slowly over the first four centuries of Christianity? And what about later shifts in the Catholic understanding of the sacraments or of the relationship between Church and state – to say nothing about slavery, usury, conscience, and religious freedom?

When John Henry Newman came to examine the question of the development of doctrine, prior to his conversion in 1845, he met this matter directly, particularly as it related to the Vincentian canon. This canon had been appropriated by the Anglican divines in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was still invoked as a justification for Anglicanism’s particularity. Under its judgement, the Protestant churches were indicted for subtracting from the ancient faith, and Rome was indicted for adding to it. But the trouble with this, as Newman saw it, was that:

It admits of being interpreted in one of two ways: if it be narrowed for the purpose of disproving the catholicity of the Creed of Pope Pius, it becomes also an objection to the Athanasian; and if it be relaxed to admit the doctrines retained by the English Church, it no longer excludes certain doctrines of Rome which that Church denies. It cannot at once condemn St. Thomas and St. Bernard, and defend St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

This points to a “general defect in its serviceableness”, Newman notes. It is impossible to know what is meant by “taught everywhere”, or “always taught” or “taught by everyone”. One is forced to call on other intellectual faculties to make judgements about how narrowly or how broadly to interpret the dictum. But if the interpretive principle itself needs to be interpreted, where are we left? Newman saw that, read one way, the Church would be left without various books in the scriptural canon. Some books “certainly have no right there if, following the rule of Vincentius, we receive nothing as of divine authority but what has been received always and everywhere.” And on the subject of the Trinity, if the Vincentian canon was to be interpreted in an anti-Roman way, the grounds for affirming “the numerical unity or the coequality of the Three Persons” would be gone.

So all that Newman would concede to the canon of St Vincent was a certain value as a moral, not a scientific, principle, a broad rule of thumb rather than a clear law. The rest of his book, then, concerns a different way of coming at things. In the notes he gathered before starting the book he jotted, “Write it historically”. And this is the key. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine takes time, history, to be an essential element in revelation, not a mere matter of incidental fact. Revealed truths could not be comprehended all at once; it was part of the divine plan that they would give up their meaning gradually, such that the Church does not know now what it may come to know at a later time, even though that truth is always already an organic constituent of the original ‘idea’ of Christianity. That original idea, “in the course of time”, expands “into a multitude of ideas, and aspects of ideas…” Newman adds: “From the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas.”

Though doctrines remain faithful to the original idea, they may well come to bear a very different aspect, much as an oak tree is strikingly different from an acorn in its size, structure and form, yet a natural and faithful development from it. This, in St Vincent’s language, is profectus, preservative change. Permutatio, on the other hand, is a breach in nature. If a chunk of wood is sculpted into a puppet, say Pinocchio, and that puppet is later transformed into a human child, the original material has been denatured.

Out of such considerations Newman derived seven tests, or ‘notes’, to tell genuine developments from corruptions. These include “preservation of type”, which most closely resembled St Vincent’s distinction between profectus and permutatio. Among the others were “continuity of principles”, “power of assimilation”, and – last of all – “chronic vigour”, illustrating Newman’s fundamental belief that growth, life, vitality, is the great sign of health and truth.

Such a developmental approach to the issue of orthodoxy and tradition was itself novel, and it possessed a great deal more explanatory force than, for example, the notion that the definition of a doctrine was merely an act of formulating (or reformulating) the static content of the original revelation. And yet Newman’s concept of development is far from systematic – nor did he mean it to be. Furthermore, the application of the tests is not a failsafe mode of discerning tradition. Newman’s essay provides a highly suggestive, often persuasive, ‘view of things’ (to use a favourite phrase of his), one which allows us to see the Church simultaneously in relation to its original deposit and in relation to its presence in history – both of them aspects of the same divine plan of disclosure.

The Essay on Development did not aways receive a warm reception in the Church. When, towards the end of the 19th century, there were suspicions that it lay behind the supposed relativism of those identified as modernists, the reception was often decidedly chilly. But things changed then, and it came to influence thinking in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all issues concerning the transmission of revelation have been put to bed. Tradition is back on the dissecting table again now. This is thanks in part to the fall-out from the Council, of course, but it’s also traceable to other currents in contemporary thought. That’s for the next post.

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.