Doctrine: At the Service of the Pastoral Mission of the Church
Saint Vincent of Lerins posed the following question in the fifth century: “Can there be progress in the religion of the Church of Christ?” Today, we can phrase the question in the following way: How is the precious deposit of faith guarded and transmitted through time? How can we speak of a “development of doctrine?”
Can there be progress in the religion of the Church of Christ?
Here is how the ancient author answered the question: “Certainly, and the progress can be very great indeed. Who, in fact, could have such little faith in men and be so demanding of God as to try to deny it? Yet only on the condition that it truly involves progress in the faith and not a change. It is characteristic of every kind of progress that it develops intrinsically, while change implies a passage from one given thing to some different thing. Thus it is necessary that in everything – in every individual and in the entire Church – understanding, knowledge, and wisdom grow and progress intensely through the ages and from generation to generation. Now this progress must take place according to its proper nature and in the same sense according to the same dogmas and the same thought.”
To explain his thinking, Saint Vincent of Lerins uses an image from biology: “The religious life of the soul imitates the way the body grows, whose parts, even though they develop and mature through the years, always remain the same. There is a big difference between youth and maturity. But the young also become old. An individual may change in stature and aspect over time, but always remains one and the same in nature and in person. The parts of newborns are tiny and those of adolescents large, but they remain the same parts. They have the same number in both babies and adults. And if there are some that appear only at a more mature age, they were already existent potentially in the embryonic stage. So at older stages there is nothing more than there was, at least seminally, in the infant stage. There is no doubt about it. This is the rule of any authentic progress, and this is the normal and harmonious way of growing.”
He concludes: “And so it is good that the teachings of the Christian religion also follow these laws of growth in order that they may be strengthened through the years, develop according to their own timeline, and deepen from generation to generation.”1
In the interview given to Father Antonio Spadaro and published in “La Civilta Cattolica,” Pope Francis affirmed that he often meditates on this passage. He said, “Saint Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biology of human development and the transmission of the deposit of the faith from age to age as it is strengthened and consolidated over time. Hence human understanding changes over time, and man’s conscience also deepens. We can think of how slavery was permitted or the death penalty permitted with no problem. Therefore, there is growth in our understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the Church to mature in its own judgment. Developments in other sciences also contribute to the Church’s growth in understanding. There were secondary ecclesial precepts and norms that were once in force but have now lost their force and meaning. The monolithic, black–and–white view of Church doctrine as something to be guarded against any change whatsoever is mistaken.”2
The historical nature of the Church
The Constitution “Dei Verbum” (DV) of Vatican II highlighted the historical nature of the Church. It recognized a growth–dimension in her understanding of tradition in the way the faithful contemplate the mysteries of faith and treasure them in their hearts as they advance toward the fullness of divine truth: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words that have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (DV, 8)
This conciliar affirmation illustrates the growth–dynamic of the Church’s teaching on her own understanding of Tradition, explaining how the historical process of comprehending the truth is the result of the action of various subjects in the ecclesial body, since doctrine is constituted by a historical process of the creative understanding of the People of God in tradition/transmission (paradosis). It is important to note here the importance the Council places on the spiritual experience of the faithful. It is clear that doctrine, in its dynamism, is intimately connected to the Church’s lived experience, in the proclamation and in the safeguarding of the faith, just as in its spiritual deepening and theological elaboration.
The Constitution “Gaudium et Spes” (GS) also taught that “the Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience, so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one” (GS, 33). Revelation takes place in history. Hence the Church’s doctrinal dynamism. The Declaration “Mysterium Ecclesiae” promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1973 placed emphasis on the “historical conditioning that affects the expression of Revelation” wherever it is found, be it in Scripture, the Creed, dogma, or the teaching of the Magisterium. This means that there are opportune times for reformulating the enunciation of the deposit of faith, or doctrinal truth, by clarifying its meaning and giving it new expression so that it becomes pastorally effective (cf. n. 5).
In this regard, Saint John XXIII made a fundamental affirmation in his speech at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: “What is needed at the present time is for the entire Christian teaching to be considered by all, serenely and without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine be more widely examined, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time–honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else. This, then, is what will require our careful, and perhaps too our patient, consideration. We must work out ways and means of expounding these truths in a manner more consistent with a predominantly pastoral view of the Church’s teaching office.”3
Therefore, the deepening and recapitulation of doctrine must take into account the vital connection between doctrine and proclamation (kerygma) that is at the heart of the Gospel. Pope Francis makes use of this principle in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (EG), both in reference to the dogmas of faith and in the Church’s moral teaching: “All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.’ This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching” (EG 36).4
The pope makes reference here to an important principle affirmed by the Council: the “hierarchy of truths,” according to which the expressions of faith and doctrine vary according to what is fundamental (cf. “Unitatis Redintegratio” 11).5 This principle reaches back to the “norm of faith” or “norm of truth” formulated during the second half of the second century in reference to the Church’s pastoral activity, or rather the Church’s concrete life, consisting in formulaic expressions of the essentials of the Christian faith that are not chiseled in stone. This norm was intended to express the fundamental hierarchy of the contents of faith, expressing their dynamism in the Church’s lived experience.
In a speech given in Florence for the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church, Pope Francis gave a clear outline of his pastoral perspective on Church doctrine: “Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions and doubts. It is alive. It knows how to stir us, to animate us. It doesn’t have a rigid face but a body that moves and develops. It has supple skin. Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ.”6
Doctrine and Dogma
Another important point about the evolution of doctrine is the relation between doctrine and dogma. Whoever rejects a dogma places himself outside of the community of faith. But dogmas can be reinterpreted by successive magisterial actions. This happened when Vatican II developed and clarified Vatican I’s definition of what is commonly called “papal infallibility.” When the pope speaks ex cathedra in the exercise of his ministry, he possesses, by divine assistance, the infallibility that the divine Redeemer deigned to give the Church. An attentive reading of the Decree shows that infallibility is a charisma of the Church exercised by the pope in certain circumstances.7
Expanding on the definition given at the First Vatican Council (whose work was interrupted), Vatican II included the bishops in union with the Pope in its formulation of the Church’s exercise of infallibility: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith” (LG 25).
Vatican II further taught that the faithful also take part in the Church’s infallibility in their belief (in credendo): “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2:20–27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (LG, 12).
Pope Francis, following the Ignatian principle of “sentire cum Ecclesia” (“to think with the Church”), reaffirms this truth in his interview with “La Civilta Cattolica.” For him, this infallibility in belief regards the whole Church, the totality of the People of God, that “complex fabric of interpersonal relationships realized in the human community” into which God enters. “So there is no reason to think that the extent of ‘sentire cum Ecclesia’ is only tied to the hierarchical part of the Church.”8
In June of 2014, the International Theological Commission published an important document entitled “The ‘sensus fidei’ in the life of the Church.” The text asserts that the faithful “are not merely passive recipients of what the hierarchy teaches and theologians explain; rather, they are living and active subjects within the Church” (n. 67). They play a role in the development of doctrine, even when bishops and theologians are divided on a specific question (cf. n. 72), and in the development of the Church’s moral teaching (cf. n. 73).
On the basis of this International Theological Commission document, any caricature of an active hierarchy and a passive laity must be rejected, and in particular the notion of a strict separation between the teaching Church (Ecclesia docensa) and the learning Church (Ecclesia discens), since “the council taught that all the baptized participate in their own proper way in the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. In particular, it taught that Christ fulfills his prophetic office not only by means of the hierarchy but also via the laity”9 (n. 4).
The official teachings of the Church derive from the Word of God as revealed and incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The development of doctrine happens step by step as the Church penetrates more deeply the mystery of God, profiting from the life of the faithful people and from theological reflection as various challenges are encountered. Since in the life of the Church teachings are expressed through concepts that are born at specific times and in cultures, they must always be interpreted. The norm of faith never changes in its essence, but the expressions of doctrine and its spontaneous acceptance within a certain culture change, and for this reason the Magisterium and the Councils must ensure the right formulation of the faith.
In the realm of morals, and therefore in Christian life, the gift of divine grace is lived within a social and cultural reality that changes with historical development. Hence, the Church’s pastoral life must take into account human experience, new information, cultural and historical contexts, and the ways in which they affect others.
At this point, it is important not to remain on the level of mere abstraction but to give some general examples. Obviously, each of these examples would need to be examined and deepened beyond the scope of a short article like this. Nonetheless, each of them indicates an example of a development – sometimes profound – of a doctrine in the way outlined above. Moreover, the majority of theologians today would agree on the fact that Vatican II made a profound impact on the evolution of questions such as religious liberty and salvation outside the Church.
John Courtney Murray said the Declaration “Dignitatis Humanae” (DH) on religious liberty “was the most controversial document of the whole Council, largely because it raised with sharp emphasis the issue that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates namely, the development of doctrine.”10
In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI, in his encyclical “Mirari Vos,” solemnly declared that “it is absurd and erroneous – indeed mad – to assert that a freedom of conscience must be allowed and guaranteed to everyone” (n. 14). The “Syllabus” of Pius IX (1864) included religious liberty among its “errors,” as well as the idea of a separation between Church and state. Leo XIII gave a systematic ordering to Pius IX’s teaching in the encyclical “Libertas Praestantissimum” (1888), in which he denied that religious liberty is an objective human right, even though he admitted that it could be tolerated for the common good.11
In his 1846 encyclical “Qui Pluribus”, Pius IX, refuting many ideas of liberalism, wrote about “that theory of indifference to religion, a theory which is greatly at variance even with natural reason. By means of this theory, those crafty men remove all distinction between virtue and vice, truth and error, honorable and vile action. They pretend that men can gain eternal salvation by the practice of any religion, as if there could ever be any sharing between justice and iniquity, any collaboration between light and darkness, or any agreement between Christ and Belial.”
It would be a grave error from a historical perspective to consider the concept of “religious liberty” in Gregory XVI and Pius IX as identical with the concept we have today. In the nineteenth century, religious liberty was understood as an act of the intellect, which has the right to arbitrarily ignore the truth, while in the twentieth century it is understood as an act of the will or free choice. However, it is nonetheless true that there was a significant turn in Vatican II’s understanding of the act of faith as a personal act. By teaching that the person has the right of religious liberty (cf. “Dignitatis Humanae”, 2), Vatican II signified a clear evolution with respect to what theologians, bishops, and popes had taught previously. Evolutions in doctrine occur through fidelity to principles that express the enduring aspect of Church teaching, setting aside what Benedict XVI had defined in his Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia in 2005 as “erroneous and superfluous contradictions.” On that occasion, Benedict spoke of de facto discontinuity, acknowledging “a discontinuity had been revealed” regarding religious liberty, even though there was a “continuity of principles.”12
Salvation outside the Church
From the earliest centuries, the Christian tradition affirmed that “salus extra ecclesiam non est,” that is “there is no salvation outside the Church” (Saint Cyprian, Ep. LXXIII, 21). The rigorist interpretation of the axiom began with Fulgentius of Ruspe (467–532), a disciple of Augustine. In “De Fide ad Petrum,” a collection of norms for Christian living, he affirms: “Hold with absolute certainty and never doubt that not only all pagans, but also all Jews, heretics, and schismatics who end their life in this world outside the Church will go to the eternal fire prepared for his demons and for his angels.” Thus in 1208, in a profession of faith that Pope Innocent III prescribed for Waldensians desiring reconciliation with the Catholic Church, we read: “With all our heart we believe and we confess with our mouths only one Church, not of the heretics, but the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, outside of which we believe no one is saved.”13
It is interesting to study how the Church gave different interpretations to this axiom through the centuries and how it gradually came to understand it better. The discovery of the New World, and later the rise of modernity, helped to deepen her understanding of this doctrine. Pope Pius IX repeated this teaching in 1854 in his speech “Singulari Quadam,” excluding, however, those in a state of invincible ignorance: “those who are ignorant of the true religion, whenever their ignorance is invincible, are not guilty in the eyes of the Lord.”
After the publication of Pius XII’s Encyclical “Mystici Corporis” (1943), a further magisterial pronouncement was elicited by the teaching of some American theologians who interpreted the axiom “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” in a rigorist sense, allowing for the salvation only of baptized Catholics and catechumens who had explicitly asked to enter the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Cushing, requested the intervention of the Holy Office, whose response, while reaffirming the dogmatic dignity of the axiom, condemned the rigorist interpretation, reaffirming the theses of invincible ignorance and implicit desire (cf. ES 3866–3873).
Vatican II reaffirmed that the Church is necessary for salvation (LG 14), but deepened our understanding of the traditional teaching with a statement that was decisively evolutionary: “those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (LG, 16). The Vatican II Declaration “Nostra Aetate” changes tone and perspective affirming in paragraph two that the Catholic Church recognizes everything that is good and holy in the world’s great religions. Pius XII’s identification of the mystical body of Christ with the Catholic Church in the encyclical “Mystici Corporis” (1943) and reconfirmed in “Humani Generis” (1950)14 undergoes an evolution in “Lumen Gentium” since, rather than simply stating that the one Church of Christ “is” the Catholic Church, it specifies that it “subsists” in the Catholic Church, which is “governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (LG, 8). Finally, more recently, Benedict XVI spoke in an interview of “a profound evolution of the dogma” when it came to the salvation of the non–baptized.15
Lastly, we can look at a topic that pertains to the Church’s social teaching: slavery. Christianity spread in a society in which the practice of slavery was prevalent. But Christian ecclesial practice did not distinguish between freeman and slaves, and at least two popes had been slaves: Pius I and Callistus I.
The Church never actually forbade the enslavement of baptized Catholics, provided that their baptism was successive to their enslavement or they were children of a slave mother. Nevertheless, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea had criticized slavery, and there were already local synods in the first millennium that spoke out against the buying and selling of human persons. Thomas Aquinas considered slavery contrary to nature, and yet society’s dependency on slaves was considered acceptable as a reality introduced “by human reason insofar as it was useful for human life.”16
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal to make war on the Saracens and reduce them to perpetual enslavement. He confirmed this permission in his bull “Romanus Pontifex.” Between the mid–1400s and mid– 1500s, popes assumed a variety of positions on the issue. But in 1537, beginning with Paul III, an attempt was made to put an end to slavery in the Spanish and Portuguese Americas, especially after the advocacy of Bartolome de Las Casas.17 Nevertheless, slavery continued in the Pontifical States until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the Jesuits in Maryland possessed, bought, and sold slaves prior to the American Civil War.
Finally, in 1917, the Code of Canon Law (CIC) punished slavery by including it among the crimes “against life, liberty, property, reputation, and good morals.” This condemnation was repeated in paragraph 27 of “Gaudium et Spes,” and again in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 1336), as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), where we read: “The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian –lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit” (CCC, 2414).
So the case of slavery is another instance where the teaching was corrected through an evolutionary historical process based on Catholic teaching and a better understanding of its deeper meaning.
The fundamental pastoral aspect of doctrine
These examples, albeit only summarily, at least give us a general idea of how central points of doctrine can be deepened and developed over time. Other examples include the traditional acceptance of capital punishment, the Church’s teaching on the interpretation of Scripture, ecumenism, her relationship with the Jewish people, and evolution.18
The words of Yves Congar ring true today: “The Church therefore must develop and progress in the world and with the world … to follow the constant and polymorphous development of a humanity in a perpetual state of growth and discovery of new forms and situations. The Church advances precisely in the wake of mankind.”19 Citing Newman, Congar affirmed that development, which is the law of earthly life, requires respect for forms acquired from the past, fidelity, rootedness, and continuity. But it also involves movement, growth, and adaption. Vigilance is necessary to guard against an ambiguous desire for security that results in pusillanimity rather than integral service to the truth. The Church must be missionary not only on the pastoral level, but also on the level of ideas and truth.20
Pope Francis’ concern seems to be that of “recontextualizing” doctrine at the service of the Church’s pastoral mission.21 This can lead to evolutions and corrections guided by fidelity to the essential kerygma and the principles that express the enduring aspect of the Christian message. If such a need were not recognized, we would risk becoming frozen in a view of doctrine as a deposit of abstract and static truths independent of any particular historical context. This would lead to an illness Congar had heard about from a priest in 1946: “the body of the Church has expanded, but her skin has not. We thus run the risk of exploding in the end.”22
What can we deduce from all this, given the above examples? That the Church’s doctrine cannot be reduced to something merely regulatory and informative, devoid of the living and transformative character that is proper to the dynamism of faith guided by the proclamation of God’s salvific love manifested in Jesus Christ. Congar gave guidelines for ascertaining the truth and authenticity of Church reforms. The first is the primacy of charity and pastoral care.23 A genuinely prophetic spirit needs to be pastoral, driven by our love of God and neighbor.
As mentioned above, this was Saint John XXIII’s view. He yearned for a Magisterium with a fundamentally pastoral character rather than one that merely repeated preexisting doctrinal formulas.24 Similarly, Pope Francis’ outlook places decisive emphasis on the “pastoral nature of doctrine.” Doctrine always needs to be interpreted in relation to the core of the Christian kerygma and in light of the pastoral context in which it is applied, always keeping in mind that the supreme law must be the salvation of souls.25
1.Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium I, 23, in Patrologia Latina 50, 667–668.
2.A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, in Civilta Cattolica 2013 III, 449– 477. Republished in Pope Francis, My Door is Always Open. A Conversation on Faith, Hope and the Church in a Time of Change, Bloomsbury, London, 2014, 118–119.
3.John XXIII, “Speech at the solemn opening of the Ecumenical Council of Vatican II”, October 11, 1962. Cf. www.vatican.va.
4.In the interview in “La Civilta Cattolica,” Pope Francis also emphasized the importance of the pastoral context: “The (Church’s) teachings, be they dogmatic or moral, are not all equivalent. An approach that is missionary and pastoral cannot obsess over the disarticulated transmission of a bunch of doctrines to be demandingly imposed. A missionary type of proclamation concentrates on what is essential and necessary, which also happens to be what people find most attractive and elicits a passionate response, enflaming the heart as it did the disciples on the road to Emmaus.” Pope Francis, My Door is Always Open, 58.
5.Cf. C. Clifford, “L’hermeneutique d’un principe hermeneutique: la hierarchie des verities”, in G. Routhier – G. Jobin (eds.), L’Autorite et les autorites. L’hermeneutique theologique de Vatican II, Paris, Cerf, 2010, 70.
6.Francis, Meeting with the Delegates to the Fifth National Convention of the Italian Church, Florence, November 10, 2015.
7.Cf. F. A. Sullivan, Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, Eugene, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003.
8.A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco”, cit., 459.
9.Cf. A. Ekpo, “The ‘Sensus Fidelium’ and the Threefold Office of Christ: A Reinterpretation of Lumen Gentium n. 12”, in Theological Studies 76:2 (2015), 337–345.
10.W. M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, New York, America Press, 1966, 673.
11.Cf. J. R. Dionne, The Papacy and the Church: A Study of Praxis and Reception in Ecumenical Perspective, New York, Philosophical Library, 1987, 156–158.
12.This is how Benedict XVI explained this change in perspective: “Thus, for example, if religious freedom were to be considered an expression of the human inability to discover the truth and thus become a canonization of relativism, then this social and historical necessity is raised inappropriately to the metaphysical level and thus stripped of its true meaning. Consequently, it cannot be accepted by those who believe that the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God and, on the basis of the inner dignity of the truth, is bound to this knowledge. It is quite different, on the other hand, to perceive religious freedom as a need that derives from human coexistence, or indeed, as an intrinsic consequence of the truth that cannot be externally imposed but that the person must adopt only through the process of conviction.”
13.H. Denzinger – P. Hunermann (eds), Enchiridion Symbolorum (ES), Bologna, EDB, 1995, n. 792. Cf. F. A. Sullivan, Salvation Outside the Church: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response, New York, Paulist Press, 1992, 5.
14.Cf. J. R. Dionne, The Papacy and the Church, cit., 197–202; cf. Mystici Corporis, 13, and Humani Generis, 27.
15.The interview Benedict XVI gave to Jacques Servais appears in the Osservatore Romano, March 17, 2016. It also appears in the volume Per mezzo della fede. Dottrina della giustificazione ed esperienza di Dio nella predicazione della Chiesa e negli Esercizi Spirituali, Cinisello Balsamo, San Paolo, 2016.
16.Cf. Summa Theologiae I–II, q. 94, a. 5, ad 3.
17.Cf. J. S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery, New York, Alba House, 1996, 15–38.
18.Cf. M. Fiedler – L. Rabben (eds), Rome Has Spoken: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed Through Centuries, New York, Crossroad, 1998.
19.Y. Congar, True and False Reform in the Church, Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2010, 148.