A Sacramental Paradigm
and the development of doctrine
Throughout Catholic theology is a sacramental worldview or sacramental paradigm. This is the proposal that God communicates his revelation and life through material creation.
We see this explicitly in the sacraments themselves, where God’s grace is shared in and through material signs and symbols. It’s most obviously seen in the Incarnation, where divine and human natures came together “without confusion, change, division or separation” in the one person of Christ (CCC 467).
A part of this paradigm is that the spiritual and material aspects are distinct from each other but not separate. I recently heard someone use the vocabulary of Peter Lombard (a scholastic theologian) to articulate this distinction by distinguishing "the thing itself" and the ritual when it comes to the sacraments.
This vocabulary is helpful when explaining baptism by blood or desire (cf. CCC 1257-1261). For example the Good Thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus received the grace of baptism—the thing itself—even though he didn't participate in the ritual of baptism. This is the case of everyone who receives baptism by desire.
God binds the spiritual thing to the material thing so that they can't be separated. So, as I’ve talked about before, we cannot understate the importance of the material ritual. Yet at the same time, the ritual of baptism is distinct from the grace of baptism itself.
I really like this paradigm. For example, when applied to the Church herself, it allows us to distinguish the perfect Mystical Body of Christ from the sinful members of that body without falling into the gnostic dualism of there being a totally spiritual "true church" separate from the actual material members and institutions.
Another way this this paradigm is helpful is with dogma or doctrine. In the Opening Address of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said:
“The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”
In other words, as Adam Rasmussen recently pointed out, we can distinguish the substance of a doctrine and a particular written or verbal expression of it. Or, as Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, phrases it, there’s a distinction between the “realities” and the “words” of our Tradition.
This distinction is important for our understanding of the development of doctrine. The substance, the revelation being handed down through the centuries, does not change. But the material aspects of doctrine—the verbal/written expression that is necessarily limited by human language, knowledge, historical context, etc.—those do change.
For example, take the doctrine of "no salvation outside the church." For centuries the Church expressed the substance of that doctrine in way that was understood to mean that if someone was not Catholic then they were not saved.
In 1442, at the Council of Florence, the Church taught that “‘none of those who are outside of the Catholic Church, not only pagans,’ but also Jews, heretics, and schismatics, can become sharers of eternal life, but they will go into the eternal fire ‘that was prepared for the devil and his angels’ [Mt 25:41] unless, before the end of their life, they are joined to her.”
However, after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church expresses that doctrine differently, in a way that brings more clarity to the substance of the teaching.
The Council explicitly taught that God desires all to be saved, and even “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
In other words, non-Catholics can be saved, but their salvation is only because of Christ's life, death, and resurrection and through Christ's Body. As the Catechism states, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).
It is clear that over time, and with “the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church” (CCC 94). Specifically, the “task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone" (CCC 85).
Going back to Dei Verbum, the Church explains this develop this way:
“This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which 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).
As should be clear by this point, it is flawed and dangerous to think that individual Catholics can use their personal understanding of historical doctrines to then judge the validity of current magisterial teachings that they think have broken from the tradition. That position would presume that an individual theologian or group of Catholics could understand and interpret the substance of a doctrine better than the Magisterium.
If we do not allow the living Magisterium to lead us to a deeper and richer understanding of the substance of our Tradition, we simply wind up elevating our personal interpretations above the Magisterium and make the preposterous claim that somehow the Church has now erred in her teaching. As Pope Francis recently said, to doubt the Magisterium is “to doubt the Holy Spirit himself who guides the Church.”