"The Church has to Change"
A couple of months ago, The Synodal Times graciously asked me to write an article about the development of doctrine. I wanted to share it with you!
In a recent interview, Pope Francis stated, “The Church has to change” and “it must continue changing its ways, in the way to propose an unchanging truth”. The debate over whether the Church’s teachings can evolve is a contentious topic among Catholics today, particularly in the context of the ongoing Synod on Synodality.
Will the Pope change the Church’s stance on homosexuality, ordaining women as deacons, or blessing same-sex unions? These questions loom large over the Synod, and those who wish for change feel hopeful and emboldened in light of Francis’s recent revisions to the Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty and the permission for some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Looking to the past
To understand our current situation, it may be helpful to look into the past. In 1845, John Henry Newman, the convert from Anglicanism and future Catholic saint, authored an Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
Newman’s theology would later influence the Second Vatican Council over a century later. In this text, Newman was concerned about Protestant objections to Catholicism. He observed that when examining the Church’s history, it’s apparent how “the Church of one age” sometimes appears to teach something markedly different from “the Church of another age”.
With significant changes in teaching, how can we be certain that the Catholic Church of the 16th or 19th century was the True Church founded by Christ?
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Protestants resolved this tension by rejecting the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and, instead, relied on “the Bible as the sole source of Revelation” and ultimately “their own personal private judgment as the sole expounder of its doctrine”.
A key thing to understand here is that Newman presumed that Church teaching had changed, sometimes in dramatic ways. That was so obvious of a fact for him that his concern was explaining how that change was possible, while still having continuity with Revelation, because the reality of change was so clear to people that it was scandalising them.
Two clear examples of change from the past couple of centuries concern religious liberty and the morality of slavery. In 1864, in his infamous Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius XI explicitly rejected the belief that “Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true”.
Yet, a century later, the Fathers of Vatican II declared that religious freedom is an inviolable right that “has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person”. The contrast is stark. Pope Benedict XVI eventually said that the Council’s teaching about religious liberty was a correction of the past and a recovery of “the deepest patrimony of the Church”.
Regarding slavery, the change in teaching is just as dramatic. In 1866, the Church authoritatively taught that slavery “considered in itself and all alone, is by no means repugnant to the natural and divine law.”
However, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II affirmed that slavery is “offensive to human dignity” and “intrinsically evil”, meaning it is always wrong, regardless of a person’s intentions or circumstances.
It is a historical fact that the Church’s teaching has dramatically changed. However, how doctrine develops is a more nuanced matter…
Read the rest here: https://www.synodaltimes.com/contributors/the-church-has-to-change/
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