Dissenters against recent Church teaching–that is, the teaching of the Church since Vatican II and especially Pope Francis’s recent teaching–often try to argue that there are contradictions between the older and the newer teaching.
In my experience, Erick Ybarra is one of the more sophisticated of these dissenters. He has argued not so much that newer magisterial teaching contradicts older teaching, but that, while not strictly contradictory, the “spirit” of newer teaching tends to contradict the “spirit” of older teaching. By making the argument more nebulous in this way, Mr. Ybarra makes it harder to refute and thus gives it a greater appearance of plausibility.
And, it must be acknowledged, there is some plausibility to Mr. Ybarra’s argument. Although I think he is wrong, I do not doubt his good will in attempting to figure out the truth. I can understand why he is convinced by the plausibility of his argument. Some of that plausibility comes from the fact that there is often a significant difference in tone and emphasis between older and newer teaching. There are a number of reasons for this. The doctrine of the Church is that the revelation of God has been deposited with the Church, and that deposit has not changed or been added to since the time of the apostles. However, the Church, like an individual, grows over time in her awareness of the full meaning of what she has been given. And the Holy Spirit guides her as she applies the one deposit of faith to very different circumstances she finds herself in in the world.
This means that, while the fundamental truths of the faith are unchanging, the development of all the implications of these truths, and the application of them in the life of the Church is constantly in flux, guided by the Holy Spirit. Church teaching is thus like a living organism, which, while maintaining its fundamental foundation and plan all through its life, goes through many changes as it grows and develops and responds to its environment. (See Dei Verbum, especially Chapter II, for the Church’s own articulation of all of this.) It is this reality that accounts for apparent discrepancies between older and newer teachings in the Church. Seeing older and newer Church teaching as contradictory is analogous to a person who, not knowing the life cycle of some particular organism, mistakenly assigns an adult specimen and an immature specimen of that organism to different species. More understanding of the nature of the species would clear up what is an understandable mistake based on more superficial appearances.
In a new article, Mr. Ybarra argues that the “spirit” of modern Church teaching contradicts the “spirit” of the Scriptures with regard to the salvation and the spiritual condition of non-Catholics. He argues that while Scripture presents non-Christian religion as something evil and erroneous and dramatically calls all people to repent of it and accept the gospel or be damned, modern Church teaching is fuzzy on all of this, teaching effectively that other religions are not so bad but are rather various shades of good, and that it’s really not all that big a deal to be a member of a non-Christian religion, and there’s really not all that pressing a reason to convert to Christianity. He cites modern Church teaching since Vatican II regarding the possibility of salvation that exists for those outside of Christianity. He refers to Pope Francis’s and Bishop Robert Barron’s comments on the salvation even of atheists.
The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the doctrinal development of the Church through the ages, and the Spirit’s guidance as the Church seeks to apply the truth to new situations, cultural conditions, and circumstances. It is true that the Church of today does not sound exactly like the Church of the 1st century. There is a very good reason for this: The Church of today isn’t the Church of the 1st century. Yes, it is the same Church, but it is the same Church at different times. Similarly, I am the same person I was when I was fifteen years old, but if you tried to compare the fifteen-year-old me and the forty-one-year-old me, you would find plenty of significant differences!
The twenty-first century is a very different time from the 1st century. We live in a largely post-Christian culture, a culture that is jaded in a way that wasn’t true of the 1st-century world, which was a world where Christianity was a new thing never before encountered. We also suffer today from a kind of post-rationalism where we have grown skeptical of the ability of anyone to find truth at all, and we are not interested in listening to what seems to be the unverifiable message of an ancient, outdated religious institution. Especially in the west, we are a culture of people who emerged from centuries of religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and we are very wary of religious disputes and tend to feel that religion is divisive and unloving. All of these things, and more, have contributed to a culture that requires an encounter with the gospel that is not exactly the same as the encounter that occurred in the 1st century of the Church. That is why the Church needs the Holy Spirit–she needs divine guidance to know how to address a very different world from the one faced by the apostles.
And the Church herself has had two thousand years since the 1st century to grow in her own understanding of all the implications of the revelation she has been given. Her articulation of the gospel to the world has become much richer and more nuanced. Her theology and philosophy have developed from the 1st century through the Fathers through the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment through the twentieth century and down to our own time.
She has not, in fact, abandoned the message of the Scriptures–that only Christ can save, that one must be connected to the Church to be saved, that rejection of the gospel brings damnation, that the preaching of the gospel is vital to the salvation of the world–but she has a greater appreciation now for how all of this relates to the subjective experience of individuals and the different conditions people can be in in relation to the gospel.
All of these things explain why modern Church teaching is not exactly the same in every way as the teaching of the Church in the Middle Ages, during the time of the Fathers, and even during the time of the apostles in the 1st century. But, in spite of differences in emphasis, tone, and nuance, the fact remains: There is no contradiction. Even Mr. Ybarra himself seems to mostly admit this. True contradictions cannot be shown to exist. That is why he must resort to more nebulous references to conflicting “spirits”. It is, in the end, a damning admission for his argument.
For a longer, more detailed, version of this article, see here.