Neither Pope Francis’s Magisterium, nor the Second Vatican Council’s documents, can be interpreted through a proper hermeneutic of continuity if one does not understand the concept of “doctrinal development.” Those who criticize those teachings, however, will often try to invalidate them by claiming that these doctrinal developments are illegitimate.

One way they may do so is by taking recourse to St. Vincent de Lérins. In his Commonitorium, St. Vincent sought to distinguish between a true, legitimate development (profectus fidei), and a false development amounting to a corruption of the faith (permutatio fidei).

In this sense, a true development must follow these rules: it must hold the faith which has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” (Commonitorium Chapter 2), “in the same sense and in the same meaning” (Chapter 23).

The problem is that dissenters will take these Vincentian rules in a most rigid way, almost eschewing the possibility of any development at all. For them, it is clear that what the Church teaches now is not exactly what it has taught before, so it must be a corruption of the faith.

However, this method does not hold up to St. Vincent’s Canon in the least. After all, the Commonitorium was, in part, a reaction to those who would object to the inclusion of the word “consubstantial” (homousian) in the Apostolic Creed, as this word never appeared in Scripture, and seemed to stem from Greek (and therefore pagan) philosophy. Also, as I have written elsewhere, heresy oftentimes disguises itself as a return to a more traditional understanding of the faith.

It does not suffice to say that “it is obvious that there is a contradiction,” because Vincent warns that: “There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance” (Chapter 23).

In this sense, perhaps it will be instructive to explore a metaphor from St. Vincent himself, in which he compares the growth of religion with the growth of the human body.

“There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant’s limbs are small, a young man’s large, yet the infant and the young man are the same.”

— St. Vincent de Lérins

Commonitorium, Chapter 23

Another theologian whose exploration of doctrinal development is widely lauded, St. John Henry Newman, expand this metaphor further. In “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Newman builds upon St. Vincent’s comparison of doctrinal development to the growth of a man’s body with by comparing the development of doctrine to the growth of the body of a caterpillar.

“This is readily suggested by the analogy of physical growth, which is such that the parts and proportions of the developed form, however altered, correspond to those which belong to its rudiments. The adult animal has the same make as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic (…) However, as the last instances suggest to us, this unity of type, characteristic as it is of faithful developments, must not be pressed to the extent of denying all variation, nay, considerable alteration of proportion and relation, as time goes by, in the parts or aspects of an idea. Great changes in outward appearance and internal harmony occur in the instance of the animal creation itself. The fledged bird differs much from its rudimental form in the egg. The butterfly is the development, but not in any sense the image, of the grub”

— St. Newman,

“An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Part II, Chapter V, Section I.

It is true that a butterfly is much different than a caterpillar. Yet one cannot deny that a butterfly was once been a caterpillar, and that a caterpillar will naturally develop into a butterfly. Butterfly and caterpillar are one and the same creature, albeit in different stages of development.

Catholics are not unfamiliar with this type of reasoning. For example, we acknowledge this type of natural continuity and development when we advocate for the intrinsic human dignity of the unborn. One common pro-choice talking point is the assertion that an acorn is not a tree. The pro-life response is that a tree and an acorn are the same organism, but in different stages of development. The Catholic position is that fetuses, embryos, and zygotes are human persons in the early stages of life, whereas pro-choicers will insist that these are mere “clumps of cells.”

The development of the human body from its beginning as a single-cell zygote to a fully-formed adult attests to how development can occur in surprising, sometimes in even seemingly impossible ways. The Catholic Church teaches that throughout all these stages of life, a human person is endowed with a soul, personhood, and inviolable human dignity. Despite dramatic physical changes, the human being retains what Newman calls “unity of type.”

We can explore the analogy even further and apply it to today’s critics of the pope and the second Vatican Council. Is their approach analogous to someone who looks at the butterfly and—remembering the caterpillar from which they are told it came—loudly proclaims that it is impossible that one developed into the other? Left to his or her own devices, maybe such a person would point to a worm and argue that the caterpillar developed into that.

Caterpillars and worms are certainly much more alike at first glance. Instinctively, one might find the idea of a caterpillar developing into a worm more intuitive than a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. However, a closer inspection dashes those expectations. Scientists involved in the fields of genetics, taxonomy, and histology will find those propositions preposterous. A nematode or an annelid has nothing to do with an insect.

This can be compared to the mindset of those who dissent from the living Magisterium—the teachings of the recent popes and Vatican II. They reject the official explanations of those who have the authority and standing to make such determinations, simply because they cannot square these conclusions with their limited knowledge and comprehension. They will postulate that their claims are “self-evident,” which gives them permission to reject legitimate authority, as if a mathematician had just told them to believe that 2+2=5.

Of course, this is not what the authorities are telling them at all. The authorities are not telling them to accept something contradictory. They are being told to accept the truth, which is stranger and greater than anything they can fathom. By overrelying on their own intellect, they become imprisoned in a world of outward appearances, and they refuse to allow themselves to be formed by those who have the competence to do so. This is a sin of intellectual pride, that they think they know better than the Magisterium, and to refuse to accept the possibility that God might act in a way they cannot totally understand.

To this, such critics might reply, “If a caterpillar can develop into a butterfly, what is to stop the so-called authorities from teaching that it can also develop into an airplane?” In fairness, many progressive dissenters do argue in favor of doctrinally unsound future developments. But while this objection seems reasonable, it is circular logic. It assumes that there is no continuity between the caterpillar and the butterfly, which is what they wanted to prove in the first place. This analogy only works if one already rejects the possibility of continuity between a caterpillar and a butterfly. But that is not how the development of doctrine works. There is no unity of type whatsoever between a caterpillar and an airplane. There is, however unity of type between a caterpillar and a butterfly.

In the end, we believe in the development of a caterpillar into a butterfly because it is the truth. And it is not only truthful, it is also beautiful and gives great glory to God’s work.

The worm, just like the heterodox assertions of the radical traditionalists, has no connection with the caterpillar whatsoever, despite appearances. It is bound to crawl on the surface of the earth and feed on dead matter from ages long past.

But the butterfly is much freer, much more beautiful than a worm. The caterpillar, who was once bound to the ground, is teleologically determined to develop into a flying organism, soaring to the heights for which it was created. The butterfly, and the miracle that created it, is a witness to God’s power, creativity, and wisdom. Those who reject it to cling to their own preconceptions would do well to instead simply appreciate the flight of the doctrinal butterfly, as it would guide their gaze up on high, where God dwells.

[Featured Image: Larisa Koshkina “Field, The Sky And Butterflies”]

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

The flight of the doctrinal butterfly
Share via
Copy link