“We cannot determine whether a professed development is truly such or not, without some further knowledge than an experience of the mere fact of this variation. Nor will our instinctive feelings serve as a criterion. It must have been an extreme shock to St. Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught; a shock, which a single effort, or a short period, or the force of reason would not suffice to overcome. Nay, it may happen that a representation which varies from its original may be felt as more true and faithful than one which has more pretensions to be exact.”

Bl. John Henry Newman, The Newman Reader,
“On the Development of Doctrine,” 1, 5, 7.

It appears that my last post, Fundamentalist Catholics and Ecclesial Catholics, struck a nerve.

In addition to the expected disagreements over my characterization of this moment in the Church as a fundamental disagreement between two views of Church authority, a number of bloggers and Facebook and Twitter users took exception to my use of the word “fundamentalist” to describe their view of doctrinal authority.

I spent a great deal of time trying to come up with each of the terms, and in the end decided that the dictionary definition of fundamentalism (“a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts”) seemed to best encapsulate the stance which I described when I wrote:

“For the fundamentalist Catholic, the highest Magisterial authority is the Tradition itself, as understood by the Church as handed down from the Apostles. The fundamentalist will reject Petrine authority or new doctrinal developments promulgated by the Holy See, if, in light of their understanding of Tradition, they determine that the new teaching does not conform to it. If the teaching of the current pope does not appear to them to align with the traditional understanding, they will appeal to the teachings of prior popes that they believe contradicts the new teaching.”

I was trying to say that they view the fundamentals of the faith as unchanging, and will not accept the teachings of a pope who they believe is violating these fundamentals.  

Admittedly, “fundamentalist” does take on a negative connotation when applied to extreme religious groups, but my intention was to use the word in the technical sense: to describe someone who relies on a “plain reading” of religious texts as their highest doctrinal authority. Fr. Dwight Longenecker was highly offended by my use of the word. He dedicated the first ⅓ of his blog post attempting to educate his readers about how he thinks the word should be used.

On the other hand, I object to Fr. Longenecker’s alternative classification, “Conservative Catholics.” This is not a liberal or conservative issue. In fact, both positions I posted could technically be classified as conservative because both prioritize orthodoxy and obedience to the teachings of the Magisterium. Alternatively, they both could be called liberal (in an American context), assuming both sides embrace the traditional principles of Catholic social teaching.

The division that interests me is how these two groups determine what is magisterial and orthodox. Indeed, as I wrote in my second sentence:

“Catholics, many of whom were close allies during the pontificates of St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, find themselves looking across an unbridgeable and widening canyon between two dramatically different ways of how to understand the Church.”

This division, however you want to classify it, is real. It is causing real damage to the Church, and there is a threat of a long-lasting, de facto schism, if not a formal one. My aim is to identify this division and defend the “ecclesial” position (the Catholic position), with the hope that those who oppose the magisterial teachings of Pope Francis can realize the error of their perspective.


Fr. Longenecker actually did spend a little time on the substance of my argument, and then proceeded to demonstrate a nearly textbook example of the fundamentalist approach to doctrine that I described.

He refers to Bl. John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, summarizing it thus:

“Put very simply, authentic development of doctrine must not only be in continuity with the past, but there must also be a natural growth which is consistent with the past and not contradictory. What seems to be an innovation must be a logical outgrowth of the original kernel of truth. Furthermore, the “new” truth must be seen to be already existent in seed form in the primitive teaching and the “new” truth must be a consolidation not a destruction of the “old” truth. Finally, Newman says there must be “chronic vigor” in the developing doctrine — in other words it presents itself as a vibrant and dynamic outgrowth of the old truth — not a lessening or diminution of that truth.”

In no way have I or any other serious defender of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia ever suggested that Chapter 8 of the exhortation, including footnote 351, is based on anything other than the teachings of the Church. We have put forward a number of essays explaining how it is a development in continuity with prior teaching, and perhaps we are due to write another.

And yet, Fr. Longenecker takes it as a matter of fact that any reasonably intelligent person should see it as an innovation that is incompatible with the perennial teachings of the Church:

“They believe the footnote in chapter eight introduces an innovation which would be to allow Catholics who are in an objectively sinful situation to receive holy communion. If this is what the footnote means, then they wish to test this innovation against Newman’s criteria. To do so becomes immediately obvious to the most elementary theological thinker that such an innovation does not, in fact, comply with any of Newman’s seven standards.”

Fr. Longenecker, without blinking, walks right into exactly what I described in my own essay:

“The Fundamentalist does not see his understanding of doctrine as a private judgement, but as an objective, plain reading of the Tradition, which should be self-evident to anyone with the ability to think logically.”

Newman himself spoke of the need to understand that doctrines might not develop in a way that we can anticipate or in a way that our preconceived notions are prepared to accept. As I quoted at the beginning of this essay, John Henry Newman speculated that Peter himself likely didn’t anticipate a major development of doctrine that he promulgated in the Acts of the Apostles. “It must have been an extreme shock to St. Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught.

Surely at the time, many devout Christians of Jewish origin objected to such a change in discipline. And just think of how the earliest Gentile converts must have felt: those who had undergone circumcision and adopted a Jewish lifestyle in order to follow Christ!

Could anyone but Peter have imposed such a bold and radical change in discipline, one that surely caused turmoil and division in the Church? Of course not. But Peter had the authority to make the change, and the divine assistance to do so was granted to him by Christ. The change, as Newman states, was implied in the faith that he held and taught, but I suspect many didn’t realize this until years later, if at all.

The same charisms granted to Peter were also granted to his successors. Pope Francis’s authority comes from Christ, the same as Peter’s. Pope Francis is granted divine assistance from the Holy Spirit to carry out the role entrusted to him, and to ensure unity in the Church.

Those who deny Pope Francis’s authority to teach doctrine faithfully in a new way and to modify the disciplines of the Church do not realize they deny an important aspect of his authority, and (despite good intentions) contribute to the division of the Church.


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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

The shock of developing doctrine: A response to Fr. Dwight Longenecker
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