“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

12 Responses

  1. Janet says:

    Thank you Mike for all the information you publish. I for one am very grateful.


  2. Christopher Lake says:

    Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing the increasing tendency for some Catholics to treat the crucial matter of the interpretation of Sacred Tradition, as if it were somehow a matter of *self-evident orthodoxy and heresy*– which the Catholic laity is now, somehow, under Pope Francis, supposedly sufficient to parse out *without* the guidance of the current Pope and the Magisterium teaching in accordance with him. This is a paradigm which has some of the trappings of Catholicism but is, really, radically Protestant at its core.

    Usually, when I have challenged this paradigm, the standard response that I’ve received, from fellow Catholics, has been something along these lines: “If you can’t see how (insert document or public statement from Pope Francis here) is in opposition to Catholic Tradition, then you need to look more closely, and/or open your eyes, stop blindly following the Pope,” etc. etc.

    That response is, again, radically Protestant. It is coming from fellow Catholics, but it still approaches the Sacred Tradition of the Church as radical Protestants approach the Bible– as if the interpretation of *either* Scripture *or* Tradition is a simple matter of the laity reading texts, and interpreting them, via the Holy Spirit, and then, coming to “self-evident” conclusions about orthodoxy and heresy.

    I paid some very painful prices when I finally, consciously, left Protestantism to return to full communion with the Catholic Church. I’m certainly no martyr, but my journey back to the Church involved real loss (mostly involving friends and career and reputation) and real gain (largely spiritual, though I have made very dear, wonderful friends in the Church!). Given that I *did choose* to return to the Church, why in the world would I want to return to thinking with a Protestant paradigm, but this time, from within the Church?? No, I am a Catholic, and I can’t go back to thinking as any kind of Protestant (as much as I do love my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ!), *especially* from within the Church– no matter how “self-evidently clear” the issues seem to be to some of my fellow Catholics!

  3. Edward Hara says:

    How does completely changing doctrine fall into line with this? For instance, Augustine’s idea of Original Sin, which apparently came from his inability to understand the Greek of the NT? From this idea, i.e. the inherited guilt of Adam falling upon all who are ever conceived in the womb, came the idea of Limbus Infantium.

    There are other ideas which have been floated out into the Roman Catholic theological milieu and accepted as dogma which have no foundation in the writings of the Early Fathers. Are we to consider, for instance, the Immaculate Conception as a “development of doctrine” when there was nothing there and then *poof” there it is? Sounds rather like creating a new doctrine to me, and the worst part of it was that it was not done in the same manner as was done in the first 1,000 years of the united Church – i.e. that a COUNCIL is called and the Church prays and issues a statement either accepting the idea as dogma or rejecting it. The Scriptures state that it is the Church that is the “pillar and ground of truth” and not any single individual. I find this and other issues within the Roman Catholic Church are causing me not only a lot of angst, but a real reconsidering of my conversion to the Catholic faith as opposed to the Orthodox Church.

    The four marks of the Church are “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” If the Roman Church is teaching new ideas as dogma which were invented during the Medieval Age and are not found explicitly in the writings of men like St. John Chrysostom, how does it qualify as “apostolic?”

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Edward, it seems your issue with the Church is a lot broader than the issue I am describing in the blog post.

      Obviously, the Catholic Church doesn’t claim that the Immaculate Conception came out of nowhere. Indeed, the Orthodox do venerate Mary as the Mother of God and recognize her sinlessness. The orthodox recognize that Mary’s body was assumed into heaven after her death.

      My post operates under the assumption that the reader accepts the Catholic faith is true.

      Perhaps we will look at the differences between Catholicism and Eastern orthodoxy.

      • Edward Hara says:

        Of course we recognize the Theotokos as Immaculate. The Immaculate Conception is not necessary for Her to be sinless and immaculate. We know Her as the Mother of God, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Inexhaustible Cup, and also know that She was translated into heaven after Her death.

        My “problem” ( as you say ) is with the way that these doctrines were presented to the world. They were not brought about by an ecumenical council, which is the pattern we have for the first 1,000 years. Augustine’s bizarre anthropology was not ratified as orthodox by a council. For some reason, the Roman Catholic Church took his ideas and ran with them until they became the notion of “Original Sin” as understood by Western Christianity today, i.e. because of Adam’s sin, I am guilty of sin.

        When you mention the “Catholic Church,” in all fairness you should phrase it as the “Roman Catholic Church.” There are Eastern Catholics who are in communion with Rome who accept NONE of the innovations of the Roman Rite made up after the schism of 1054. Such clarity would make it understood that you speak for your rite in particular and not the other 23 rites of the Catholic faith who are in communion with Rome.

        I do appreciate the link to Pete Vere.

        You may also wish to look up this link if you wish to approach the differences between East and West.


    • Mike Lewis says:

      I would also like to draw your attention to the (other) blog of our resident Eastern Catholic, Pete Vere.

      He writes on issues surrounding the Eastern Churches, both those in communion and outside of communion with Rome.


  4. Pete Vere says:

    Ed and Mike, thanks for the kinds words. The first thing I would point out as a Byzantine Catholic who ministers in a largely Roman Catholic context is the following:

    We are essentially dealing with three theological frameworks here: 1) Latin; 2) Byzantine; and 3) popular. So even though all our exchanges are taking place in English, there is a lot of jumping between contexts. (In fact, I myself am often guilty of equating Roman with Latin.) So we must remember charity here.

    Let’s begin with using the commonly-agreed to canonical language between East and West. First, as Eastern Catholics we celebrate according to certain liturgical rites, but we belong to Eastern Churches sui iuris. Or “Eastern Churches” for short.

    Likewise, the western Church is referred to “the Latin Church” or “Latin Catholic Church” and not the “Roman Catholic Church”. After all, Constantinople became capital of the Roman Empire during the reign of St Constantine the Great.

    Secondly, I would remind everyone that although Eastern Christianity has embraced the theology of ancestral sin over St Augustine’s original sin, St Augustine is recognized as a saint in the East.

    That being said, the question of ecumenical councils is very tricky. Especially in light of the more recent ones. This is an issue the Catholic Church needs to work through with our Eastern non-Catholic sister Churches. I don’t think Vatican II will prove too big a hurdle since most of its theology is Eastern, having arisen through the intervention of Melkite Patriarch Maximos of Antioch.

    At the very least, we need to recognize that different theological paradigms are at work when discussing original/ ancestral sin, Filioque, Immaculate Conception, etc…

    Two thoughts come to mind, both of which I find positive as a Christian practicing Orthodoxy in communion with Rome.

    The first is a theological reflection by then-Cardinal Ratzinger stating the Catholic Church should not insist the Eastern Orthodox recognize ecumenical councils other than the first seven, since the theology of subsequent councils recognized by the Latin Church is contained in the first seven recognized by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

    Secondly, in ecumenical relationship with the Oriental Orthodox (aka non-Chalcedonian) Churches, the Catholic Church was actually further advanced than were the Eastern Orthodox, because the Catholic Church was content with common Christological formulations between Catholics and Oriental Orthodox that addressed the Christological concerns of both Churches. Upon which, having obtained theological unity in a way that also upholds common orthodox Christology between Chruches, the Catholic Church no longer insisted that the Oriental Orthodox Churches recognize the first seven ecumenical councils.

    In the end, these are very delicate issues that Popes, Patriarchs, Catholicos, and Major Archbishops within our respective communions are working hard to address.

  5. LD says:

    Thank you for this post and please continue to use the very appropriate term Fundamentalist Catholic. As you noted, fundamentalism is a stance and way of embracing a belief system or any worldview for that matter. That a fundamentalist stance crept into the Church with the recent influx of unassimilated fundamentalist converts is no surprise. To call this phenomenon ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’ (while implying orthodox or more faithful) is incorrect. Many view their Catholic faith through the lens of fundamentalism, and impose their vision on others, to create a strange hybrid religion. Catholicism is diluted and splinters as a result. EWTN media’s cottage industry is propagating Catholic fundamentalism.

  6. LD says:

    Online priests like Father Longenecker and Father’Z’ have made a cottage industry of encouraging the faithful to look to them rather than to the magisterium to interpret articles of faith. By doing so, they sow doubt and discord in the church. At some point, they will need to own this fact.

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