“We must move toward an idea of truth that is evermore inclusive, less restrictive; at least, if we are thinking of the truth of God and not some human truth, however solid it may appear to us. The truth of God is inexhaustible; it is an ocean of which we can hardly see the shore. It is something that we are beginning to discover in these times: not to make us slaves to an almost paranoid defense of ‘our truth’ (if I ‘have it,’ he does not ‘have it’: if he `can have it,’ then it is I who ‘does not have it’). Truth is a gift that is too large for us, and for this reason it magnifies us, amplifies us, elevates us: and it makes us servants of such a gift. This does not involve relativism; the truth instead obliges us to a continuous process of deepening our understanding.”

-Cardinal Bergoglio

One of the many positive fruits that have come from my research into Pope Francis’ teachings is that I have a better understanding of how Catholic teaching changes and develops. Up until recently, I thought that the Church has always taught the same thing since the beginning, that somehow the Church possesses the truth. But that’s not the case…and thank God it isn’t. Let me explain.

The Catechism says, “The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously ‘by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other’ and shed light on each another. It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually” (Catechism 53).

God reveals himself to us gradually, within time. This, by definition, means that our understanding of God and the things of God changes over time. Likewise, Church teaching also changes as our understanding of God’s revelation and creation increases. Again, the Catechism says, “Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries” (Catechism 66).

Now, the kind of change I’m referring to isn’t something disconnected from the past. I’m speaking about an unfolding or a development, a kind of change that is in continuity with what came before. Much like a tree. A mature tree looks very different from a sapling, which itself looks very different from a seed. Yet the mature tree is an organic development of that seed.  

The Church has developed its teaching on usury, religious freedom, slavery, and any number of things over the centuries. In matters of morality, because of our natural law moral system, conclusions can, and should, change as new information comes along. We come to know the moral purpose of a thing in part by understanding what that thing is. Thus, as our understanding of a thing increases the moral conclusion may also develop.

We saw this on display with the most recent revision of the Catechism concerning capital punishment. The first reason the Catechism gives for why this teaching developed is because today there is “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Previous generations didn’t have the degree of awareness that we have, so their moral conclusions were different.

This kind of development in teaching is precisely one of the roles of the Magisterium. The Catechism says:

“‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.’ This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism 85). 

In other words, it is precisely the role of the living Magisterium to receive the growing information that we have about creation and reapply that new understanding to the unchanging deposit of faith (i.e. the truths of Scripture and Tradition, the creeds, and those things declared to be infallible).

Some may think that saying the Church can change its teaching is a kind of relativism. However, it’s when I attempt to interpret Scripture and Tradition on my own, apart from the living Magisterium, that I risk falling into relativism. This is especially the case if my personal interpretation opposes what the Magisterium teaches. This is what we see on display from those who reject the magisterial teachings of Vatican II or those who reject the magisterial teaching of Pope Francis. But as long as I stand with the Magisterium I cannot fall into relativism.

In the quote above from Cardinal Bergoglio, the future pope said, “the truth instead obliges us to a continuous process of deepening our understanding.” The Church herself is constantly deepening her understanding, and the vehicle that the Holy Spirit uses to guide the Church to this ever greater understanding is the living Magisterium. Pope Benedict XVI said, “We do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, Who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that His hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge.”

As Catholics, we believe that Christ leads us to an always greater understanding of Himself. The hand He offers us is the Holy Spirit speaking through the living Magisterium. Stay close to the Catechism. Stay close to the Pope. Through them you will be led by the Spirit to the inexhaustible depths of Truth Himself.


[Photo Credit: Dominic Ureta on One Secret Mission]

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Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is.  He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation

We do not Possess the Truth: How the Church Changes Her Teachings

19 Responses

  1. jong says:

    very nice article.
    I think you nailed it because as man further his knowledge he develop his own pride that he can know things outside of the Magisterium and the Pope.
    This is again related to Lucifer quest for independence after he felt he knew a lot of things over the other angels.
    Pride that leads to Disobedience is repeating on those who oppose and resist Pope Francis Magisterial Teaching.

  2. Anne Lastman says:

    Thanks Paul love the article.
    Personally I have understood that capital punishment is wrong for over 20 years.
    One day I had one of those aha moments when I realised that I cannot fight as hard as I do for the life of a newly conceived, pinhead sized, zygote because of its inherent dignity due to his/ her design in the image and likeness of God and then see another human have stripped from him that same image and dignity.
    My thinking went along the line that a criminal committed a crime in his behaviour but the behaviour did not remove the divine imprint. Only the Creator has that mandate.
    So since that “aha moment” I have quietly worked whenever possible to rebel against death penalty.
    Further, I have understood that development of teaching is like a new human being. First zygote, embryo, foetus, newborn, toddler, young child, teeanger, youth, adult, mature, elderly.
    These all the same person having the ssme dignity but each stage of development its own understanding
    For me Jesus entered into human condition the same way as everyone but inherent in Him was His knowledge as Son of God and this developed to its full potential ss he grew and matured His fullness.

  3. Kevin Davis says:

    “The first reason the Catechism gives for why this teaching developed is because today there is ‘an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes’. Previous generations didn’t have the degree of awareness that we have, so their moral conclusions were different.”

    The obvious question is then, how does this not apply to our greater “degree of awareness” about homosexuality and gender identity? I’m fully aware of Newman’s development thesis, by a brilliant mind doing brilliant work, and I even wrote a dissertation on Newman’s ‘Grammar of Assent’. I am also, by temperament and conviction, a moderate on most matters, including matters of sex. I’m not a hardliner, and I’m sensitive to the historical and contingent aspects within the history of Christian doctrine.

    But I seriously do not understand how, given this understanding of development (especially in terms of a better understanding of human dignity than our forebears), how this does not easily fit the narrative from progressives in the Church that this equally applies to matters of same-sex sexual unions and gender identity. How not? Of course, Francis does not go this far, but who is to say that his successor(s) will not?

    This, by the way, is why my educated Protestant friends do not take Catholic claims — of being the divinely constituted custodian of faith and moral truths — seriously. How could they?

    • Paul Fahey says:

      Good question. I think it could very much apply to the Church’s sexual teachings, at least in theory. Our understanding of sex, like anything else, is always growing. I certainly don’t anticipate any changes in teaching unless some shocking new thing about sex is learned (and I can’t even imagine what that would be), but as a theoretical possibility I think it applies.

      I mean, we’ve even seen a development in the Church’s sexual teachings in the past century. It was only since Vatican II that the unitive end of sex was taught to be as essential as the procreative end. Our understanding of the human body and the human person is continuously unfolding. Look at the role our increased understanding of psychological has played into discussions of moral culpability and things like suicide.

      I’m not sure how this undermines the faith for educated Protestants. Could you explain more?

      I see it this way. The Holy Spirit inspired fallible, sinful human beings to write Scripture. All Christians believe this. Catholics also believe that the same Holy Spirit inspires fallible, sinful human beings to authoritatively interpret Scripture and Tradition. Just as the writers of Scripture were bound by time and history and culture so to are the interpreters of Scripture.

      And again, I’ll emphasize. Any change in the Church’s teaching is an organic extension of the past. Look at something like Francis’ provision for divorced and remarried couples in chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia. He’s pulling from Thomas Aquinas to articulate his teaching. There’s clearly a very solid connection to the Tradition. These are not arbitrary developments or changes based on the fashions of an age, they are deeply rooted in Revelation.

      Anyways, I hope this helps clarify things.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        Thanks, Paul, that is indeed helpful. The developments are certainly not arbitrary, on that we agree. My educated Protestant friends are mostly Calvinists, whether classical or more Barthian, and a few Lutherans — so, those who are steeped in serious systematic theology. The difficulty is, to put is simply, one generation of Catholics is taught that two guys or two gals having sex is prohibited. Based on your argument in this article, a future generation of Catholics could be taught differently, i.e., two guys or two gals having sex is licit under certain conditions of covenanted fidelity. As such, the Catholic at any point (as with Catholics who firmly believed that the death penalty was licit and not merely when society was in danger, because that’s what the Church taught) cannot truly give assent but, rather, only a provisional assent at best. This recalls C. S. Lewis’ comment, “…the real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but to what he’s going to say.” That is what you are arguing.

      • Paul Fahey says:

        I think maybe the confusions rests on what we mean by “assent.” Lumen Gentium 25 may help here:

        “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

        Here’s how I understand what the Church teaches. We give full assent to those this authoritatively and clearly defined by the Church (the Marian dogmas would be an example), the creeds, and the truths of Scripture and Tradition. However, we submit to the not-infallible-but-still-authoritative ordinary magisterium of the pope. And the degree of our submission depends on the manifest mind and will of the pope which is determined by “the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

        (By the way, one of those unchanging truths of Scripture and Tradition is the authority of the Magisterium.)

        The creeds aren’t changing. The teaching against adultery isn’t changing. The ten commandments aren’t changing. This is where the continuity of doctrinal development is important. Development happens when the unchanging truths are reapplied to new information.

        As for homosexual acts. I can’t imagine that changing because of some key doctrines about human anthropology. Intercourse is the only act that brings new persons into existence, that’s a difficult biological fact to change.

      • Kevin Davis says:

        And yet the problem remains when we are asked to give “assent” to something about which the faithful are not entirely sure, content-wise, is truly unchanging. Hence, I used the, admittedly imperfect, contrast between “true assent” and “provisional assent.” It’s imperfect because the Catholic conception itself is unclear about what it requires of the faithful, and I think C. S. Lewis nailed the difficulty.

        For example, you write, “Development happens when the unchanging truths are reapplied to new information.” Yes, but how is it “unchanging” when the death penalty is, thanks to a better understanding, contrary to human nature now but wholly licit, certainly in principle, every generation prior. This is why “development” is — I am increasingly convinced — just a clever way for Catholics to change doctrine without admitting to changing doctrine. It’s hard to imagine what cannot be admitted under the rubric of “development.” In fact, your comment about not imagining a change on homosexual acts is surely lacking in such an imagination!

        The continuity is that we have a better understanding of human dignity and the application of self-sacrificial agape in the concrete circumstances of the homosexual. It’s really not hard to imagine at all. The development allows for a new application: in this instance, a better and more authentic application of Christian doctrine concerning love and self-sacrifice in covenant with one another, wrongly considered illicit for homosexual unions in previous generations. That’s the argument, and it is perfectly compatible with what — now fully expressed under the Francis pontificate — the Church teaches about the development of doctrine.

        I really appreciate this exchange.

  4. Another article from the “Where Peter Is” blog.

    This article, while headed in the right direction, is poorly argued. I understand the author’s intention was to be concise, but one can be concise and still be precise or accurate.

    The author’s reasoning leaves open the idea that the Church can, in the year 2090 dogmatize the immaculate conception of St. Joseph, due to new studies on the necessary capacities of fatherhood from modern psychological studies. It leaves open the idea that the Church, in the year 2067, can open up the Chalice of Salvation to all of humanity, the unbelieving baptized as well as the believing baptized, due to new understandings which inform us that mortal sin, while possible, isn’t a practical reality anymore, and that the human desire for God expressed in a variety of forms, unbeknownst to them, is a hidden anonymous Christian. It leaves open the idea that Canterbury, in all her studies on gender and human sexuality, is right with regard to same-sex marriage and female ordination (perhaps, only to the diaconate). Oh I know how this works. The author wouldn’t say that gay marriage is right, but you would say that there is within the subjective conscience an elastic pliability to enable this person to be free of mortal sin and still yet living in grace due to severe mitigating factors to culpability. After all, gay lovers share and are nice to each other, aren’t they? Yeah.

    He rightly condemn relativism, but his principles don’t merit that condemnation. Why not? Because by suggesting that beliefs can change due to growing awareness, without the defined rule of continuity, the dam keeping absolute truth is cracked and ever breaking more and more. The Church of England loved to cite Newman’s essay in support of female ordination (of course, they didn’t read his rules of continuity correctly), and so they beat us to it. But I’m afraid with the minimalism you give to defend the development of doctrine, you don’t have anything to secure that dam from breaking.

    Particularly on the death penalty: The rule of development here cannot be simply “new awareness”, since that would implicate God in sin (Gen 9), as if God himself wasn’t aware of the intrinsic evil of taking a human life who was somehow thought to be “deserving” of it. Now, I could have misread him here (I’ve contacted him, will update in that case), and I hope I did. The only sliver of legitimacy to the Catechism revision is that the Pope prudentially feels that there isn’t a set of circumstances in the world today which justifies the removing of life as a punishment over and against alternative forms of punishment which maintain the life of the criminal. This rationale would permit the legitimacy and God-honoring possibility of the death penalty, given the right circumstances. But the author doesn’t explain, so the reader is left to question.

    Lastly, the author’s view of the Papacy and its indefectibility is far too fragile to handle historical facts. The case of Pope Vigilius, for example, would be devastating to the Papal view espoused in the article.

  5. Alienus dilectus says:

    If anyone shall have said that it is possible that to the dogmas declared by the Church a meaning must sometimes be attributed according to the progress of science, different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema. (Canon 3, Session 3, Vatican I)

    • Paul Fahey says:

      Phew! Then it’s a good thing I said that the dogmas of the Church (i.e. the truths of Scripture and Tradition, the creeds, and those things declared to be infallible) were unchanging.

      • Dylan Prince says:

        Tbh, even Benedict Talked about how there had been a “profound evolution of a dogma” in reference to the dogma of “outside the church there is no salvation.” It seems, even on points like this we can face a surprise formulation of a thought. What is consistent in the development? That the church is the principle of salavation by Christ. What is the innovation or “shocking surprise” ? One can be apart of the church in ways known to God

    • jong says:

      This boils down to Luke22:32,Why?
      When Pope Francis changes or develop a Non Definitive Teaching to fully conform to the Gospel of Mercy, the dissenters insist on orthodoxy.
      Pope Francis answer is, they have to seek Conversion.
      When the answer cannot be explain in orthodoxy it needs the Light coming from the Holy Spirit.
      The Gift of Understanding is needed and only a converted heart can grasp the Mercy of God.
      if we use Luke22:32, it clearly implied that all the Cardinals, Bishops and even expert theologian can be deceive by satan into teaching heresy but not the Pope., thats why the Pope is the Supreme Guarantor of Faith.
      When we cannot understand the teaching of Pope Francis it does not mean it is wrong it means we need to seek conversion.
      Only a humble and pure heart can see the Face of God, the Mercy of God.

  6. carn says:

    “As Catholics, we believe that Christ leads us to an always greater understanding of Himself. The hand He offers us is the Holy Spirit speaking through the living Magisterium. Stay close to the Catechism. Stay close to the Pope. Through them you will be led by the Spirit to the inexhaustible depths of Truth Himself.”

    What keeps the further development of doctrine from the awareness that sometimes the best way the Pope leads us closer to Christ by proclaiming some contradictory and confusing statements and that helps us closer to Christ by leading us to a “Oh my God, this does not make any sense; i should try to listen closely to my conscience, cause that Pope is unreliable”?

    I mean ok, at the moment, the development of doctrine has not gotten to the point, that under some circumstances the best way to Christ is listening to the Pope and then do as far the opposite as you conscience tells you to do; but why should future development go there?

    • Paul Fahey says:

      To be honest, your comment here about pitting our conscience against the Magisterium sounds a lot like those who have not been able to reconcile their consciences with Humanae Vitae.

  7. Marthe Lépine says:

    “Intercourse is the only act that brings new persons into existence”. However, nowadays, with the progress of science, conception can be achieved by “acts” such as IVF, or a kind of “artificial insemination” practiced when gay persons exchange sperms and ovaries without actual bodily contact. I know that these sorts of things are forbidden by the church, but they nevertheless bring new persons into existence. I sometimes wonder how it could be that real persons can be the fruit of such forbidden and unnatural practices… I wonder the same thing about zygotes kept in a freezer for several years.

  8. Dylan prince says:

    I also think our understanding even of doctrinal development has developed from a rather limited view to something more open and mysterious. More like an intuition of the heart and less a purely logical deduction. We need reason but the heart often perceived things that reason simply cannot our together. This thing is called “faith” after all. We have the assurance that faith and reason are compatible, but there are times where it may seem apparently contradictory, until further light is Shead

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