“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.”
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]
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.