How to Tell Doctrinal Development From Cultural Corruption

COMMENTARY: Jesus Christ is the true icon of human nature. This reality is at the foundation of every authentic moral doctrine.

Raphael, “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,” 1509
Raphael, “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,” 1509 (photo: Public Domain)

There is much talk these days about the concept of the “development of doctrine” in the Church. The topic is a complex one and its various nuances cannot be adequately dealt with in a short essay. Nevertheless, it is also the case, given the importance of doctrinal truth in the life of the Church, that it should be possible for an average Catholic to make some sense of it without the necessity of having advanced theological training.

Along these lines, there is a certain level of common sense that should prevail in the Church’s doctrinal catechesis such that the plain meanings of words must not become so laden with endless theological qualifications that they cease to express the basic truths of the faith with clarity. Such obfuscations have the net effect of turning a doctrine into something deeply confusing and obscure and, in so doing, nullify the original plain-sense meaning that the doctrine was meant to convey in the first place.

We can deepen our understanding of what the full implications of a doctrine are. But that deepening of understanding is completely dependent on an antecedent stability of meaning — therefore, any alleged “development of doctrine” that begins with the presumption that this kind of stability represents a “backwardist fundamentalism” is immediately suspicious. Because if “looking back” at those stable meanings is something bad, then what we are dealing with in any so-called development of doctrine is not really development at all but simply an “innovation” that is grounded in nothing more than the gossamer wisps of the current zeitgeist.

I hasten to add that this need for a clear meaning to words and their stability over time does not mean that doctrinal formulations cannot at times employ the rather technical language of theological discourse in the interests of greater precision. But it does mean that even such highly technical language (e.g., “consubstantial with the Father”) denotes something clear and precise, which is the original reason for using more technical forms of discourse in the first place.

Yet another aspect of common sense is the affirmation that any development of doctrine that flatly contradicts previous Church doctrines that have been taught by the Church needs to meet a high bar of theological consensus. The presumption, in other words, is in the direction of clarity and stability, and any deviation from previous teaching must ground itself in other teachings that are deemed more foundational and higher in the hierarchy of truths.

But even here, if a teaching is reversed, then the reasons for the reversal must also be doctrinally clear and grounded in the stable truths of Revelation. We must not — indeed, we cannot — reverse previous doctrines simply because they run afoul of contemporary opinions in the prevailing cultural ether. Nor can we adopt as a principle for guiding our concepts of the development of doctrine the notion that since the Church has changed in a few things, she can change in many things, if not all things. No differentiation is made in such claims between the varying levels of authority in Church teaching and how the Church has made such changes very cautiously and with an eye toward deep theological reflection on the truths of Revelation. But, now, we are asked to change teachings based on such puerile slogans like “Love is love” or “The science has changed!”

In reality what we have in our current moment is the cultural tail wagging the ecclesial dog. Good theology is replaced with socio-babble bromides and cheap slogans, even from the highest levels of the Church. Proper distinctions between different levels of authority in Church teaching are ignored because they do not serve the rhetorical goal. And the goal is change. Change in sex and gender teachings. And its proponents latch onto any arguments, no matter how shallow, so long as they are publicly serviceable as “cover” for the deeper project of change.

For an example of this look no further than the ill-advised comments from San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference this year. He stated that the Church needs to “refine” its doctrines on “some issues” based on the fact that its previous doctrines on those issues have been hamstrung by a defective understanding of human nature. It is clear that he is referring to sexual morality, and it is also clear that “refinement” of the teachings is not the goal. The goal, rather, is to change those teachings into their opposite — and in particular the teachings dealing with “LGBTQ” persons.

No mention is made of the level of authority expressed in those past teachings or the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the magisterium of the Church in expressing them. This is pure historicization run amok in the service of a conclusion in search of an argument.

Past Church teaching has become an obstacle to the embracing of the LGBTQ agenda and so it is past teaching that must change, no matter how authoritative it may have been and no matter the distorting effects on the Tradition that its radical alteration would incur.

It is clear, therefore, that for cardinals like McElroy, the “development of doctrine” means a questionable “refinement” in the direction of an ever-increasing foregrounding of the normativity of modern secularity and its values at the expense of the Church’s traditional understanding of these matters.

What is particularly noteworthy is the grand reversal of values and the falsification of the good that this view entails. It is galling in the extreme to see how the proponents of Cardinal McElroy’s views, as well as those of Jesuit Father James Martin, are quick to claim that those of us who still adhere to the Church’s traditional moral teachings are guilty of going against the mercy and compassion of Christ. Therefore, in this grand enterprise of theological alchemy, what was once universally declared to be a moral evil is now not only not evil, but morally good, and those of us who still adhere to the traditional teaching are now on the side of evil.

Such legerdemain is an almost certain sign that this is not a development of doctrine at all, but a dangerous game of theological “Whack-a-Mole,” where settled moral issues reemerge willy-nilly from below without any guiding rationale.

Along these lines, the ardent defenders of this approach love to assert that we can indeed reverse previous doctrines on such things as homosexuality because the teaching authority of the Church is a “living magisterium” and the Church herself is, as the recent synod claimed, a “Church on the move” (whatever that nebulous phrase means). The emphasis is on change and flux and not on clarity and stability. And as such, it is dubious in the extreme as a guiding principle for the development of doctrine. Such an emphasis on flux that is unmoored from a binding adherence to past tradition is profoundly un-Catholic. In fact, I think it is a modern iteration of the ancient heresy of Montanism, which wanted to replace the stability of the apostolic deposit of the faith with the enthusiasms of the moment, falsely perceived as the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And by constantly setting in opposition the allegedly living magisterium of the current pontificate with those “backwardists” who insist on the entirety of the tradition as living, they saw off the branch upon which they are sitting. Because — and this bit of logic seems to escape their notice — once any teaching of the Church is promulgated, it becomes, by definition, part of the past. And as part of the past it is now, apparently, part of the fungible magisterium of yesterday.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a lecture given by the wonderful Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway. If you are not familiar with his writings, you should be.

In a lecture given Feb. 11 at the University of Navarra, he spoke on the topic of “Evangelization in Times of Forgetfulness.” In that context he spoke of the development of doctrine and said something that I think is quite profound in a very simple way. He stated:

The notion of the depositum fidei is ancient. It refers to the fullness of faith as contained in Scripture and Tradition. … The deposit finds ever new ways of expressing itself. It speaks many languages, assumes different cultural forms. To find its right articulation in the present is the challenge of each generation. What matters is this: not to reduce it to less than itself (emphasis added).

The deep insight given here is that no true development of doctrine can take the Tradition and “reduce it to less than itself.” And the heart of the Tradition is nothing other than the Revelation of God in Christ. Thus, to reduce the Tradition to less than itself means the eclipsing of Christ — nothing more, and nothing less.

And any alleged “development of doctrine” that replaces the Church’s traditional moral theology on the grounds that we now have a “new anthropology” should immediately raise our suspicions that the Tradition is about to be made “less than itself.” Because invariably these so-called “new anthropologies” are not nearly Christological enough, insofar as they tend to replace a theological understanding of human nature with a purely sociological, biological and psychological one. They assert that human nature is “more complex” than what we thought before in our simplistic, premodern and prescientific understanding of things, and then proceed to reduce that nature to something utterly flat and metaphysically simplistic.

The tradition becomes less Christological, and therefore “less than itself,” whenever the model for human nature provided by Christ is deemed an “ideal” that has the net effect of transposing it into some ethereal realm of the unreal and even the fantastical. At best, it expresses a radically futuristic eschatology that turns Christology into a form of utopianism; and, at worst, it turns the traditional understanding of Christ into an oppressor from which we need to be liberated.

The language of Christ as an “ideal” sounds good on paper since we are all sinners and we all fall short. But it is profoundly unbiblical. The New Testament portrays Christ as the true icon of human nature but in no way as a mere ideal. And it is only as the true icon of our nature that he is our Savior. And all morality is grounded in this Christological icon.

Therefore, any development of doctrine that obscures this is not only false, but profoundly cruel — and certainly not an accurate portrayal of what it means to be a human being. There is indeed a “defective” understanding of human nature floating around these days. But it is not coming from the Church.