Pope Francis, John XXIII: “Development” of Doctrine

Pope Francis’ observation that “development” of doctrine means that we can now declare that the death penalty is unacceptable to Catholics, opens up an important debate on the very nature of “development” of Church teaching. Typically for Francis, when he introduces something seemingly new, he is in fact resting solidly on his predecessors, and on past practice. In Amoris Laetitia, the issues that have drawn the most strenuous opposition were in fact firmly grounded in Thomas Aquinas, and in the teaching of Pope John Paul II. Right at the beginning of his papacy, in a widely publicised interview with  La Civiltà Cattolica, he said clearly that it is both inevitable and necessary that doctrine will constantly develop. He supported that statement, by quoting from the a reading for the daily office for the feast of St Vincent of Lerins – whose feast day was yesterday (Friday of week 27).

Pope Saint John XXIII

In his statement this week on the death penalty referring to the possibility of development in church teaching, he drew on Pope John XXIII and Vatican II:

The Jesuit pope began his talk by recalling that at the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962, John XXIII said, “It is necessary first of all that the church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened up new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.” Moreover, Pope John added, “our duty is not only to guard this treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the church has followed for 20 centuries.”




For LGBT Catholics, the phrase  “new conditions and new forms of life” is of primary importance.  There are only a handful of bible verses which even appear to condemn same-sex genital activity, and it is upon these that the entire body of established Catholic opposition to same-sex relationships rests. However, it is now widely accepted that whatever it is that the infamous clobber texts actually mean, they cannot be referring to the kind of modern same-sex unions grounded in relationships of loving, committed and mutual support  on the basis of equality between the partners. Such relationships simply did not exist in antiquity. Today, they are one of the “new conditions of life” that John XXII said we must take into account in the continuing development and refinement of doctrine.

Pope Francis was speaking at an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catholic Catechism. His concluding paragraphs hammered home this necessity and inevitability of constant development of doctrine:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static.  The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!  No.  The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt.  This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.  “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8).  We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

Several commentators have interpreted Pope Francis’ condemnation of the death penalty in the context of the Catechism, as raising the possibility that the Catechism itself may need to be revised. If it is, may we hope that at the same time, the paragraphs on sexuality too, will be revised to bring them into closer alignment with those “new conditions and forms of life” referred to by Pope John XXIII?

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