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).
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.”