Monday, November 04, 2019

More on the Development of Doctrine

CWR: The Spirit versus the letter: Responding to a false view of doctrinal development by Eduardo Echeverria

Sergio Centofanti’s recent essay for Vatican News claims that the Church teaches, “It is necessary to follow the Spirit, rather than the strict letter.” This opposition could not be further from the truth.

I am not of course suggesting that there is not development. But there is development without change even when there is reversal in Church teaching. Centofanti completely overlooks the distinctions between development, continuity, change, and reversal. He focuses on examples of reversals (unbaptized babies, the exegesis of 1 Timothy 11-12 regarding the place of woman in the Church, and religious liberty) but never refers to the theological notes that qualify certain teachings as infallible such that they possess the highest degree of certainty. This means that he fails to account for development, clarifications, reformulations, while nevertheless maintaining the stable continuity of fundamental meaning and truth of authoritative dogmas/doctrines. I will return to this point below.

But does Echeverria make enough distinctions between theological opinion (even if it is of the bishop of Rome) and dogma? Let us look at the two examples of reversals: religious liberty and ecumenism. Was religious liberty (or anything pertaining to the political community and the laws that it may or may not issue) part of Divine Revelation? No -- religious liberty, like contemporary Roman Catholic Social Teaching, pertains to moral theology, and so papal theological opinion on this point isn't "reversed" as if it were dogmatic (even if some Latins think it is) but contradicted.

As for ecumenism -- precepts concerning whom to admit to worship, or with whom one can pray is more a human determination that is (ecclesiastical) positive law than a precept of Divine Law, something taking into consideration goods secondary to God Himself. And so in so far as we are dealing with ecclesiastical positive law, that can be changed. As for human judgments as to who is a heretic or schismatic, those judgments can be erroneous and are not protected by an Latin notion of infallibility.

In order for theories of doctrinal development to be taken seriously, we must talk about doctrine, what constitutes doctrines, whether there are levels of doctrine, and if historically what has been understood to be doctrine was mistaken.

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