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Can Doctrine Change? It Depends on Your Perspective

This is the second of two related articles on whether doctrine can change. In the second, we explore doctrine in the broad sense, as “Church teaching.”

Can doctrine change? Depending on whom you ask, you will get a different answer. Though some are mistaken, many are simply using different definitions. They could be speaking about dogma, doctrine in the strict sense, doctrine in the broad sense, or Revelation itself. With so many ways to use the word “doctrine,” things can get heated quickly, especially in the thick of a debate that hangs on the word. We saw this firsthand in last year’s debate between Tim Gordon and Trent Horn.

Doctrine, in the strict sense, can never change. Strictly speaking, doctrines are “intrinsically connected with the truths of Revelation so that their denial would undermine the revealed truths” [1]. There is no room for error in this conception, since contradicting a doctrine means contradicting God, who revealed the truth it depends on.

Unfortunately for the casual layman, this is not the only way theologians, commentators, and laity use the word “doctrine.” In the broad sense, as it is often used today, doctrine can change easily or not at all, depending on the type. Understanding this will help us answer the most important issues. It seems that more often than not we encounter “doctrine” that appears to contradict the Church’s perennial teaching.

On its own, the Latin “doctrina” means simply “teaching” or “instruction.” When theologians and laymen use the term this broadly, they often mean “Church teaching.” Doctrine, according to this conception, is found all over councils, encyclicals, papal letters, Scripture, general audiences, and catechisms, to name a few. It is distinguished from discipline, the type of ecclesiastical decision not involving faith or morals.

It is worth noting that even in the strict sense, doctrine can appear in all of the aforementioned genres of Church teaching. The difference is that, strictly speaking, doctrine needs to come from a pope or from the bishops as a body. It also needs to be a clear definition and proposal of divinely revealed truth for our belief. This definition and proposal can be found in a variety of contexts. In the broad sense, doctrine need not be a solemn, binding statement on Revelation. It simply has to be teaching of the Church, which is much more easily pointed out.

Because of this, “doctrine” conceived broadly encompasses the strict definition as well as “lower level” teaching. This can make things confusing, especially when one person says that doctrine can’t change and another says that it can. Even if someone is using the more broad definition, it is not so cut and dry as saying that all doctrine can change. How do we know which teachings can and can’t change?

The truth cannot change or contradict itself. Infallible doctrine, which is by definition unable to fall into error, is always true. By divine authority, an infallible teaching is preserved from error and cannot legitimately be denied by later teaching. Technically speaking, this is a good way to know which “doctrines” can change, but it is not the easiest standard to apply in practice.

We already know the criteria for infallibility from the first part of this discussion. Dogmas are infallible, demanding divine and Catholic faith. Revelation itself, that which dogma proclaims and enjoins, is the truth of God Himself and is as such infallible. Doctrine strictly speaking, that which is proclaimed as intrinsically connected with Revelation, is also infallible because of its inseparable bond with divinely revealed truth.

What we really need to know is how certain we can be that something is the unchanging truth. This is where the Theological Grades of Certainty come in, handily explained by Ludwig Ott [2]. The highest degree of certainty means we can be confident that a statement is true, while a low degree of certainty means that we are almost certain that it is not true.

These grades are tools for giving us certainty that a “doctrine” in the broad sense is true. Just because a statement falls on the lower end of the spectrum does not make it false. It simply means we cannot be sure that it is true. The truth remains, regardless of our level of confidence.

At the highest level of the grades are Revelation, dogma, and doctrine in the strict sense. Revelation and dogma directly propose something as revealed by God, the Truth Himself. Doctrine in the strict sense enjoins upon the faithful a teaching that is inseparable from Revelation; without it, we would have to deny Revelation and call God a liar.

Below these are teachings “proximate to Faith,” which are statements regarded by theologians in general as truths of Revelation but not yet been promulgated as such by the Church. For example, we know through the Scriptures that Jesus got into a boat and taught, but the Church has never promulgated this truth. When a revealed truth is promulgated ex cathedra or by the ordinary and universal magisterium, it is considered a dogma.

Next come teachings “pertaining to the Faith,” those that are intrinsically connected with Revelation but have not yet been pronounced as such by the Church. These “theological conclusions,” when solemnly pronounced by the Church, are doctrines in the strict sense and share in magisterial infallibility.

As we can see from this explanation, the two grades below Revelation, dogma, and doctrine strictly speaking contain the same truths the three highest levels contain. However, because they have not yet been proclaimed as such by the Church, we cannot be as certain of their truth. This goes to show that less certainty does not have to mean less truth.

Below teachings pertaining to the Faith, we have “common teaching,” which is teaching belonging to free opinion but generally accepted by theologians. Depending on the historical era, Limbo falls into this category. The last set of grades includes probable, more probable, well founded, pious, and tolerated opinions. Depending on how much an opinion is seen as agreeing with the sense of the Catholic faith, it is more or less probable. Tolerated opinions are allowed to be held but are considered weakly founded.

Even if we are familiar with these grades of certainty, we must be careful not to be too hasty. The pope’s usual, non–ex cathedra way of teaching and the teaching of the curial congregations may not be infallible, but they still have authority. The Lord has given supernatural authority to the Holy See and to the pope, and their teachings should be accepted with an “inner assent” that is something more than respectful silence [3].

Mere opinions do not demand this kind of assent, but statements proposed as teaching do. If a competent theologian or expert doubts one of these teachings, he must thoroughly investigate all of its foundations. This investigation can and should be a tedious process. If he exhausts his investigation and still finds the teaching in error, he is not bound by this inner agreement.

Other elements that bear on the authority of a statement include authorship and form. Both of these matter. The pope has more weight than a congregation in the Curia, but a papal audience does not have as much weight as an encyclical. The bishops have the potential for infallibility when they gather as a body, but not every statement they make in an ecumenical council is infallible, and even the ones that are have that character only with the pope’s assent. Combined with the grades of certainty, these are helpful tools when considering the level of “doctrine” we are dealing with.

Ultimately, authorship and form are qualities of the document itself, making them general indicators of a teaching’s weight. Since the teachings themselves are contained in the different propositions within the document, these are the more specific indicators. Grades of certainty can often be more helpful because of this, since they cover specific propositions.

From all of this we can gain a greater grasp of which statements from the Church are true and which are not. Again, only Revelation, dogma, and doctrine strictly speaking are infallible per Vatican I’s Dei Filius and per Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium.[4] Every other grade falls into the “not infallible” category. This does not make everything in a lower grade automatically “fallible”; we should not call something “fallible” just because it is not infallible. It may still be a true proposition; we simply can’t be as certain of its truth.

If a teaching, statement, or instruction is true, it can never change. Truth cannot contradict truth. It can be formulated differently and understood more deeply, but it cannot fundamentally change. If a true teaching is not protected by infallibility, it could be contradicted by a later statement. This means that popes can teach contradictory doctrines, broadly speaking. One of them will always be right and the other will always be wrong, but we cannot be certain of who is who until the argument is settled definitely.

This is the sense in which doctrine can “change.” This can happen even in matters of faith and morals, so long as they have not been settled infallibly. Once the matter has been definitively decided ex cathedra or by the ordinary and universal magisterium, it is a closed discussion, and denial amounts to heresy. Until then, the Church still enjoys magisterial authority, and her teachings should be respected, but apparent contradiction is possible.

So, then, can doctrine change? It depends on your definition. In the strict sense, no; it is inseparable from Revelation, and to deny it means denying Truth Himself. In the broad sense, sometimes, depending on the type of teaching. In the situations where “doctrine” can change, we are looking at a lower grade of certainty, and the discussion is still open. Here we can get frustrating, contradictory teachings, even from successive popes.

In these and in all situations, we must look to the infallible, unchanging standards of our faith. The Deposit of Faith, handed down via Scripture and Tradition, is primary. Secondary but more accessible are the solemn definitions of the Magisterium: dogma and doctrine, strictly speaking. These are always available to us, and they will never fail. Armed with this knowledge, we can sift through contentious debates and puzzling papal interviews.

[1] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books. Charlotte, North Carolina. 1974. p. 8.

[2] Cf. Ott, pp. 9–10 for the grades of certainty and for reference for much of the material in this essay. Other theologians have grades with slightly different thresholds at the lower levels.

[3] Ott, 10.

[4] Cf. Denzinger, 1792. and Lumen Gentium, 25.

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