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Can Doctrine Change? Not Strictly

This is the first of two related articles on whether doctrine can change. In the first, we examine doctrine from the strict point of view, side by side with dogma.

What does the Church really teach? Since Pope John Paul II, media and laity alike have been interested in and sometimes confused by the pope’s ex tempore comments, whether on airplanes, during press conferences, or in dealings with secular leaders. We reach a high point in the pontificate of Pope Francis, during which major controversies break out as a result of statements both inside and outside the traditional avenues of teaching. Whether in the Abu Dhabi document or in his encyclicals, our pope has said things that have confused many. This is not new — ambiguity happens with everyone, and even popes can cause disputes unintentionally. Given the pope’s personality, his beliefs, and his frequent interviews, though, laity have had much greater occasion to interpret potentially explosive statements.

As confusion builds and laity are left wondering whether Amoris Laetitia and the Amazon Synod final document really hold authority as Church teaching, a perennial question returns: can doctrine change? Last year, we heard this question ignite the debate between Trent Horn and Tim Gordon on feminism and the death penalty. The two could not see eye to eye, and they seemed to be talking around each other.

When we examine the question, it is not hard to see why there was such conflict. Doctrine can be conceived of in many different ways. Depending on which way it is defined, it will be more or less able to change. The definition and the answer to the question have major ramifications, especially when we are dealing with a new teaching that seems to contradict perennial dogma. Can the Church constantly contradict itself? Do we need to follow authoritative teaching that we know to be contrary to Revelation? Does that type of teaching exist?

In the strict sense, doctrine is unchanging. Narrowly defined, doctrine is the next “level” of teaching down from dogma, which itself is meant when some say “doctrine.” As Ludwig Ott defines it, dogma is “a truth immediately (formally) revealed by God which has been proposed by the Teaching Authority of the Church to be believed as such” [1]. This definition comes from the First Vatican Council: “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the Word of God written or handed down and which are proposed for our belief by the Church either in a solemn definition or in its ordinary and universal authoritative teaching” [2].

From these we can see that dogma presupposes God’s Revelation and the Church’s proclamation. For something to be dogma, it must be revealed by God and proclaimed as such and proposed for our belief by the Church. It can be in Scripture or Tradition, written or unwritten, but it must be pronounced definitively by the Church, whether ex cathedra by the pope or via the ordinary and universal magisterium. The latter phrase usually means general (ecumenical) councils, which are representative of the whole episcopate. Not everything taught in councils is dogma, since dogma touches the realm of faith and morals.

As Vatican I and Ott mention, we still need to have the teaching proclaimed as revealed and proposed for our belief, even if taught in an ecumenical council. The anathema sit phrases common to the Council of Trent are great examples of the ordinary and universal magisterium. A teaching is proclaimed as revealed and binding, and those who repudiate it are explicitly condemned.

As the First Vatican Council mentions, dogmas are to be believed with “divine and Catholic faith.” Divine faith has its object in God, the Truth, Who reveals. It is the assent due to divine Revelation. Because Revelation is given by God, it is as unchangeable as He is. Catholic faith is in the infallible doctrinal definitions of the Church. These truths are not capable of error, since they participate in the binding and loosing authority Christ promised to the apostles and their successors, giving them power to make definitive pronouncements on faith and morals.

By now, it should be clear that dogma cannot change. Its infallibility is tied to its origin, and its origin is the immutable God. Denying dogma means, practically and technically speaking, heresy.

We need both divine and Catholic faith for a dogma, while Revelation on its own demands divine faith alone. The fact that Jesus wept is infallibly revealed by God through the Scriptures, but it has not been specifically enjoined upon us by the Church. It is just as immutable as the God who has revealed it, even though it has not been defined by the Church. Revelation is God’s truth, whether proclaimed or not.

Looking at some of the saints, we can see that it is not off base to use doctrine simply to refer to this Revelation. This is a common use of the term, although it is not its most specific definition. Both Saint Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana and Saint John Henry Newman in his treatise On the Development of Doctrine use the term in this way, referring to Revelation itself, proclaimed as such or not.

They and other saints sometimes speak of the Deposit of Faith when they refer to doctrine. This “Deposit” is the entire body of truth revealed by God and entrusted to the apostles to be preserved unscathed. It is the same “deposit” that Saint Paul speaks of in 1 Timothy 6:20. It is passed down by written and unwritten means, via Scripture and Tradition. It is Revelation proper and cannot be changed since it shares in God’s own infallibility. The Church has been given authority to preserve and interpret it in every age.

Leaving divine faith in Revelation aside, Catholic faith alone is where we get “doctrine” in the strict sense. Because of the Church’s legitimate authority to hand down Revelation, the Magisterium (teaching office) pronounces on Revelation itself and on everything presupposed by or following from it. As Ott explains, “those doctrines and truths defined by the Church not as immediately revealed but as intrinsically connected with the truths of Revelation so that their denial would undermine the revealed truths are called Catholic Truths (veritates catholicae) or Ecclesiastical Teachings (doctrinae ecclesiasticae) to distringuish them from the Divine Truths or Divine Doctrines of Revelation” [3].

Notice the Latin here: doctrinae. These truths, which are inseparable from Revelation, are doctrines, properly speaking. Doctrines cannot be separated from the revealed truths they support. Free will and the existence of the supernatural are examples of doctrines presupposed by Revelation. These are not proclaimed outright in Scripture, but without them, the moral consequences and supernatural realities that are proclaimed would not make sense. A syllogism combining Revelation with logical reason is another way to formulate a doctrine. Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis prohibited polygenism in a way that illustrates the function of doctrine:

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own. [4]

Here we can clearly see that doctrine involves the firm teaching of the Church on a matter inseparable from divine Revelation. Pius XII even references both Scripture and Tradition in his footnote, citing both Romans 5 and the Council of Trent’s fifth session. Because doctrine in the strict sense is so connected with Revelation and participates in the infallibility of the Church on faith and morals, it is just as infallible as the Revelation itself. If the doctrine falls, the revealed truth it supports would contradict the truth, which is impossible. If polygenism is allowed, Adam would not be first parent to all, and we would have to call God a liar.

The above example is sometimes contested, so one from the Council of Trent may be helpful: “If any one denieth, that, in the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist, the whole Christ is contained under each species, and under every part of each species, when separated; let him be anathema.”[5] Here is a clear, binding teaching on a matter not explicit in Revelation but connected with it. If this doctrine is denied, transubstantiation and the Real Presence are denied with it.

When many theologians and commentators say doctrine cannot change, they mean the revealed Deposit of Faith itself, these doctrinae ecclesiaticae defined by the Church as intrinsically connected with Revelation, or dogmas. In each of these cases, the truths fall back on the authority of God Himself, who cannot lie.

Our understanding of the doctrine may develop over time. Its application to diverse circumstances may look different based on the historical period. However, the proposition itself is unable to be changed, based as it is on the revealed truth of God. It can be formulated in different terms, but it must always be understood “in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning” [6]. Viewed strictly, a change in doctrine is impossible.

[1] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books. Charlotte, North Carolina. 1974. p.4. I am greatly indebted to Ott’s Introduction in pages 1–10 of this book for the majority of the information in this article on dogma and doctrine in the strict sense as well as the different grades of certainty concerning magisterial teaching.

[2] Denzinger, 1792.

[3] Ott, p.8.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 37. Emphasis mine. The pope cites Romans 5:12–19 and the Council of Trent, session 5, canons 1–4.

[5] Council of Trent, Session XIII, Canon III.

[6] Saint Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium, para. 54.

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