Interview: Dr. Claudio Pierantoni on the Development of Doctrine

Last month, our friends at LifeSiteNews conducted an interview with Dr. Claudio Pierantoni, Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile, along with several other Catholic Scholars on the topic of the development of doctrine. The occasion was the controversy raised by the pope’s recent comments that the Death Penalty “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel.” Although LifeSiteNews published links to PDF versions of the full interviews, their final article contained only excerpts of each of the scholars’ full interview responses.

In the interest of providing greater access and attention to the full argument as laid out by Dr. Pierantoni, we are pleased to present to you his interview in its entirety, as we did with Dr. Josef Seifert earlier this month, with the gracious permission of both LifeSiteNews and Professor Pierantoni.

LifeSiteNews interview on the ‘Death Penalty’ address of Pope Francis with Dr. Claudio Pierantoni, Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile.

October 20, 2017

(Read original LSN report here: Scholars raise concerns over Pope Francis remarks on how doctrine develops)


LifeSiteNews: Can there ever be a “new understanding” of Christian truth that is contrary to a previous understanding?

Pierantoni: Definitely not: if the principle of non-contradiction is not respected, Christian truth would not be “true” in any rationally verifiable sense. Of course there can be contradictions which are only apparent because they refer to different aspects: in that case, it must be clearly stated to which different aspects the apparently contradictory statement refer. For example, I can say that a man is both black and white: but I must specify that he is black as to his skin, but has white teeth. I can say that the Pope is both fallible and infallible, but then I must specify under which conditions he is infallible.

LifeSiteNews: What is the deposit of faith? 

Pierantoni: The word “deposit” has here a juridical meaning: it is a metaphor taken from a juridical technical term. To make a deposit, legally speaking, means an agreement by which the person who receives the thing deposited must faithfully keep it and return and deliver (tradere, traditio) exactly the same thing when asked. So, when the New Testament refers to this concept (e.g. I Tim 6,20: ”Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you (depositum custodi). Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions (antithéseis) of what is falsely called knowledge (pseudonymou gnóseos)” it stresses precisely the point of guarding faithfully its content. But, because what is to be guarded here is not something material, but it is a set of intelligible propositions, the first and most important enemy to be avoided is precisely contradiction to the content of the deposit. Otherwise, we fall into a “false science” (pseudónymos gnosis). The self-called “gnosis” (which modern historians mostly call “gnosticism”) was in fact already a movement of thought that tried to introduce in the deposit of Faith meanings contrary to the original ones, appealing to “secret revelations”.

LifeSiteNews: Is the deposit of faith something static, or can it be added to? 

Pierantoni: The deposit of Faith is in itself perfect and definitive. So, nothing can really be added to it. What the Church does is to clarify and make explicit its contents through the Magisterium. But it must be a clarification of what is already there. That’s why, in Christian tradition, “novelty” is practically a synonym of “heresy”. It is interesting to note that in his quotation of the classical passage by Vincent of Lérins (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50) about the “development” of doctrine, the Pope mentions only the first part of the sentence:

“In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age…”.

But the passage goes on:

“…and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterated, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits”.

Therefore it is problematic to state that “the Word of God is a dynamic reality, always alive, that progresses and grows”. We, of course, all agree that the Word of God is “always alive”, and also “dynamic”, if this is taken in the sense of “powerful”. But what is in itself perfect –and the Word of God certainly is- obviously cannot “progress” nor “grow”. We may note here an implicit equivalence between “alive and dynamic” on the one hand, and “progress and growth” on the other. But this equivalence is fallacious.

The Word of God cannot “grow”, for it is perfect, and was given to us in Christ once and for all. What progresses and grows is our understanding of it. And, this cannot be in contradiction with past understanding, otherwise, it would be false that the Church as a whole is faithful and infallible in bearing testimony to the Word of God.

LifeSiteNews: What is doctrine? 

Pierantoni: Doctrine is a set of statements rationally ordered and connected with one another. The Greek Fathers used the word “akolouthía” (from the same stem as the liturgical word acolyte, “he who follows”) to express the fundamental importance of consistency and harmony among the different statements of Christian doctrine. The true elements of Christian doctrine are handed down from Christ himself through the Apostolic Succession.

LifeSiteNews: How does doctrine genuinely develop? Examples?

Pierantoni: It genuinely develops when a truth that was already there is made explicit in a further statement, without adding or subtracting anything to or from the original truth. For example, when the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople stated that in God there is only one Substance (Ousía) but three Persons (Hypostáseis), it used technical Greek philosophical terms, that are not used in the Holy Scripture. So it needed a hard and long work and a solid argumentation to really make clear that these were the best-suited words to express the truth of what the Bible already says about the unity of God and that Jesus reveals to us through his words about his relation to the Father and to the Holy Spirit.

LifeSiteNews: Is it true that doctrine cannot be tied to an interpretation that is immutable?

Pierantoni: If the interpretation you mention is part of the Magisterium, that is, it has what is required for it to be part of the Magisterium, for example, an interpretation of a biblical passage that is held unanimously or by the great majority of the Church Fathers, we call it a “traditional” interpretation, not because each Father of himself has a kind of infallible authority, but because as a whole they stand as a testimony of a doctrine that the Church as a body has always believed. Once a doctrine has so reached the status of an infallible statement, it is held as “true” in the strict sense, and truth is, as such, necessarily immutable.

So, when the Pope says that something is supposedly “against the Gospel”, we have the right to ask what Tradition says about this topic. In fact, he limits himself to saying, (1) on a natural philosophical ground that the death penalty is generically against “human dignity”, and (2) it is contrary to the Gospel because “life is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and God is the only true judge”.

Now that there exists a “human dignity” and that “human life is sacred”, and that “God is the only judge” are truths that are, of course, not denied by the Tradition which supports the death penalty: in fact, the same Tradition gives arguments that show that it doesn’t contradict these truths (see for example Feser’s recent book here.)

So these arguments should be accurately analyzed and responded, not superficially liquidated as “a mere memory of a historical teaching”. I think this statement, in particular, betrays a basic attitude that considers the truths contained in Christian doctrine just as “historical teaching” without taking the trouble of distinguishing what has the characteristics of “infallible teaching”, and therefore cannot by definition, be considered as a “mere memory”, but is clearly something always true.

LifeSiteNews: So, do you think we have here a problematic statement?

Pierantoni: Yes, I think that we have here a double problem: in rational terms, to produce an argument to disprove something which was previously considered as proved, one must take the trouble to show why the specific reasons given for it don’t hold. It is not enough to state some general principle we all accept and then pretend that from it necessarily follow the consequences I wish. And, in theological terms, one must show how it is that a doctrine unanimously subscribed by the whole Church for two millennia is not to be taken as infallible.

In short, the foundations Pope Francis here offers for his statement, both theologically and philosophically, are extremely superficial. No student of theology or philosophy at a basic level would give credit to this statement by the mere appeal to such general principles. Once more, he seems to be asking us to believe what he says just “because he is the Pope”.

LifeSiteNews: What do you think is really going on here when you read between the Pope’s lines? 

Pierantoni: My basic impression is that a fundamentally rhetorical technique is being used here. There is a steady and continuous reference to “progress”, “harmonic development” and to “inspiration from the Holy Spirit”, together with an assurance that we don’t have here “any change of doctrine”, but without a rational explanation of why and how a contradictory statement can be “harmonized” with a pre-existing truth. He says: “Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision can think of the deposit of Faith as something static”. I observe that certainly, Tradition is a living reality that can progress in the clarity with which it expresses the depositum fidei. But “Tradition”, strictly speaking, is not the same as the “Deposit of Faith.” The latter is what cannot change, nor progress, nor grow, because it is the immutable Word of God, given once and for all. In this sense, we must not fear to say it is “static”. It is precisely that which stays, that which doesn’t pass away. As Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24,35).

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