Last month, our friends at LifeSiteNews conducted an interview with Professor Joseph Seifert and 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. Seifert, we are pleased to present to you his interview in its entirety, with the gracious permission of both LifeSiteNews and Professor Seifert.
LifeSiteNews interview on the ‘Death Penalty’ address of Pope Francis with Dr. Josef Seifert, founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein.
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?
Seifert: Of course not, if we speak of a true understanding and not just of a new opinion. If it is true that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, which the Church has defined as dogma in the first Nicean Council, as revealed by God, this can never change or become untrue. Of course, a “new understanding” in the form of the Arian heresy could develop that denies this truth, but this “new understanding” of Christ, contrary to the Gospels and teaching of the Church, can never become true nor can it constitute a “development of doctrine”. The Arian denial of the true divinity of Jesus Christ is precisely this: heresy, an enormous error directed against the two most central dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of the God- Man. Relativizing, obscuring or denying them can never be a “development of doctrine”.
Or if the eternal natural law tells us and Holy Scripture in countless passages implies that acts such as adultery, homosexual acts, rape, perjury, condemning consciously an innocent to death, and countless others are intrinsically evil and must not be committed under any circumstances, this cannot develop such that its negation would now become true or that the moral teaching of the Church could “develop” into the new “understanding” that none of these acts are always wrong or that there are no general rules that determine whether a whole class of acts is morally wrong, which would amount to the denial of intrinsically wrong acts and would totally contradict the essence of moral goodness, the divine commandments, the Holy Scripture, and the dogmatic teaching of Veritatis Splendor, and other encyclicals of St. Pope John Paul II. See the excellent article here.
Or if the Gospel and the Church in several dogmatic declarations have taught that the unrepentant sinner who has committed freely and consciously mortal sins will go to hell which is an eternal punishment, it cannot suddenly become true that there is no hell and that the souls of the wicked will be annihilated instead of going to a place of eternal punishment. That is not a new interpretation but a heresy. And so it is with all other truths handed down to us by the Gospels and Church teachings.
If something is a matter of changeable commandments of the Church such as that you should not eat meat on Friday, this could, and has, changed. But also this never can mean a change of truth. It remains true that once it has been forbidden and now is not anymore.
Likewise, the claim that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong and that the Gospel and the Church rejected it always, is a “new understanding” opposite both to historical and Scriptural evidence. If one were to discuss the question of the intrinsic wrongness as such (not church-historically) and claimed that our new understanding is superior to the Word of God itself, one would sit in judgment over Scripture and claim that our understanding of truth is superior to that of the Bible. Can even a Pope make such a claim? One thing is certain: Claiming an intrinsic wrongness of death penalty contradicts many passages in The Holy Scripture and several Church teachings about death penalty of the ordinary Magisterium of Popes, some even accompanied by anathemas. (I personally have some doubts whether each and every anathema uttered by a Pope over an opinion, makes this opinion a heresy and whether all anathemas are valid or infallibly exclude a person from the community of the Church. For example, if a Pope anathematized the whole city of Florence, because its Prince went to war against the Papal army, was this valid?) Hence if a Pope anathematizes (as it happened) everybody who denied that it is right to burn heretics, does this make such a denial a heresy? Is this statement of the Pope concerned with a “grave matter of doctrine or morals” which is one of the conditions for pronouncing a dogma. What seems evident is that both the Old and the New Testament are full of texts that approve death penalty in some cases.
Even St. John Paul II, who leaned towards rejecting death penalty totally (as his friend and disciple Tadeusz Styczeî did), and only emphasized the protective function of the death penalty in some circumstances which today practically never exist, never said that imposing the death penalty is intrinsically and always wrong. Also, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states its legitimacy in some circumstances. Hence, obviously, all these Papal teachings of 2000 years refute the historically wrong claim that “the Church always rejected death penalty” or “regarded it as intrinsically wrong”. Moreover, its categorical rejection as intrinsically wrong by a present Pope and its defense by previous Popes and Councils cannot both be true or be a development of doctrine, because they contradict each other.
LifeSiteNews: What is the deposit of faith?
Seifert: This signifies the treasure of revealed truth, as contained in the Holy Scripture, in the oral tradition preserved since apostolic times, and in the dogmas declared by the Church as well as in the oral tradition of the contents of this depositum fidei. It can also be defined thus:
“The Deposit of Faith is the body of saving truth entrusted by Christ to the Apostles and handed on by them to be preserved and proclaimed. Jesus ordered them to teach the nations “everything I have commanded you” and assured them “know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.” (Mt 28:18-20). The metaphor of a “deposit” suggests that this teaching is an inexhaustible treasure, that rewards reflection and study with new insights and deeper penetration into the mystery of …God’s plan for saving mankind. Although the Church’s understanding of this teaching can and does develop, it can never be augmented in substance.”
And of course it cannot change.
LifeSiteNews: Is the deposit of faith something static, or can it be added to?
Seifert: Since the general divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, there can be nothing added to it that would be binding to believe by all Catholics. In this sense it is static, not only because truth can never change but also because God chose that the general divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. This does not exclude that ever new treasures may be discovered in this deposit of faith, nor does it exclude that God can reveal, in private revelations, such as in Fatima, events, requests of our Lady, etc. that are not part of the general revelation.
LifeSiteNews: What is doctrine?
Seifert: Doctrine is primarily the official and infallible teaching of the Church of what God infallibly revealed in Sacred Scripture itself or in His oral teachings preserved in the oral tradition of the Church. In this sense, doctrine is solemn Church teaching on divinely revealed truths. And in this primary sense, the doctrine of the Church is infallibly true, be it through the general infallibility of the Church as a whole, to which each Catholic, through the grace of faith and the sensus fidelium (sensus fidei) can gain some access, be it more explicitly through dogmatic formulations by Councils or by Popes who define this doctrine with precision and clearly. Even more properly speaking, the universal ordinary magisterium, if it is in complete agreement with the faith of the Church since apostolic times and with Holy Scripture, possesses the gift of infallibility. In this sense, many have argued, rightly, I believe, that the teaching of Humanae Vitae, though not dogmatically pronounced, is infallible Catholic doctrine.
In a wider and less precise sense, one could also call any pronouncement of the Pope or of a council “ordinary Magisterium” and call it “doctrine,” but this is not to be recommended because in all of these can be errors and the name “Catholic doctrine” should be restricted to the truth.
LifeSiteNews: How does doctrine genuinely develop?
Seifert: It can develop genuinely in different ways: by the Church expressing clearly in dogmas revealed truths which have been always believed by the faithful, but which, in times of confusion and error, need to be clearly expressed such as in the dogma of Jesus Christ being wholly God from eternity, and wholly man in time, and that the same person is both the Second person of the most Holy Trinity and man, without separation and at the same time without confusion of the divine and the human nature. Or the dogma of Mary being truly “the Mother of God”. She is of course neither a person of the Trinity, as the Koran attributes mistakenly to the Christian faith, nor is she mother of God’s divinity as such, but by being mother of the same person who remained eternally God but became man in time and was born of the Virgin Mary, she is truly the mother of God. In this way the doctrine of the Gospels developed by being rendered in a more precise and clear language, for example, through the dogmas of the Councils of Ephesus and of Chalcedon.
The development of doctrine can also refer to something else. It can mean revealed truths that were not laid down in the sacred Scriptures themselves but only handed down through the Sacred oral tradition of the Church. Being nowhere fixed in written form, some of these doctrines have been denied even by great doctors of the Church and thus were not explicitly held by all faithful. Thus their being fixed in a dogma constitutes a development of doctrine in another sense. For example the Immaculate conception was denied by St. Thomas, affirmed and defended by Blessed Duns Scotus, and defined as dogma only six centuries later. This dogma, declared by Pius IX, or that of the bodily assumption of Mary solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII, a Catholic is obliged to give his assent to. The truth of these two Marian dogmas, however, are only “shyly intimated” in the Holy Scripture but could both be identified in the tradition of the Church (especially of the Fathers), and logically derived from revelation. Such a legitimate logical deduction of doctrine was expressed in the formula with which Blessed Duns Scotus summarized his defense of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was conceived free of original sin and remained free of any personal sin prior to Jesus’ death on the Cross. Scotus won in Paris the solemn dispute with the Thomists about the Immaculate conception and summarized his defense in a kind of logical deduction of the Immaculate Conception from the premises that God was able to exempt Mary from all sin in view of the future redemption, and that this was the most fitting thing to do: potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.
In this sense also the declaration in the first Vatican Council that human reason can know the existence and some attributes of God with certainty, was a development of doctrine in the sense that what the Old Testament and what St. Paul taught in the letter to the Romans was solemnly declared as a philosophical truth that is at the same time revealed by God. In this case, the dogma was declared in order to reject the many philosophical errors that denied this truth of a natural and rational knowledge of God.
The same is true of the moral teaching of the Church about the intrinsece malum in Veritatis Splendor. As a matter of fact, each solemn Church Teaching and dogma constitutes a “development of doctrine” in this sense, not as if the doctrine changed or something not revealed by God prior to the last apostle’s death would now be added and “developed” but in the sense of greater explicitly, clarity, precision, consciousness.
LifeSiteNews: Is it true that doctrine cannot be tied to an interpretation that is immutable?
Seifert: First off, a doctrine is not the same as its interpretation. And if a doctrine of the Church is presented to the faithful as true and binding, of course its truth, like any truth, is immutable.
An interpretation of a doctrine can mean – without changing its content – explaining it better, adding other truths, relating it to the Scripture, etc. And as long as these interpretations do not change, deny or reject the truth of the doctrine, they can be like sermons on the doctrine and be different in each interpreter but of course they must never contradict the doctrine or each other to be adequate interpretations.
Therefore, as soon as you speak of “changing interpretations” and attribute them to the Holy Spirit, such as denying the doctrine of original sin, claiming that all children are born in the state of grace without being baptized, or denying the dogma of the reality and eternity of hell, or rejecting the existence of intrinsically wrong human acts by claiming that there are no general rules according to which some actions are objectively, by their nature and end, morally wrong, you misuse the word “interpretation” calling denials of doctrine “new interpretations”.
Since many of these “new interpretations” opposite to the clear doctrines of the Church are attributed to Pope Francis or seem to be expressed by him in documents, sermons, or Interviews, we can only hope that Pope Francis clarifies soon that he means something entirely different from what the “ordinary Catholic public” is led to understand to be his “new interpretations”.
Let us hope and pray that Pope Francis will no longer let the dubia Cardinals and other concerned Catholics wait for an answer but promptly pronounce Catholic truth in its whole splendor and thus reassure the concerned and afraid flock of the faithful that he, as successor of St. Peter and representative of Christ, truly is the rock on which Christ has built his Church.
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