Do the Roman authorities not realise that doctrine develops?
It may well be that a future historian of Christian doctrine will describe our times (from the second part of the nineteenth century onward) as the age when the church was coming to grips with the laws of evolution, especially in doctrinal matters.(6)
6. The reluctance (or struggle) to accept evolution as a fact of life marks the official attitude of the church on a much broader scale than in reference to doctrinal issues only. The reasons for this are probably manifold. There is the instinct to preserve our ancient traditions, and any potential change is easily perceived as a dangerous step toward infidelity. Also, in the Western church at least, our traditions have been explained in AristotelianThomistic categories, which are not attuned to an evolving universe. Further, in official literature the sayings and actions of the church have been presented, more often than it was necessary or justified, as being of the highest degree of wisdom and prudence; hence no room was left for improvements.
Even in the recently ( 1983) promulgated Code of Canon Law, there are no provisions for a peaceful and ordered development of ecclesiastical laws and structures (that is, laws and structures of human origin, therefore historically conditioned); although the need for such provisions in a community which is alive, growing and serving the needs of the human family, is fairly obvious.
The absence of orderly procedures is one of the reasons why the Catholic Church suffers so frequently from internal agitations and conflicts; they appear to the faithful as the only means of bringing to the notice of the authorities that some measure of change is needed.
In fairness, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Verbum Dei, of Vatican Council II, has done much to correct the situation. It proclaims that continuity and change go hand in hand in the church. But there is a long way from the clarity of intellectual insights to the revision of practical attitudes and the creation of new structures.
Not that there has not been some awareness of evolution before; there has been. No one at the Council of Nicaea (325) thought that the term homoousios was in the Scriptures, nor did anyone at the Council of Trent (1545-63) pretend that a specific enumeration of the seven sacraments could be found in the Bible. But there was not (not until Newman, that is) any competent analysis of the phenomenon of the development of doctrine; there was no reliable theory to explain its mysterious process.(7)
7. There is no better work in English on the development of doctrine than Jan Hendrik Walgrave, Unfolding Revelation The Nature of Doctrinal Development, translated from the Dutch. There is no more comprehensive work on the same subject than George Söll, Dogma und Dogmenentwicklung, in German.
It took a long time, however, for Newmans insights, to be accepted. But the fact of doctrinal development could not be discarded; in one way or another the issue kept returning. Questions that the church could not ignore kept arising. Was the universe really created in six days, according to the pattern described in Genesis, or did it evolve over so many billions of years, as the scientists argued? Did Moses himself write the Pentateuch, or is it a document that matured over several centuries? Have the four gospels been conceived independently from each other, or are they the fruits of protracted reflections on the earliest common traditions? And so forth . . . Today, we may well know how to respond to these questions, but when they were first mooted, the answers were not readily available and there was a great turmoil in our household.(8)
8. Decree of the Biblical Commission, 27 June 1906:
Question: Are the arguments, adduced by critical authors to attack the authentic authorship of Moses of the sacred books, known under the name of Pentateuch, of such weight that they give the right to affirm that Moses is not the author of the books; notwithstanding the testimony of the Old and New Testaments, the perpetual consensus of the Jewish people, the permanent tradition of the church, the internal evidence present in the text itself . . . ?
Question: Does the authentic authorship of Moses require us to hold that he wrote each of the books with his own hands, or dictated each to scribes, or, can another hypothesis be permitted, namely which holds that after he conceived his work under divine inspiration, he committed it to one or several persons to write it down, with the provision that they had to preserve the original sense faithfully, write nothing against his will, omit nothing; and finally when the work was completed, the work was to be published in his name?
Answer: Negative for the first part; positive for the second part.
Approved by the Supreme Pontiff: 27 June 1906. (See DS 3394,3395)
Moreover, as natural sciences developed, humanity became confronted with moral problems about which the church could not remain indifferent. Yet, there were no obvious solutions in the treasury of our ancient traditions, unless, of course, the traditions themselves could evolve and bring forth responses old and new! The questions kept multiplying Could a healthy person donate one of his kidneys to his brother who needs it to survive? Are atomic weapons acceptable for legitimate self-defense? Is fertilization in vitro permissible? What is the right balance between the public good and the private ownership of goods? And so on . . . (9)
9. Each age in Christian history has its own interest. The great disputes in the early centuries were about the internal life of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit: one God) and his communication with the created universe (the Son became flesh); the focus of the attention of the church was the very core, heart, or canter of revelation. Today disputes on morality tend to override all other interests.
To find the correct answers, it was not enough to come to an understanding of the abstract concept of the development of doctrine; it was also necessary to understand that the concrete reality of the church was subject to evolution. Such new perceptions were not always well received; they seemed to conflict with the permanency of the word of God and the stability of the institution.
In the long and complex struggle which ensued, the need for clarifying some key concepts emerged; a need that is still with us. What is the correct meaning of magisterium? What is the difference between doctrine taught infallibly and doctrine not so taught? Can a line be drawn between the two, or do they form an organic and undivided unity?
Important as moral issues may be, if in the mind of the people they overshadow the great mysteries of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, and of the divinization of human persons. A slanted perception of the good news emergeswhich news may not even appear all that good since not enough attention is paid to the very best of the message. Once this happens, the religious life of the believers becomes impoverished and the evangelization of the unbelievers becomes difficult.
What is the obsequium due to the non-infallible teaching of the magisterium? How far is dissent allowed? (10)
10. There is a remote parallel between developments in philosophical and theological thinking. Ever since Kant, much effort in philosophical reflection has been expended on understanding the operations of the mind and the process of knowing. Ever since Newman, much effort in the Catholic Church has been put into discovering and understanding the process of perceiving and articulating the data of revelationreflections on how the mind of the church operates and how some knowledge of the mysteries is achieved.
This process of clarification has by no means been concluded; it is going on. The final answers are not in the consciousness of the church - whether we like to admit it or not. To be in such a predicament is rather humiliating for an otherwise infallible community; but in truth, to search for the whole truth, with all the fallibility that such a search may entail, belongs to the humanity of the church. (11)
11. Much has been written and said about the divine gifts with which God has endowed his church; no one described them better than Vatican Council 11 in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen gentium. But councils, popes, bishops and theologians, as a rule shied away from speaking of, and reflecting on, the humanity of the church. The result is that we are often unaware of the limitations and shortcomings that flow from this humanity; we tend to deny them; we act as if they did not exist; we take no precautions and protections against them. But an imbalance in the perception of any reality, even if that reality is part of the church, can lead to disaster in the practical order.
The preaching or teaching of the theology of the church according to Lumen gentium must be always balanced by a parallel course on church history.
While the church cannot fail in proclaiming the evangelical message, the charism of sudden enlightenment in resolving issues has never been promised to Peter, or to the twelve, or to any of their successors.(12)
12. 0ne needs to remember how slow the apostles were in understanding the message of Jesusas it is recorded in the gospels.
Consequently, those who have authority need time to study the new problems, to come to grips with them, and to reach conclusions grounded in faith and reason. Important as a question may be, a final and authentic answer may not be easily and quickly available.(13)
13. An intemperate zeal in pressing for an answer can do more harm than good. Those in authority ought to resist such pressure; at times the honest answer can be only As yet, we do not know!
This apparent vagueness and slowness can be disappointing all the more now that we have become used to clarity and to speedy solutions. Scholastic philosophy and theology taught us about a well ordered universe, natural and supernatural, where all things and all beings can be defined by genus and species; it taught us order and clarity.
Moreover, right before our eyes, modern technology is providing instantaneous answers to problems which (as we kept thinking) were beyond the power of the human mind; it taught us to expect speedy solutions. It is only natural that we build up similar expectations toward the operations of the church we want clear answers without delay; we want to see scholastic orderliness produced with computerized efficiency. (14)
14. Aristotle taught the Latin theologians to be relentless in their inquiries. Thus, the scholastics wanted to know the exact moment when the bread became the body of Christ, and the significance of the words of consecration was stressed without giving an equal importance to the unity of the eucharistic prayer, including the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Or, the canonists wanted to know the precise moment when marriage came into existence; once determined, all validity had to turn on the disposition of the parties at that point of time, with little possibility left for the healing of an initial defect. Divine mysteries are not like physical bodies to have some understanding of them, we must keep a respectful distance.
But that is not how our church lives and operates. (15)
15. Recall that a favorite saying of Yves Congar during the Council was that a safeguard for the church in the course of history is in examining itself regularly in the mirror of the Gospel. My own reflections. The Gospel does not show a neatly organized and efficiently run community. But it displays a belief that the Spirit takes care of the group of believers. In fact, several of the images and parables present the church as a rather mixed gathering it is like a field where good and bad plants grow side by side until the harvest; it is like a haul of fish with creatures good and bad in the net; it is like a flock where some of the sheep have gone astray but still belong to it,. . . and so forth.
From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 1. Read the whole chapter here.
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