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on the development of doctrine

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 12, 2005

"If the Church claims some questions are settled once and for all, then how can the Church maintain that she believes in the development of doctrine?" We've seen this question posed in various forms in various places over the past few weeks. William Marshner does a nice job of exposing the confusion underlying the misgivings (fr. "The Development of Doctrine" in Reasons for Hope, ed. Jeffrey Mirus. Christendom, 1982, p. 193):

It is a common misunderstanding that the phrase "development of doctrine" means that there is a process which dogmas themselves "undergo" -- something like an onging interpretation or refinement. The phrase means nothing of the sort. What develops is the vague and unfocused understanding which precedes the dogmatic definition. The dogma itself, once defined, undergoes no further development.

A dogma isn't like a flower that develops from a shoot into a blossom, or like a species that evolves from protohippos into a horse, or like an airplane that is developed from a powered glider into an F-15. A closer analogy (only an analogy) would be the development of the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Many minds overcame many false starts and built on each other's progress over the years. But once the proof was found, it's just there. There's nothing for it to develop into. Because a dogma will have roots in revealed truth, it can't be evident in the same way a mathematical proof is evident. The similarity is in the finality, the once-and-for-all-ness, of the definitive statement.

As Newman saw, a true doctrinal development is one "which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds." He saw that those who, on the contrary, proposed open-ended correction of one and the same dogma, though they flattered themselves as being champions of reason, were introducing logical confusions into the notion of doctrine from which it was impossible to escape.

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  • Posted by: - May. 12, 2005 7:30 PM ET USA

    What is a "logical confusion"? Is that Newman's wording or yours? Isn't all confusion illogical by its very nature? Is a "logical confusion" meant to be a confusion that later seems logical to have had based on prior errors of thinking? Or is something else meant by the term? For example, if I understand Newman correctly, those who argue for female priests, etc., are confused about truth, but logically so? I'm confused. I'm not sure if that's logical or not. Thank you.

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