Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Development of Doctrine

by Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz


In his address at the Church Teaches Forum, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz reflected on the important theological aspect of doctrine called the "Development of Doctrine," focusing on how the Magisterium of the Church is assisted by the Holy Spirit to preserve the message of Christ in its fullness. He discusses the ways in which this development takes place: objectively, subjectively and hermeneutically.

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The Church Teaches Forum

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Diocese of Lincoln, July 11, 1998

It is, as always, a great joy to be here at the Church Teaches Forum, and to be able to greet everyone who is here and participating. In a very special way, I want to greet again the many wonderful friends that, over these last several years, I have had the opportunity to meet at this Forum, and I want to salute in a particular way, Mr. Smith, whose generosity and Catholic zeal is so largely responsible for a great deal of this forum's activities. I also want to say a word of gratitude to His Excellency, the Most Reverend Archbishop of Louisville, and to the retired Auxiliary Bishop Charles Maloney, for their kindness and hospitality and for their permission which allows me to address you today.

In this year, dedicated by our Holy Father to the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, in preparation for the great jubilee of the year 2000, which ends two millennia and a century, and begins another century in the third millennium of Christianity, I thought it would be most appropriate to reflect for a few moments together on the important theological aspect of doctrine called "Development of Doctrine" and to see in particular how the Holy Spirit assists the Magisterium of the Church in its important, and indeed, essential and vital place in such development.

It is, first of all, necessary to remember that development of doctrine does not mean "new revelation." Public revelation has ended with the echo of the Christ-event, the death of the last apostle, and, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, and as the Catholic Church has always taught, we now await no further revelation until the coming of Christ at the end of the world and at the end of time. Revelation has been closed. There were many centuries in both the Old and New Testament, when revelation was constitutive, that is to say, that revelation was ongoing. But in Jesus Christ, God has spoken His final, definitive, complete, inexhaustive Word. There is nothing more that God says because Christ is the Totality of God given to us. He is God's mercy, God's forgiveness, God's love, God's pardon, and God's goodness in Person. The incarnation which was brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit is very final, and there is a once-and-for-allness about this revelation which Saint Jude says has been "delivered once and for all to the saints."

It is the duty of the Catholic Church, and, indeed, the abiding Presence of the Holy Spirit within the Church as the Soul of the Mystical Body makes this obligation possible and able to be fulfilled by the Church, to preserve unmutilated, undiluted, unchanged the message of Christ. The entirety of Divine Revelation has been entrusted to the Catholic Church, and in its fullness, its integrity and its beauty, it is possessed by that Church in the founts of revelation which is to say, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

If there is such a thing as the development of doctrine, the question then arises, "How can what is unchangeable and what must be remain unchanged, such as the dogmas and the doctrines of the Catholic Church, ever actually develop? In what sense can what is unchangeable be legitimately changed?"

It is important, I think, before we discuss any further, this important aspect of Catholic theology, to remind ourselves that there are false, incorrect, and indeed, heretical ways in which the development of doctrine can be understood. Various heresies throughout history, including in this century the heresy of Modernism, understood development of doctrine in a totally incorrect way. Doctrinal development which is in accord with Catholic truth must be correct, and not corrupt and erroneous. We must keep in mind the references that Jesus made to the development of doctrine in His teaching. In the Gospel according to Saint John, for example, we read: "When He comes, however, being the Spirit of Truth, He will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on His own, but will speak only what He hears. He will announce to you the things to come. In doing this, He will give glory to Me because He will have received from Me what He will announce to you." Just before this Jesus said, "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now." Jesus is also recorded as saying, "When the Paraclete comes, the Spirit of Truth Who comes from the Father, and Who I Myself will send from the Father, He will bear witness on My behalf." He also said, "The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you." The Second Vatican Council, reflecting what our Lord taught us, said that the Holy Spirit, uninterruptedly, converses with the Church through Jesus Who is the divine Bridegroom of His Bride and Body, the Catholic Church.

Theologians generally indicate that the development of doctrine must be looked at basically in four ways: The first is what is called the objective development of doctrine. This means that doctrine does not expand or contract in the absolute and ultimate sense, but what it does mean is that there is a way in which what is contained in the fonts of revelation, which is to say, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is expressed in a way which is catechetical, affective, and unscientific or even pre-scientific, is re-expressed in formulas which are clear and more scientifically specific. Furthermore, these formulas are often stated in such a way that they constitute answers to entirely new questions. For example, in the fourth century, when the heretic Arius, in Alexandria in Egypt asked the question--the Logos, the Word of God, is this Word of God creature or Creator--it was an entirely new question in many ways. This question, of course, was answered incorrectly by Arius, who said the that Logos, the Word of God, is a creature. It was the ecumenical Council of Nicea, which formulated in a very special and particular way the response to Arius that the Logos, or the Word of God, is identical with God Himself. Although this is expressed in one way in thePrologue of the Gospel according to Saint John, it was open to a certain measure of ambiguity. This is why on Sunday, we say, "Jesus is God from God and Light from Light, and true God from true God" and we say, "consubstantial with the Father", reiterating in the credal words what is said in Scripture and Tradition in a particular and special kind of way.

Doctrine also develops objectively when one word sums up what is contained in varying ways in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. An example of this would be the word "Bible" which does not occur in the Bible or in Sacred Tradition, or the word "purgatory" which does not occur in the Bible or in Sacred Tradition, but the reality of which is very clearly contained in Divine Revelation. Words like Immaculate Conception, Assumption, Ascension, and so on, are also particular words which are not found specifically in the fonts of revelation, but which contain and encapsule in themselves, truths which are stated in the fonts of revelation.

The second way in which doctrine develops is called subjectively, and this means that what is stated implicitly in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition is made more explicit. Furthermore our human intellect which was created by God, Who cannot contradict Himself, has a tendency to want to know more and more about truth which has been revealed and to extract from culturally conditioned expressions of truth, those truths which are perennial, which can be embodied in more perennial and universally understood language. Just a week ago, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, issued two wonderful apostolic letters. One is called Dies Domini, the Day of the Lord, and has to do with the proper observance of Sunday; the other is called Ad Tuendam Fidem, which means To Defend the Faith, and this brief letter of four pages added some words to the Code of Canon Law, and also was accompanied by an explanatory exposition by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone. Both of these apostolic letters deserve our reading and study. For purposes, however, of this talk and our discussion of the development of doctrine, what is highly important would be the letter Ad Tuendam Fidem, as well as the commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger. The commentary which explains and is the key to understanding correctly the letter of the Pope Ad Tuendam Fidem, is based on the three areas of the common profession of faith, which has to be made by seminary professors, pastors, and the like.

The first area concerns things which are directly and clearly revealed by God. These would be the statements normally contained in the creed and clearly defined doctrines of the faith. Cardinal Ratzinger says that these doctrines are those which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, or by the college of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church.

The second group of truths are those to which every believer must give assent. As the Cardinal says, "Every believer is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Church's Magisterium, and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium in these matters. Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore, no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church."

The Cardinal goes on to say, "The truths in this second group of truths can be of various natures given their different qualities to the relationship of revelation. There are the truths which are necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historical relationship, while other truths evince a logical connection that expresses a stage in the maturation of understanding of revelation which the Church is called to undertake. The fact that these doctrines may not be proposed as formally revealed, no way diminished their definitive character which is required at least by their intrinsic connection with revealed truths. Moreover," (and this is the phrase of the Cardinal which is most significant for our purposes in this talk) "it cannot be excluded that at a certain point in dogmatic development, the understanding of the realities of the words of the Deposit of Faith can progress in the life of the Church, and the Magisterium may proclaim some of these doctrines also as dogmas of divine and Catholic faith, which is to say, being divinely revealed."

The first group of truths, of course, would be the various Christological dogmas, the Marian dogmas, the doctrine of the Institution of the Sacraments by Christ, their efficacy in regard to grace, the doctrine of the real and substantial Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrificial nature of the Eucharistic celebration, the foundation of the Church by the will of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, the doctrine on the existence of original sin, and on the immortality of the soul, and the immediate recompense after death, and so on. Also included in this first group of divinely revealed truths would be the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of innocent human beings.

The second group of truths which must be assented to internally or externally by Catholics or they are no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church, would include such things as: the illicitness of euthanasia, the wickedness of prostitution and fornication, the doctrine that the priesthood is reserved exclusively to males, and the Cardinal goes on to mention these as matters which must be held because they are taught infallibly and irrevocably by the Church in irreformable dogmatic address. He cites as an example of doctrinal development how before the definitive and infallible pronouncement of the First Vatican Council, the primacy of the successor of Saint Peter was always believed as a revealed fact, but the question as to whether the infallibility which rested in the successor of Saint Peter was revealed directly by God or was simply a logical consequence of Divine Revelation was open to discussion. After the First Vatican Council, however, the matter is no longer open for discussion since it has been solemnly defined as a revealed doctrine by God Himself, that the Pope, speaking on faith and morals, ex cathedra acts and speaks in an infallible way, and his primacy is enhanced by this special charism of infallibility which, in addition to restingon the Church, rests also on his person.

As a matter of interest, it might be good to point out that there is a third category of beliefs which all Catholics must accept, and definitively hold to, or they place themselves in opposition to the infallible and clear teaching of the Church. These would be truths connected to revelation by historical necessity, and which must be held by Catholics definitively, but are not able to be declared as divinely revealed. These truths would be, for example, the legitimacy of the election of the Supreme Pontiff, or Pope, or the legitimacy of the celebration of an ecumenical council. It would also include the canonization of Saints, and declarations such as that of Leo XIII in the apostolic letter Apostolicae Curae, on the perpetual invalidity of Angelican Orders. It is interesting that the letter Ad Tuendam Fidem and the corresponding commentary on the same, are so contemporary and modern, and point out the various aspects of the theological development of doctrine, particularly in the subjective mode that we are speaking about today.

The third way in which doctrine develops is hermeneutically. This means that things are received to a certain extent according to the way in which the receiver is formed, trained, educated and prepared to receive them. When water is poured into a glass it assumes the shape of the glass. Divine Revelation is something like that. God speaks to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition; internally He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. This Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition mediated through the Magisterium of the Church, and the Holy Spirit speaking internally to us as we are receiving in any way what God has revealed, in a certain sense is formed by our own circumstances and arrangements. There is an objectivity to Divine Revelation. Nevertheless, when we receive this Divine Revelation, the objectivity touches our subjectivity. Now let me give you an example: When the Book of Genesis speaks about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, which are situated in the Garden of Eden, all of those words have resonance in the minds of people who have seen or have experienced trees, and also, who have experienced a garden. If one were born, let us say, an Eskimo in the regions of frozen north where one has never seen a tree, it would be extremely difficult to understand Divine Revelation in its fullness and its integrity because of the knowledge or lack of it which one would have. Presumably, in our day, Eskimos would know something about trees and what they are at least through the use of pictures, and movie screens and television screens. However, it is important to know that doctrine develops, that is to say, our understanding of what God has revealed is improved, as we hermeneutically improve various aspects of our own disposition. Collectively, the entire Church, the entire human race for that matter, and individually, we can grow, for example in our knowledge of archeology, of religious sociology, which is phenomenology, and religious anthropology and similar sciences. We can learn more about linguistics, about languages, and about ancient languages. In all of these studies, including aspects of paleontology, we can come to a greater and more profound perfection of our own dispositions, intellectual and otherwise, and this enables us to receive Divine Revelation in a more full and complete way. We must continue to point out that we are not necessarily improving our faith by improving our hermeneutical dispositions. A little child who receives first Holy Communion at six years old does not necessarily have less faith than the very learned professor, who might know a great deal about Hebrew verb forms and about Greek syntax, and consequently, has a greater grasp and knowledge about the New Testament, and of the Bible than the little first Communicant. Nonetheless, the faith can be as rich or richer in the first Communicant than in the learned professor.

Finally, we should remember it is possible to reflect on our own growth in our knowledge of Catholic doctrine. When we were 6 or 7 and made our first Holy Communion, we were obviously quite different in many ways, intellectually and otherwise, than when we are 50 or 60 years of age. Certainly, we are the same persons, yet the cells in our bodies and a great deal of other aspects of our lives are completely and totally different. We can sit here looking back on five or six decades of life and reflect on how we have grown in our understanding of Catholic doctrine, and in this reflection, we can actually have some control over future growth and learning in Catholic doctrine. This can be done, not only as individuals, but the Church can do this as a collective entity, as the living organism, the Body of Christ.

Let me sum up with some crude examples. There is a little sapling tree which can be planted. We plant it in some land that we know of, and we watch this tree grow over years, and over decades, and perhaps, even over centuries. This tree is basically and substantially and fundamentally the same tree is always is. It doesn't change from an oak tree, let us say, to a pine tree or to a maple tree. It keeps its nature and it grows in a homogenous and consistent way. And yet, the tree after 30, or 40, or 100 years is somewhat different than the tree was when it was a tiny seedling or sapling. Similarly, we are the very same person we were at our birth. There is very clear identity, and yet, there are some very great and significant changes in us as the years and the decades go on, until we reach the consummation of our existence in leaving this world and entering another and better world which God has prepared for us. Even if we would like to, we really cannot go back, when we are adults, to our adolescence or to our childhood, and, consequently, it is a mistake to live in a sense of reaction to dogmatic development. It is crucial and, indeed, important that we understand that dogmatic development is undertaken by God Himself, and by the Holy Spirit. Repeating again, that this development to be authentic and correct must be homogenous with what has gone before.

God is the God of Truth, and cannot contradict Himself. Therefore, what is true today is true tomorrow. There cannot be philosophical relativism introduced into the idea of dogmatic development. Nevertheless, the fact that such development occurs, and occurs by God's will, is quite clear not only from passages of Jesus which I have cited, (that is to say, His promise of the Holy Spirit and His promise of what the Holy Spirit's work would be in the Church) but also from the fact that the Church herself, as a living and dynamic organism, would not find it possible to answer new questions as they arise and to clothe the beautiful, unchangeable and ever true doctrine of the unchanging God in clothes of contemporary society, so that it would be comprehensible, and understandable to human beings of every age and every time. The Church that Christ founded is catholic or universal, which is to say, that she is not restricted to one nation, one race, one culture, one language, but she was meant for the entirety of the human race. This Catholic Church which desires to gather the entirety of humanity into her embrace, must be able to bring the doctrine of Christ, in the proper garb to this humanity, without compromise, without change, and yet, in an appropriate way. This accounts for the formal way in which doctrine develops, which is to say, objectively, subjectively, hermeneutically, and we might call this fourth method, reflexively or estimatively.

There is an old saying that King David and King Solomon led very merry lives, with very many lady friends and very many wives. But when old age came over them with very many qualms, King Solomon wrote the Proverbs, and King David wrote the Psalms. The point is that we all change, and living and dynamic change means that doctrine, too, changes while it ever remains the same. While we change and grow into adults and then into senior citizens, maintaining the integrity and the consistency of our very personhood, so the doctrines of Christ, as they grow in the Church, maintain their very consistent and unchangeable reality underneath the development which occurs. In the last century, one of the great intellectuals, one of the great figures who was a convert to our faith, John Henry Newman, wrote an excellent book called An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Later, Cardinal Newman, who at the time was a Protestant and a Don at Oxford University, was struck by the fact as he studied history that the Church of the nineteenth century was, in many ways, identical with the Church of the 5th, 3rd, and 1st centuries of Christianity, and yet, there were some significant variances and changes, and these perplexed him greatly. As he struggled through the theological and personal problem this represented for him, he was able to set down in this wonderful book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, his thoughts. At the end of it, of course, he set down his pen, and was received into the Catholic Church. He saw that this Church maintained the doctrine of Christ in the most perfect, complete, and absolute integrity. At the same time, it permitted the dynamism of the human intellect to understand more completely, more fully, and more profoundly, as the ages go on, this doctrine.

In talking about the development of doctrine, I sometimes like to illustrate the important fact from history to which I alluded earlier, which is to say, the Council of Nicea which took place in the year 325. The Council of Nicea, as you recall, had to decide the divinity of Christ, that is to say, what exactly does Divine Revelation say about the Personhood of Jesus. The heretic Arius and his followers claimed they would recite all of the words of the New Testament and all of the words of the Apostles' Creed, the ancient baptismal creed. St. Athanasius, and those who upheld the orthodoxy of Catholic doctrine at that time said, "Yes, you recite those words, but you are putting into them an entirely different meaning at variance with what the historical meaning has been." Arius and the heretics, of course replied, "This is not true."

In order to distinguish, then, the heresy of Arius from Catholic orthodoxy, the Council had to set down some very clear truths, and the truths were found in the Greek word homousios or consubstantial and this was made a criterion of orthodoxy. It was not enough to say that Jesus was God, because there were polytheists who believed there were many gods and Jesus was one of many gods. That would not have said precisely and exactly what needed to be said. It was not enough merely to say that Jesus was not the Father. This also could be said by polytheists, and, of course, would be a view that the Arians would uphold, particularly they cite Jesus' words, "the Father is greater than I" to indicate that Jesus did not mean that He was God's equal when He said also, "The Father and I are one." Of course they refused to accept the fact that Jesus speaking in terms of the Father being greater was speaking in His human nature and not in His divine nature. It was found to be necessary that the word homousios, or consubstantial be inserted into the Creed, and while I am oversimplifying the controversies involved in this issue, particularly because the very word homousios underwent an evolution and change in its meaning over several centuries, nonetheless I hope I can point out how this is a legitimate development of doctrine. Consubstantial with the Father is what the Council said basically and unchangingly was revealed by God in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. However, the word homousios or consubstantial, one in being with, was not contained in the fonts of revelation. At the time of the Council of Nicea, not only did this put off the Arians, who, of course, refused to use that term consubstantial, claiming that it wasn't part of Divine Revelation, but it also put off another group of people led by a Bishop called Eusebius of Caesaria. He was a great Church historian and a brilliant thinker, but he. too, said that it was illegitimate for this doctrinal development to take place. While he and his followers said they disagreed with Arias and the Arian teachings on the divinity of Christ, nonetheless, they said in reaction to the action of the Council of Nicea that they could not accept the necessity of saying the word consubstantial, one in being with, homousios, as a criterion of orthodoxy. Both groups were condemned by the Council of Nicea, and the condemnation, of course, of the second group particularly, was a new affirmation of the truth of doctrinal development.

Allow me to conclude by saying very clearly and precisely that it is extremely important for us, in this area of doctrinal development, as well as in our entire lives as Christians, to be linked very firmly and strongly with the See of Peter. St. Ambrose said, "Where Peter is, there is the Church, and where the Church is, there is everlasting life." We will not be able, on our own to adequately distinguish, all the time, true doctrinal development from corruption and error. It is only when we stand close to St. Peter and his legitimate successor, the Bishop of Rome, that we are allowed to reach back through the decades, the centuries of history, and to touch St. Peter himself, who made the profession of faith before our Savior that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and this St. Peter receiving in return, not only the commission to feed the lambs and tend the sheep, but also the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail, and that the Church, that is the Church Christ founded, would be built on solid rock and perdure until the end of time. In times of flux and uncertainty particularly, it is important for us to be in the bark, the boat of Peter, and to know that he is the one who has been promised by Jesus as Pope John Paul II cites in Ad Tuendam Fidem, the ability to have an unfailing faith which will strengthen the brothers, not only the bishops of the Church, but also the entirety of God's people. St. Patrick, the great apostle of Ireland, told his Irish converts, "As you are Christians, so you must be Romans." In a similar way, it is necessary if we are to be adequate followers of Christ, to be linked with the See of Rome, the See of Peter, and in that linkage to be able to gaze upon the one who has gazed upon the face of Christ.

As Cardinal Ratzinger notes, "Christ's promise to bestow the Holy Spirit Who guide you into all truth, constantly sustains the Church on her way. Thus, in the course of her history certain truths have been defined as having been acquired through the Holy Spirit's assistance, and are therefore, perceptible stages in the realization of the original promise. Other truths, however, have to be understood still more deeply before full possession can be obtained of what God, in His mystery of love wished to reveal to men for their salvation." The Cardinal also says, "In the course of the centuries, from the unchangeable nucleus testifying to Jesus as the Son of God and as Lord, symbols witnessing to the unity of the faith and to the communion of the churches came to be developed. In these the fundamental truths which every believer is required to know and to profess were gathered together. Thus, before receiving Baptism, the catechumen must make his profession of faith. The Fathers of the Church, too, coming together at Councils to respond to historical challenges that required a more complete presentation of the truths of the faith or a defence of the orthodoxy of these truths formulated new creeds which occupy a special place in the Church's life up to the present day. The diversity of these symbols expresses the richness of the one, true faith, and none of them is superseded or nullified by subsequent professions of faith formulated in response to later historical circumstances."

This sums up, better than I can, what I have been trying to say in these remarks about the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Magisterium of the Church in the development of doctrine.

© The Diocese of Lincoln

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