Development of Doctrine and Its Discontents

Development of Doctrine—a legitimate way to understand how the Church's teaching appears different in different ages—has become a way to introduce innovations contrary to the Church's perennial teachings.

There is perhaps no other idea in the modern Catholic lexicon more popular but also more abused than “development of doctrine.” Modern awareness of social change has made it necessary to explain why and how the Church’s official teachings have appeared so different in different historical eras. But this very fact means that it is tempting to use the idea in ways that it shouldn’t be used. 

Catholics of a traditional bent are likely more than well aware by now of how theological progressives use the phrase to suggest that “development of doctrine” can encompass things like the blessing of same sex unions or the use of artificial contraceptives. This article published by the Vatican News website in 2019, during the Synod on the Amazon, is a good example of this kind of thing. And we currently have Vatican apologists attempting to argue that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Synod on Synodality, that its “processes” are the channel through which doctrine develops in the Church. 

How did the idea of “development of doctrine,” popularized by a nineteenth-century anti-Liberal reactionary in John Henry Newman, come to be used in this way? To my mind, two main problems exist with the way Catholic commentators and theologians often deploy this idea. Arguing that the Church should teach things contrary to revelation or settled teaching is an obvious problem, but I would suggest that attempting to “direct” or control how the Church’s teaching develops is a more fundamental issue. To understand why this is the case, it is worth revisiting how Newman understood it. 

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Newman famously called development of doctrine an “expedient” to explain certain difficulties in Catholic doctrine; he was thinking of the Protestant polemic that charged the Church with inventing new doctrines to justify its power. His goal was to show how the Church was faithful to the original deposit of the faith and to earlier developments. 

Despite skepticism that genuine developments of doctrine could be ascertained by logical deductions, he believed in the law of non-contradiction: “those which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt.” Newman dismissed the idea that the Church’s teaching simply changed with the times, and he stipulated that genuine developments must preserve the original “type” of revelation, citing Christ’s words in Matthew that he came “not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it” as a good description of such.

Newman wanted to argue not from logic but from history to defend Catholic doctrine. His theory was essentially a Romantic one, in which the Church’s dogmas and official teachings developed organically through the emotional life of the faithful under the hand of Providence. They did not emerge instantaneously out of immediate consultation of Scripture but “by the unconscious growth of ideas suggested by the letter and habitual to the mind.” Newman wanted to show how it was that Church history, so messy in its details, might yield a consistent body of teaching. He seems to have sought this in the idea that such could be recognized only in retrospect, by a divinely aided authority, rather than being the simple product of the moment authored by a party or sect. 

Newman drew on several sources for this idea, including the Anglican writer Joseph Butler; but Newman also mentioned continental writers like Johann Adam Mohler and Joseph de Maistre in his Essay. What’s significant about this is that these thinkers saw history as driven not as the product of singular human intention (be it a person or an organization) but as the outcome of innumerable human actions. Some aspects of human life, as the Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson put it, were “the results of human action but not of human design.” 

They were thinking of complex phenomena such as the economy (hence Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand”), and thinkers like de Maistre used this notion to interpret the French Revolution as divine punishment for the sins of the French. Newman had something similar in mind when he talked about doctrinal development. For him, it was the outcome of a process too complex to be captured by mere logical deduction, as the Scholastic philosophers understood development. Hence the need for a divine authority to recognize and affirm such developments.

This stress on the Church’s role as arbiter of genuine developments, while downplaying logical constraints upon it, opened up a rhetorical space for greater emphasis on change. Modernists would later exploit this space to propagate a “transformist” theory of development which claims dogmas must track with human experience and cannot be settled definitively—and must be expressed in different ways in different times and places. This is why many Roman theologians held Newman, and his French admirer Maurice Blondel, in suspicion—because their ideas appeared to open the door to the radicalism of the Modernists, even though they explicitly rejected their historicism.  The stress on the Church’s role as arbiter of genuine developments, while downplaying logical constraints upon it, opened up a rhetorical space for greater emphasis on change. Tweet This

I suspect the problems with the idea of development began with Blondel and his French followers. Blondel and the Nouvelle Theologie worked in a much different milieu than did Newman. They lived in a rapidly secularizing Europe before, during, and after the World Wars, in which they felt obliged to seek ecumenical rapprochement with other Christian communities. 

Instead of trying to persuade a hostile Protestant majority, as did Newman, that the Church did not change its doctrines constantly, the continental theologians who picked up on Newman wanted to assure their secular and Protestant interlocutors that the Church could change its teachings, so as to accommodate them. They, like Newman, emphasized the growth of doctrine through the life of the faithful as approved by the magisterium, but they downplayed its conservative tendencies. 

Instead, Blondel and the Nouvelle Theologie stressed the “dynamism” of the Church’s tradition rather than its stability, its vitality rather than its immutability. Dismissing the speculations of the Scholastics as “cut off from life,” they looked to the Church’s magisterium more than logical consistency or appeal to antiquity as barriers to corruption. They were concerned to open up Catholic theology to contemporary thought, to appeal to the contemporary world on its own terms; and their view of how doctrine develops was crucial to their project. 

As Henri Bouillard put in the 1940s, “a theology that wouldn’t be current would be a false theology.” Yves Congar thought that only the intention of the Church and its magisterium were ever the same but that its dogmatic formulae, as Aidan Nichols put it, “are ever-changing.” (In fairness, the idea that possible corruptions would not be checked by Rome prior to Vatican II must have been hard for them to imagine.) 

The triumph of the Nouvelles meant their idea of development was given its imprimatur by the Church at Vatican II. In the most complete and authoritative magisterial statement about doctrinal development that I am aware of, Dei Verbum §8 states that 

there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

This definition of development emphasizes the role of the episcopate along with the experience of the faithful, but it also emphasizes future developments (“the Church moves toward the fullness of divine truth”) without mentioning possible corruptions, or indeed, any possible conflict with earlier teachings.

The shift brought about by Vatican II marked a watershed. What originally was an apologetic device intended to explain to Protestants why the Church’s teaching had changed in the past, now became a doctrine of the Church whose stated function was to anticipate future changes to its teaching. Barely mentioning the possibility of false developments, the Council gave full rhetorical weight to the idea that true developments were not a controversial, occasional aspect of Church history but somehow common and central to it.

Since the 1960s, Catholics have regularly invoked the Church’s authority to justify novelties, a striking departure from Newman’s original conception. Even though Newman was concerned to defend doctrinal development in terms of the Church’s divine authority, he did not think such authority was given to proclaim new developments constantly. 

He famously referred to the papacy as a “remora or break in the development of doctrine” and defended the Church’s intransigent adherence to Tradition. For Newman, guarding against corruptions of doctrine was the primary duty of the magisterium, and only when it was absolutely necessary did it formally solemnize new developments (this was a major reason why he balked at defining papal infallibility in 1870, a reticence that looks wiser with each passing year).

This leads to another departure from Newman’s idea of development, which I noted above: that of attempting to “direct” the development of doctrine. For an example of what I mean, take this passage from the preamble of Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty. It proclaims that “the council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.” This might seem innocuous, but taken literally it suggests that doctrine changes because the Church (or its leaders) wants it to. 

Recall that Newman’s understanding of doctrinal development was that it happened largely unconsciously, that is, apart from the conscious intentions of the human actors involved. In this view, the Church gives its blessing retrospectively to developments in the life of the faithful that prove by their fruits they are in harmony with the deposit of faith. But many, including the conciliar fathers, apparently, write and speak about doctrinal development as if the Church is consciously directing such changes—as if its formal pronouncements somehow cause them, rather than being a recognition of when they have taken place under God’s providence. 

It is not surprising that, since Vatican II and its attendant injunctions to refrain from condemning error, the primary rhetorical use of “development of doctrine” has been that of promoting aspects of the Church’s life as positive developments, whether they are or not. Even among orthodox Catholics, some writers talk of “trying to develop Catholic teaching” as if this were merely the result of a program enacted by theologians or Church officials. In some respects, this may just be an understandable but unfortunate habit of speech, but it is reflective of, if not a cause of, the situation in which the Church finds itself today, with prelates of the highest rank insinuating that the Church can perform “doctrinal back flips,” as the late Cardinal Pell put it, especially on issues of sexual morality. 

Of course, in practice the distinction between causing a development and recognizing one might not mean a great deal, and people will always try to influence what the Church teaches. But it does seem to me a grave misunderstanding to think anyone—popes included—can control the outcome of doctrinal development long-term. One only has to recall how the efforts of Roman Emperors in the Early Church, such as Constantine and Justinian, to “develop” Church teaching for the sake of imperial unity backfired badly. 

If Newman was correct about the way doctrine develops, then it is simply beyond any one subject, whether individual (popes, bishops) or collective (the Church), to determine its outcome. Whether it is ambitious prelates or lazy apologists, the attempt to use “development of doctrine” as a get-out-of-Modernity-free card for contemporary problems in the Church needs to be addressed at some point.

Newman was right about mere logical inference being incapable of determining genuine developments, but such logic acts as a break on false developments. The Church needs to recover the despised “extrincism” of the Scholastics, especially the historically sensitive views of theologians like Ambroise Gardeil. Fr. Guy Mansini has sketched out what such a view of development might look like. In any case, no one can control what only God alone can, and efforts to steer the Church where she cannot go will inevitably fail, as they always have.

[Image: St. John Henry Newman]


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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