Pope Francis’ recent interview generated headline after headline about abortion and gay marriage. But more significant in the long run are the theological accents found in the interview, accents with important ecclesiological implications.
Allow me to start with the pope’s invocation of the early fifth-century church father, St. Vincent of Lérins. Vincent’s work has long been prominent in various sectors of Christian theology. Within Catholicism, St. Vincent was cited by Vatican I, but his writings were overlooked by Vatican II and have not generally been featured by the magisterium or theologians in recent years.
One reason for this neglect is that Vincent has often been taken as a strict preservationist. After all, his signature phrase seems rigorously conservative in intent: “We hold that which has been believed everywhere (ubique), always (semper), and by everyone (ab omnibus).” Even astute theologians such as the young Joseph Ratzinger and the great ecumenist Yves Congar, thought Vincent clung to an excessively static notion of truth and could not be adduced, therefore, as a defender of the Church’s living and dynamic tradition. Congar even stated that because of the “archaizing character” of Vincent’s thought, he could not be cited in Dei Verbum of Vatican II.
Congar rarely hit a false theological note, but, on this point, he badly misread the score. As Pope Francis points out, Vincent is not simply interested in preservation (although the monk of Lérins is a great defender of the apostolic tradition, endlessly citing St. Paul’s exhortation, “Guard the deposit, Timothy!”). Vincent is equally concerned that this tradition be allowed to grow and develop homogeneously and architectonically over the course of time.
So when the pope’s interviewer asks about the major changes occurring in society, and even in humanity’s self-understanding, Pope Francis cites a passage from St. Vincent’s Commonitorium:
The doctrine of the Christian religion should follow the law of progress, so that it may be consolidated by years, developed by time and made more sublime by age.
The pope rightly notes that St. Vincent compares the growth of doctrine to the gradual development whereby a child becomes an adult. Vincent’s (and Francis’) point, of course, is that over the years there occurs a refinement, maturation, and ripening of Christian doctrine.
Throughout his work, however, Vincent ardently insists that “development” can never mean a substantial transformation, a change in the very essence of a church teaching. The theologian of Lérins very carefully balances growth and preservation. Does growth occur? Yes, he says, and exceedingly so. Any development, however, must be in fundamental continuity with the prior doctrinal tradition, particularly those landmark issues settled by ecumenical councils.
And this brings us to another point which St. Vincent and Pope Francis have in common. Vincent likes to cite St. Paul’s exhortation, “Guard the deposit, Timothy!” But, just here, the theologian of Lérins poses a crucial question, “Who is Timothy today?” Who today is guarding the faith? Who today is ensuring that any development is a homogeneous and organic advance and not a corrosive alteration of Christianity?
Vincent argues that any doctrinal growth must be warranted by the entire Church, under the Holy Spirit. He insists that Scripture itself is perfectly capable of settling every question; unfortunately, however, heretics obscure the Bible with their deceitful misinterpretations. To whom, then, may we turn for sure guidance when interpreting the Divine Word?
Vincent says we should first turn to the bishops gathered in ecumenical councils— those universal assemblies which have already given us the holy teachings of Nicea and Ephesus. Lacking a conciliar decision, then a consensus—indeed a council—of learned and holy theological doctors is needed. Also of great importance for Vincent are the witness of the faithful and, unquestionably, the decisions of the bishop of Rome. The pope teaches with his colleagues, Vincent states, but in the forefront of them, since he surpasses the others by the authority of his see.
The theologian of Lérins, then, offers a carefully textured, multi-layered view of the Church’s living tradition in her interpretation of Scripture. Something of this multi-layered universality is to be found in Pope Francis’ recent interview as well. He insists, for example, on the importance of broad consultation, noting that the synods of bishops must allow for “real and active” dialogue rather than a token or ceremonial offering of advice.
And, very much like Vincent, who says that the “Timothy of today” guarding the faith is both the entire body of bishops and the universal Church in general, Francis explicitly recalls the ancient Catholic doctrine of the faithful possessing “infallibilitas in credendo” (the infallibility of the Christian people as a whole).
In response to a question on “thinking with the Church,” the pope says that this phrase refers not only to the hierarchy, but to the reciprocal dialogue that must occur among the faithful, the bishops, the pope, and theologians. Returning again to the subject of episcopal synods, Francis says that such assemblies offer an opportunity to think anew about the proper relationship between primacy and collegiality. The pope here expresses a desire to review the governance of the Church of the first millennium, when East and West were fruitfully conjoined.
It is perhaps too facile to conclude that Pope Francis has a polycentric, “Vincentian” vision of the Church. And yet his citation of St. Vincent indicates that he has thought about the theology purveyed by the prescient monk of Lérins. It is a vigorous theology of communion which sees in all aspects of ecclesial life—pope, bishops, faithful and theologians—the living and dynamic work of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s task of preserving and authentically developing the Christian faith.
Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University and the author of Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine (Baker, 2013). Image via Wikimedia Commons.