I wish to draw attention to four obvious ideas about what is called “development of doctrine,” which, despite their obviousness, are very often overlooked.

The first is that development of doctrine is not itself a doctrine, but a theory, and that there are several such theories. The theory falls within the vast realm of free judgment. A person may be a good Catholic while rejecting the development of doctrine—indeed, many good Catholics did just that when John Henry Newman published his famous essay on the topic in 1845. At my own university, Joseph Clifford Fenton, who was dean of the School of Theology, editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, and later prelate and protonotary apostolic, denied development until his death in 1969. A person may also hold that what people mean by “development” is mere conceptual consequence, and that Newman overstates the case.

I should think that Newman, who believed that all philosophy going forward had to be carried out in the first person, and who wrote on development in order to solve a problem for himself, would be horrified to see his thesis used as if it were a canon of the faith.

Here is the second obvious point: Theories of development are meant to establish identity of doctrine, not difference. The thesis of Newman’s book is that the early Church believed the same thing as Catholics in his day, and that thesis, to his mind, justified his conversion.

If a simple and pious person is offered the binary choice, “Has doctrine stayed the same, or has it changed?,” the safest, best, and truest answer is that it has stayed the same. Newman, when he put his argument into deductive form in Latin, for theologians in Rome after his conversion, stated that, objectively, doctrine is given all at once in the revelation of Christ and never changes. Our subjective reception of the doctrine may change, but it must never do so in a way that makes the objective content appear to have changed.

If you actually read the treatise Communitorium by St. Vincent of Lerins—often cited as the origin of the theory of development—you’ll see that his main preoccupation is to show that the faith never changes. Pope John Paul II’s motto for the turn of the millennium was “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

Pius IX defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception about ten years after Newman’s book. Was that definition a development of doctrine? Did anyone think it so? Perhaps. And yet, notably, the Holy Father used these words in describing its status: “This doctrine always existed in the Church as a doctrine that has been received from our ancestors, and that has been stamped with the character of revealed doctrine. For the Church of Christ, watchful guardian that she is, and defender of the dogmas deposited with her, never changes anything, never diminishes anything, never adds anything to them.”

The theory of development of doctrine is therefore not prospective, as the new things that a scribe in the Kingdom of God brings out of his storehouse are, as it were, incidental to his intention, which must be not to change or add anything. C. S. Lewis said that only an insane person would attempt to say something new in morality, and that, in general, attempting to be creative was a sure method of saying something banal and false. But, he said, if you attempt to be intensely accurate now, in saying exactly the same old truth, it will be found that you’ve said something new.

A case in point is the Theology of the Body of John Paul II, who simply wanted to explain Genesis again. He succeeded at that, but, as he was a phenomenologist, and a mystic, and “Wujek” (“Uncle”) to his circle of married friends, he made that very old thing very new.

This brings us to the third point: Since the claim of “development” is meant to establish sameness of belief, not difference, it establishes communion and charity.

I have seen the desk at Littlemore on which Newman wrote Development. It is a big, dark board on a pivot, like an architect’s desk. Newman would set it at a slant when he wrote. As he was finishing his book, and Bl. Fr. Dominic Barberi arrived to receive him into the Church, the board was turned flat, to become the altar for Newman’s first Mass as a Catholic—a vivid representation of how, by his theory, he attained communion.

It would be absurd, then—and a sure proof that the idea of development was being abused—if Christian A held that his view was a development of the view of Christian B, yet Christian A held Christian B in contempt—maybe scolding him for being “bloodthirsty and confused,” or taunting him that he should go to bed with a cold compress to become a better Catholic. After all, his view is a development of his brother’s. So they believe the same thing, right?

Of course no contradiction is properly described as a development, any more than an axe to the root of a tree can “develop” the tree. But then neither is the assertion of one truth, in a closely connected pair, to the exclusion of another. This is the fourth idea, which Newman frequently stressed: The Christian faith, and human life too (as Msgr. Ronald Knox liked to emphasize), consists of mysteries, that is, combinations of truths that are indeed both true, but which never stop seeming incompatible, such as that Christ is God and Man, or that there are Three Persons in One God, or even that “those who violate the right to life themselves forfeit the right to life.” To assert just one is to “destroy” the mystery, as St. Thomas would say, and to deny the reality. The proper word for such an abandonment is hardly “development.”

Michael Pakaluk is professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America.

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