This is the third in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church. 

Can there be “paradigm shifts” in the interpretation of the deposit of faith?

In commenting on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, some interpreters advance positions contrary to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, by effectively denying that adultery is always a grave objective sin or by making the Church’s entire sacramental economy exclusively dependent on people’s subjective dispositions. They seek to justify their claims by insisting that through the ages there has been a development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a fact that the Church has always admitted. To substantiate their claims, they usually appeal to the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and in particular to his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Newman’s arguments are indeed worth considering. They will help us understand the sort of development that is possible in the matters touched upon by Amoris Laetitia.

When Newman started writing the Essay, he was still an Anglican. And yet, prior to finishing it, he left the Church of England to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. As an Anglican, he had been one of the major protagonists of the Oxford Movement. The movement aimed at achieving Christian unity by summoning all Christian confessions to return to the Church’s earliest traditions as contained in Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Newman was an expert in patristics, and he was at first suspicious of later teachings developed in the Middle Ages. It was these that for a long time kept him from converting to the Roman Church. They seemed to him incompatible with the basic principles of Christianity, or at least not derivable from Holy Scripture and the earliest tradition of the Fathers. For him the Catholic practice of venerating the Blessed Virgin and the saints appeared to contradict the idea that Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Other examples of teachings that Newman considered exclusive to Catholicism and not based on Scripture and the Fathers are the following: papal primacy, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the sacrificial character of Holy Mass, purgatory, indulgences, religious vows, and the sacrament of Holy Orders. These were the main issues causing controversy during the Reformation.

At first Newman considered Anglicanism as a middle way (the “via media”) between the Reformer’s complete denial of tradition and—as he then saw it—the Catholic absolutization of tradition. However, his patristic studies made Newman realize that there had already been a development of doctrine during the time when Christianity was not yet divided. The need for such a development results from the nature of historical revelation. It is a consequence of the presence of the divine Word in our human words and understanding. The councils of the first eight centuries formulated the Trinitarian dogma of the one God in three persons and the Christological dogma of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in his divine person. These definitions were the outcome of a long and difficult development of doctrine. Likewise, the dogmas of original sin and the absolute gratuity of grace resulted from the Church Fathers’ great intellectual work, by which they successfully defended the Church from destructive heresies such as Modalism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and Pelagianism. Had these heresies won the day, all of Christianity would have been destroyed. Now the way to combat them was precisely to find new formulations of doctrine, such as, for instance, the pronouncement against Apollinarianism concerning the Incarnation and the assumption of all of human nature by the eternal Logos: “What is not assumed is not saved.”

Of course, to speak of a development of doctrine does not mean to interpret historical Christianity in terms of German idealism, historicism, and modernism. Proponents of these currents think of God, or the Absolute, as a so-called “transcendental a priori,” that is, as the subjective necessary condition of our reason and experience, which is itself prior to our experience and can never be the object of experience. Inasmuch as the Absolute is the condition for our thought and language, it cannot itself be expressed in words and concepts. According to this approach, then, all the dogmas of the Catholic faith are only provisional conceptual formulas that give expression to the ever-changing religious sentiment found in the Church’s collective consciousness. “Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes and are, therefore, liable to change” (Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis). Following this theory, doctrinal formulas aim at uniting the faithful to the Absolute in a wordless fashion, but they do not in themselves really represent revealed truths. Thus, we would not believe really in God, but in the phenomena of our imagination and their echoes in our language. By development of doctrine, however, Newman—and with him the whole Church—did not think of a development in terms of Idealist philosophy as we have just exposed them. Such an understanding of development contradicts the fullness of truth present in the historical person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God.

A fundamental problem of modern philosophy is the relation between truth and history. In its temporality, history seems to be the realm of the transient, the changeable, the contingent, whereas truth is beyond time, always valid, and found in the realm of divine ideas. As such, truth is never completely within the reach of finite human beings, who can approach it ever more closely but ultimately can never get ahold of it. Christian theology, in contrast, does not start with the question of how—under the conditions of historical existence—it is possible to know the truth. Rather, it begins with the fact of God’s self-revelation in time. The Incarnation is not an idea meant to help us grasp the temporal significance of Jesus in conceptual terms. Rather, the Incarnation is a fact of divine action in history. Reflecting on it, the Church becomes progressively conscious of all that this event implies and presupposes. The understanding of the faith—the intellectus fidei—presupposes and unfolds the hearing of the faith—the auditus fidei. Jesus appears in the “fullness of time” (cf. Mk 1:15; Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10). In the “fullness of time,” God sends his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, into the world and into history, to accomplish his salvific work, reconciling us once and for all to God and directing our thoughts and actions to the truth and goodness of God (cf. Gal 4:4).

As far as the substance of the articles of faith is concerned, it is impossible to add or subtract anything. In the Church’s efforts to combat heresies and to come to a deeper understanding of revealed truths, there can, however, be an increase in the articles of faith. The filioque, for example—that is, the definition of faith that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son—does not add anything to the Trinitarian faith. This formulation merely gives a clearer expression of a truth that is already known, namely that the Spirit is not the second Son of God. Development of doctrine in this sense refers to the process by which the Church, in her consciousness of the faith, comes to an ever deeper conceptual and intellectual understanding of God’s self-revelation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all the articles of faith “are contained implicitly in certain primary matters of faith, such as God’s existence and His providence” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 1, 7). Development of doctrine is possible because in the one truth of God all the revealed truths of faith are connected, and those that are more implicit can be made explicit. After all, the doctrinal formulas are not themselves the object of the act of faith. Rather, the believer’s faith refers to the very reality of God and God’s truth in Christ. As St. Thomas puts it: “The act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 1, 2 ad 2). Contrary to modernism’s claims, however, the formulas of faith indeed refer to the knowledge of God. They are not just the fortuitous expressions of our subjective consciousness of God.

The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries. This principle is inherent to revelation itself. As Cardinal Newman puts it: “The fact of the operation from first to last of that principle of development in the truths of Revelation, is an argument in favour of the identity of Roman and Primitive Christianity.”

At this point we come to the principal question that Newman sought to answer in his famous Essay. Since revelation is the personal and dialogical self-communication of God in the medium of the historical existence of Christ and his Church, we need criteria in order to tell the difference between a real development of doctrine and what Newman calls a corruption. Development means a growth in the understanding of spiritual and theological realities, guided by the Holy Spirit (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 8). This growth does not occur from any kind of natural necessity, and it has nothing to do with the liberal belief in progress. In fact, as happens also in one’s personal spiritual life, it is possible to regress. A dangerous standstill can occur in the Church, for example, when gifted theologians and scientific institutions are not sufficiently promoted or when bishops are appointed who are ill-equipped for their eminent duty of teaching and preaching (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 25). Bishops do not belong to the periphery, but to the center of orthodoxy.

The criteria that Newman unfolds are useful, then, to disclose how we should read Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The first two criteria are “preservation of type” and “continuity of principles.” They are meant precisely to ensure the stability of the faith’s foundational structure. These principles and types prevent us from speaking of a “paradigm shift” regarding the form of the Church’s being and of her presence in the world. Now chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia has been the object of contradictory interpretations. When in this context some speak of a paradigm shift, this seems to be a relapse into a modernist and subjectivist way of interpreting the Catholic faith. It was in 1962 that Thomas Kuhn introduced his controversial and at the same time influential idea of “paradigm shifts” into the debate internal to the philosophy of science, where the expression received a precise, technical meaning. Apart from this context, however, this term also has an everyday use, referring to any form of fundamental change in theoretical forms of thought and social behavior. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8)—this is, in contrast, our paradigm, which we will not exchange for any other. “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).

Countering the Gnostics, who tried to make themselves seem important by contriving ever new revelations and insights, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon wrote: “Know that He brought all novelty, by bringing Himself who had been announced.” In the second half of the second century, Irenaeus worked out the formal principles of the Catholic faith as he responded to the gnostic challenge. First of all, revelation needs to be accepted as a historical fact. This revelation is contained in the deposit of faith—that is, in the apostolic teaching—which in its truth and in its entirety has been entrusted to the Church to be faithfully preserved and interpreted. The proper method for interpreting revelation requires the joint workings of three principles, which are: Holy Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Apostolic Succession of Catholic bishops. The Roman Church in general and her bishops in particular should be the last to follow the Gnostic’s suit by introducing a novel principle of interpretation by which to give a completely different direction to all of Church teaching. Irenaeus, in fact, compared Christian doctrine to a mosaic whose stones were arranged to reproduce the image of the King. In his view, the Gnostics had taken the same stones, but had changed their order. Now, instead of the likeness of the King, they have formed the image of a fox, the deceiver. One can in fact sin against the Catholic faith not only by denying some of its contents, but also by reformulating its formal principles of knowledge.

One may think here of the Protestant Reformation. Its new formal principle was Scripture alone. This new principle subjected the Catholic doctrine of the faith, as it had developed up to the sixteenth century, to a radical change. The fundamental understanding of Christianity turned into something completely different. Salvation was to be obtained by faith alone, so that the individual believer no longer required the help of ecclesial mediation. In consequence, the Reformers radically rejected the dogmas concerning the seven sacraments and the episcopal and papal constitution of the Church. If understood in this sense, there can be no paradigm shifts in the Catholic faith. Whoever speaks of a Copernican turn in moral theology, which turns a direct violation of God’s commandments into a praiseworthy decision of conscience, quite evidently speaks against the Catholic faith. Situation ethics remains a false ethical theory, even if some were to claim to find it in Amoris Laetitia.

Apart from the question of objective grave sin, proposals to reinterpret Catholic doctrine in the light of Amoris Laetitia also touch upon the sacramental economy, which is now said to receive its measure from the individual believer’s subjective dispositions before God. Here one needs to recall that no ecclesiastical authority can disregard the order of the sacramental mediation of grace, which is based on the concrete relationships we live out in the flesh. Thus, it is impossible for a Catholic to receive the sacraments in a worthy manner, unless he or she resolves to abandon a way of life that is in opposition to the teachings of Christ. Indeed, for Newman the sacramental principle is among the central principles of Christianity, which cannot change.

What about the other notes that Newman enumerates to distinguish authentic development from corruption and decay? Some of them are most certainly worth reviewing to illuminate the present debate. We may consider the third note, which he calls “Power of Assimilation.” According to Newman, a true development occurs when Christianity is able to assimilate the surrounding environment, informing and changing its culture, whereas corruption happens when it is instead the environment that assimilates Christianity to itself. Thus, a paradigm shift, by which the Church takes on the criteria of modern society to be assimilated by it, constitutes not a development, but a corruption.

In his fourth note, Newman speaks of the necessity of a “Logical Sequence” among the different steps of a development. For a development to be healthy, it must proceed in logical continuity with the teachings of the past. Is there any logical continuity between John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio n. 84—which teaches that the divorced living in a new union must resolve to live in continence or else refrain from approaching the sacraments—and the change of this selfsame discipline that some are proposing? There are only two options. One could explicitly deny the validity of Familiaris Consortio n. 84, thus denying by the same token Newman’s sixth note, “Conservative Action upon the Past.” Or one could attempt to show that Familiaris Consortio n. 84 implicitly anticipated the reversal of the discipline that it explicitly set out to teach. On any honest reading of John Paul II’s text, however, such a procedure would have to violate the basic rules of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction.

When “pastoral change” becomes a term by which some express their agenda to sweep aside the Church’s teaching as if doctrine were an obstacle to pastoral care, then speaking up in opposition is a duty of conscience. Hieronymus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other great Catholic authorities have attributed exemplary significance to the Antioch incident when Paul openly opposed Peter, who, on account of his ambiguous behavior, was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). Above all it is important to recall that the pope, as a “private person” (Lumen Gentium n. 25) or brother among brothers, cannot prescribe his personal theology and lifestyle or the spirituality of his religious order to the whole Church. Obedience as a religious vow is different from the obedience of faith that every Catholic owes to revelation and to its ecclesial mediation. The bishops are bound to obey the pope because of his judicial primacy and not on account of a personal vow they have taken. The papal and episcopal offices are at the service of preserving the unity of faith and communion. Therefore, it is among the pope’s and bishops’ first duties to prevent polarization and the rise of partisan mentalities.

All this means that in the exercise of its teaching ministry, it is not enough for the Church’s Magisterium simply to appeal to its judicial or disciplinary power as if its teachings were nothing but a matter of legal and doctrinal positivism. Rather, the Magisterium must seek to present a convincing case, showing how its presentation of the faith is in itself coherent and in continuity with the rest of Tradition. The authority of the papal Magisterium rests on its continuity with the teachings of previous popes. In fact, if a pope had the power to abolish the binding teachings of his predecessors, or if he had the authority even to reinterpret Holy Scripture against its evident meaning, then all his doctrinal decisions could in turn be abolished by his successor, whose successor in turn could undo or redo everything as he pleased. In this case we would not be witnessing a development of doctrine, but the dire spectacle of the Bark of Peter stranded on a sandbank.

Recently groups of bishops or individual episcopal conferences have issued directives concerning the reception of the sacraments. For these statements to be orthodox, it is not enough that they declare their conformity with the pope’s presumed intentions in Amoris Laetitia. They are orthodox only if they agree with the words of Christ preserved in the deposit of faith. Similarly, when cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity ask the pope for clarity on these matters, what they request is not a clarification of the pope’s opinion. What they seek is clarity regarding the continuity of the pope’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia with the rest of tradition.

Those who seek to accommodate the gospel message to the mentality of this world, invoking the authority of Cardinal Newman in their efforts, should consider what he says about the Church’s continuity of type. According to Newman, the true Church can be identified by the unchanging way in which the world has perceived her through the centuries, even amidst many developments. As Newman says, in the world’s eyes the Church is “a religious communion claiming a divine commission, and holding all other religious bodies around it heretical or infidel; it is a well-organized, well-disciplined body.” This communion “is spread over the known world; it may be weak or insignificant locally, but it is strong on the whole from its continuity,” and it is “a natural enemy to governments external to itself; it is intolerant and engrossing, and tends to a new modelling of society; it breaks laws, it divides families. It is a gross superstition; it is charged with the foulest crimes; it is despised by the intellect of the day.” Newman concludes: “And there is but one communion such. Place this description before Pliny or Julian; place it before Frederick the Second or Guizot. . . . Each knows at once, without asking a question, who is meant by it.” Where would Newman find such a communion today?

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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