Once, Shaun Blanchard believed that Catholic truth was unalterable. “We Catholics stay the same; the Protestants change”: That was the comforting lesson drummed into him by catechists, priests, popular apologists, and articles in First Things. It was “the party line.” But now, he writes in the latest issue of Commonweal, it all seems deeply implausible. Hasn’t Pope Francis basically changed the teaching on the death penalty—it used to be theoretically OK, now it’s “inadmissible”? Didn’t Vatican II pretty much reverse Church doctrine when it said “the human person has a right to religious freedom”? Haven’t the greatest modern theologians effectively admitted that teaching can change, as when St. John Henry Newman wrote a whole book on doctrinal development and Pope Benedict XVI discussed the “combination of continuity and discontinuity” in Church history?
Those of us who still believe in the unchanging nature of Catholic teaching—or, as Blanchard puts it, “rigid continuity”—get short shrift. There are, he acknowledges, readings of Vatican II that maintain its essential identity with previous teaching on religious freedom: He dismisses them as “tortured.” The same goes for the death penalty: Those of us who point out that the Holy Father’s recent Catechism edit was not an especially authoritative level of teaching, and used ambiguous terminology, are guilty of “feverishly parsing” the text. Even Francis himself, for Blanchard, is “unconvincing” when he claims he’s not contradicting previous doctrine. We need to face the obvious truth: There is “a discontinuity between what the Church teaches now and what it used to teach.”
I will happily confess to being one of these “Catholics pushing a static understanding”; at least, I think that when the Church has taught something consistently and authoritatively, it is not going to change. I know Shaun Blanchard, and he’s a thoughtful guy, but his article is not going to keep me awake at night. Just for a start, there’s something rather large missing from it: a replacement. If I’m going to hand my belief in unchanging Church doctrine back to the store, I would like to know what I’m getting in return. At the moment, if I wonder—to take a random example—“Do I need to go to a priest for Confession, or can I simply say sorry to God in my head?” then my unoriginal answer is: The Church teaches that yes I do, so I do. But in Blanchard’s world, Church teaching could change tomorrow: This might be a false doctrine just waiting to be abandoned. So where do I look for an answer? Blanchard says doctrinal change rests on “fundamental Christian principles,” but that only defers the question. Where do we find out what these fundamental principles are, and what they mean in practice?
He could say: “All doctrine can be found in the plain text of Scripture,” and we could run through some familiar arguments. Or he could say, “Well, you just have to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” or “Catholic teaching is whatever the current pope and his friends think,” or “All any Christian needs to know is contained within the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.” But he offers no alternative—which seems to me a tacit admission that none of the possible alternatives are really very satisfactory.
“How often have I said to you,” Sherlock Holmes sighed to Dr. Watson, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” When the alternatives are impossible, what remains is the improbable truth that Church teaching is right, and it doesn’t change.
On second thought, maybe “improbable” is conceding too much. Blanchard believes the attempts to prove continuity in Church teaching are hopelessly fiddly. Instead of fussing over this or that precise word in the documents of Vatican II, or drawing distinctions about exactly how authoritative some statement of Pope Francis’s is, we should just accept that an old and untrue doctrine has been corrected. This is not a new criticism: People thought the 4th-century debates over the Trinity, which at times came down to the placement of a single letter, were absurdly technical. Yet the reality is that every body of thought, if it aspires to precision, will require some occasional hairsplitting. Quantum physicists and macroeconomists rely on fine distinctions that look like pedantry to outsiders. There is no reason why Catholic theologians shouldn’t do the same.
Consider what Church teaching is: an astonishingly comprehensive series of interlocking claims dealing with everything from the causes of the estrangement between God and humanity, to the ethics of war and poverty, to the exact nature of marriage and baptism, to the unseen world of billions of invisible spirits. And this doctrine is meant to apply, with equal relevance, to the entire human family living and dead: to speak as urgently to a wolfskin-clad Viking warrior as to a lady-in-waiting at a Renaissance court, to Warren Buffett as to an eight-year-old playing football in a Kinshasa slum. Such a scheme is, by any human standard, insanely ambitious—like a plan to build a bridge from Sydney to the North Pole. No wonder if the engineering gets a bit intricate at some points.
Blanchard appeals to Ratzinger and Newman for support. I’m not sure they can provide much. Ratzinger, in the 2005 address about continuity and discontinuity that Blanchard quotes, approvingly cites John XXIII’s words about Vatican II: that it aimed to “transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion.” That goal runs through all of St. John Henry Newman’s writings as well—without any exception that I know of, he treats the authoritative decisions of the Church as final and unchangeable. For that very reason, Newman sometimes resorted to the kind of fine distinctions that Blanchard dislikes. For instance, when Newman’s friends worried that Vatican I contradicted the Church’s previous understanding of the papacy, he directed them to the exact words of the text. Perhaps, he conceded, Pius IX and the other major players at Vatican I could have been personally mistaken, but the precise statements put forth did not contradict previous teaching.
A Pope may all his life be in error, but if he attempts to put it forth, he will be cut off, or be deterred, or find himself saying what he did not mean to say. I have no hesitation in saying that, to all appearance, Pius IX wished to say a great deal more (that is that the Council should say a great deal more) than it did, but a greater Power hindered it. (Letter to William Maskell, January 1871)
I do not deny that the proceedings constitute a grave scandal…but as time goes on, the power of God will be recognized as having said to the proud waves “Hitherto shall ye go and no further.” (Letter to Mrs Froude, March 1871)
Yes, Ratzinger and Newman both acknowledged various kinds of change in Catholicism. One is a greater clarity of thought: The unique holiness of the Virgin Mary ends up being recognized as implying her Immaculate Conception. Another is a shift of attitude toward large forces like liberal democracy: The Church’s official statements were hostile before Vatican II, friendlier afterward. (There is also more room for Catholics to question such shifts—Newman thought the Church in his own time was pointlessly antagonistic, and Ratzinger thought parts of Vatican II were embarrassingly naïve.) What doesn’t change is doctrine, so long as—again—that doctrine is precisely defined. As Matthew Walther observed in a tweeted response to Blanchard’s article, if the Church really is condemning its old doctrines, “Why not issue Tridentine-style anathemas against the now supposedly condemned and erroneous positions?” Those 16th-century anathemas are indeed models of clarity. “If any one saith, that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not prohibited by any divine law; let him be anathema.” Years ago, I used to find this kind of language bafflingly aggressive, but I have come to admire it: There is no better way to establish what is and isn’t doctrine. And it’s these clear distinctions on exact points that cannot change.
Actually, the condemnations and the development are part of one single process, brilliantly theorized by Newman’s biographer and disciple Wilfrid Ward. For Ward, the “conservative genius” of Catholicism consists in a double movement. In the first place, the Church has shown “an attitude of uncompromising resistance to rival theories of life which strove to dictate to her and bend her to their will”—Gnosticism, Lutheranism, liberalism, to take three examples. But all these rival theories contained true and good things; and from all of them the Church “assimilate[d] something, in most cases a great deal, once their aggressive character had been broken by her resistance.” Having seen off Gnosticism, the Church also adopted some of its methods of reasoning; the Counter-Reformation tradition eventually absorbed many Protestant insights; the 19th-century battle against liberalism was followed by a new appreciation for human freedom. The Church, for Ward, is like a besieged city that first resists, then overcomes the attacker—and after that captures the attacker’s treasures and brings them inside the walls. Those who claim that the Church has nothing to do except resist and condemn are mistaken; but they are less mistaken than those who think we should raise the gates and invite the enemy in.
Dan Hitchens is senior editor at First Things.
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