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Pope Francis has often turned to St. Vincent of Lérins for theological enlightenment. Most recently, on a flight on July 29, Francis said Vincent provided a “very clear and illuminating” rule for proper doctrinal development.

St. Vincent has had something of a checkered theological career. While his seminal work, the Commonitorium, was popular when it was rediscovered in the sixteenth century (having been lost for a millennium) and remained popular for several centuries thereafter, it gradually fell out of favor. On the basis of one famous sentence—“We hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone” (ubique, semper, et ab omnibus)—Vincent came to be regarded as a rigid conservative, one with little historical awareness.  

This is a misreading of Vincent’s seminal work. So it is heartening to see that Pope Francis has not been ensnared by the widespread misinterpretation of the Lerinian. On the contrary, the pope emphasizes precisely those aspects of Vincent’s theological reasoning that make him a prescient author. For the theologian of Lérins is one of the few ancient Christian writers who tackles the question of doctrinal development over time—and he does so head-on.   

When St. Vincent wrote the Commonitorium in a.d. 434, some Christian thinkers of the time were arguing against the Church’s use of terms such as homoousios (consubstantial) and Theotokos (Mary as God-bearer) that were not found in the Bible. They expressly opposed these new words as illegitimate. But Vincent argued that the novel terms were correct because Christian doctrine necessarily grows over time, just as a seed becomes a plant and a child becomes an adult. In a similar way, these new words help to develop and clarify the meaning of Scripture. Vincent acknowledges that everything necessary for the Christian faith can be found in nuce in the sacred Scriptures. But he also insists on gradual, homogeneous growth over time.    

Noting that some will ask, “Is there no progress of religion in the Church of Christ?,” Vincent responds, “there is exceedingly great progress!” This progress, however, must always be an advance of the faith and not a deformation of it. Doctrine develops in a manner analogous to human beings. Though a person undergoes many changes from youth to old age, he remains the same person, the same nature. There is organic, architectonic growth over time—both in human beings and in Christian doctrine. But this progress, Vincent argues, must be of a certain type and shape, always protecting the earlier doctrinal achievements of the Christian faith. A change cannot create a different meaning. Rather, later formulations must be “according to the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment” as earlier ones.  

Later in the Commonitorium, Vincent makes a point frequently cited by Pope Francis: “Christian doctrine also follows this law of progress. It is consolidated through the years, developed over time, refined by age.” Pope Francis has cited his preferred passage from St. Vincent many times since his election in 2013, including in the encyclical Laudato Si’. Perhaps his most expansive remarks are in a 2017 address about the Catechism. There, the pope boldly states that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” And he cites St. Vincent in defense of this position—which entails, the pope claims, recognizing the Church’s commitment to inviolable human dignity. It is a matter of a “harmonious development of doctrine.”

Pope Francis goes on to speak about tradition in a way that the Lerinian would endorse, describing tradition as a “living reality.” He again invokes Vincent’s “happy formulation” that Christian doctrine is “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, [and] refined by age.” The pope is surely correct that this is a crucial phrase. But if I were to counsel the pope, I would encourage him to take account of St. Vincent’s entire Commonitorium, not simply the one selection he cites repeatedly.

Note that St. Vincent never speaks positively about reversals. A reversal, for Vincent, is not an advance in the Church’s understanding of truth; it is not an instance of a teaching “enlarged by time.” On the contrary, reversals are the hallmarks of heretics. Reversals would indicate that the entire world incorporated into Christ the Head “would have erred, would have blasphemed, would not have known what to believe.” When condemning reversals, Vincent is always talking about the attempt to reverse or alter the solemn teachings of ecumenical councils. The Lerinian is particularly haunted by attempts to reverse the teaching of Nicaea, such as happened at the Council of Ariminum (Rimini, a.d. 359), which, in its proposed creed, dropped the crucial word, homoousios

I would also invite Pope Francis to invoke the salutary guardrails Vincent erects for the sake of ensuring proper development. While Pope Francis is taken with Vincent’s phrase dilatetur tempore (“enlarged by time”), the Lerinian also uses the suggestive phrase res amplificetur in se (“the thing grows within itself”). The Lerinian argues that there are two kinds of change: A legitimate change, a profectus, is an advance—homogeneous growth over time—such as a child becoming an adult. An improper change is a pernicious deformation, called a permutatio. This is a change in someone’s or something’s very essence, such as a rosebush becoming mere thorns and thistles. 

Referring to this distinction might aid Pope Francis in showing how some particular teaching represents a true profectus fidei

Another guardrail is the Vincentian claim that growth and change must be in eodem sensu eademque sententia, that is, according to the same meaning and the same judgment. For the monk of Lérins, any growth or development over time must preserve the substantive meaning of earlier teachings. For example, the Church can certainly grow in its understanding of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, but it can never backtrack on the definition of Nicaea. The idem sensus or “same meaning” must always be maintained in any future development. Pope Francis rarely, if ever, cites this important Vincentian phrase—but any call for change must be shown to be not simply an alteration, or even a reversal of prior teaching, but in fact in eodem sensu with that which preceded it.

I would also counsel the pope to avoid citing St. Vincent to support reversals, as with his teaching that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel.” Vincent’s organic, linear understanding of development does not include reversals of prior positions. St. Vincent places his greatest trust in the united body of bishops who, together, witness to the Christian faith throughout the world. The theologian of Lérins would likely argue that reversals, especially those of long-standing positions, are best sanctioned by an ecumenical council or at least by the general agreement of the entire episcopacy—although with the pope at the forefront, given the authority of his See. 

Throughout his work, Vincent cries out with St. Paul, “O Timothy, guard the deposit, avoiding profane novelties” (1 Tim. 6:20). In his 2017 speech, Pope Francis states that the deposit of faith is not “something static.” Vincent would agree that the depositum is living and growing—but he would simultaneously insist that that growth must be deeply related to, and in continuity with, the Church’s prior dogmatic tradition. 

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine.

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