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It is old news that Pope Francis has a strong predilection for the thought of St. Vincent of Lérins. Again and again, he has cited one sentence from Vincent’s great Commonitorium, composed in the early fifth century. Christians should be grateful to Francis for rescuing this penetrating Church Father from relative obscurity.  

St. Vincent was not always a shadowy figure. When his major work was re-discovered in the sixteenth century (having been lost for a millennium), Vincent was frequently cited by both Catholic and Protestant theologians. But over the course of time, the Lerinian’s thought was increasingly ignored, and even discredited. What caused this neglect?

The first reason is that Vincent came to be regarded as an uncritical archaist because of his claim that the Church holds “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone (ubique, semper, et ab omnibus).” The history of doctrine itself, his critics charge, militates against the Lerinian’s naive assertion; which Christian teaching has been held always and everywhere? Even the great theologian and ecumenist, Yves Congar, misinterpreted Vincent’s axiom as mere antiquarianism, stating that because of it, the Commonitorium could not be cited in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II.  

Second, Vincent was increasingly disdained because he came to be regarded as a vitriolic opponent of St. Augustine. The monasteries of southern Gaul, where Vincent resided, were regarded as bastions of semi-Pelagianism, deeply committed to defending free will and resistant to Augustine’s vigorous emphasis on the absolute priority of grace. For centuries, therefore, the theologian of Lérins has been tarred with a broad semi-pelagian brush.    

In fact, St. Vincent never even mentions Augustine in his chief work, while he continually lashes Pelagianism. Moreover, we know today—since the manuscript was only discovered in the mid-twentieth century—that Vincent published an appreciative florilegium of Augustine’s texts on the Holy Trinity and on Christology. This hardly sounds like the project of a militant and determined theological opponent.

Given the desuetude into which Vincent’s thought has fallen in recent centuries, we can be grateful to Pope Francis for rescuing this astute theologian from exile. And Francis is entirely right to emphasize the Lerinian’s accent on growth. No other ancient Christian thinker writes on doctrinal development at such length and with such great clarity. At a time in the Church’s history when there was little theoretical reflection on the relationship between Christian faith and development, St. Vincent boldly treats the issue head-on.  

Living after both the councils of Nicaea and Ephesus, the theologian of Lérins acknowledged that the Church was now commonly using words like homoousios (consubstantial) and Theotokos (God-bearer) not found in the Bible. He explained this by arguing that just as a child becomes an adult and a seed becomes a blooming plant, so Christian doctrine gradually unfolds “more distinctly and explicitly.” Vincent cites a host of Christological and Trinitarian affirmations to support his claims. For example, the Church confesses Jesus as one person with both a human and divine nature and believes in a trinity of distinct persons while insisting on divine unity.     

In the Latin phrase beloved by Francis, Vincent says, “ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate.” That is, progress in Christian doctrine is such that it is “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, and refined with age.” Vincent was convinced that just as the child becomes an adult, while remaining the same person with the same nature, so doctrine progresses and advances over time without betraying biblical substance and meaning.    

Like Francis, then, Vincent would have little time for what the pope calls “indietrismo”—being backward-looking, failing to recognize an “appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith.” Of course, the crucial word here is “appropriate.” While Vincent argues that change always occurs over time, he recognizes that some changes are pernicious and destructive while others are legitimate and welcome.  

In some ways, St. Vincent insists on change even more emphatically than Francis. He asks the rhetorical question: Is there no progress of religion in the Church of Christ? His point-blank response: There is “exceedingly great progress.” But although Vincent is a resolute proponent of growth, his favorite biblical passage, cited incessantly throughout his work, is “Guard the deposit, Timothy!” (1 Tim. 6:20). The Church must move forward, unquestionably, in her understanding of divine revelation, while at the same time carefully conserving the deposit of faith that has been entrusted to her care. 

This dual task—preservation and proper development—is why Vincent invokes biological analogies. Clearly, there is change with age—but it must be homogeneous, organic development, with the same “nature” carefully preserved. Faithful Christians conserve prior doctrinal achievements even while allowing proportionally related insights. Theological speculation on the nature and person of Jesus Christ must continue, to be sure, but always within the parameters set by the councils of Nicaea and Ephesus. 

This is why one of St. Vincent’s most famous phrases—cited in the same chapter in which he speaks so eloquently of growth—is that any change, any development, any advance, must be “in eodem dogmate, eodem sensu, eademque sententia” (according to the same doctrine, the same meaning, and the same judgment), always preserving the substance of that which preceded it. I would commend this hallowed phrase to Francis’s magisterium—he cites it rarely— because it is crucial for understanding the type of development Vincent sanctions. It is growth that fully respects, conserves, and builds upon prior doctrinal achievements.    

St. Vincent would also have appreciated when Francis, in his 2023 Christmas address to the Roman curia, insisted that it is important “to keep searching and growing in our understanding of the truth, overcoming the temptation to stand still. . . . Fear, rigidity and monotony make for an immobility that has the apparent advantage of not creating problemsstay put, don’t move.'”

With Francis, the theologian of Lérins also rejects attempts to thwart growth and change. But Vincent is equally aware that it is not only orthodox Christians who reject immobility. Heretics also reject it and insist vehemently on the importance of change. Indeed, Vincent notes that the continual cry of heretics is “Reject the ancient faith! Hold what you used to condemn and condemn what you used to hold!” Heretics want change, to be sure, but not evolution that is organic and linear, building on earlier achievements. For them, change does not mean growth in eodem sensu—along the same path as the prior tradition—but in alieno sensu, a reversal of previous doctrinal achievements. Against these people, Vincent insists, the great trumpet of the apostles, St. Paul, cries out to us, “If anyone preaches to you a new doctrine, let him be anathema!”    

How can Vincent’s insights help the Church today? Last month, Francis gave a perceptive talk about the ongoing formation of Catholic priests. He spoke about priests who, for one reason or another, have lost their capacity to minister to the faithful. They think of themselves as “masters” and “aristocrats” and feel themselves to be “omnipotent” vis-à-vis God’s holy people.  

St. Vincent, I suspect, would endorse the pope’s comments. But, given his profound interest in Christian doctrine, he would likely extend Francis’s remarks to the theological tradition. No one in the Church is “omnipotent” regarding the doctrinal tradition; no one is its “master.” Rather, the Church’s task is to guard rigorously the deposit of faith—as St. Paul counsels—and to husband carefully its proper growth. 

A well-known example of papal “omnipotence” is Paul VI at Vatican II. In May 1964, in a well-meaning attempt to achieve a proper balance between papal primacy and episcopal collegiality, the pope sent to the council’s Theological Commission thirteen suggestions intended to improve the schema on the Church (De Ecclesia), while leaving the Commission the freedom to discuss his proposals. One suggestion was Paul’s claim that the pope is answerable “to the Lord alone.” The Commission strongly resisted Paul’s formulation, responding that it risked excessive simplification given that the pope is answerable to countless dimensions of divine revelation—including the basic structure of the Church, the sacraments, the definitions of ecumenical councils, and other elements too numerous to mention. One conservative member of the Theological Commission, Archbishop Parente of the Holy Office, even remarked that Paul’s formulation smacked of heresy. Paul had the humility to accept the Commission’s response.  

This rejoinder of the Theological Commission would surely have pleased Vincent, since it made clear that no one in the Church is “master” of divine revelation. All Christians—hierarchy and faithful alike—receive it and are subject to it, even though, as Francis teaches, the Church is never immobile. Over time, there has been and must be organic and architectonic development but always—in the most significant matters—along the path of the prior tradition, in eodem sensu eademque sententia.    

St. Vincent, sixteen centuries later, still has much to teach us about the Christian faith.  

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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Image by Alberto Fernandez Fernandez via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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