Cardinal John Henry Newman argued that doctrine develops over time. CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales

Doctrine sprouts and grows

By 
  • November 6, 2014

The controversies surrounding the recent extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family have often put me in mind of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century. Newman wrote eloquently on an extraordinary range of topics, but the arguments around the Synod compel us to look at Newman’s work regarding the evolution of doctrine. 

When he was in the process of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman penned a masterpiece entitled On the Development of Christian Doctrine. In line with the evolutionary theories that were just emerging at that time — Hegel’s work was dominant in most European universities and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would appear just a few years later — Newman argued that Christian doctrines are not given once and simply passed down unchanged from generation to generation. Rather, like seeds that unfold into plants or rivers that deepen and broaden over time, they develop and their various aspects and implications emerge in the course of lively rumination. 

It is assuredly not the case, for example, that the doctrine of the Trinity was delivered fully grown into the minds of the first disciples of Jesus and then passed on like a football across the ages. On the contrary, it took hundreds of years for the seed of that teaching to grow into the mighty tree of Augustine’s formulations in the De Trinitate. Newman felt that even definitive theological achievements develop and unfold as they are questioned and argued about. He concludes: “A real idea is equivalent to the sum total of its possible aspects.” And those aspects appear only over time and through the play of lively minds that consider them. 

It is precisely in this context that Newman penned the most famous line of On the Development of Christian Doctrine: “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Ideas change because they are living things. 

Many, upon considering this view, will get nervous — as did many in Newman’s day. Does this mean that doctrine is up for grabs? Should we keep our dogmatic statements, as one cynical wag once put it, in loose-leaf binders? For clarity, we can delve further into Newman’s great book and examine the criteria he laid out to determine the difference between a legitimate development (which makes the doctrine in question more fully itself) and a corruption (which undermines the doctrine). Newman presents seven in total, but I should like to examine just three. 

The first is what he calls preservation of type. A valid development preserves the essential form and structure of what came before. If that type is undermined, we are dealing with a corruption. Mind you, type can be maintained even through enormous superficial changes. To use Newman’s own example, “a butterfly is a development of the caterpillar but not in any sense its image.” And by the same token, superficialities can remain largely unchanged even as the type utterly morphs, as happened, say, in the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. 

A second criterion is what Newman refers to as “conservative action upon its past.” An evolution that simply reverses or contradicts what came before it is necessarily a corruption and not a development. In Newman’s own words, an authentic development “is an addition that illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects the body of thought from which it proceeds.” So Christianity could be seen as the development of Judaism, since it preserves the essential teachings and practices of that faith, even as it moves beyond them. 

A third criterion is what Newman calls “the power of assimilation.” Just as a healthy organism takes in what it can from its environment, even as it resists what it must, so a sane and lively idea can absorb what is best in the intellectual atmosphere, even as it throws off what is noxious. Total accommodation to the culture and total resistance to it are both signs of intellectual sickness. 

How does this apply to the Synod? Consider the proposal made by Cardinal Walter Kasper regarding communion for the divorced and re-married. Is it an authentic development or a corruption of Catholic moral teaching and practice? 

I suggest all of the disputants take a step back and assess the matter using Newman’s criteria. Would Newman be opposed in principle to change in this regard? Not necessarily, for he knew that to live is to change. Would he therefore enthusiastically embrace what Kasper has proposed? Not necessarily, for it might represent a corruption. 

As the conversation continues to unfold in coming months, all sides would benefit from a careful reading of On the Development of Christian Doctrine

(Fr. Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.) 

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