September 2012 Print

Legitimate Doctrinal Progress in the Churgh

Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

The problems raised by the history of dogma and its development in time are not something new. The Catholic Church is a living society: She has a history and so can we say of its doctrine. The development of dogma was a hotly debated question at the time of the modernist heresy, and it allowed the Church to draw the precise laws of growth of doctrine.

For Tyrrell, the English Modernist, life is a movement of adaptation to perpetually variable conditions. This finds ready-made applications to the Church which must grow from Catholicism to world religion, as it grew from Judaism to Catholicism: “This is altogether a liberation and a spiritual gain, a change from tight clothes to elastic.” Tyrrell could amplify at will the Church boundaries because he had also a very elastic concept of Revelation and dogma. “Revelation belongs rather to the category of impressions than to that of expression”: it is not so much affirmation as experience. Doctrines and dogmas are to the true Church what a pocket map of London is to the city itself, “a sufficient guide in certain matters for certain practical purposes” (taken from One Hundred Years of Modernism, Ch. 12). By contrast, we need only quote St. Paul (Gal. 1:8) who anathematizes whoever spreads another gospel.

To touch ever so briefly on this matter, we shall endeavor to define and connect the terms at hand, to explain how dogma can be both immutable and yet variable, to distinguish the various expressions of dogma and those which are subject to development, and the criteria for discerning genuine from cancerous growth.

Revelation, Faith, Dogma and Magisterium

These are terms so closely tied that they should never be dissociated. Revelation precedes faith as God precedes the believer. Faith, by bringing the believer’s mind under divine Revelation, can ultimately reach God and His mysteries. Revelation, however, deals with the formulation of the same mysteries because, when God speaks to men, He will not use mumbo-jumbo language, but reveals Himself intelligibly.

This spoken Revelation is the object of declaration by the Church magisterium. The Church has been endowed with the privilege of infallibility for this precise purpose, “to preserve faithfully and declare infallibly” the divine Revelation (Vatican I). This magisterium is expressed in two ways: by common declaration of doctrine, or by a definitory or dogmatic sentence. Dogma is a definition of some revealed truth with the seal of approval of the Church magisterium.

Immutable and Expandable

How can we reconcile the fact that dogma is definitory, and therefore essentially unchangeable, with its expansion over the course of the centuries? Is there no contradiction between the immutability and the development of dogma? The answer to the dilemma lies in the double aspect of the deposit of revelation, which holds all revealed truths and was ended with the Apostolic age. We are dealing with a divine deposit revealed to man.

It is because it is a divinely revealed deposit, immutable because God is immutable, that the only possible development is one perfectly homogenous with what was said before, such that never has the Church given a definition of dogma which she has later been called to revise. The declarations of God are not a philosophical invention waiting for the final touches of human genius; it is a divine deposit, confided to the Spouse of Christ. This unchanging dogma gives the mark of veracity to the ecclesiastical magisterium, as Bossuet so eloquently testified: “God willed that the truth come to us carrier to carrier and hand to hand without any appearance of innovation. Thus we are able to recognize what has always been believed and consequently what should always be believed. It is, so to speak, in this always that appears the force of the truth and of the promise, and we lose it entirely as soon as we find an interruption at any point” (One Hundred Years, Ch. 13).

On the other hand, the deposit of the faith is addressed to man. And precisely because dogma is given to men and through human teachers, limited and imperfect minds, men can, over the course of ages, unfold and elucidate the riches of this treasure. Said otherwise, Catholic doctrine is expandable because of its living magisterium. Living contrasts with ‘posthumous,’ which can be understood only of the subject, that is the doctors, but not of the object, i.e. the doctrine. If there is progress, this is not in the dogma, but in the understanding of the dogma by the doctors and their auditors, who are better protected against the assaults of error. Church doctrine, however, is not subject to change. If the object of our faith was itself ‘living’ in the modernist sense of evolving, it would no longer be the faith. If in order to live, faith in the Trinity had to grow into faith in the ‘Quaternity’ of God, this would not be the same faith! There would be a difference in kind, as between apples and pears.

Various Expressions of Dogma

Conceding nothing to the modernist ever-flexible dogma, we can nonetheless observe that dogma does admit of diverse expressions adapted to modes of human language.

In the first place, dogmatic facts express things seen by the Apostles, such as Christ’s death and Resurrection and Mary’s divine maternity.

Next, the most general affirmations employ human images beneath which are hidden the dogmatic message, easily understood by all. Such is the case with our Creed, “He sitteth at the right hand of God the Father,” naturally evoking Christ’s judiciary power.

Finally, certain dogmas employ universal philosophical notions, such as person, substance, nature, transubstantiation, consubstantiality. When definitions, under the infallible seal of the Holy Ghost, allude to the universal categories of being, they stretch the human mind to the limit of its comprehension. Then, the dogmatic formulation is perfect. These definitions are unchangeable both in their meaning and in their form.

Dogmatic Truths Subject to Development

In the deposit of Revelation, which truths are open to development? To set the doctrinal edifice, like any building, one needs two phases: firstly assert the fundamental elements: foundations, supporting pillars, and roof. Only then may one add partitions, the motifs, and the finishing touches.

Hence, some dogmatic truths, because they are immediately necessary to our salvation, have always been explicitly set forth from the word go. Such are the mysteries of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, of the Redemption, of the life of the world to come, and of the divine sanctions for our actions. The only development which they could have undergone is a precision of their formulation, and even this was over by the fifth century.

On the other hand, implicit truths, less directly connected to the mysteries of salvation, can be believed simply in general at first, and then more explicitly. Thus, belief in the Church’s teaching power contains the faith in the infallibility of the pope; belief in Mary’s holiness implicitly contains the belief in the Immaculate Conception.

Sound Dogmatic Development

St. Vincent of Lerins, in his Commonitorium, offers two criteria for distinguishing Catholic doctrine from heretical excrescence.

The first is external: Any teaching which is not entirely at home in the universal Church is to be discarded. He explains that the Catholic faith is “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Yet Cardinal Newman, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, explains that this criterion is of delicate use in practice as these terms cannot realistically be taken in their total extension.

So, St. Vincent offers a more assertive criterion. Does this new doctrine represent a genuine development of revealed principles present in the early Church and preserved as part of the apostolic deposit of faith. As in biology, it consists in checking whether the type itself has been preserved or not. Do the changes allow the same essence to continue in existence amidst changing circumstances or do they turn it into something else? To quote St. Vincent: “Teach those same things that you have learned, and when you put them in a new way, do not say new things. Therefore, let there be growth…and all possible progress in understanding, knowledge and wisdom…but only within proper limits, that is, in the same doctrine, in the same meaning, and in the same purport—eodem sensu eademque sententia.” The application of these criteria ordinarily receives the approval or veto of Church magisterium. Yet the legitimacy of a development can also be readily asserted from an examination based on our own logical thinking and historical knowledge.

How does the hermeneutic of continuity in the reform of Benedict XVI fare in the light of the criteria of St. Vincent? Unfortunately, it seems that it has endorsed the lethal modernist principle of doctrinal relativism. Let not the term continuity applied to Church magisterium deceive anyone! It refers primarily to the subjects, the doctors, leaving aside the object, the doctrine. This magisterial continuity, meaning the prolongation of Church teaching, demands not so much the unity of the truth as contiguity in time among the teachers. Truth does not convey unity any longer. Now, unity makes the truth! Is true what unites and false what divides. Now, curiously, the only heretic is the schismatic, and the schismatic is not he who disobeys but he who does not get along. At that rate, the ecumenical rabbi is more in the truth than the lonely Archbishop Lefebvre!