Does Church Teaching Change?

In Italy by the middle of the fifteenth century, new critical methods for dealing with historical texts had developed.

Aug 16, 2019

--Continued from last week

By John W. O’Malley

Viewing history critically, methods developed

In Italy by the middle of the fifteenth century, new critical methods for dealing with historical texts had developed. The Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla led the way. In his Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum, he showed how the Latin Vulgate failed in many instances to convey the sense of the original Greek text and, through philological criticism, he showed that the document known as The Donation of Constantine was a forgery. With these works, Valla founded the discipline of philology and, in so doing, gave impetus to a newly keen sense of anachronism. He thus sowed the seeds of what developed into modern historical consciousness.

The critical approach to historical texts and to the past that Valla, and later humanists such as Erasmus, pioneered, caught on, gained momentum, and reached a culminating turning point in the nineteenth century. It was a century in which awareness of historical change began conditioning scholars’ approach to virtually every text in every discipline, including sacred texts. It was, moreover, the century of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Evolution, development, progress, change — these words marked the culture of the age.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century had largely rejected any role for the past in prescribing norms for the present, and it had thrown history’s goal into the future. The liberal philosophies of the nineteenth century assumed that progress was inevitable in virtually every aspect of human life and endeavour. The world moved forward in a process of change for the better, as Darwin showed. To the delight of some and to the horror of others, Darwin seemed to reduce the story of Adam and Eve to a naïve fable.

The Bible, as well as the history of the Church, now came under newly sceptical criticism in the universities, which revived in the nineteenth century after a long period of stagnation. Germany was the revival’s epicentre, most especially the University of Berlin. Sharpening the methods pioneered by Renaissance humanists, Leopold von Ranke trained generations of talented students in rigorous methods of historical analysis and textual criticism.

This development, long in the making, moved the discipline of history from its former base in rhetoric and moral philosophy to more controlled methods of research which, at a certain point, began to be described as scientific. The methods professed objectivity in evaluating evidence and freedom from contamination by apologetic concerns. They likewise professed freedom from what the maintenance of received opinions might require. For professional historians, these methods spelled the end of substantialism. Every historical reality had a history. Simply by being historical, each and every historical reality changed — at least to some degree. As did other scholars of the era, Catholic exegetes and historians felt the impact of such methods and had to reckon with them.

Church Doctrine at Vatican I
At Vatican I in that regard, Catholic bishops had to deal with historical objections to the doctrine of papal infallibility — that is, the Pope’s prerogative to declare, with absolute finality, that a truth is divinely revealed and must be believed by all faithful Catholics.

When on June 26, 1867, Pius IX made known to bishops and pilgrims present in Rome his intention to convoke a council, he described its purpose in the most general terms: to review the problems facing the Church and to find appropriate remedies for them. He established commissions to prepare the agenda, which resulted in a wide range of topics for the council to deal with. Among those topics, however, was none dealing with the popes’ infallibility. But because the Catholic press, especially in France, had carried on such a vigorous campaign for it before the council opened, the early emergence of infallibility at the council as the issue that would dominate it was almost inevitable.

A sizeable minority of bishops coming especially from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, opposed defining the doctrine and based their objections in large part on historical grounds. According to those bishops, the doctrine lacked historical foundation in the Church’s doctrine and in the Church’s practice. According to them also, there were instances where a pope had taught a heterodox opinion. Among those most adamantly opposed to infallibility on such grounds was Karl Josef von Hefele, bishop of Rottenburg, who had already published several volumes of his highly respected history of the councils.

Leaders of the majority at the council tried to show, however, that the supposed instances of papal fallibility could be explained or were irrelevant. The assumption that the Church, and especially its teachings, did not change, had by the nineteenth century become axiomatic in most Catholic circles, which to some extent was the legacy of the Council of Trent. According to this assumption, the present Church related to the past through a bond of virtually unqualified continuity.

In this mode of thinking, historical arguments were irrelevant in the face of seemingly irrefutable texts from Scripture or later documents of the Church. The abstract and ahistorical method of the Scholastic system of theology further helped shield doctrine from historical contingency. A historical naiveté that took the present situation as the norm for interpreting the past and that projected present practice and understanding onto it, also contributed to this substantialistic mode of thinking.

The clearest statement of the majority’s stance on the matter occurred in the Relatio (explanatory notes) that accompanied the first draft of the infallibility decree:

As has without exception been shown above from the most important texts [monumentis], the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is a truth divinely revealed. Therefore, it is impossible that it can ever be proved false by any historical facts. If, however, such facts are brought forward to oppose it, they must themselves be deemed false insofar as they seem opposed.

In their wording, neither of the council’s two decrees — Dei filius and Pastor aeternus — directly engaged with the historical issues that were germane to them, but the statement in the Relatio reveals the mindset that underlay them.

Although Vatican Council I shut its eyes to the problem of change, the problem did not go away. It exploded onto the scene with the Modernist crisis some decades later.

In the late nineteenth century, advocacy among Catholics of a sometimes-undiscriminating adoption of the new historical approach to sacred texts and sacred doctrines became part of the amorphous phenomenon known as Modernism. The inclusiveness of the seemingly all-encompassing label “Modernism” suggests why it is difficult to find a common thread linking so-called Modernists to one another beyond their desire to help the Church reconcile itself with what they thought was best in intellectual culture as it had evolved into the present. However, a general though not universally accepted premise of the movement (if it can be called that) was the pervasiveness of change and the need to come to terms with it.

The storm broke on July 3, 1907. On that day, the Holy Office issued the decree Lamentabili condemning sixty-five propositions supposedly held by the Modernists. Two months later, Pope Pius X (r. 1903–1914) followed up with his encyclical Pascendidominici gregis. For the sweep of its accusations, the accusatory style of its language, and the severity of its provisions, Pascendi had few, if any, precedents in the annals of the modern papacy. A veritable purge followed, which, besides the damage it did to Catholic intellectual life, confirmed among many Catholics an already pervasive readiness to ignore change. The Catholic Church, it was often proudly said, does not change. --Commonweal Magazine

This article is an excerpt from John O’Malley’s book, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II.

--To be continued next week

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