Does Church Teaching Change?

Despite the severe measures taken by the Holy See against exegetes and Church historians accused of being Modernists, a relatively small but well-trained number of Catholic scholars in the early decades of the twentieth century continued to apply historical modes of research and analysis to ecclesiastical texts and to problems in Church practice.

Aug 23, 2019

By John W. O’Malley
Despite the severe measures taken by the Holy See against exegetes and Church historians accused of being Modernists, a relatively small but well-trained number of Catholic scholars in the early decades of the twentieth century continued to apply historical modes of research and analysis to ecclesiastical texts and to problems in Church practice. As surveillance over such scholars diminished, their numbers grew, and their methods began to receive a positive, or at least a tolerant, reception. When in 1943 Pope Pius XII published his encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, he validated historical and archeological methods for the study of the Bible, which was an implicit validation of similar approaches for other areas of sacred studies. Bit by bit, scholars began to show that every aspect of Church life and teaching had been affected by change.

For winning acceptance of the idea that change affected even doctrine, no book was more important than John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, published in 1845. The book appeared, therefore, fourteen years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Like Darwin’s work, it reflected the preoccupation of the age with evolution, development, progress, and the implications of the historical process.

By using different analogies, Newman showed how teachings evolved while remaining true to their origins. Teachings were both continuous and discontinuous with their earlier articulation. The book, still the classic in the field, put the problem of change in doctrine on the stage of theological discourse to a degree unknown before. Although published well before Vatican Council I, it had no significant impact on the Council’s debates, but in the decades leading up to Vatican II, most Catholic bishops and theologians accepted its basic premise in some form or other.

In France in the middle of the nineteenth century, Prosper Guéranger, abbot of the monastery of Solesmes, set in motion a movement in which critical methods were applied to liturgical texts. By the middle of the next century, liturgical scholars were calling for changes in how the liturgy was celebrated to bring it more into conformity with what they saw as its true character, which had been obscured by accretions through the centuries. Pope Pius XII responded to them in part through two decrees, in 1951 and 1955, in which he completely reorganised the liturgies for the last three days of Holy Week to bring them in line with liturgists’ recommendations.

The stage had thus been set for Vatican II to take a stance on the problem of change radically different from that of the two previous councils. The bishops and theologians at the Council accepted the reality of change as a matter of course. Their only questions were about how to explain it, about how far it could legitimately go, and what the criteria were for making changes.

Change — the word appeared in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first document the Council published, Sacrosanctum concilium, (On the Sacred Liturgy). The sentence stated that the Council intended to adapt to contemporary conditions those aspects of the liturgy that were subject to change (mutatio). Sacrosanctum concilium thus sounded the first note in what was to be an underlying and pervasive issue at the Council.

This keener sense of historical change took three forms in the Council, captured in three words current at the time — 1. aggiornamento (Italian for updating or modernising), 2. development (an unfolding or evolution, sometimes the equivalent of progress), and 3. ressourcement (French for a return to the sources). A basic assumption undergirded the Council’s employment of these three modes in which change might take place: the Catholic tradition was richer, broader, and more malleable than often perceived in the past. The bishops who appropriated that assumption did so, not as an abstract truth, but as a licence to undertake a thorough examination of the status quo. They reacted against interpretations of Catholic doctrine and practice that reduced it to simplistic and ahistorical formulae. They reacted against substantialism.

Of the three terms, interpreters of the Council, and especially the popular media, most often invoked aggiornamento to explain what Vatican II was all about. The term, generally attributed to Pope John XXIII, equivalently occurred in his charge to the Council in his opening address, in which he told the fathers of the Council to make “appropriate changes” (opportunis emendationibus) that would help the Church in its pastoral mission.

In principle, aggiornamento was nothing new. The Church had perforce always adapted to new situations. In recent times, the Vatican adopted microphones and amplifiers before the House of Commons and typewriters before the British Foreign Office. But in at least four regards, the aggiornamento of Vatican II was new. First, some of the changes made in its name touched upon things ordinary Catholics assumed were normative, such as Latin liturgy, and hence they had a startling impact. Second, no previous council had taken aggiornamento as a broad principle rather than as a rare exception.

Third, the aggiornamento of Vatican II related not to modern inventions or polite conventions of society but to certain cultural assumptions and values of “the modern world,” the most basic of which — such as liberty, equality and fraternity — stemmed most directly from the Enlightenment. These were assumptions and values that Vatican Council I implicitly rejected and, hence, the aggiornamento of Vatican II marked a turn in the road. Fourth, the broad adoption of deliberate reconciliation of the Church with certain changes taking place outside it provided an entry point for a more dynamic understanding of how the Church functioned.

Dynamism was even more relevant to the concept of development, which was by definition a movement — a movement to a further point along a given path. It was a cumulative though sometimes also a pruning process by which the tradition of the Church became richer or, perhaps, clearer than before. Development suggested progress, which was itself a word the Council did not hesitate to use. Dei verbum, (On Divine Revelation), stated that the tradition of the Church stemming from the apostles “makes progress in the Church and grows” (proficit et crescit, n. 8). Tradition is not inert but dynamic.

Although the idea that tradition evolved won broad acceptance at the Council, it was not without its problems, the most acute of which occurred in the debate on Dignitatis humanae, (On Religious Liberty). Since the French Revolution, the popes had repeatedly condemned religious liberty and separation of Church and State. But proponents of them at the Council argued that they were legitimate developments of Church teaching, an argument that to their opponents seemed like legerdemain. Development was supposedly movement to a further point along a given path, but Dignitatis humanae seemed to jump off the given path to forge a new one.

Proponents of the change defended their position by making use of ressourcement. They maintained that popes, in condemning separation of Church and State, were reacting against a specific historical situation that no longer prevailed. To discover how the Church could now legitimately adapt to the new situation, it had to “return to the sources.” In past tradition, it would find the fundamental truths that could guide it in the present situation. In this case, those truths were the Church’s consistent teaching that the act of faith had to be free and that for all individuals following their conscience was the ultimate moral norm.

Unlike development, a theory first straightforwardly proposed in the nineteenth century, ressourcement had enjoyed avant la lettre a truly venerable history in the Western Church, beginning in the earliest centuries but emerging most notably with the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, the campaign of popes and others to restore older canonical traditions. The reformers understood the changes they fought to implement as a restoration of the more authentic practice of an earlier era, which implied a mandate to reinstate it.

Corporate memory, the memory that is constitutive of identity
Development and ressourcement are both about corporate memory, the memory that is constitutive of identity.
Ressourcement was, in its Latin form the motto of the great humanists of the Renaissance — Ad fontes! Return to the sources was, moreover, what motivated the Protestant reformers as they sought to restore the authentic Gospel that, in their opinion, the papal Church had discarded and perverted. It lay behind Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni patris (1879) initiating the revival of the study of Thomas Aquinas. In fact, it lay behind virtually every reform movement in the Church and society in Western culture at least up to the Enlightenment.

In the mid-twentieth century, return to the sources, now explicitly under the neologism ressourcement, drove much of the theological ferment in France that played such a major role in Vatican II. At the Council, virtually all the participants accepted the validity of the return-to-the-sources principle. Disputes over it arose only when it seemed to be applied too radically. Those who balked at such application had a point because ressourcement, had more potent implications than development. While development implies further movement along a given path, ressourcement, says that we are no longer going to move along Path X. We are going back to a fork in the road and will now move along a better and different path.

Development and ressourcement, are both about corporate memory, the memory that is constitutive of identity. What institutions wittingly or unwittingly chose to remember and chose to forget from their past makes them what they are.

The great battles at Vatican II were battles over the identity of the Church: not over its fundamental dogmas, but over the place, relevance, and respective weight of certain fundamental values in the tradition.

Vatican II did not solve the theoretical problem of how an institution, by definition conservative, handles the problem of change, nor was it the Council’s intention to do so. Councils are meetings that make decisions binding on the Church.

They are not meetings that solve theoretical problems, even though they must deal with the practical implications of such problems.

What is special about Vatican II in relation to the two previous councils is, therefore, that it made its decisions with full awareness of the reality of change and full awareness that that reality affected the Church in all its aspects. For a council to act with such an awareness of change is itself a significant change. Underlying the boldness with which the Council accepted the reality of change was the assumption that appropriate change did not mean losing one’s identity but, rather, enhancing it or salvaging it from ossification. If such change achieved its goal, it entailed a process of redefinition that was both continuous and discontinuous with the past.--Commonweal

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

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