How Doctrine Develops

Friday, May 02, 2003



I thought I needed to post some basic assumptions of what it means to be a "progressive Catholic". This post offers some initial reflections…..

Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate, tradition.... Consequently, tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically.

- Ratzinger, Joseph. "The Transmission of Divine Revelation," in Vorgrimler, Herbert, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3. New York: Herder and Herder, p. 185

Theology is a science.

Almost everyone here is a amateur (unpaid) theologian, but we are all doing theology as we discuss issues pertaining to the life of the church.

The role of the theologian in the Church is similar to a natural scientist making discoveries in the physical realm. The natural sciences do not create truth as they examine data. Rather, they discover truth by making inferences based on empirical observations.

Scientists often disagree. However, their disagreements are settled through a process of debate and experimentation, and the theory that triumphs is the one that has the greatest explanatory power.

In a like manner, the theologian makes empirical observations on how doctrine becomes known and various theologians present theories that best explain the facts.

In the same way science has progressed from Aristotelian physics through Newtonian physics, through Einstein to quantum mechanics and so forth, theology is progressing.

At the base of much of what the Progressives argue is a belief that doctrine is not fixed and static, but develops and can change under certain circumstances. This post offers the evidence for the veracity of this fundamental assumption.

Dei Verbum number 8

8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a
special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an
unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore
the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn
the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned
either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to
fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jud.
3) (4). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything
which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith
of the People of God; and hands on to all generations all that she
herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the
Church with the help of the Holy Spirit (5). For there is a growth
in the understanding
of the realities and the words which have been
made by believers,
who treasure these things in their hearts (see
Luke 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the
spiritual realities which they experience, and through the
preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession
the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another,
the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine
truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in

The words of the holy Fathers witness to the presence of this
living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life
of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition
the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the
sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and
unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old,
uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and
the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel
resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto
all truth those who believe and makes the Word of Christ dwell
abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).


FAITH, Chap. 3, "On Faith:" Denzinger 1789 (3008).

(5) Second Council of Orange, Canon 7: Denzinger 180 (377); First
Vatican Council, loc. cit.: Denzinger 1791 (3010).

The development of doctrine is a dogma of the Church:

1. Consider that the word Trinity is not found in the Bible, and to the best of our knowledge, the word was never used until Theophilus of Antioch writing about 181 A.D. (close to sixty years after the latest dating of any of the New Testament texts, and more than a 100 years after the earliest dating).

The definitions of the Trinity continued to sharpen over time and our current understanding was not fleshed out until at least the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681 A.D. Indeed, later Councils (such as Lyons in 1271) would add clarity on the issue of the filioque.

This is not to say that the concept of the Trinity is not true – it is true. I am not saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is not scriptural or rooted in apostolic belief.

However, we must acknowledge that there was a development in the clarity by which the Church defined the doctrine. Not until the seventh century would a definite answer be provided to whether Christ has a human mind. If you asked Saint Peter is the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the Son through spiration, he likely would have responded by saying “Huh? What’s spiration?”

I am not denying the veracity of the Trinity, but I am saying the doctrine developed over time!

2. Apostolic succession is an idea found among church fathers by the early third century and the idea is alluded to briefly in all early Ecumenical Councils but not clearly defined until Trent. It gains further definition in Vatican I and Vatican II.

Despite a popular perception among graduates of Catholic grade schools, the Church has never taught definitively that the Twelve are the only Apostles, and such a theory is historically unjustifiable. The early lists of successors include Paul as an Apostle, as well as James, brother of the Lord, who was not one of the Twelve.

The Scriptures also include Barnabas, Andoronica and Junia as apostles, and Paul hints that there may have been as many as 500 apostles in 1 Cor 15. Eusebius’ History of the Church (Book 1.12) counts these 500 among the Apostles as well as the 72 in Luke 10: 1.

I am not saying that Catholicism cannot be traced back to the Twelve. Nor am I saying that apostolic succession in the bishops is not a true teaching. It is true, but it is a doctrine we have been careful not to overstate in our official teachings.

3. The canon of Scripture that we use today was used in the early church, but there was debate over some books and different canons were presented by different local synods all the way up to the time of the Council of Trent (1554 – 1563).

It is true that as early as 397 AD, the local Council of Hippo in North Africa approved the same canon, as did a local council in Rome – but we cannot lose sight of the fact that until Trent, there was never a ruling we would consider “infallible” on this issue.

Thus, even when Martin Luther questioned what books belong in the canon, he was not denying an infallible doctrine at the time he raised the question. Only with hindsight can we see that he was definitely in error!

I am not saying the canon of Scripture is not now firmly fixed. It is fixed today. However, our knowledge of what books constitute Scripture developed clarity over time!

4. The numbering of the sacraments at seven was not official until the time of the Council of Lyons in 1274, and not formally defined in an Ecumenical Council until Trent.

Prior manuals sometimes numbered as many as 30 sacraments, or as little as two. Even the word, “sacrament” is not found in the Bible, and was a development of the post-apostolic church.

Sure, this was an early development, and the seven sacraments are scriptural, and the Church teaching is true. However, it took time (over a thousand years) for the Church to reach clarity on this issue we now consider essential.

In the early Church, we find affirmation of each of the seven sacraments, but we can not find a list of seven sacraments, or even clear definitions of what sacraments do until much later in Church history.

I believe very strongly in the seven sacraments – however, our knowledge about these sacraments developed over time!

5. The primacy of Rome is rooted in the Scriptural role of Peter and we find the church at Rome exercising authority outside of its own diocese as early as the late second century.

Throughout the third century on Roman primacy seems to gain popularity among the fathers. By the fourth century onward, many church fathers appeal to the opinions of Rome to justify their own position or declare an issue settled. However, there is no evidence that the early church considered these statements irreformable.

The idea of “infallibility” – that a Pope cannot err in certain circumstances, and that a doctrine can be proclaimed with such authority that a future Pope cannot overturn it – this notion did not clearly arise until the fourteenth century.

At the time the doctrine arose, the current Pope, John XXII denied it, because he wanted to squash the Franciscans by proclaiming it heresy to say Christ was poor. It was a Friar, Peter Olivi who introduced the actual term “infallibility” into theological discourse.

The idea of papal infallibility only gained ground among Catholic theologians after the Protestant reformation began. Papal infallibility was not formally defined until 1875 at the First Vatican Council.

I am not denying papal infallibility. I believe in it. However, the doctrine was a progressive development!

6. The term “original sin” was created by Saint Augustine in his speculations in answer to debates with Pelegius. This means that for more than 300 years, Christianity expressed the truth of the human condition and the need for Christ without reference to this specific doctrine.

I am not denying original sin. What I am saying is that the doctrine was revealed over time through a process of speculation.

7. Two definitions are considered infallible by all Roman Catholics: the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her Assumption. However, consider how this developed. Not until the nineteenth century was there any biological understanding of how conception occurred, and only in the fifth century was there any idea of “original sin”. If you had asked Saint Peter or Saint Paul if Mary was immaculately conceived, they would have answered, “Huh? What’s conception?”

It is possible that they might have had a vague feeling that Mary was sinless, and we find support for this idea as early as the second century Proto-Evengelium of James, which is considered apocryphal scripture. The fathers later held to the idea of Mary’s sinlessness, but the idea of her being immaculately conceived was not even considered until about the time of Aquinas – and at that time, conception was still mis-understood. Furthermore, Aquinas rejected the theory, and he could do this because it was not yet considered infallible.

Likewise, when we look at the doctrine of the Assumption, aside from the medieval reading of Rev 12, there is no evidence that any Christian believed this doctrine prior to the seventh century.

Again, I am not saying these doctrines are not true, nor am I saying that the Assumption is not implied in Rev 12, or the IC in Luke 1: 28. What I am saying is that the doctrines developed over time!

8. There are developments that took place in the Church whereby we recognized that those holding authority in the Church made mistakes. For example, in the world of papal power, all Catholics know that there have been popes who were personally immoral. However, we are often unaware that Pope made major theological or pastoral blunders.

Pope Honorius I fell into the monothelite heresy and was condemned by the Council of Constantinople III. Pope Zosimus sided with Pelegius against Augustine. Pope Urban called the crusades, which most of us consider a mistake today. Pope John XXII (mentioned above) denied the poverty of Christ, purgatory, and the intercession of saints. Nicholas V supported slavery, and even commanded it of Muslim captives of war. The Ecumenical Council of Lateran III had also commanded slavery of captured Saracens in 1179, showing that even the worldwide body of bishops could make a mistake.

We know they were mistaken because Vatican II explicitly condemns all forms of slavery. Many local councils and the CDF also supported slavery.

Pius IX considered democracy an evil form of government, while Vatican II appeals to democracy and the primacy of conscience against the state as good things.

Furthermore, the often repeated “The is no salvation ‘ex ecclesiam’ took almost 2,000 years to develop to the point where “ex” must be interpreted as “apart” rather than “outside of”. Nearly all Catholics today condemn the excesses of the inquisitions.

What I have written above are just some of the evidences that we must confront that doctrine develops. Furthermore, it should be clear from the examples that doctrine develops positively and negatively, as the Ratzinger quote at the top indicates.

Positive development means that we speculate and come to a deeper knowledge of a truth already known, such as the manner by which the sinlessness of Mary comes to fruition in the Immaculate Conception, or the divinity of Christ comes to fruition in a detailed Trinitarian theology with fine philosophical nuances.

Negative development is the recognition of error in the past and the need to reform teaching to correct mistaken notions, such as the final rejection of slavery and the excesses of the inquisitions and the crusades.

This process is ongoing in the Church, as DV 8 quoted above says. We trust the apostolic successors to be protected form error when they make infallible definitions, but there is nothing at all wrong with making speculations about or asking critical questions of non-infallible teachings.

And like it or not, the progressives are usually not questioning infallible teachings that all accept as defined with the authority of extraordinary magisterium. Conservatives have every right to defend traditional understandings of those things defined by the ordinary magisterium, but unless you accept the authority of the CDF to make a doctrine infallible, teachings of the ordinary magisterium are not infallible doctrines!

It may frustrate people that more Church teaching is not clearly defined infallibly with extraordinary authority than currently is. However, in the science of theology, wishing things infallible does not make them so.

Furthermore, in raising many of the questions we raise, we have specifically appealed to the criteria of conscience as defined by the Church as well and backed up all our opinions with more official documentation than should be necessary – only to be accused of being too verbose!

An understanding of Church that does not account for the Latin Mass lovers to those who seek women’s ordination is too narrow. Neither of these opinions are infallibly defined, and if your vision of Church cannot account for both sets of believers, you are defining what it means to be Church too narrowly based on what is truly known, rather than speculation in the science of theology.

Too many conservative Catholics these days are placing their own speculation above that of the magisterium, which is the SOLE authority to define error infallibly! If the Pope or an Ecumenical Council have not infallibly called the progressive positions errors, we go too far to take that responsibility upon ourselves!

If this topic was interesting to you, please see the following links:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
What is Infallibility?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
The Primacy of Conscience
Is the Church Like a Political Party?
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 11:58 AM

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