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 Andrew Medichini

October 20, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis laid out his understanding of the development of Catholic doctrine in a recent speech in which he called the death penalty “contrary to the Gospel.” The Pope’s remarks have alarmed a number of Catholic professors and academics who claim that his understanding of doctrine and its development appears to depart from what the Church teaches on this matter. 

During his October 11 speech to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Pope spoke about a “new understanding of Christian truth” that can now assert that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel.”

He then went on to present his understanding of how doctrine develops. 

A “harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth,” he said. 

“Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the ‘deposit of faith’ as something static,” he said. “The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay!”

“Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit,” he added.

Based on his understanding of doctrine and how it develops, the Pope suggested that capital punishment could now be understood as “per se contrary to the Gospel” and “inadmissible.” He added that he would like to see the Catechism of the Catholic Church changed according to this “new” understanding. 

LifeSiteNews interviewed five Catholic academics on how the Catholic Church has understood the development of doctrine. The five are: 

  • Dr. Josef Seifert, founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein (read full interview here)

  • Dr. Joseph Shaw, Oxford professor (read full interview here)

  • Dr. Claudio Pierantoni, Professor of Medieval Philosophy at the University of Chile (read full interview here)

  • John Paul Meenan, Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College (read full interview here)

  • Dr. Scott M. Sullivan, President of the Aquinas School of Theology and Philosophy

Shaw suggested that one reason the Pope may have proposed a “development” of the teaching on capital punishment is that it “may seem the easiest topic to use in order to persuade an important group of conservative Catholics that the Church’s doctrine can be reversed.”

“Once they are persuaded of that, then they will not be able to resist any other doctrinal reversals,” he said. 

LifeSiteNews: Can there ever be a “new understanding” of Christian truth that is contrary to a previous understanding? 

“Of course not, if we speak of a true understanding and not just of a new opinion,” said Seifert.

Seifert outlined how Arius’ teaching in the early Church amounted to a “new understanding” about Jesus Christ that was contrary to the faith of the Apostles and the tradition. 

“The Arian denial of the true divinity of Jesus Christ is precisely this: heresy, an enormous error directed against the two most central dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of the God-Man,” he said. 

Seifert said that if a “new understanding” develops that denies the truth of the faith and is “contrary to the Gospels and teaching of the Church,” then it could “never become true nor can it constitute a ‘development of doctrine.’”

Pierantoni agreed with Seifert, adding that the “principle of non-contradiction,” when applied to doctrine, means that what was previously true doctrinally cannot suddenly become not true. 

Meenan agreed that “truth cannot contradict truth,” adding that the understanding of truth is “always being made more full and explicit, and the deeper the truth (e.g., the Trinity, human sexuality), the more the truth may develop.” In only this sense, he suggested, it is possible to have a “new” understanding of truth in that a previous understanding is being made more full and explicit. 

Shaw said the correct understanding of a doctrine cannot change radically over time, as if what is true in one era is not true in another. 

“Such a view is incompatible not only with a common-sense view of what it means for something to be true, but also with the Church’s fidelity to Christ. It is what Christ gave to the Apostles, and the Apostles gave to the whole Church, which is the basis of what the Church must teach,” he said. 

LifeSiteNews: What is the deposit of faith?

“The deposit of faith is that whole body of truth revealed in its fullness by Christ, located in Scripture and Tradition, which the Vatican Council called 'one divine wellspring,’” said Meenan. 

“Christ did not give the Apostles a catechism or book, but rather, the living truth, which would be made more explicit by their successors in the Magisterium as time went on,” he added. 

Seifert said the deposit of faith “signifies the treasure of revealed truth, as contained in the Holy Scripture, in the oral tradition preserved since apostolic times, and in the dogmas declared by the Church, as well as in the oral tradition.” 

Pierantoni noted how the word “deposit” has a juridical meaning that should not be overlooked when considering the deposit of faith in regard to its continuity. 

“To make a deposit, legally speaking, means an agreement by which the person who receives the thing deposited must faithfully keep it and return and deliver (tradere, traditio) exactly the same thing when asked,” he said. 

“So when the New Testament refers to this concept (e.g. I Tim 6,20: “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you (depositum custodi). Avoid the profane chatter and contradictions (antithéseis) of what is falsely called knowledge (pseudonymou gnóseos)” it stresses precisely the point of guarding faithfully its content,” he added. 

Pierantoni said that while the enemy of the deposit of something material, like money, is a robber, the “first and most important enemy” of the deposit of the faith is “precisely contradiction to the content of the deposit.”

Catholics must guard the deposit of faith, he said. 

“Otherwise, we fall into a ‘false science’ (pseudónymos gnosis). The self-called ‘gnosis’ (which modern historians mostly call ‘gnosticism’) was in fact already a movement of thought that tried to introduce in the deposit of Faith meanings contrary to the original ones, appealing to ‘secret revelations,’” he said. 

LifeSiteNews: Is the deposit of faith something static, or can it be added to?

Seifert said that “general divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle” so that “there can be nothing added to it that would be binding to believe by all Catholics.”

“In this sense, it is static, not only because truth can never change but also because God chose that the general divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle,” he said.

“This does not exclude that ever new treasures may be discovered in this deposit of faith, nor does it exclude that God can reveal, in private revelations, such as in Fatima, events, requests of our Lady, etc. that are not part of the general revelation,” he added.

Pierantoni said the deposit of Faith “is in itself perfect and definitive.”

“So nothing can really be added to it. What the Church does is to clarify and make explicit its contents through the Magisterium. But it must be a clarification of what is already there,” he said. 

“That’s why, in Christian tradition, ‘novelty’ is practically a synonym for ‘heresy,’” he added. 

Meenan said that “strictly speaking, one cannot  'add' to this deposit, but the Magisterium can unpack, explain and apply these truths for each particular epoch in history until the end of time.”

Pierantoni noted that the Word of God cannot “‘grow,’ for it is perfect, and was given to us in Christ once and for all.”

“What progresses and grows is our understanding of it. And this cannot be in contradiction with past understanding, otherwise it would be false that the Church as a whole is faithful and infallible in bearing testimony to the Word of God,” he said. 

Shaw added that for one to suppose the Deposit of Faith itself is changeable is “tantamount to saying that the words of Christ, spoken to the Apostles and either recorded in Scripture or handed on in Tradition, can be changed after the event.”

LifeSiteNews: What is doctrine? 

Shaw said doctrine is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “‘truths contained in divine Revelation’ and ‘truths having a necessary connection with these,’ which are proposed by the Church for the belief of Catholics: that is, in a binding way.”

Seifert called doctrine “solemn Church teaching on divinely revealed truths.”

“Doctrine is primarily the official and infallible teaching of the Church of what God infallibly revealed in Sacred Scripture itself or in His oral teachings preserved in the oral tradition of the Church,” he said. 

“And in this primary sense, the doctrine of the Church is infallibly true, be it through the general infallibility of the Church as a whole, to which each Catholic, through the grace of faith and the sensus fidelium (sensus fidei) can gain some access, be it more explicitly through dogmatic formulations by Councils or by Popes who define this doctrine with precision and clearly,” he added. 

Pierantoni stressed that the Church’s doctrinal statements are “rationally ordered and connected with one another.”

“The Greek Fathers used the word ‘akolouthía’ (from the same stem as the liturgical word acolyte, ‘he who follows’) to express the fundamental importance of consistency and harmony among the different statements of Christian doctrine. The true elements of Christian doctrine are handed down from Christ himself through the Apostolic Succession,” he said. 

Meenan said the Catholic Church ultimately has doctrine to help followers of Christ get to heaven. 

“We have doctrine, as the Catechism says, to be a 'light for our path', to guide us on the way to our eternal end, as well as all the subsidiary ends in this life that lead thereto (moral, political, familial, social),” he said. 

“The primary purpose of 'orthodoxy' is really 'orthopraxy', to teach us to do the right thing, which in turn makes us good, and 'apt', as Saint Thomas would say, for heaven,” he added.  

LifeSiteNews: How does doctrine genuinely develop? 

“Doctrine genuinely develops when a truth that was already there is made explicit in a further statement, without adding or subtracting anything to or from the original truth,” said Pierantoni.

Shaw said the Church over time “refines and develops the truths which have been entrusted to her, and in doing so employs distinctions and technical terms not used before.”

“For example, the First Council of Ephesus (in 431) determined that Jesus Christ possessed ‘two natures’, human and divine. This is not language one finds in the New Testament, but its purpose was not to establish a new doctrine, but rather to capture what was intended in the New Testament and by other early witnesses of Tradition,” he said. 

Seifert noted how doctrine can develop from “revealed truths that were not laid down in the sacred Scriptures themselves but, nevertheless, handed down through the Sacred oral tradition of the Church.”

“Being nowhere fixed in written form, some of these doctrines have been denied even by great doctors of the Church and thus were not explicitly held by all faithful. Thus there being fixed in a dogma constitutes a development of doctrine,” he said. 

Seifert gave the example of how the Immaculate Conception, which was denied by St. Thomas Aquinas but affirmed and defended by Blessed Duns Scotus, only became dogmatically defined in 1854.

“This dogma, declared by Pius IX, or that of the bodily assumption of Mary solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII, a Catholic is obliged to give his assent to. The truth of these two Marian dogmas, however, are only ‘shyly intimated’ in the Holy Scripture but could both be identified in the tradition of the Church (especially of the Fathers), and logically derived from revelation,” he said. 

Meenan said Saint Vincent of Lerins gives the example of a living body, which “changes” as it grows, but always remains the same, as an analogy for doctrine. 

“As Vincent puts it,” said Meenan, “‘The religion of souls should follow the law of development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of years, they always remain what they were.’” 

“Hence, as the understanding of this deposit grows, ‘it must truly be the development of faith, not the alteration of faith,” going on “only along its own line of development, that is, with the same doctrine, the same meaning and the same import,’” he added, quoting from Saint Vincent. 

Shaw said doctrine is usually developed when a misunderstanding of some truth of the faith has arisen and needs to be corrected. 

“Developments of doctrine generally become necessary because a misunderstanding or controversy has arisen – in the case of the First Council of Ephesus, it was the Nestorian heresy. It was precisely in order to preserve the true Apostolic Faith, that the Fathers of Ephesus adopted new, unambiguous language,” he said. 

“The hope is always when a doctrine is ‘developed’ that if one could go back in time and ask the Scriptural authors or the Church Fathers: ‘Is this what you meant?’ they would say: ‘Yes: although I didn’t use these terms, what you now say is implicit in what I wrote,’” said Shaw. 

Sullivan noted how a “past understanding of the Church can be perfected, but never contradicted.” 

LifeSiteNews: Is it part of doctrine that it be tied to an interpretation that is immutable?

“Yes, as Pius XII declared in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, doctrine must always be understood in the sense that the Church has defined it,” said Meenan. 

“There are, of course, levels of clarity, in accord with the infinite depth of reality, but, as mentioned, there are obvious and clear contradictions that can never be permitted, like changing a commandment to make adultery now permissible, or to claim that Christ was not really God and such,” he added. 

“The 'homoousios' of Nicaea, for example, claimed that whatever it meant to be God, that Christ was and is. But this did not exhaust the reality of the Incarnation, and further Councils went on to unpack and develop this doctrine,” said Meenan. 

Pierantoni said a doctrine’s interpretation is “part of the Magisterium” and is called a “‘traditional’ interpretation” if, for example, it is “held unanimously or by the great majority of the Church Fathers.”

“So when the Pope says that something is supposedly ‘against the Gospel,’ we have the right to ask what Tradition says about this topic,” he noted. 

Seifert said that “interpretation” can also be taken to mean “explaining doctrine better, adding other truths, relating it to the Scripture, etc.” 

“And as long as these interpretations do not change, deny or reject the truth of the doctrine, they can be like sermons on the doctrine and be different in each interpreter but of course they must never contradict the doctrine or each other to be adequate interpretations,” he said.

“Therefore, as soon as you speak of ‘changing interpretations’ and attribute them to the Holy Spirit, such as denying the doctrine of original sin, claiming that all children are born in the state of grace without being baptized, or denying the dogma of the reality and eternity of hell, or rejecting the existence of intrinsically wrong human acts by claiming that there are no general rules according to which some actions are objectively, by their nature and end, morally wrong, you misuse the word ‘interpretation’ calling denials of doctrine ‘new interpretations,’” Seifert added. 

LifeSiteNews: What do you think is really going on here when you read between the Pope’s lines?

“The recent speech of Pope Francis has clearly not been stimulated by developments in relation to the use of capital punishment which the Church can hope to influence. We must look for other motivations for raising the issue,” said Shaw. 

“One reason to propose a ‘development’ of the teaching on capital punishment today is that it may seem the easiest topic to use in order to persuade an important group of conservative Catholics that the Church’s doctrine can be reversed. Once they are persuaded of that, then they will not be able to resist any other doctrinal reversals,” he added. 

Shaw said so-called “conservative” Catholics would be especially susceptible to a change in Catholic teaching on capital punishment. 

“Pope St John Paul II was clearly personally opposed to capital punishment and campaigned for its abolition. While he was careful never to claim that the teaching of the Church ruled capital punishment out, his views have become strongly associated with the Catholic Church and have influenced many conservative Catholics,” he said. 

“It may seem a relatively small step between what Pope St John Paul II claimed – that capital punishment was not wise or appropriate in the conditions of the modern world – and what Pope Francis is now claiming – that capital punishment is never ‘admissible,’ and that Catholics living in very different conditions from our own were wrong to make recourse to it.”

“However, it is obviously a huge step to say that the Church herself was wrong in her consistent teaching, which has always been that capital punishment can be legitimate,” he added. 

Sullivan said the Pope’s words on how doctrine develops according to a “new understanding of Christian truth” appear to be at odds with Vatican I. 

The First Vatican Council (1869-70), summoned by Pope Pius IX, taught that “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”

Commented Sullivan: “If someone says there is a new sense of Church teaching that is different from what the Church has always understood, Vatican one is condemning that view.”

Sullivan said Pope Francis says many things that “smack of heresy,” and when he is asked to clarify what he means, he refuses. 

“A good father does not let his children become confused about important matters,” he said. 

Seifert agreed with Sullivan’s comment on “confused” children, saying the Pope should clarify his comments according to the teachings of the Church. 

“Since many of these ‘new interpretations’ opposite to the clear doctrines of the Church are attributed to Pope Francis or seem to be expressed by him in documents, sermons, or interviews, we can only hope that Pope Francis clarifies soon that he means something entirely different from what the ‘ordinary Catholic public’ is led to understand to be his ‘new interpretations,’” he said. 

“Let us hope and pray that Pope Francis will no longer let the dubia Cardinals and other concerned Catholics wait for an answer but promptly pronounce Catholic truth in its whole splendor and thus reassure the concerned and afraid flock of the faithful that he, as successor of St. Peter and representative of Christ, truly is the rock on which Christ has built his Church,” he added.