Can the Church change her teaching and her practices? What part do Tradition and dogma play in Church teaching? In recent decades and now at the Synod of Synodality these concepts and questions have been raised again. In the Anglican Church of his time, St. John Henry Newman faced similar difficulties. We continue our discussion of these topics by examining the development of Christian doctrine.
A look at the history of doctrine, the liturgy, and other ecclesial practices show many changes throughout the centuries. In the early Church bishops met in synods to judge whether or not a change was a corruption of Apostolical Tradition. When a change was deemed a corruption it was called a heresy; those upholding these errors were considered outside the communion of the Catholic Church.
St. Vincent of Lerins, a monk writing in the 5th century, pondered how to ascertain when a change is authentic development or when it is a corruption. He asserted that a doctrine conforms with earlier teaching when it is held everywhere, at all times and by all (quod ubique, semper, et ab omnibus).. In 1832, when studying early Church history, John Henry Newman thought that antiquity was a measure of Apostolical Tradition and tried to use this criteria to establish conformity to Tradition. He soon realized, however, that this was a static view of Tradition. By 1845, he developed a theory which became his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and which was the final and immediate step before his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
In his theory on development, Newman made an analogy of a tree or organism to explain proper growth. An acorn grows into a sapling and eventually into the perfection of a tree with many branches. He wrote: “Taking this analogy as a guide, I venture to set down seven Notes of varying cogency, independence and applicability, to discriminate healthy developments of an idea from its state of corruption and decay, as follows:—There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.”
The first of the Seven notes or tests in Newman’s criteria is preservation of type. “The adult animal has the same make, as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute, wild or domestic.” An idea or doctrine is authentic when its identity is the same as the original idea.
The second note is the continuity of principles. Newman explains that principles are permanent while doctrines grow and are enlarged. He enumerated a list of Catholic principles such as the principle of dogma, the principle of grace, and the doctrine of the Incarnation. (ch 7) For the development of a doctrine to be true development, there has to be a continuity of principles. This is what Benedict XVI more than a century later called a “hermeneutic of continuity” in contrast to a “hermeneutic of rupture.”
Newman proceeded to explain the other notes and to give illustrations from history of the applications of these notes. He spent many pages showing how the Church in his time had the same type as the Church in early Christianity. He also dedicated a number of pages to show how papal supremacy or authority conforms with the Catholic principles which he enumerates.
Although some authors have argued that the application of these notes are problematic, others, such as the late Newman scholar Ian Ker, affirm their worth. Ker offered the doctrine of Religious Freedom in the Vatican II documents as an example of a development of doctrine which meets the criteria laid out by Newman. The doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is another example of dogma which fulfills the notes enumerated by Newman.
In 1990, the International Theological Commission, issued a document titled “The Interpretation of Dogma” in which Newman’s seven notes are endorsed. Although some of the notes or tests have more of a retrospective character, these criteria offer a good indication of whether a development is a true development or a corruption. In another blog post we will discuss the remaining tests.
One point, however, should be made, Newman’s theory of development has to do with dogmas. There are many truths of the natural order which can be known through the use of reason. In the same line as St. Thomas Aquinas, Newman teaches that conscience is the voice of God, to enable man to make a judgment about what should be done and what should not be done. Long before dogma appears, God speaks to all men through the moral conscience. Thus all men can know God and distinguish good from evil. The study of doctrine and the corruption of doctrine helps Catholics to know what goes beyond the natural law and is contained in divine revelation and the Church’s teaching derived from this revelation.
Catholics have, therefore, the aid of reason to decide on moral truths like others before them but in addition they have the divine gift of Revelation, Tradition, and the Magisterium to guide their lives and direct them to the goal of eternal life in Christ. As mentioned above in another blog post we will continue to discuss Newman’s Seven Notes and their value for contemporary theology.