Can Church Teaching Change Over Time?

The opening verse of the book of Hebrews tells us that “[i]n many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets.” This was done fragmentarily, under various figures and symbols. Man was not given religious truth as though from a Scholastic theologian, nicely laid out and fully indexed. Doctrines had to be thought out, lived out in the liturgical life of the Church, even pieced together by the Fathers and ecumenical councils. In this way, the Church has gained an ever-deepening understanding of the deposit of faith that had been “once for all delivered” to it by Christ and the apostles (cf. Jude 3).

Protestants—especially Fundamentalists and Evangelicals—admit that much. They recognize there was a real development in doctrine: There was an initial message, much clouded at the Fall, and then a progressively fuller explanation of God’s teachings as Israel was prepared for the Messiah, until the apostles were instructed by the Messiah himself. Jesus told the apostles that in the Old Testament “many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them, and to hear the things that you hear and have not heard them.” (Matt. 13:17).

Hold Fast to What You Were Taught

Christians have always understood that at the close of the apostolic age—with the death of the last surviving apostle, John, perhaps around A.D. 100—public revelation ceased (Catechism of the Catholic Church 66-67, 73). Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17) and is the ultimate teacher of humanity: “You have one teacher, the Messiah” (Matt. 23:10). The apostles recognized that their task was to pass on, intact, the faith given to them by the Master: “[A]nd the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2); “But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them” (2 Tim. 3:14).

However, this closure to public revelation doesn’t mean there isn’t progress in the understanding of what has been entrusted to the Church. Anyone interested in Christianity will ask, “What does this doctrine imply? How does it relate to that doctrine?”

How Our Understanding of Church Doctrine Develops

In answering these questions, the Church facilitates the development or maturing of doctrines. The Blessed Virgin Mary models this process of coming to an ever deeper understanding of God’s revelation: “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). It’s important to understand that the Church does not, indeed cannot, change the doctrines God has given it, nor can it “invent” new ones and add them to the deposit of faith that has been “once for all delivered to the saints.” New beliefs are not invented, but obscurities and misunderstandings regarding the deposit of faith are cleared up.

Vatican II explained, “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, 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 her” (Dei Verbum 8).

As we read Scripture, we see in it doctrines we already hold, each of us having been instructed in the faith before ever picking up the sacred text. This is a necessary process, as Scripture indicates. Peter explained, “[In Paul’s epistles] are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). Those who are ignorant of orthodox Christian doctrine because they have never been taught it, or who are unstable in their adherence to the orthodox doctrine they have been taught, can twist Paul’s writings and the rest of Scripture to their own destruction. Therefore, it is important that we read Scripture within the framework of the Church’s constant tradition, as handed down from the apostles in the Catholic Church.

However, when we read Scripture in the light of the apostles’ authentic teachings, we sometimes forget that some central doctrines (such as the Trinity and the hypostatic union) were not always understood or as clearly expounded in the Church’s early days the way they are now. Understanding grew and deepened over time. As an example, consider the Holy Spirit’s divinity. In Scripture, references to it seem to jump out at us. But if we imagine ourselves as ancient pagans or as present-day non-Christians reading the Bible for the first time, we realize, for them, the Holy Spirit’s status as a divine person is not as clearly present in Scripture, since they are less likely to notice details pointing to it. If we think of ourselves as having no recourse to apostolic tradition and to the Church’s teaching authority that the Holy Spirit guides into all truth (cf. John 14:25-26, 16:13), we can appreciate how easy it must have been for the early heresies concerning the Trinity and Holy Spirit to arise.

Another example is the early heresy known as Monothelitism. This heresy, which Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants reject, claimed that Christ had only one will—the divine—and that he had no human will. This error sprang up because people had not yet clearly perceived that, since Christ is fully God, he must have a divine will, and, since he is fully man, he must have a human will. If he lacks one or the other will, then he would either not be fully God or not be fully man. Thus Christ must have two wills, one divine and one human. But because the issue had never been raised before, this teaching had not yet been discerned as a necessary inference from the fact that Christ is fully God and fully man—two teachings that had been understood for ages.

Transubstantiation (the teaching that during Mass, at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine becomes, through a miraculous change wrought by God’s grace, the substance of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, though the appearances of bread and wine remain) is another example of a doctrine that had always been believed by the Church, but whose exact meaning was understood more clearly over time. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, the Eucharist is promised by Jesus. If this chapter is read in conjunction with the accounts of the Last Supper, it is easy to see why the first Christians knew that the bread and wine are transubstantiated into Christ’s actual body and blood. The Bible clearly says this change happens (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:23-29), but it is silent about how it happens.

The technical theological term “transubstantiation” was not formally adopted by the Catholic Church until the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215. This was not the addition of a new doctrine, but was the Church’s way of defining what it had always taught on this subject in terms that would be so exact as to exclude all the incorrect explanations proposed over the years to explain what happens at the moment of consecration. Because people gave a lot of thought to the meaning and implications of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, because they tried their best to draw true inferences from this true doctrine, and because not all of them were adept at that, disputes arose, and a formal definition by the Church became necessary.

No Necessity to Define

As these and many other cases demonstrate, doctrinal questions can remain in a not-yet-fully-defined state for years. The Church has never felt the need to define formally what there has been no particular pressure to define. This strikes many, particularly non-Catholics, as strange. Why weren’t things cleared up in, say, A.D. 100, so folks could know what’s what? Why didn’t Rome issue a laundry list of definitions in the early days and let it go at that? Why wasn’t an end-run made around all these troubles that plagued Christianity precisely because things were unclear? The remote reason is that God has had his own timetable and set of reasons (to which we aren’t privy) for keeping it. The same could be said about Old Testament prophets: Why didn’t they understand the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity all at once? Or the identity of the Messiah? Or the fullness of Christian teaching? Partly because God had not revealed it all yet, and partly because their understanding of the implications of the doctrines they had needed to grow clearer over time.

This need to discern more clearly what is contained in the deposit of faith given to the Church by the apostles points us to the related subjects of infallibility and inspiration. The pope and the bishops (when teaching in union with him) have the charism of infallibility when defining matters of faith or morals; but infallibility works only negatively. Through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the pope and bishops are prevented from teaching what is untrue, but they are not forced or told by the Holy Spirit to teach what is true. To put it another way, the pope and the bishops are not inspired the way the authors of Scripture or the prophets were. To make a new definition, to clear up some dogmatic confusion, they first have to use human reason, operating on what is known to date, to be able to teach more precisely what is to be held as true. They cannot teach what they do not know, and they learn things the same way we do. They have no access to prophetic shortcuts—they must delve by study into the riches of the words God has already given us.

Borrowing From Paganism?

Fundamentalists assert that what Catholics label as development is nothing more than a centuries-old accumulation of pagan beliefs and rites. The Catholic Church has not really refined the original deposit of faith, they claim. Instead, it has added to it from the outside. In its hurry to increase membership, particularly in the early centuries, the Church let in nearly anybody. When existing inducements were not enough, it adopted pagan ways to encourage pagans to convert. Each time the Church did this, it moved away from authentic Christianity.

Consider Christmas: Strict Fundamentalists do not observe it, and not only because the name of the feast is inescapably “Christ’s Mass.” Some say they disapprove of it because there is no proof Christ was born on December 25. Others argue he couldn’t have been born in winter because the shepherds, who were in the fields with their sheep, never put sheep into fields during that season (a plausible, though in this case, erroneous assumption). Others, noting the Bible is silent about the feast of Christmas, say that should settle the matter. But these are all secondary considerations.

The real reasons many Fundamentalists oppose the celebration of Christmas are, first, that the feast of Christmas was established by the Catholic Church (which is bad enough) and, next, that the Church provided celebrating the birth of Christ as an alternative to celebrating a pagan holiday occurring at the same time.

The Fundamentalist objections notwithstanding, Scripture sanctions this practice. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was on the same day as a Canaanite vintage festival that it supplanted, much as Christmas coincided with the festival of Sol Invictus that non-Christians were celebrating. This is the same principle that Protestant churches use when they replace the celebration of Halloween with “Reformation Day” or “harvest festival” celebrations. It is an attempt to provide a wholesome alternative celebration to a popular but unwholesome one. Anti-Catholics who accuse Christmas of having “pagan origins” fail to recognize that it is precisely anti-pagan in origin.

Paul’s Command about Tradition

More significant than Fundamentalists’ rejection of the development of human traditions—such as when Christ’s birth is celebrated—is their rejection of apostolic tradition. Human traditions may be good or bad, but they do not have the weight that apostolic tradition does. The latter, since it conveys God’s revelation to us, is essential to the proper development of doctrine.

Catholics know that public revelation ended with the last apostle’s death. But the part of revelation that was not written down—the part outside the Bible, the apostles’ inspired oral teaching (1 Thess. 2:13) and their binding interpretations of Old Testament Scripture that forms the basis of sacred Tradition—that part of revelation Catholics also accept. Catholics follow Paul’s command: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15, cf. 1 Cor. 11:2).