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The Growth of Catholic Doctrine

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Church, we believe, is the living Body of Christ. We therefore believe she grows, not only in numbers or in influence, but also in her own being.

We might say this stands to reason. Born on the Cross when her Founder died, the Church has always remained His Mystical Body. She will be the Kingdom of God on earth and the universal sacrament of salvation until the end of time. The truths which He entrusted to His Spouse will not change in number or meaning. The deposit of faith which the Savior entrusted to His followers will remain constant even into the dawn of eternity.

Objectivity, therefore, what God revealed to the human race is an unchangeable constant. The mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the seven sacraments He instituted, the Real Presence of Christ on earth in the Holy Eucharist, the moral obligations of the Sermon on the Mount ― all of these are irreversible truths.

Saying this, however, does not mean that the Church's understanding of Christian revelation does not grow. Nor does it mean that her grasp of the deposit of faith does not become more clear, more precise, more certain and more intelligible with the passage of time.

There are few aspects of Catholic education that are more important than what we have come to call "development of doctrine," I would go so far as to affirm that failure to take account of this fact is near the root cause of the widespread confusion in catechetics and evangelization in our day.

My plan here is to open the door to a treasure of religious wisdom. It was the Second Vatican Council which unlocked that door in its Constitution on divine revelation, Dei verbum (“The Word of God”).

Development of Revelation And Development Of Doctrine

In order to understand the meaning of development of doctrine, we should first explain the meaning of "doctrine," as compared with "revelation." Doctrine, from the Latin word docere (to teach) is the authoritative teaching of the Church. This was Christ's closing commission to the apostles, when He told them to teach all nations "to observe everything that I have commanded you." When the Church's teaching is explicitly revealed doctrine, it is called "dogma." That is why we also speak of "dogmatic development" or "development of dogma."

Revelation, on the other hand, precedes doctrine. Revelation is the word of God, which He has supernaturally manifested from the dawn of human history until the end of the apostolic age; that is to the close of the first century of the Christian era. It is also called "public revelation" because it is divinely required for the salvation and sanctification of the human race. It is contained in Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. "Private revelations," like the mystical experiences of the saints, are called "private" precisely because they are useful or helpful, but not strictly necessary. In fact, they are only as valid as they are consistent with the revealed word of God as found in the Bible and Sacred Tradition.

Has there been a development of revelation? Indeed there has been. Within the Old Testament, for example, compare the general promise of redemption in Genesis with the detailed Messianic Prophesies in Isaiah; or the external precepts in Deuteronomy with the profound moral insights in the Books of Wisdom and Ecclesiastics.

As we move from the Old to the New Testament, the progress in revealed truths is overwhelming. One mystery after another---the Trinity of Persons in God, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Church as the Kingdom of God, the supernatural life of grace received at Baptism, the restoration of monogamy in marriage, the new commandment of selfless love after the example of Christ's love for us---all of these are signs of revealed development, beyond anything that was ever known until the dawn of Christianity.

We are now ready to ask: what exactly is development of doctrine? Dogmatic or doctrinal development presumes that revelation had been completed. What God has revealed will not be added to or amplified, until the beatific vision. But how the Church assimilates these changeless truths has been growing or progressing for the past nineteen centuries and will continue until the last day.

How Has Catholic Doctrine Developed?

We are now in a position to ask, "How has Catholic doctrine developed over the centuries?" In one sentence, the Church has grown in three ways in her possession and use of divine revelation entrusted to her by Christ:

She appropriates to herself and integrates with God's revelation whatever valid progress is made by human science and knowledge; she adapts her divinely revealed wisdom to the varied and changing needs of her faithful, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, she understands ever more deeply and clearly the once-and-for-all revelation she has received from God.

Appropriation. In what sense may the Church be said to appropriate human science and knowledge and, in the process, grow in her grasp of divine revelation?

The Church does this through her contact with the world of secular studies in all the fields of human endeavor.

She has learned much from the science of language and linguistics, and her scholars have developed the Church's understanding of Scripture immensely as a consequence. Take the single fact that Jesus habitually spoke Aramaic and only occasionally Greek. In order to get behind the meaning of what the Savior said, the findings of Aramaic scholars have much enhanced our understanding of what Christ meant when, for example, He quoted from Psalm 22 on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you deserted me."

The Church has appropriated a great deal from the science of medicine and physiology. As expressed by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, the Church is grateful for the fine research that scientists have done in the field of human fertility. And he strongly urged that research be accelerated so that, in his words, "medical science would succeed in providing a sufficiently secure basis for a regulation of birth, founded on the observance of natural rhythms"(III, 24).

Studies in archaeology have literally unearthed verifiable data from ancient times which have enriched the Church in her store of knowledge of the foundations of Judaeo-Christianity. Archeology has illuminated just about every page of the Bible: it has supplied the broad historical background of the ancient world in which first the Hebrews and then the Christians can be placed: its excavations in Palestine have opened up vistas never before known about the places and customs and events in the life of Christ: its excavations in Rome, like the miles of catacombs and the verification of St. Peter's tomb, have added information and given verification to dogmas of the faith for which there is no substitute.

The psychological sciences have made their contribution. A better understanding of human emotions, and especially of human consciousness and motivation, has helped the Church in the field of morals and spirituality.

We could go on indefinitely recalling the ways that have increased the physical and psychic, historical and social knowledge of the world. This has been an immense asset to the Church's ever greater comprehension of God's revealed truth.

For the present, it is enough to quote St. Paul's famous exhortation to the Philippians, Where he told them to "fill your minds with everything that is true." This the Church has been doing in appropriating the truth from whatever source, and combining it with the divine wisdom she has received from her Founder.

Adaptation. Just as the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit takes unto herself from human resources what can be integrated with revealed truth, so she grows in her role of Mother of mankind by wisely responding to the needs of her faithful, as these needs become manifest in the Church's passage through time into eternity.

There should be nothing strange about this fact. What would be strange would be just the opposite. With all the diversity among different cultures, races and nations; with all the shifts in human history, through wars, discoveries, and migrations; with all the influence exercised by the accelerated speed of travel and the impact on the world of communications media, the Church is constantly adapting herself to these changes in history, geography and human society.

In the first encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam, published on August 6, 1964, exactly fourteen years to the day before his death, the late Holy Father set down as one of the guiding norms of his pontificate these necessary adaptations, while recognizing that the Church is being constantly affected by the world in which her faithful are living.

In the pursuit of spiritual and moral perfection, the Church receives an exterior stimulus from the conditions in which she lives. She cannot remain unaffected by or indifferent to the changes that take place in the world around.

This world exerts its influence on the Church in a thousand ways and places conditions on her daily conduct. The Church, as everyone knows, is not separated from the world, but lives in it. Hence the members of the Church are subject to its influence; they breathe its culture, accept its laws and absorb its customs.

This imminent contact of the Church with temporal society creates for her a problematic situation, which today has become extremely difficult. On the one hand Christian life, as defended and promoted by the Church, must always take great care lest she be deceived, profaned or stifled, as she must strive to render herself immune from the contagion of error and evil.

On the other hand, Christian life should be adapted to the forms of thoughts and custom which the temporal environment offers and imposes on her. This adaptation, however, presumes there is no surrender of the Church's basic principles of religion and morality.

Moreover, the Pope went on to say even while adapting herself to the needs of temporal society, the Church "should also try to draw close to them, to purify them, to ennoble them, to vivify and sanctify them." This task, Paul VI concluded, "demands of the Church the constant exercise of her moral vigilance. It is a grave duty that our times impose upon the Church with particular urgency."

As we reread the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, we may be struck by the frequency with which there keeps recurring, either the word "adaptation" or some equivalent term.

  • The Liturgy should be adapted to the arts and cultural customs of a people.

  • The pedagogy of catechetics should be adapted to the age levels of those under instruction.

  • The catechumenate should be adapted to the qualifications of those being initiated into the true faith.

  • Diocesan structures should be adapted to the different situations in which bishops exercises their Episcopal ministry.

  • The Roman Curia should be adapted to the new conditions in which the Pope governs the universal Church.

  • The training of catechists should be adapted to the new demands made on those giving religious instruction in today's world.

  • Religious life, while interiorly reviewing itself in the spirit of its founders should be adapted to meet the new demands of today's apostolate.

  • Catholic action should be adapted to tap the vast, so far mainly unused, resources of the Catholic laity.

  • Missionary effort and evangelization should be adapted to the customs of the people to whom the purity of the Gospel is preached.

The administration of the sacraments should be adapted, without sacrifice of anything essential, so that the faithful not only receive the sacraments validly but profit still more from them spiritually.

So obvious is adaptation in the Second Vatican Council that some of the most vocal (and dangerous) protagonists for a revised Catholic Church rest their case for demolition on this fact.

We shall come back to them later on. For the present we wish only to note that adaptation has always been part of the Church's history and is part of her supernatural character as a living organism that thrives on adjustment without ceasing to be herself. If the Church were not able to adapt, she would long ago have ceased to exist. But as a divinely-human society, on her divine side she partakes of God's immutability; and on her human side she possesses a unique capacity for adaptability.

Understanding. Development of Catholic doctrine, however, is not only appropriation from human knowledge, not only adaptation to the needs of the times. It is also, and mainly, growth in the Church's understanding of the mysteries of revelation that she has received as a heritage from Christ her master, whose first purpose on earth in time was to share with us the heavenly wisdom that God possessed from all eternity.

There should be nothing surprising about this. After all, divine revelation is actually divine manifestation, wherein God communicated Himself to the human race. It is especially the manifestation in human form of the Son of God who lived and died in our midst as man; who rose from the dead; and who now is the invisible head of the Church He established on earth.

Is it any wonder, when God became man and revealed Himself as Emmanuel, His self-disclosure should take time ― centuries of time ― to, as it were, grow on the faithful whom He came into this world to save?

Would we not expect Infinity to be infinitely penetrable with ever deeper and clearer understanding on our part, as the Church moves down the ages of her pilgrimage toward the Second Coming of the Savior at the end of time?

Since the God who lived among us is the Mighty One whose power is beyond limit, and the Omniscient One whose wisdom is deeper than the oceans that He made, and the Saving One whose goodness outreaches anything the human mind can fully conceive --- there is necessarily growth in the Church's comprehension of who this God who became man really is, and progress, as we may call it, in the Church's ever clearer and more perceptive appreciation of His divine will in our regard.

We are not saying that increased understanding means additional revelation, or new truths. Development is qualitative rather than quantitative. it is growth in intensity rather than in size or extension of knowledge.

There is a passage in the Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council that shows exactly how this deepening of the Church's understanding of the faith develops. "The Tradition," we are told," that comes from the Apostles makes progress in the Church. There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers. It comes from intimate sense of the spiritual truths which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who received, along with the right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth." (Dei verbum, no. 8).

Advancement in the Church's understanding of the deposit of faith takes place, therefore, by means of prayer and study, experience and the preaching of the hierarchy united under the Pope.

Each element of this quadrad is rich in implications for any Catholic who wishes not only to hear about growth in the Church at large, but who is solicitous to grow himself in the faith he already has.

After all, the development of doctrine about which we are talking is not some academic phenomenon removed from real life. It is something that each Catholic in his own personal life is meant to acquire. We are each to grow in our grasp of the faith we possess, if we want to preserve this treasure given to us by God, and much more so if we want to share with others what we ourselves believe.

How Do Catholics Grow In Catholic Doctrine?

It must seem strange to ask how the faithful grow in Catholic doctrine. We are accustomed to speak of growing in the Catholic faith. But growing in Catholic doctrine sounds strange.

Certainly we are to grow in our virtue of faith. However, we believe with the mind, and what the mind knows is ideas, and ideas must be assimilated in intelligible words. Consequently, there is a profound sense in which we cannot say that a person grows in the virtue of faith unless the believing mind grows in its acquisition of revealed truths. But that is what Catholic doctrine is. It is the divinely ordained means by which the believing mind, through the Church's teaching, acquires what God has revealed.

Following the guidance of Dei verbum of the Second Vatican Council, we identify four ways in which Christian believers grow in their knowledge of Catholic doctrine. Of course, they are also thereby growing in their infused virtue of faith. The obvious reason is that we grow in the faith by accepting with our minds the teaching or doctrine of the Church.

The four basic ways in which we grow in Catholic doctrine are through prayer, study, personal experience and the preaching of the hierarchy in union with the bishop of Rome.

Prayer. The first in sequence and also first in importance as a means by which the Church grows in her penetration of revealed truth is prayer.

This has two separate but related dimensions. On the one hand the prayerful contemplation of the mysteries at any given period of the Church's history is a major source of new insights that enrich the Church's treasury of divine wisdom. The meditation of saints like Margaret Mary and Catherine of Siena, like John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux has brought new understanding to the meaning of revealed truth.

A short quotation from each of these mystics will give us a savor of their contribution to the Church's deeper understanding of God and His ways.

According to St. Margaret Mary, "Who can hinder us from becoming saints, since we have a heart to love and a body to suffer?"

According to St. Catherine of Siena, Christ once told her, "The eye cannot see, nor the tongue relate, nor the heart think, how many are the roads and ways that I use, through love alone, to lead sinners back to grace, so that my Truth may be fulfilled in them."

According to St. John of the Cross," In order to love all, seek satisfaction in nothing; in order to know all, seek knowledge in nothing; in order to possess all, seek to possess nothing."

St. Therese of Lisieux, who had a great devotion to the Holy Face, would often pray," O Jesus, the tears that streamed in such abundance from your eyes are to me as precious pearls, which I delight to gather, that with their infinite worth may be ransomed the souls of poor sinners."

Such samples of mystical wisdom are not, as we know, the effusions of poetry but insights into divine truth that the Church has used to clarify and deepen our penetration into the mystery of God.

However, it is not only the prayer of mystics that advances the Church's grasp of God's revelation. It is the humble prayers of all, even the humblest of the faithful. We grow in understanding of God's truth mainly by our prayer. Our prayerful reflection on Scriptures and meditation on God's Providence deepens our hold on the mysteries of faith.

So true is this that I do not hesitate to say that the single most powerful means of growing in divine wisdom is prayer. Native intelligence may help, education may help. But even these, without prayer, are useless, as witness the empty prattle of those learned scholars who may talk a lot about God but who seldom, if ever, talk with God in humble prayer.

Prayer is indispensable, not only to grow in the faith but even to keep the faith. The surest way to lose the faith is to stop praying, which also explains why so many in the Church these past years, including priests and religious, have lost their faith. They stopped praying.

Study. Along with prayer, study of God's revelation is the second way the Church advances in her hold on revealed truth. That is why, and the main reason why, the Church needs her theologians.

They are the specialists whose talent in religious matters, spent in probing the mysteries of Christianity, has always been encouraged by the Church.

Where would we be by now, as Catholics, in competition with the genius of agnostics and critics of the faith, except for men like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Anselm and Bellarmine, and in our day, scholars like Vermeersch in moral theology, Bea in Scripture, Capello in Canon Law, and Scheeben in dogma?

If every society needs thinkers who sustain the principles on which that society is based, how much more does the Church need learned men and women faithful to her teaching and tireless in their life-long study of the faith to preserve this faith. In every age, the Church needs dedicated intellectuals to investigate the implications of faith and draw conclusions from revelation that will advance the frontiers of divine wisdom.

But, as with prayer, so with study, this applies to not only scholars or professional theologians. It applies to all of Christ's faithful. Studying the Church's doctrine by reading what she teaches, by reading sound writers, listening to sound lectures and conferences and discussing the faith with sound, firmly dedicated fellow-Catholics is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity if the faith of our Fathers is to be sustained, let alone grow and keep pace with our phenomenal increase in secular knowledge in today's highly, maybe too highly, educated world.

Personal Experience. Experience we know is a unique teacher. This is even more true in the order of grace and sacred doctrine than it is in the order of nature and of worldly wisdom.

Take a few examples. How greatly the Church has profited from the experience of St. Agnes the Virgin Martyr, of St. Benedict the Father of Christian Monasticism, of St. Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Ignatius, and Thomas More.

But once again, for the last time, we must repeat that it is also the accumulated religious experience of all of Christ's followers in every age and nation and every walk of life that adds to and deepens and expands the horizons of the Church's possession of the truth.

How much we grow in the understanding of Christ's Passion by our own experience of suffering borne with patient resignation to the divine will. How much we grow in the understanding of the Real Presence by our experience of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and how much we grow in understanding of the need of God's grace, that without Him we can do nothing, by the experience of our own weakness under trial, and our own helplessness in the face of sickness or misfortune or the loss of someone we love.

Preaching of the Hierarchy. It may seem odd that the Second Vatican Council would single out the preaching of the bishops, under the Pope, as the capstone of how the Church develops her understanding of the faith.

But this becomes less odd once we realize that the Church is a visible society, with visible authority; that the faithful are not the final arbiters of their own spiritual insights and that even the Church's scholars and theologians are subject, by divine right, to the authority of the Magisterium.

Accordingly the role of the bishops under the Pope is no more appendix, but belongs to its very essence. How so?

Unless and in so far as the hierarchy established by Christ approves of what the faithful learn, no matter how educated their insights may be and no matter how divinely inspired a person may think he or she is --- these insights have no assurance of being true.

Of course, we must be quick to add that the hierarchy of which we are speaking is the hierarchy of bishops in so far as they are themselves responsive to the teaching and direction of the Bishop of Rome.

Moreover, the bishops, again, united with the Vicar of Christ, enjoy a special privileged position in the Catholic Church. Their deliberation and decision, always provided they are approved and confirmed by the Pope, carry with them a divine efficacy that is unique in the world. It was to them, through the Apostles, that the Master spoke those prophetic words, "Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven."

It was for this reason that Christ also told the Apostles, and through them tells the bishops in communion and agreement with Rome, "He that hears you hears me; and he that despises you despises me."

The Catholic faithful, therefore, are richly blessed by the Savior who founded His Church on the Apostles. They need never worry as to whether some teaching is true or false. They have only to ask if an idea professed or a practice proposed is conformed to the established teaching of the Church. If it is, then the idea is sound and may safely be held, or the practice can safely be followed. And if the idea or practice is something completely new, what does the Church say? Does it approve or disapprove? If the hierarchy, united with the Vicar of Christ approves, fine; if it disapproves, then the believing Catholic treats the proposal as a novelty, no matter how clever or popular it may otherwise be.

This will not scandalize the sincere Catholic, as it must seem like folly to one who lacks the faith. But for those who believe there is no choice; and they want no choice. They realize that Christ is with His Church and teaches in the Church even in the present day.


In the light of all that we have seen, one conclusion stands out. When Christ promised us that, "I am with you all days, even until the end of the world," He was saying more than most people realize. He was assuring His followers for all times, including our own day that the Church which He founded is indeed built on a rock. This rock is Jesus Christ, Incarnate Truth, who as the Infinite God remains absolutely the same. No doubt certain externals of the Church may change, like certain verbal expressions of doctrine. But the internal truths which the Church teaches remain what they were when Christ revealed them, and will remain the same when Christ returns on the last day to judge the living and the dead.

There are voices which claim to be Catholic who speak of what they call "discontinuous development" in the Church's teaching. By this they mean that doctrines of faith or morals, taught by the Church, may now contradict what the Church's authority had taught in previous centuries. This is absolutely false. When we speak of development of doctrine, we must identify this progress as continuous development. There must be continuity, which means no shadow of contradiction, between what the Church, as Mother of Truth, has taught in the past two millennia and what she teaches now. It is the same Holy Spirit, as Christ has promised, who continues teaching, in the sense of enlightening our minds on, everything which Jesus Christ had proclaimed during His visible stay in Palestine.

Catholic Faith
vol. 1-#2, Nov/Dec 1995, pp. 1-6

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

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