Monday, June 1, 2015

Little Teachings: Development of Doctrine made easy, plus a word on theologians

As we've discussed often, the Deposit of Faith (the Truth about faith and morals) does not change. Jesus entrusted the Deposit of Faith to His Apostles, and that Truth has been handed down, intact, for over 2,000 years. The Church is not static, however. She is a living thing, a supernatural reality that grows and deepens in richness and understanding over the centuries.

This deeper and richer understanding of the Truth is called "development of doctrine". Development of doctrine is not, as some critics of the Church claim, a fancy way of disguising a reversal or change or contradiction of teachings. Quite the opposite; Church teaching does not change. However, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church is able to unpack the beauty of Church teaching as we go along through salvation history.

Here's an easy analogy:
Imagine you are in a room with the lights down low. The room is filled with furniture, objects, colors. In the dimly lit room, you can make out the outlines, the general shapes and placement of things, and some muted colors.
Now imagine that someone turns the dimmer on the light switch up, gradually. Slowly, over time, you start to see the details you had not been able to see before, you see the colors start to come alive. As the light continues to be turned up, you see even finer details, and more vibrant colors bursting forth.
The room and the objects have not changed nor reversed themselves. Nothing has moved or been inverted, nothing has been added to the room, and nothing has been removed. But you can see everything more clearly, with more detail, color, richness, depth. Our understanding and appreciation of the room is more profound than before, and we see the beauty and reality of it in ways we hadn't when the light was more dim.

This is development of doctrine!

Now a word about theologians, who are very important in the life of the Church.

There is a widely-held misconception that the job of a theologian is to come up with theological truths. But, this is a complete misunderstanding of the theologian's role!

The only legitimate arbiter of the Truth, the only divinely-authorized keeper and protector of the Deposit of Faith, is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, not the Church's theologians. The Magisterium of the Church is the teaching authority of the Church, comprised of the body of bishops in union with the pope.

We go to the Apostolic Church to know what is doctrinally true.

So what, then, is the role of Catholic theologians?

Well, going back to the room analogy, their job is to turn up the lights. They illuminate the details in the room so that we can explore the treasures all around us and see the colors more deeply. Theologians help plumb the depths and uncover the riches of the Deposit of Faith that was given by Christ to His Church.

Once a Catholic theologian puts himself and his work in opposition to the Deposit of Faith, he has overstepped the bounds of his profession. He has wandered into error and forgotten his role and sacred responsibility. He has left the room, so to speak.

So, a Catholic theologian does not determine or decide what is Christian teaching, but rather he helps the faithful understand Christian teaching more deeply and profoundly, reflecting and addressing the specific circumstances and challenges of every era.

The distinction is crucial, and if you should come across a Catholic theologian who disagrees with Church teaching, that's a red flag. He is not grounded in Truth, so his work is built on a foundation of sand.

The authentic Catholic theologian is one who begins with faithful obedience to the teachings of the Magisterium and goes from there. This is a theologian with integrity, who will bring about authentic development of doctrine. This is a theologian who helps to fulfill Christ's promise to lead us into all Truth, in every age.


  1. So you would consider Nancy Pelosi a theologian, then? ;)

  2. Haha! Yes. ... But only when she is teaching in concert with other theologians like John Kerry!

  3. I think they would be considered Protestant theologians? ha ha, but would any self-respecting Protestant want them??? ;)

  4. Once a Catholic theologian puts himself and his work in opposition to the Deposit of Faith, he has overstepped the bounds of his profession. He has wandered into error and forgotten his role and sacred responsibility. He has left the room, so to speak.

    Or maybe he hasn’t left the room as much as he has erroneously tried to “redecorate it”, or “update it”, which he should not do.

    A loose analogy: A theologian is to the teachings of the Church, as a mathematician is to the rules of Algebra. He isn’t the originator of the rules of Algebra; he merely explains them, explores them, and pronounces them more clearly. He can only say, “This is the error-free reality of Algebra.”

    If he imagines something brand new, then he isn’t teaching what Algebra is really based on, because there’s no reference to its genesis. Therefore, one is not going to learn the truth of Algebra under his tutelage. He cannot and should not say, “Well, it started out as this, but now it’s really that.”

    There are two classes of theologians as I see it in the OP above: Classroom or academic theologians who write and study, and popes with the college of bishops who convene during a council. Only one is guided infallibly.

  5. Nubby, well said! Good analogy!

    And I would add that even if a poor shepherd (or fisherman) were placed in the magisterial role, he may not even be a theologian (in the sense that we think of them today, like you said, an academic), but he still is the one that God entrusted to teach the Truth, and not error. So, if the fisherman and the learned theologian should contradict, the fisherman wins. ;)

  6. And I'm guessing it would be the fisherman that would take that first step out of the boat. Faith and Obedience being #1. Like a certain Centurion . " I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof..."

  7. Right, because the charism of infallibility operates like a person who says the bare minimum but has maximum impact.

    As in: “There is no error here. These beliefs are already held, always have been, always will be.” The end. Nothing conflated, nothing new posited, just a clearer pronouncement and acknowledgment of the genesis of the original dogma. It negates error. It doesn’t supply any new idea. It always speaks to the origin of the teaching.

    I’d add to your points, too, that theologians cannot make teaching “evolve”. They can only study. They can only point back to what teaching was because that is the path that illustrates what it is, and can only be, presently. They can only refer to the beginning of it all, they cannot blow it up to make something new.

    This is why it’s confusing to me when people want to argue that the “Church will change”. No, she simply cannot. Building on a theory or teaching is not the same as annihilating it and starting over, saying, “Oops, we were apparently wrong about what Jesus meant… Here, let’s update.” No way.

    Also, to clarify my last comment, of course many popes and bishops are classroom educated, too; and write brilliantly as theologians. I just meant to say that the world of academia (studying for studying’s sake) is not their primary career or vocation. And yep, they are always under the reality of the authority of the teaching arm of the Church.

  8. "The Church will change". It is a firmly established fact in the mind of many post Vatican II Catholics that the Church did indeed change (both those who are faithful to the Magisterium and those who hope for further "evolution"). Now of course doctrine never changed, but that hasn't really registered in too many minds (of Catholics, never mind non Catholics). Those hoping for change believe Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI "hijacked" the Church from the trajectory it was put on by John XXIII and Paul VI, and tried to turn the clock back. They now hope Pope Francis will pick up where Paul VI left off. Of course that is incorrect reading of history, but this thinking has a firm grip on the minds of poorly catechized Catholics in much of the Western world (and some "progressive" theologians too). This is where the tragedy is. And much as I love Pope Francis, I sometimes wish he spoke more clearly and unambiguously, as Pope Benedict XVI did. A different charism and focus is all very well and necessary, but I sometimes wish for more clarity. But then again, "Your Will be done", not mine, so surely this is all quite as it should be.

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  9. I love the darkened room analogy Leila! This will help me better explain this to people who always ask about how the Church can teach doctrine for modern times and have an answer for modern moral dilemmas even though the Church was established so long ago.

  10. Leila, can you explain what doctrine is? I am trying to understand it as compared to some things that might be called, maybe, discussions. Specifically, if something on the Vatican website is called the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, do I have to accept everything in it as doctrine that I must accept?

  11. Sharon, I am definitely not a theologian, but I know that there are various "levels" of doctrine (from dogma on down...). But they are all binding on the faithful, since they are part of the Deposit of Faith. There are some things called "theological constructs" which may be the "discussions" you are talking about (such as "Limbo" for unbaptized babies? That was not a doctrine, ever. But it's still a plausible construct --though widely discounted now -- because Jesus never actually revealed what happens to unbaptized babies, so the Church cannot speak definitively on it).

    The principles of social doctrine we would have to accept, but application via public policy is a matter of debate and prudence. That's my understanding. Hope that makes sense!


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