I am not a theologian but I spent 27 years as a Catholic religious educator. I find myself today more in sympathy with the “progressive” Catholic movement and have taken myself out of religious education because I want to remain honest. The classroom of a Catholic school (Rome would say a Catholic college too) is not the appropriate venue for a teacher to air her questions about Catholic teaching or authority. My job was to help nurture faith not foment confusion and dissent. That being said, in my classroom I encouraged critical thinking and challenged magical thinking.

I believe that while faith is a personal relationship with God, religion is a human construct and should be expected to make rational sense. The history, scriptures and doctrines of a religion should be open to honest historical-critical examination. Failures should be acknowledged, not edited out of history.

Changes in Catholic doctrine  show how Catholic Christianity responds to its historical context and the needs of its members. The fact that the Church is open to change is a good thing, I think. Unfortunately, in the current theological climate, admitting that doctrine changes is seen as admitting weakness and conceding to the relativism that is  blamed for much of the moral malaise of our times.

This fear of acknowledging change has led high school  textbook authors and college instructors to teach that “Catholic Doctrine Does Not Change.” We have forgotten Aquinas, who had the very good sense to distinguish between human (finite, changeable, relative) truth, and divine (eternal, absolute and immutable) truth. Is the problem that Rome cannot accept that its (our) truth is human? But how can it be anything else? Even if we believe that God guides and inspires the Church, we have to acknowledge that the interpretation, definition, and transmission of God’s truth and inspiration can only ever be inadequate, because it can only ever be generated in human language and within a specific historical context.

And then there’s John Henry Cardinal Newman, who wrote a famous (infamous?) Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I have read and re-read parts (it is not an easy read but worth the effort) and am surprised to learn that it is considered anything other than quite conservative. Apparently, the fact that he argues that development of doctrine is natural, and even necessary, is enough for his orthodoxy to be questioned. But Newman does not see development of doctrine as undermining the concept of God’s Absolute Truth or of the infallibility of the Church. Whatever issues progressive Catholics have with the notion of  infallibility, Newman accepted it without question.

A copy of the essay is available online here: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/development. But a brief quote will be enough to illustrate his essentially simple reasoning.

Chapter 2, Section I, Paragraph 12

Moreover, while it is certain that developments of Revelation proceeded all through the Old Dispensation down to the very end of our Lord’s ministry, on the other hand, if we turn our attention to the beginnings of Apostolical teaching after His ascension, we shall find ourselves unable to fix an historical point at which the growth of doctrine ceased, and the rule of faith was once for all settled. Not on the day of Pentecost, for St. Peter had still to learn at Joppa that he was to baptize Cornelius; not at Joppa and Cæsarea, for St. Paul had to write his Epistles; not on the death of the last Apostle, for St. Ignatius had to establish the doctrine of Episcopacy; not then, nor for centuries after, for the Canon of the New Testament was still undetermined. Not in the Creed, which is no collection of definitions, but a summary of certain credenda, an incomplete summary, and, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Decalogue, a mere sample of divine truths, especially of the more elementary. No one doctrine can be named which starts complete at first, and gains nothing afterwards from the investigations of faith and the attacks of heresy. The Church went forth from the old world in haste, as the Israelites from Egypt “with their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.”

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