Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

Francis on a Plane: Contraception, Doctrinal Development

Does doctrinal development mean the Church's teachings are "always progressing," as the pope suggested? Sort of. Here's how it works.

Another papal trip, another controversial papal interview. This time, the topic was contraception.

“When dogma or morality develop,” Pope Francis said, according to Claire Giangrave of the Religion News Service, “it’s a good thing. A church that doesn’t develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense is a church that goes backward.” He appealed to “a rule that is very clear and illuminating.” laid out by St. Vincent of Lérins in the fifth century: that true doctrine “is consolidated over time, it expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing.”

This is a favorite quotation of Pope Francis. He used it back in April while offering two contrasting images of our relationship with tradition: positively, a tree that grows upwards to the extent that it is deeply rooted; negatively, “statues in a museum, like certain traditionalists, who are cold, stiff, rigid, who think that being prepared for life means living stuck to the roots.”

This time, Pope Francis invoked Vincent to defend a new volume from the Pontifical Academy for Life, which claims to “open up a new horizon for theology” based upon Francis’s teachings, and which reignited old debates over Church teaching on IVF, contraception, and euthanasia. Francis praised the contributors for seeking “to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not outside of it, as I said with that rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins.”

The great irony in invoking Vincent of Lérins in this way is that Vincent is staunchly and consciously traditional, rejecting the idea that Church teaching has changed or ever can change. He argues that a doctrine can be recognized as Catholic only if it passes the threefold test of universality, antiquity, and consent. He explains this test (now called the Vincentian canon) by saying that “in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”

This test is often misapplied by those who have never read Vincent. He fully acknowledges that the truths of the Faith weren’t literally believed in universally. After all, if there were never theological disputes within the Church, there wouldn’t be a need for his test in the first place. So how do we know if we’re meeting each of these three conditions of universality, antiquity, and consent?

We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and Fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and Doctors.

Pope Francis is right that Vincent’s idea of tradition isn’t simply regurgitating what prior Church teaching has said. In Vincent’s own words, “shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the Faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else.”

Vincent explains this distinction by comparing development of doctrine to “the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. . . . An infant’s limbs are small, a young man’s large, yet the infant and the young man are the same.”G.K. Chesterton seems to have had Vincent’s image in mind in his own explanation on development of doctrine:

When we talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller. When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.

This is the crucial distinction to grasp: development of doctrine never means going from “no” to “yes,” any more than it means going from a dog to a cat. Pope Francis regularly quotes Vincent’s line that authentic doctrinal development must be “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, [and] refined by age,” but Vincent ends that sentence by saying Christian doctrine must “continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts . . . admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.”

That’s the critical distinction between true and false doctrinal development: true development is growth, whereas false development is what Vincent calls alteration.

What would true development look like in the area of contraception? We have a concrete example: Humanae Vitae. The Church has always condemned “barrier” methods, like condoms, for disrupting the marital act. But with the invention of chemical and hormonal birth control in the twentieth century, the Church was faced with a new question: is this kind of contraception acceptable, since it isn’t a physical barrier between the spouses? In answering “no” (and explaining the deeper reason why the Church opposes contraception in general), Pope St. Paul VI was developing the doctrine. That’s different in kind from those who—while perhaps paying lip service to the immorality of contraception—argue that it might sometimes be morally permissible.

Pope St. Pius X warned about the misuse of development of doctrine by the Modernist heretics, who “lay down the general principle that in a living religion everything is subject to change, and must change, and in this way they pass to what may be said to be, among the chief of their doctrines, that of Evolution,” and who treat everything—“dogma, Church, worship, the books we revere as sacred, even faith itself”—as capable of evolutionary change.

This gets to a related, and perhaps deeper problem: getting right the proper relationship of theologians with the Magisterium. Francis defended the Pontifical Academy for Life volume by saying that “the duty of theologians is research, theological reflection. You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.’ But theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits.”

But this idea of doctrinal development—of theologians seeing how far they can push before the Magisterium stops them—is part of what Pius rejects as false. He warns that, for the Modernists, “evolution is described as resulting from the conflict of two forces,” and that it is “between authority and individual consciences, that changes and advances take place.” That is, theologians and individual consciences pull in one direction, while the “conserving force in the Church” (tradition, represented by religious authority) pulls in the other. Eventually, a synthesis is achieved, and doctrine evolves.

But this isn’t the proper role of theologians. Rather, a theologian’s role is to help illuminate, not undermine, the Church’s teachings. It’s why theologians take a profession of faith, in which they not only “firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals,” but even “adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.”

When the Pontifical Academy for Life tweets that “what is dissent today, can change” since “otherwise there would be no progress and everything would stand still. Even in theology. Think about it,” it’s far from St. Vincent’s view of doctrinal development, and much nearer to the view condemned by St. Pius X. That’s why it’s ironic that Pope Francis should cite Vincent to defend theologians advancing a false view of doctrinal development and a false view of their own role in relation to the Magisterium—just as it was ironic that he should cite Vincent while arguing that the death penalty “is per se contrary to the Gospel,” in direct contradiction to his predecessors, who acknowledged its valid use.

Pope Francis is right that “tradition is precisely the root of the inspiration to go forward in the Church.” But this forward movement cannot involve doctrinal change or repudiation, as “any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God” (2 John 1:9).

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!