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The Difference Between Development and Change

Theologians and saints throughout the ages have given guidance as to why and how doctrines can develop and why change is different

Does doctrine develop or change? What’s the difference? Does doctrinal development mean that doctrines may change over time in the sense of being substantially transformed, implying a change in the very essence of the teaching? For instance, could so-called “same-sex unions” one day be seen as a legitimate development of the Church’s teaching on marriage? If so, would this development be legitimate?

The short answer is no.

Change means that one thing becomes something else. Thus, change cannot be called development. Because of this, a so-called “same-sex union” would be a corruption of dogma since it asserts the contrary of the essence of the teaching on marriage regarding the sexual differentiation of male and female as a fundamental prerequisite for attaining the two-in-one-flesh union of marriage (Gen 1:27, 2:24).

In sum, doctrinal development has to be homogeneous, organic development, not heterogeneous and discontinuous with the essential principles of the teaching.

Two examples of reversals in Church teaching that leave us with a surface contradiction occur between Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mortalium Animos (On Religious Unity) of 1928 and Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism) on the one hand, and Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism) and Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person) on the other.

The former set deals with ecumenism, the latter with religious liberty. Properly understood, there is no real contradiction and hence no change in the material continuity, identity, and universality of truths pertaining to Catholic ecclesiology and freedom and truth. There is only development thereof.

In these examples, whether that of ecumenism or religious freedom, a reversal is evident, but only a surface one, not a real contradiction. Pope Benedict XVI puts the point as follows: “Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance.”

Given the limits of this article, I will make this case below only with respect to religious freedom that a “continuity of principles” exists, arguing that this reversal is a change in the Church’s fundamental teaching on the relationship between freedom and truth, but homogeneous, organic developments thereof.

This distinction between progress (development) and change is the view of the Gallic monk St. Vincent of Lérins (c. 445). He asks:

Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly, all possible progress. . . . Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration [change] of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else (Commonitorium Primum 23).

Real progress or development of dogma should “be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal,” Vincent adds,

. . . dogma of the Christian religion . . . must remain incorrupt and unadulterated: it may attain to fullness and perfection in all the proportions of its parts, and as it were in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.

In this connection, it is important to note that Vincent influences Pope St. John XXII. In his opening address to Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, John argues that the Church must “transmit whole and entire and without distortion Catholic doctrine.” He explains: “As all sincere promoters of Christian, Catholic, and apostolic faith strongly desire, what is needed is that this doctrine be more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it” (emphasis added).

Importantly, John XXIII depends on Vincent by distinguishing between truth and its formulations in reflecting on the sense in which a doctrine is more fully known and deeply understood:

What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times. For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching are one thing, while the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.

The subordinate clause, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from Vatican I’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason,” Dei Filius (1869-70), which Pius IX invokes in his bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Leo XIII in his 1899 encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium Primum 23 of St. Vincent of Lérins:

Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.

Vincent’s thesis is that dogmatic development must remain within the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].” Although the truths of the Faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those reformulations preserve the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth, and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths, even when reformulations bring correction, modification, and complementation.

Vincent of Lérins’s view, and hence that of John XXIII, is also the view of Benedict XVI. He writes:

It is clear that this commitment to expressing a specific truth in a new way demands new thinking on this truth and a new and vital relationship with it; it is also clear that new words can only develop if they come from an informed understanding of the truth expressed, and on the other hand, that a reflection on faith also requires that this faith be lived. In this regard, the program that Pope John XXIII proposed was extremely demanding, indeed, just as the synthesis of fidelity and dynamic is demanding

Newman’s theory of development

Vincent’s thesis had considerable influence on the theory of doctrinal development of St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890). In his famous work Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Newman developed necessary but not sufficient “tests” or indications for distinguishing true and false doctrinal development. There are seven of these “tests”: preservation of type, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, logical sequence, anticipation of its future, conservative action upon its past, and chronic vigor (see article, p. 36).

They are necessary but not sufficient because “ecclesial warrants” (as Thomas Guarino calls them) are also necessary to assess doctrinal development. These warrants include Sacred Scripture, ecumenical councils, Doctors of the Church, the Christian faithful, and the Magisterium.

Still, all these “tests” and attendant warrants help us to distinguish “development” from change—i.e., proper growth in understanding (which may involve correction, modification, and complementary formulations) from improper mutations and corruptions.

Newman says, “A true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.” The “continuity of principle” and “identity of type,” or what British Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp calls a “dogmatic conceptual hard core,” is what Newman refers to when he speaks of what must be conserved.

Fundamental to doctrinal development is the idea of “propositional revelation.” Newman held that revealed truths, what he called “super-natural truths of dogma,” have been “irrevocably committed to human language.” God’s written revelation, according to Ian Ker’s reading of Newman, “necessarily involves propositional revelation.” This propositional revelation in verbalized form, or what Newman called the “dogmatical principle,” is at once true though not exhaustive, “imperfect because it is human,” adds Newman, “but definitive and necessary because given from above” (see sidebar 1).

Of course, this does not mean we cannot grow in our understanding of the doctrine. Vincent affirms that doctrine develops and is progressing. Nor does it mean that we cannot formulate the truth of this doctrine differently—always with the aim of keeping the same meaning and mediating the same judgment of truth (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sentential).

We may come to deepen our understanding of the doctrine and then formulate it in a new way that may more effectively communicate to the surrounding culture. But on this view the truth itself does not vary with time and place but only the formulations.

John Paul II’s hermeneutics

John Paul II explicates a foundational principle of Christian anthropology and its bearing upon Catholic sexual ethics: the truth that the human person is bodily. In sum, “The human body shares in the dignity of the image of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 364). “In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the willing agent and in the deliberate act they stand or fall together” (Veritatis Splendor 49). He says also, “The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts.” (VS 48).

This principle of Christian anthropology has been developed by affirming sexual differentiation and hence the bodily nature of the human person as constitutive of marriage. The sexually differentiated bodily sexual act is such that, as a foundational prerequisite, it is intrinsic to a one-flesh union; and hence the form of love that is marriage is not detachable from its foundation in a bodily sexual union of man and woman.

In John Paul II’s theology of the body, the moral and sacramental significance of this principle has now received explicit attention and hence development in view of the anthropological challenges of the sexual revolution: namely, the claims that sexual differentiation and hence the bodily nature of the human person are insignificant. The denial of the continuous validity of this principle—by homosexualism, same-sex blessings/marriages, transgenderism—is a corruption of dogma since it asserts the contrary of the teaching’s “dogmatic conceptual hard core” on marriage, which regards sexual differentiation as a fundamental prerequisite for attaining the two-in-one-flesh union of marriage (Gen. 1:27, 2:24). (See sidebar 2)

Furthermore, John Paul II has richly developed this emphasis on the founding principle in Christian anthropology—namely, that the sexually differentiated body is intrinsic to one’s own self. He showed in his seminal works Love and Responsibility, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body and The Acting Person both the assimilative power and fecundity of this anthropology. Thus, he synthesized personalism, existential/hermeneutic phenomenology, and Thomism into a coherent whole.

Vincent’s thesis that dogmatic development must remain within the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia]” also influences John Paul II’s notion of moral development:

Certainly, there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law—like that of the “deposit of faith”—unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [Commonitorium Primum 23] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection.

This synthesis involves a logical type of development in which the substance (Newman’s “preservation of type” and “continuity of principles”) of revealed truths is expressed differently in a linguistic and conceptual way but states the same thing about the human person. In other words, alternative formulation must always be in eodem sensu eademque sententia, that is, according to the same meaning and the same judgment of truth.


Finally, there is also the matter of reversals. For example, does the reversal in religious liberty introduce a doctrinal change in the Church’s traditional teaching regarding the relationship between freedom and truth such that freedom undercuts objective truth, or does it just represent a development thereof ? Briefly, I will argue that there is not a real contradiction and hence these reversals are not changes in the Church’s fundamental teaching but only a development thereof.

There are several hermeneutical principles for interpreting ecclesial texts. First, we must consider the historical context in which the document is presented, particularly if its statements are polemical and antithetical. All truth formulated for polemical reasons, albeit true, is partial.

This means that what these documents fail to say is not necessarily denied; furthermore, what they did say, albeit insufficiently and imperfectly, must be interpreted with respect to the “full doctrine and the full life of the Church,” as Yves Congar rightly stated. He adds, “Ambivalence, if there is any, will be resolved positively in the direction of orthodoxy.”

A corollary of this hermeneutical principle is, secondly, the distinction between the truth and its formulations, context, and content, reminiscent of Vincent of Lérins. The import of this distinction is, according to Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer, that it “implies that the Church’s formulation of the truth could have, for various reasons, actually occasioned misunderstandings of the truth itself.”

In other words, the formulation or expression itself of the truth could be characterized by one-sidedness such that it is not “elevated above historical relativity in its analysis of the rejected errors.”

So, Congar and Berkouwer are suggesting that the formulation or expression itself of the truth could be characterized by one-sidedness. This explanation brings us to Congar’s distinction of two types of one-sidedness. He explains:

First, there is the possibility that this formulation, made in reaction to an error characterized by unilateralism, should itself become unilateral in its expression. Next, there is the possibility that the condemnation might include in its condemnation of the erroneous reactive element the seeds of truth as well, whose original ambivalence unfortunately became deviant.

Applying these principles to Mirar i Vos, the understanding of religious liberty in 1832 entailed religious “indifferentism” (no. 13). Indifferentism supported religious relativism—all religions are equally vehicles of salvation, equally true—relativism about truth, a subjectivist religious epistemology, and the privatization of Christianity. These views are still rejected as erroneous by Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae:

The council professes its belief that God himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it.

This Vatican Council likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power. Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.

Therefore, it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ (DH 1).

Still, Gregory XVI’s reaction to this error of religious and doctrinal indifferentism and all its entailments is characterized by one-sidedness, because he did not consider that there were elements of truth in the view that he was condemning. Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae did not suffer from that one-sidedness.

We live in a free society that is pluralistic. In that society, one is free to hold religious or irreligious views. Most important, the declaration on religious liberty gives no concession to error. The exercise of that freedom does not entail that I am rationally justified in holding those views nor that those views that I hold are true.

Congar explains: “Obviously, but there are persons who do have rights; and those who are in error guard the right, founded in their very nature, to remain free from constraint in matters concerning their conscience.”

By the terms of our free and open society, I am at liberty, in the public forum, to persuade that person that he is not justified in holding his views, but neither are they true. Here are the epistemic and moral conditions under which I may discover the truth and be justified in holding something to be true:

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it (DH 2).

In sum, the person has rights to hold even views we judge to be unjustified and false. We are talking here not of epistemic rights but of legal rights grounded in the dignity of the person to be free from the state’s constraints. “It is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions” (Gaudium et Spes 28).

Does the affirmation of religious liberty entail the rejection of the kingship of Christ, as the neo-traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre claimed? Does Vatican II dethrone or uncrown Christ?

Briefly, there is an important distinction to be made between the “old Christendom” and the “new Christendom.” The former is the idea of an ecclesiastically unified culture and hence the state establishment of the Church. The new Christendom pertains to the calling of a sanctified laity engaged in the transformation of culture for the sake of Christ’s Lordship. On this calling, see Lumen Gentium ch. 4-5; see also John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic exhortation, Christifidelis Laici (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People).

The point here, Aidan Nichols correctly notes, “is to permeate society and culture to the degree possible with the Christian spirit and to maximize the number of occasions in civic life where testimony to Christ and his Church might be given.” On this view, the new Christendom raises questions about the means and form in which the kingship of Christ should be promoted and obtained.

Christ’s kingship has not been abandoned, and Christ has not been uncrowned or dethroned. What is clear, Congar notes, is that the “Church wants to exercise an influence on persons, through persons, through the channel of their beliefs and the force of truth it self.”


This article has illustrated the call of Benedict XVI for a hermeneutics of reform and renewal in the continuity of principles—dogmatic development must remain within, in the words of Vincent of Lérins, the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia].” This is the hermeneutics that enables us to maintain the material continuity, identity, and universality of truths pertaining to the Catholic faith.

Sidebar 1: Why Marriage is Between a Man and a Woman

Jesus Christ reveals to us the truths about marriage by referring us back to the creation texts of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (see Matt. 19: 4-6, Mark 10:6-9). Here we have Newman’s “dogmatical principle” at work. “Male and female he created them,” and “for this reason . . . a man will be joined to his wife and the two [male and female] will become one flesh.

”Marriage is a two-in-one-flesh union between a man and a woman. The truth of this judgment is grounded in objective reality, according to the order of creation—the way things really are. Its contact with reality is the basis of this teaching’s vitality. Jesus unites the concepts of indissolubility, twoness, and sexual differentiation, and hence we have the “identity of type” that must be conserved in the development of doctrine.

These texts are absolutely normative for marriage, indeed, for the Christian anthropology that undergirds sexual ethics, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2331-2345).

Sidebar 2: A Fundamental Prerequisite

The words [form] spoken by them [“I …. take you . . . as my wife”; “I take you as my husband”] would not of themselves constitute the sacramental sign if the human subjectivity of the engaged man and woman and at the same time the consciousness of the body linked with the masculinity and the femininity of the bride and the bridegroom did not correspond to them [matter]. . . . The sign of the sacrament of marriage is constituted by the fact that the words spoken by the new spouses take up again the same “language of the body” as at the “beginning” and, at any rate, give it a concrete and unrepeatable expression. . . . In this way, the perennial and ever new “language of the body” is not only the “substratum” but in some sense also the constitutive content of the communion of persons. The persons—the man and the woman—become a reciprocal gift for each other. They become this gift in their masculinity and femininity while they discover the spousal meaning of the body and refer it reciprocally to themselves in an irreversible way. . . This is the visible and efficacious sign of the covenant with God in Christ, that is, of grace” ( John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them,


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