Pope Francis on tradition and the development of doctrine

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Iqaluit, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, to Rome July 29, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has shown that church teaching can develop. He has called for updates to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make it clear that the death penalty is inadmissible and that both the use and possession of nuclear weapons are immoral. His teaching document on family life, “Amoris Laetitia,” offers a path back to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, opening a door that was previously closed.

These may seem like minor developments, but they highlight a deeper point that the church is the guardian of a living tradition that does not allow the past to bind the present to make updating or development impossible.

On the plane back from Canada last month, Francis was asked whether development is needed on the church’s teaching against artificial contraception. Without addressing the issue itself, the pope emphasized that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development,” and cited St. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century monk and author who argued that doctrine progresses through consolidation and expansion. It is an idea that was built on by St. John Henry Newman in his work on the development of doctrine. The idea is that doctrine is an attempt to articulate the central, unchanging truth of the Christian faith. While this truth does not change, the formulations or articulations of that truth can develop.

It means the role of the theologian is a critical one. On the issue of artificial contraception, some moral theologians have argued for times when it is permissible, such as preventing the spread of HIV or deadly diseases. While speaking to journalists during the in-flight press conference, the pope highlighted a book from the Pontifical Academy of Life, “Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges,” which is a collection of papers from a seminar on Catholic moral teaching. Some of the theologians argued for a distinction between a moral norm and the pastoral application of that norm, with the argument put forwards that couples could be justified in using contraception in some circumstances.

“You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of it,” Francis said on the plane. But he added that is “up to the magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back.’”

Any development of teaching, Francis is saying, requires a dialogue between theologians and the magisterium. Theologians must have the freedom to interrogate ideas, while Rome is free to accept, modify or reject them. This dialogue appears to be taking place at the moment, given the talk in Rome about a possible new papal encyclical on issues concerning life ethics.

“It is legitimate to ask if Pope Francis will give us a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics that might be called ‘Gaudium Vitae’ [‘Joy of Life’],” wrote Father Jorge José Ferrer, a Jesuit moral theologian based in Puerto Rico, in a recent essay for the publication La Civiltá Cattolica. His remarks have added significance, given that the article was published in a Jesuit-run paper read by the pope and whose articles are approved by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State.

If Francis does write on these issues, he will likely seek to situate them within the broader framework of the church’s moral and social teaching, and call for such topics not to be used in a politicized way. It’s likely that he will build on the “consistent ethic of  life” position articulated by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

“A church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense is a church that is going backward,” Pope Francis said on the flight back from Canada. “This is today’s problem, and of many who call themselves traditional. No, no, they are not traditional, they are people looking to the past, going backward.” He described this group as “backwardists” (“indietristi”) and quoted the late Jaroslav Pelikan, a historian of Christianity, who once wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

The pope is arguing that a true understanding of tradition equips the church to witness to the Gospel in new contexts. True reform is a question of going deeper into the tradition in order to move forward.

On the flight back, Francis, who is 85 and used a wheelchair during much of his visit to Canada, talked again about the possibility of stepping down, should he be unable to carry out his duties. He’s clearly not someone who is clinging to his office. Yet, as the discussion over the development of church teaching shows, he still has plenty of work to do.



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