By Sergio Centofanti
Two thousand years of history teach us that the development of doctrine in the Church is a people that journeys together. Journeying through the ages, the Church sees and learns new things, always growing deeper in her understanding of the Faith. During this journey, there are sometimes people who stop along the way, others who run too quickly, and yet others who take a different path.
Benedict XVI: the Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen
In this regard, the words of Benedict XVI – in a Letter written in 2009 on the occasion of the remission of the excommunication of the four bishops illicitly consecrated by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X – are significant:
“The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 – this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life".
Drawing together new things and old
Two elements must be considered: not freezing the Magisterium in a given age; and at the same time remaining faithful to Tradition. As Jesus says in the Gospel: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). We cannot simply cling to old things, nor can we simply welcome new things, separating them from the old.
Not stopping at the letter, but allowing oneself to be guided by the Spirit
It is necessary to understand when a development of doctrine is faithful to tradition. The history of the Church teaches us that it is necessary to follow the Spirit, rather than the strict letter. In fact, if one is looking for non-contradiction between texts and documents, they’re likely to hit a roadblock. The point of reference is not a written text, but the people who walk together. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’. Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, ‘not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living’. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open (our) minds to understand the Scriptures” (CCC, 108).
The great leap forward at the Council of Jerusalem, the first Council
If this spiritual and ecclesial viewpoint is lacking, every development will be seen as a demolition of doctrine and the building up of a new church. We should feel great admiration for the early Christians who took part in the Council of Jerusalem in the first century. Although they were Jews, they nonetheless abolished the centuries-old tradition of circumcision. It must have been very traumatic for some of them to make this leap. Fidelity, however, is not an attachment to a particular rule or regulation, but a way of “walking together” as the people of God.
Do unbaptized babies go to heaven?
Perhaps the most striking example concerns the salvation of unbaptized babies. Here we are talking about what is most important for believers: eternal salvation. In the Roman (“Tridentine”) Catechism, promulgated by Pope St Pius V in accord with a Decree of the Council of Trent, we read that no other possibility of gaining salvation is left to infants, if Baptism is not imparted to them (from the chapter, “On the Sacrament of Baptism”). And many people will remember what was said in the Catechism of Saint Pius X: “Where do babies who die without Baptism go? Babies who die without Baptism go to Limbo, where there is neither supernatural reward nor penalty; because, having original sin, and only that, they do not merit heaven; but neither do they deserve hell or purgatory”.
Development of doctrine from St Pius X to St John Paul II
The Catechism of the Council of Trent was published in 1566; that of St Pius X, in 1912. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church, produced under the direction of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and approved in 1992 by Pope St John Paul II, says something different:
“As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God… Indeed, the great mercy of God ‘Who desires that all men should be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4), and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused Him to say: ‘Let the children come to Me, do not hinder them’ (Mk 10:4), allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism” (CCC, 1261).
So the solution was already in the Gospel, but we did not see it for many centuries.
The question of women in the history of the Church
The Church has made a great deal of progress on the question of women. The growing awareness of the rights and dignity of women was greeted by Pope John XXIII as a sign of the times. In the First Letter to Timothy, St Paul wrote, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men” (v. 11-12). It was only in 1970’s, during the pontificate of St Paul VI, that women began to teach future priests in the pontifical universities. Yet even here, we had forgotten that it was a woman, St Mary Magdalene, who first proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus to the Apostles.
The truth will set you free
A final example is the recognition of freedom of religion and of conscience, as well as freedom in politics and freedom of expression, by the Magisterium of the post-Conciliar Church. It is a real leap forward from the documents of 19th century popes such as Gregory XVI, who, in the encyclical Mirari vos, defined these principles as “most poisonous errors”. Looking at this text from a literal point of view, there seems to be a great contradiction, rather than a linear development. But if we read the Gospel more closely, we recall the words of Jesus: “If you continue in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
The sorrow of the Popes
The saints have always invited us to love the Popes, as a condition for walking together in the Church. Speaking to the priests of the Apostolic Union in 1912, Pope St Pius X, with “the outpouring of a sorrowful heart”, said, “It seems incredible, and even painful, that there should be priests to whom this recommendation must be made, but in our days we are unfortunately in this harsh, unhappy condition of having to say to priests: Love the Pope!”
Pope St John Paul II, in the Apostolic Letter Ecclesia Dei, noting “with great affliction” the illegitimate episcopal ordinations conferred by Archbishop Lefebvre, recalled that “a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops” is “especially contradictory”. He continued, “It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ Himself entrusted the ministry of unity in His Church”.
And Benedict XVI, in a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the Remission of the Excommunication of the Four Bishops Consecrated Archbishop Lefebvre” expressed the same sorrow: “I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility”.
Catholics should not only never be lacking in respect toward the Pope, but should love him as the Vicar of Christ.
Appeal to unity: Walking together toward Christ
Fidelity to Jesus does not, therefore, mean being fixated on some text written at a given time in these two thousand years of history; rather, it is fidelity to His people, the people of God walking together toward Christ, united with His Vicar and with the Successors of the Apostles. As Pope Francis said at the Angelus on Sunday, at the conclusion of the Synod:
“What was the Synod? It was, as the word says, a journey undertaken together, comforted by the courage and consolations that come from the Lord. We walked, looking each other in the eye and listening to each other, sincerely, without concealing difficulties, experiencing the beauty of moving forward together in order serve”.