“Whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine you shall find to have been furtively introduced” is “permitted as a trial”.

When confusing things happen that leave people upset, legitimately, I have often written that that we should stay calm.   This is for several reasons.

  1. Each horrid thing that clerics do or strange thing they say is further proof that this is God’s Church.  Only He keeps it going.  If it depended on us, we’d be finished in no time.  God is trustworthy and the Church is indefectible.  Good to know!
  2. Every Pope’s pontificate, or bishop’s or priest’s mandate are the merest blips in the long history of salvation which is directed, not by us, but, again, by God.  We are offered every grace we need to get though any blip, whatsoever.
  3. Some Councils and Popes were not nearly as important as others.  In the long term, we will see how things shake out.  Perspective!
  4. When something weird or confusing comes our way, we have an opportunity to crack open our trustworthy books and study.  Thus, we wind up being better educated and better prepared to give reasons for the faith that is in us.  That’s a good thing.

Hence, calm down.

That said, on that last note, putting on my old patristiblogger cap, I’ve been reviewing the great adage of Vincent of Lérins (+c.445) about authenticity of doctrine: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est … what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all’ (Commonitorium 2.3).  This doesn’t preclude development of doctrine.   However, authentic development of doctrine has been assessed by another adage, which has been absorbed by the Church’s Magisterium as its own, namely, a change in the expression of doctrine or its development must be eodem sensu eademque sententiawith the same sense and with the same meaning.  Vatican I claims this principle, also from Vincent’s Commonitorium, 23, 3, in Dei Filius.  It is pretty much unavoidable.   If something changes in such a way that is it not like what it was before, it is not authentic doctrine.  Further, it has become something that, in the Church at least, is not believed everywhere, always and by all the faithful.  “The faithful” is a key, by the way.  To have the sense of the faithful, you have to be faithful.

This adage, eodem sensu eademque sententia, has become a central, structural support in the Church’s Magisterium. That’s why, for example, Pius IX rested on it when infallibly teaching in Ineffabilis Deus in 1854 the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  St Pius X uses the concept in his anti-modernist Pascendi dominici gregis. This phrase was in the oath that all clergy had to take until 1967. John XXIII used the phrase in his opening speech Gaudet Mater Ecclesia at the opening of Vatican II. John Paul II in his great encyclical Veritatis splendor 53 cites it. Benedict XVI cited it, when quoting John XXIII, in his monumentally important address to the Roman Curia in 2005.

Moreover, this passage from Vincent of Lerin is not unknown to clergy today because it must be read each year in the modern Liturgy of the Hours on Friday of the 27th Week of Ordinary Time.  No excuse is possible.

Bl John Henry Newman wrote a treatise on the development of doctrine which explains the conditions and the parameters of authentic development. Newman identified seven “notes” or characteristics of authentic development, as opposed to doctrinal corruptions. The first, and the most important, is unity of type or the external expression of an idea. Does the main idea change or remain unchanged if the manner of expression changes? If the content remains, then the expression is a genuine development of doctrine rather than a corruption. For example, a bird doesn’t have much resemblance to an egg, but the bird is the proper development of the egg, not its corruption. An acorn rightly and legitimate changes into a oak tree, not a palm tree.

As you can guess, legitimate development of doctrine does not include direct contradiction of what has always been taught by the Church.  It develops.  It doesn’t evolve into something it wasn’t.

Tracking back to Vincent of Lérins I found a sobering and consoling passage.

Allow me a slight editing choice from “he” to “you”… which doesn’t change the sense at all!

“….he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who set light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; [Here start reading aloud…] but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine you shall find to have been furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all or contrary to that of all the saints, this, you will understand, does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, ‘There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you:’ as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not forthwith rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it may be apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.” Commonitorium 20.48

Opportunity, dear readers.  Opportunity!

If you hear something strange, then that strange thing becomes the cause of the clearer revelation of the truth.  God even tolerates heresies for the sake of pointing more clearly to the good teachers and teachings.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. bibi1003 says:

    “When something weird or confusing comes our ways, we have an opportunity to crack open our trustworthy books and study. Thus, we wind up being better educated and better prepared to give reasons for the faith that is in us.”

    Thank you for your good advice, Father. God bless and keep you.

  2. ex seaxe says:

    On the one hand, I find the manner of this change to the catechism unsettling. And very puzzling because it appears entirely unnecessary, at least in well governed countries the catechism’s existing position already disallowed the death penalty.
    On the other hand the Church’s position on slavery seems to have undergone similarly abrupt, and indeed erratic, changes. Though I do not know to what extent the changes were accompanied by ‘proofs’ that the change was just clarification and not alteration (or indeed reversal). Paul III seems to have issued several contradictory documents.
    So, I will take your advice Father, thank you.

  3. Kathleen10 says:

    Thank you Fr. Z. These are good words and we’ll hang on to them.

    ex seaxe, the Catechism did not disallow the death penalty. The death penalty has always been permitted by the Church, for various reasons. We in the states have the death penalty, and we are a well governed nation. The Old Testament and the New Testament, all popes to the current one, doctors of the church, encyclicals, theologians, etc., state that the death penalty is permitted, for either the safeguard of the public or prison guards, and can even serve to bring someone to repentance, as well as serve as a deterrent to crime. That’s all I’m going to say about it, because I resent the fact we are debating it. It was unnecessary and a distraction. The death penalty is settled and will remain settled for many Catholics.
    It is a confused person that debates whether or not the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes should be executed, but hardly says a word about the dismembering of the innocents, or tolerates it without much consideration. This perfectly illustrates complete moral chaos, which is where we find ourselves today.

  4. abualjawziya says:

    Is it possible this was done with an eye to affecting US politics?

    If the reason we don’t vote for most (let’s be real it’s basically all) democratic candidates is because they support intrinsically evil things, this could be intended to give the dems cover. Catholic voter guides would be updated to place it on par with abortion.

    It’s not good logic since even if the death penalty was intrinsically evil we’re talking about dozens vs hundreds of thousands, but that might be the motivation

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  6. Joe in Canada says:

    Kathleen10 – the previous teaching on the death penalty was clear, yet many American Catholics, including p0liticians, were in favour of keeping it. Perhaps it was their intransigence, ignoring the clear intent of the Catechism, which prompted the Holy Father to do what he did.
    At least now, if prominent pro-death penalty Catholic politicians are called out by the left, by name, we can expect the same language used in respect to prominent Catholic politicians who are pro-abortion.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear abualjawziya,

    Is it possible this was done with an eye to affecting US politics?

    Maybe. It wouldn’t be the worst motive, either; after all, the US are the world’s most important country, in terms of probably economy, certainly power, and most certainly and most importantly culture-setting; and after all, in the US scenario, the Catholics (as well as, for that matter, the political Conservatives) are in dire need to distance themselves as much as possible from the present US president, to avoid, in so far as they’ll let us, to cling together and swing together with the whole of his politics, character, and rabble-rousing. In fact, on that, we’re in for a bitter awakening on that in any case; just how bitter will it be? We (insofar as I am allowed to say “we”, otherwise: you) may, I grant, come out of it with a couple of good Supreme Court Justices, which we (dito) wouldn’t have got in a different presidency. Just in the same manner as Pyrrhos did come out of his battle with the Romans with a victory; they will be dearly bought.

    That being said, there is an old rule, “you must not do evil, even if good did come of it”. For that reason, you must not teach wrong doctrine, even if a disassociation from a political camp that has elected an inacceptable US president did come of it.

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