The “great tradition of discernment” and evolution of Church Catechism: “A tradition, if it is not to die, must express its convictions in the language of the time: a language that will, therefore, be new”

October 16, 2017
By Céline Hoyeau, La Croix, 13 Oct 2017

 Pope Francis recently stated that the death penalty is “inadmissible” and should be categorically banned. Speaking at a Vatican conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he clearly emphasized that “Tradition is a living reality”.

Only a partial vision can think of ‘the deposit of faith’ as something static,” he explained. “One cannot conserve the doctrine without making it progress, nor can one bind it to a rigid and immutable reading without humiliating the Holy Spirit.”

Indeed, “since the very beginning of Christianity, the faith has been expressed anew according to new cultures, and new questions, sensitivities, and realities”, states Michel Castro, Professor of Fundamental Theology in the Theology Faculty of Lille University. 

“A tradition, if it is not to die, must express its convictions in the language of the time: a language that will, therefore, be new.”

“Evangelical values enter the consciousness of human beings over time,” adds the Jesuit theologian Bernard Sesboüé, “and the Church has sometimes had to follow a long road in order to increasingly clarify the element of ‘infallible truth’”.

One moral theologian puts it this way: “Today, we consider that there are solutions other than the death penalty. The human conscience is appalled by the idea of having to kill a person for the good of others. We give much greater consideration to each person as an individual. It seems illogical to defend life from the moment of conception and, at the same time, to support the death penalty.”

Another theologian, explaining Pope Francis’ position, emphasizes that “doctrine has always developed in the same way as a plant does. Sometimes, it extends too far into ramifications and sub-concepts, and it has to be trimmed back. This is what the Pope did on Wednesday evening.”

Benedict XVI proceeded in the same way, in 2007, when he cut away the notion of limbo, a sort of theological overgrowth that was no longer valid. Some theological elements have helped to reveal the doctrine more clearly but do not necessarily belong to the doctrine itself.

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church prefers to speak of the “homogenous development of the doctrine” rather than of “evolution”. This was pointed out by Father Jacques Ollier, a teacher in the Theology Faculty of the Collège des Bernardins and the parish priest of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. His view is based on the theology of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801 – 1890) because of whom the lived experience of believers was recognized as a key part of theological reflection.

Father Jacques Ollier explains that “The term ‘evolution’ is not really appropriate as it could lead one to think of moving from one truth to another, without there being any integral relationship between them.”  He continues: “However, if we speak of ‘development’, as in the ‘development of a person, we do so because we believe above all in a personal God, not in a message. The Revelation itself remains the same, even though it may find a different expression in some of its parts.”

However, is the development of the doctrine always homogenous and linear? Is there always continuity? Or is there, instead, rupture at times, as in the case of slavery, which was once acceptable but then considered as contrary to human dignity and rights?  Such subtleties are cause for debate among theologians.

“Theological tradition speaks of homogenous development; more critical minds speak of the Church changing its mind without wanting to admit it,” points out one theologian.

“The Church does not want anyone to think that what was said before was false. Rather, this was partial or did not take into account some elements that have since been revealed thanks to the faith of Christian people. It was not false, as such, as it was true in the context of the time. But, since then, other elements have been revealed that invite a different perspective on certain points.”

The Church has adopted canonical criteria of discernment that mark out the perimeter of this “development”. The Magisterium, the first, is the guarantor. And some subjects lend themselves to new interpretations and developments more than others: the Church’s position on the death penalty is more susceptible to evolution than its position on the Trinity.

This is the case at the base of most moral questions, which come up against changing contingent realities.

“Some Catholics are concerned when they read Amoris Laetitia,” the same theologian continues, “because they think the doctrine has changed. It hasn’t changed. Rather, the Church is taking into consideration elements that were not taken into account as much previously. This is particularly true with regard to the individual value of each human being. The discourse will change, but the fundamental vision remains the same. This is the great tradition of discernment.”

By Massimo Faggioli, in La Croix: This dynamic understanding of the tradition is what terrifies the pope’s opponents. One can only wonder if they know how closely the papal texts are in line with the theology of the now-retired pope.  16 Oct 2017

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger / Manfredo Ferrari / Wikipedia / CCA BY SA 4.0

The theological legacy of Joseph Ratzinger will be a consequential one, but probably not the way his neo-traditionalist fans might think.

An important case study that suggests this is connected to the recent speech  Pope Francis gave on the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The address is significant in the way it confirms several key theological components of this pontificate and the present moment of Catholicism.

First of all, Francis begins by quoting St. John XXIII’s speech at the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, commonly known by its first words, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.

“‘It is necessary’, the pope [John XXIII] stated in his opening address fifty-five years ago, ‘that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers,” said Pope Francis.

But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate’.” 

In all of his major documents and speeches, Francis takes inspiration from the Gaudet Mater Ecclesia address.

And in his speech last week he confirmed that he is a theologian of and in the Catholic tradition when it comes to the development of its teaching on certain important issues, such as the death penalty.

“This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent popes but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity,” Francis said.

He then continued with a passage that is not only important concerning the death penalty, but also for understanding the relationship between the Gospel and the teaching of the Church.

It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor,” he said.

This passage is a prelude to the key part of Pope Francis’ speech, which is found in the second section where he explains the dynamism of Catholic doctrine. Four times he quotes from the famous 8th paragraph of the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, which reframed the relationship between scripture, tradition and the magisterium.

Many Catholic and non-Catholic scholars have illustrated the crucial importance of this document – from the 20th century’s most significant Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a famous book published shortly after the council to the contemporary German-French Jesuit, Christoph Theobald. 

Compared to other Vatican II documents (especially the constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium), Dei Verbum does not appear very often in Francis’ talks or writings. However, it holds a prime place in the many theological works of Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI. 

Exactly fifty years ago, the young Fr Ratzinger published a commentary on the Dei Verbum, which – in the opinion of many, mine included – is still the best historical-theological essay for understanding this capital document in the history of the Catholic tradition. 

Pope Francis, in his address marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism, quotes abundantly from Dei Verbum 8, which offers a positive and cumulative description of the tradition:

The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (DV 8 [par. 1]) […] ‘This Tradition develops […] grows […] and constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth, until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her’ (DV 8 [par. 2])” […] ‘God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers’ (Heb 1:1), ‘uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son’ (DV 8 [par. 3]).”

My educated guess is that Francis wanted to make his audience aware that his pontificate knows the key role Joseph Ratzinger played in drafting Dei Verbum and that Ratzinger’s commentary from 1967 is still fundamental to understanding this document. There is no question that Francis makes a very “Ratzingerian” argument for the development of the tradition.

In his commentary, Ratzinger pointed out the shortcomings of Dei Verbum in making an argument about the Church’s need to be able to correct, when necessary, possible distortions in the Catholic tradition. Specifically regarding DV 8, the future Benedict XVI wrote that the Church must be able to criticize the tradition when it does not correspond to the Gospel.

Tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically; we have Scripture as a criterion for this indispensable criticism of the tradition, and tradition must therefore always be related back to it and measured by it,” he wrote.

This is basically what Pope Francis did in his speech last week when he pointed out the Catechism’s inadequate treatment of the death penalty.

In this particular case, and also on other issues he’s commented on during his pontificate, Francis has applied Ratzinger’s critical reading of Dei Verbum – namely, the Church must measure the tradition by the Gospel and the tradition cannot be the measure of the Gospel. 

This dynamic understanding of the tradition is what terrifies the pope’s opponents. One can only wonder if they know how closely the papal texts are in line with the theology of the now-retired pope.

Francis’ speech for the 25th anniversary of the Catechism is important because it shows that his opponents have retreated into an intellectual dead-end. Their problem is not merely with the Argentine pope’s theology or with Vatican II. No, fundamentally their real problem is their understanding of the tradition – the relationship between Scripture, theological tradition, doctrine, laws and the praxis of the Church – that is fully Catholic and that is also Joseph Ratzinger’s.

One cannot reject Pope Francis’ speech for the anniversary of the Catechism without also rejecting Ratzinger’s interpretation of the theology of tradition in Dei Verbum and at Vatican II. (Paradoxically, what made possible that English-speaking neo-traditionalist interpretations of Ratzinger is a particular “development” within the theological thinking of Joseph Ratzinger, especially between the decade after Vatican II and his pontificate, which shifted around the issue of the liturgy).

Francis’ speech and the way some conservative Catholic intellectuals have reacted to it cast a light on the intellectual situation of opponents of this pontificate and on three phenomena of this Catholic moment.

First, neo-traditionalism is a Catholic rendition of a theological mindset close to biblical fundamentalism. It is not my intention to make a blanket statement about all neo-traditionalists who have relatively recently come into full communion with Rome because they represent a very important and rich phenomenon within Catholicism.

Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that some of their more public spokespersons lack the ability to articulate a Catholic vision of the relationship between Scripture, tradition, magisterium, and theology. This is visible in their rejection of the dynamic understanding of the tradition, which makes it impossible for them explain how the interplay between new biblical studies, theological tradition, and papal magisterium have already produced developments in Catholic teaching.

Two clear examples are how the doctrine has developed on religious liberty and slavery. So Pope Francis is not only Catholic but also he is also more Ratzingerian than his neo-traditionalist critics.

Second, while Francis has made a powerful argument against both theological neo-traditionalism and anti-traditionalism, he has also made also issued a clear statement on the role of the papacy as a ministry at the service of the Church’s tradition subject to the Gospel. 

In doing so he has sent a forceful message to both conservative and liberal Catholics who fear he has inaugurated a new kind of papalism or Ultramontanism, in which the Roman Pontiff offers the first and last word on all Church matters. Instead, Francis’ pontificate is defending a Catholic understanding of Scripture, tradition and Church teaching.

Third, Catholic neo-traditionalists have chosen a particular moment in the history of the Church as the valid, static paradigm of “Catholic tradition”. It falls somewhere before Vatican II, and perhaps even the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and the anti-modernist Pius X.

But they have also chosen a particular moment in the intellectual history of their hero, Benedict XVI, and have adopted an abridged and ignorant version of that history. Their rejection of Dei Verbum’s theology of the tradition is a recipe for disaster in today’s Church.

It is one thing to read Joseph Ratzinger in light of the Catholic tradition, as Pope Francis is doing. It is quite another to read the Catholic tradition in light of the latest utterances of Joseph Ratzinger, which what some of the “Ratzingerians” seem to be doing.