Can Dissenters Alter the Course of Doctrinal Development?

With the New Year and the Year of Mercy begun, last year’s Synod of the Family seems like old news. In a way, it’s business as usual for the Church. No new teaching was proclaimed (as if a Synod even had the authority to do that!), no radical changes to Church discipline were announced concerning communion for the divorced and remarried (as if a Synod could change that discipline without changing doctrine!) And yet, as Ross Douthat has recently (and brilliantly!) pointed out, none of that matters to a certain contingent of the Church, for whom Catholicism is at a perpetual state of “Year Zero,” in which all of the Church’s teaching up for grabs at any moment.

When I first read Douthat’s article, I enthusiastically shared it. But as I’ve thought about it more, I’ve realized something startling: the very fact that Douthat could describe his opponents’ views in these terms tell us that something is wrong—deeply wrong—on both sides of the debate into which Douthat has been drawn. If Catholicism really would have looked like that in Year Zero, it would have been a bit like the game of baseball: There’s no telling which way the game will go when the first batter steps up to the plate. As the game progresses, you get a general sense of how things might unfold based on how the game has gone thus far. But there’s always room for surprises: a home run here, a stolen base there, and in rare cases: a grand slam or a triple play that changes the course of the game entirely.

That’s not how the man who taught the Church about the development of doctrine, Bl. John Henry Newman, thought about Year Zero. Newman agreed with our contemporaries in one sense: we are always at Year Zero, because Year Zero is what happens when humanity has a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus. That personal encounter happens every day in the hearts of the faithful, most especially in the reception of the Eucharist, and inspires an infinite well-spring of thought as our encounter in faith seeks understanding in reason. But just because people of disparate times and disparate cultures have a personal encounter with Jesus does not mean that the encounter of one generation (say, one in which no one disputed Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage) could be opposed to the encounter of another generation. To the contrary, it means that each generation stands before the same Lord, receives from him the same Faith, and is initiated into the same way of life. Or as St. Paul puts it, there is “…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Ephesians 4:5).

Seen in this light, Year Zero doesn’t put any particular dogma of the Catholic Faith up for grabs to any one generation; it puts the Lord Jesus up for grabs as a whole to every generation—take him or leave him. You can encounter the Lord, you can embrace the Faith, and you can live the life … or not. A “Year Zero” encounter with Jesus in AD 2016 is not any less demanding than it was when he still walked this earth. In whatever year, Jesus still asks for nothing less than our whole selves, our whole minds, and our whole lives.

This was a point that Newman made passionately to his former Anglican colleague, Edward Pusey. After Newman’s conversion to the Catholic Faith, Pusey complained in his Eirenicon that, while he could accept the letter of the Council of Trent—which is to say, its dogmatic definitions—he could not accept all those beliefs, practices, and devotions which seemed to him to go beyond it (p. 43). “Nothing could be more unpractical than for an individual to throw himself into the Roman Church, because he could accept the letter of the Council of Trent.”

Newman countered that Pusey had misunderstood the nature of dogma. The most important purpose of dogma is not to serve some set of minimal criteria for being Catholic (although dogma can do that when it needs to). Instead, it is to describe the structure of a relationship with the Lord Jesus. Since there is only one Lord Jesus, and since he doesn’t change, that relationship has a kind of unchanging structure. Dogma is the Church’s description of that unchanging structure.

For Newman, therefore, dogma has a profound stability. It is grounded in an encounter with the Lord Jesus, who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). It unfolds through history in a manner that is logically consistent, because the God whom we encounter according to the pattern it proposes is Reason itself. And so, while we can’t say that the Apostles thought of every dogmatic formulation that the Church would ultimately come to define, we can say, as Newman did in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that they “would without words know all the truths concerning the high doctrines of theology, which controversialists after them have piously and charitably reduced to formulæ, and developed through argument.”

So what would Catholicism look like in Year Zero? For Newman, it wouldn’t look like a baseball game whose outcome couldn’t be predicted. Much to the contrary, it would look pretty much the same as it does now, at least in its basic structure: one community of people, formed by an encounter with the one Lord Jesus, living the form life which is structured according to the pattern of his teaching.

Consequently, you can’t take or leave dogma so much as you can take or leave Jesus. And if you really take Jesus up on his offer of a relationship, then whether you realize it or not, you’ll be leading a life according to the Church’s dogma. That gives us good reason to hope for the future of the Church in an age marked by so many challenges to her perennial teaching about divorce and remarriage. Jesus promised that the Church would never leave him, because he would never leave her (Matthew 28:20). And the one Lord that the Church encounters afresh in 2016 is the same Lord who said to her at Year Zero:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)

(Photo credit: Bl. John Henry Newman, ca. 1865 / courtesy Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory) 

Jacob W. Wood

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Jacob W. Wood is an Assistant Professor of Theology and a Faculty Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned his Master's in theology from St. Andrews University and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.

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