Archives: Four Ideas About Development (of Doctrine), by Michael Pakaluk

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By Michael Pakaluk, First Things, 11 . 17 . 17

I wish to draw attention to four obvious ideas about what is called “development of doctrine,” which, despite their obviousness, are very often overlooked.

The first is that development of doctrine is not itself a doctrine, but a theory, and that there are several such theories. The theory falls within the vast realm of free judgment. A person may be a good Catholic while rejecting the development of doctrine—indeed, many good Catholics did just that when John Henry Newman published his famous essay on the topic in 1845. At my own university, Joseph Clifford Fenton, who was dean of the School of Theology, editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review, and later prelate and protonotary apostolic, denied development until his death in 1969. A person may also hold that what people mean by “development” is mere conceptual consequence, and that Newman overstates the case.

I should think that Newman, who believed that all philosophy going forward had to be carried out in the first person, and who wrote on development in order to solve a problem for himself, would be horrified to see his thesis used as if it were a canon of the faith.

Here is the second obvious point: Theories of development are meant to establish identity of doctrine, not difference. The thesis of Newman’s book is that the early Church believed the same thing as Catholics in his day, and that thesis, to his mind, justified his conversion. ….