Most Rev. Joseph Strickland: We Need An Authentic Understanding Of The Development Of Doctrine

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Most Rev. Joseph Strickland, The Wanderer, November 18, 2019

In the beginning of the Letter of Jude in the New Testament the Apostle uses a phrase which is of great importance as we consider what it means to guard the deposit of faith. The letter was written to deal with a similar smoke of confusion in the early Church as we are experiencing in the Church today. The fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith were being challenged. Jude writes: “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

This “once for all” still stands — and it must be defended against some who seek to change the unchangeable. We must “contend for that faith.” Even some in ordained leadership are telling the faithful, amidst all the smoke of our current theological confusion, that certain errant teachings and practices are a “development of doctrine.” But this concept of development is being improperly used as a cover for attempts to change what is unchangeable.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his instructions to the Catechumens on the Creed, exhorted them, “In learning and professing the faith, you must accept and retain only the Church’s present tradition, confirmed as it is by the Scriptures. Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, some because they have never learned to read, others because their daily activities keep them from such study, still so that their souls will not be lost through ignorance, we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles.

“Now I order you to retain this creed for your nourishment throughout life and never to accept any alternative, not even if I myself were to change and say something contrary to what I am now teaching, not even if some angel of contradiction, changed into an angel of light, tried to lead you astray. For even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which you have now received, let him be accursed in your sight.”

In the last sentence of the above quote, this holy Bishop of Jerusalem was quoting from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:8, 9). He explained the importance of his command to those preparing for the Easter Sacraments in these words:

“This summary of the faith was not composed at man’s whim, the most important sections were chosen from the whole Scripture to constitute and complete a comprehensive statement of the faith. Just as the mustard seed contains in a small grain many branches, so this brief statement of the faith keeps in its heart, as it were, all the religious truth to be found in Old and New Testament alike. That is why, my brothers, you must consider and preserve the traditions you are now receiving. Inscribe them across your heart.”

“Observe them scrupulously, so that no enemy may rob any of you in an idle and heedless moment; let no heretic deprive you of what has been given to you. Faith is rather like depositing in a bank the money entrusted to you, and God will surely demand an account of what you have deposited.”

His use of the biblical image of the mustard seed is helpful in our consideration. The seed contains within it the entire genetic code of the plant. So, as the Church grew, the deposit handed down from Jesus Christ Himself to the Apostles and their successors has developed — but it has not changed. Let me use my own life as another example to drive home this vital point. I recently celebrated my sixty-first birthday. I am still the man who celebrated his thirtieth birthday, but I have developed.

To summarize, we have been given a Deposit of Faith from the Lord Himself, handed down to the Apostles — of which the Bishops of the Church, including me, are successors — to guard and to teach. It is a Deposit which we cannot and must not seek to change. The Deposit of Faith is the Truth, given to us from the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). It must be handed on without alteration.

Jesus made it clear in His Charge to the first Apostles to teach the Nations “everything I have commanded you.” He promised “know that I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matt. 28:18-20). And, He is still with us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in His Church. He is the Head of His Church. We are members of His Mystical Body. We must teach what the Head has given us to teach.

The concept of the “development of doctrine” is not itself a doctrine. It is a theory by which we explain how our understanding of doctrine deepens and grows. In the wake of the welcomed canonization of St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, there appears to be an effort among some to misuse his teaching on the development of doctrine as a vehicle to push forward what would be a rejection of that theory — and a betrayal of this Saint’s teaching.

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman drew his inspiration for his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine from the fifth-century monk and theologian, St. Vincent of Lerins. That Saint’s writings on the development of doctrine are found in what is called the Commonitorium. In a recent article for First Things entitled “Four Ideas About Development,” Michael Pakaluk, a Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of America, explained:

“If you actually read the treatise Commonitorium by St. Vincent of Lerins — often cited as the origin of the theory of development — you’ll see that his main preoccupation is to show that the faith never changes. Pope John Paul II’s motto for the turn of the millennium was ‘Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow’.”

Of course. Pope St. John Paul II was quoting the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:8) The misuse of the theory of the development of doctrine to attempt to change what is unchangeable is more of the bad fruit arising from a doctrinal relativism within the Catholic Church which, at times, seems to deny the very existence of objective truth.

On April 18, 2005, on the eve of the convocation wherein he would be chosen to serve as the Successor of Peter and take the name Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave a homily wherein he warned of the spreading dangers of this kind of relativism in the teaching of the Church which he loved and served, indeed still serves, with such fidelity. Here are his words, which eerily seem even more important in this current hour:

“. . . How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. . . . The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves — thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth.

“Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf. Eph. 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism — which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’ — looks like the only attitude which is acceptable in today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to become Pope Benedict XVI, continued in this homily, by calling the Church to an “adult faith”:
“However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an ‘Adult’ means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth.”

“We must become mature in this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith — only faith — which creates unity and takes form in love. On this theme, Saint Paul offers us some beautiful words — in contrast to the continual ups and downs of those who were are like infants, tossed about by the waves: (he says) make truth in love, as the basic formula of Christian existence. In Christ, truth and love coincide. To the extent that we draw near to Christ, in our own life, truth and love merge. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like ‘a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal’ (1 Cor. 13,1).”

Bishops, indeed all clergy, religious, consecrated and lay faithful of the Church, should prayerfully reflect on this beautiful deposit continually. We should strive to know it, understand it, love it and live it. It is the true measuring stick of that mature faith to which now Pope Emeritus Benedict called all of us to in the homily quoted above.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can, and we should, seek ever fresh ways of presenting and applying the deposit of faith. That is the PROPER understanding of the development of doctrine. But we have NO RIGHT to change the doctrine and no authority to alter it.
We must follow the solemn promise, the one we made at the time of our Episcopal ordination, to “maintain the deposit of faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church everywhere and at all times.” This is a sacred duty. If we fail in our duty, not only will we cause the faithful to suffer, but we will offend God — and face serious consequences for failing to live out the charge we were given at our episcopal ordination.

To conclude. Although the Church’s understanding of this body of teaching, this sacred deposit, can and does PROPERLY develop in how it is expressed, and deepen in how it is understood, it can never be changed in substance.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “The apostles entrusted the sacred deposit of the faith [the depositum fidei; see 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:12-14] contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ‘By adhering to (this heritage) the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread [the Eucharist] and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful’” (CCC, n. 84).

We need an authentic understanding of the development of doctrine.