Catholic apologist, Trent Horn, recently wrote an article entitled “Can Doctrine Ever Change?” The thrust of the article seems to defend the thesis that some doctrines may change, and to explain in what sense this may happen. As to why this thesis needed to be defended in a climate of novelty remains uncertain. Perhaps, Mr. Horn wanted to defend this thesis being that many are concerned the Church’s doctrine on the death penalty has been changed under Pope Francis. Be that as it may, Mr. Horn has taken up the pen to defend this thesis, and I believe it is worthy of addressing for the sake of clarity.
Lack of Distinctions
Our author begins by noting the adage “doctrine does not change, only discipline.” He intimates this is an oversimplification of the stability of doctrine and chooses to doctrine, and how it may be changed, by calling attention to the distinctions between “definitive and non-definitive,” “infallible and non-infallible” and “reformable and irreformable” doctrines. He asserts non-definitive teachings may change, calls the famous Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott as a witness, among other sources, and proceeds to present examples wherein the church taught a doctrine that was eventually overturned. What are we to make of this? Overall, Mr. Horn’s thesis is true. Some doctrines are not infallibly or definitively taught and are subject to revision or even revocation. For this reason, readers should not be concerned whether his thesis, in and of itself, is true, but should ask whether he adequately explains which doctrines may be changed and how likely they are to change. One should also ask whether he provides sufficient examples of doctrinal changes. As noted, he does distinguish between “definitive and non-definitive” doctrines but, as I will demonstrate, does not adequately explain how to identify what is definitively or not definitively taught, nor does he provide clear instances of doctrinal change. Without the proper distinctions, explanations and examples, which I will address below, Mr. Horn’s article may be perceived by some as an attempt to excuse the current climate of doctrinal novelty, however unfounded this perception may be. Personally, I will assume good intentions on the part of Mr. Horn and will limit myself to addressing the necessary distinctions I believe he should have made, along with a response to each instance he provides as an example of doctrinal change.
Examining the Distinctions
In order to properly address Mr. Horn’s material, let’s examine some theological distinctions. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith provided many of the necessary distinctions that one must make in order to determine if a doctrine is taught definitively, or if it is taught in a reformable way and therefore open to the possibility of being overturned in the future. The document is entitled “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the ‘Professio Fidei’” and was released in 1998. It is a commentary on the “Profession of Faith” released the same year, which contained three different levels of teachings. We will review these three levels and then explain how this is relevant to Mr. Horn’s article.
The first level comes from the first concluding paragraph of the “Profession of Faith”, which states: “With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.” These are teachings which are said to be “formally revealed and, as such…irreformable.” Teachings in this category are from Scripture or Sacred Tradition and are solemnly defined by a Pope when teaching ex cathedra, are taught definitively by an ecumenical council, or are proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The key is to note teachings in this paragraph find their source in Scripture and Tradition and the church solemnly defines them as revealed by God. Teachings in this category are clearly infallible and are not able to be revoked or changed. Perhaps the church could later separate the doctrine itself from the “changeable conceptions of a given epoch” which might be wrapped up with the manner in which the teaching was communicated. However, the doctrine itself, if part of the first or second level, cannot change. Moreover, due to the divine origin of these teachings, one is required to assent to them with the “assent of theological faith.”
Before we move to the next level of teachings, note that one of the organs by which the church teaches definitively is the ordinary and universal magisterium. This is often something that is overlooked in discussions concerning the means by which the church teaches. Many are familiar with ex cathedra teachings and ecumenical councils. However, most are oblivious to the ordinary and universal magisterium. What is it? In contemporary discussions, we distinguish between the extraordinary magisterium, wherein the church teaches in extraordinary ways such as an ex cathedra statement or an ecumenical council, versus the ordinary magisterium, wherein the church uses ordinary modes of teaching, such as encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, sermons, etc. The ordinary and universal magisterium is not to be confused with this understanding of the term “ordinary magisterium.” It is important to note the term “ordinary and universal magisterium” is synonymous with the term “ordinary universal magisterium.” At times the conjunction “and” is omitted despite referring to the same concept. Further, it is important to note in older theological documents the concept of the ordinary and universal magisterium was referred to as the ordinary magisterium, which is not to be confused with the concept of the ordinary magisterium as we use the term today and as described above.
Now that we have explained what it is not, we can address what it is. The ordinary and universal magisterium is defined as instances wherein the bishops “proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” The ordinary and universal magisterium is also known through “universal custom or practice associated with dogma, the consensus or agreement of the Fathers and of the Theologians” and “the common or general understanding of the faithful.” The importance of the organ of the ordinary and universal magisterium will become apparent later, as the article progresses.
The second level of teachings come from the second concluding paragraph and states: “I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals.” These are also teachings that are irreformable and therefore infallible, yet they are not formally revealed by God. They are teachings that are “necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith” and are “necessarily connected with revelation by virtue of an historical relationship.” They are also teachings that are solemnly defined by a Pope when teaching ex cathedra or taught definitively by an ecumenical council or proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The key to note here is that they are not directly revealed by God through Scripture or Tradition but are so intimately bound with what has been formally revealed that they are necessary to believe. Due to their necessity, they are also teachings that may not be revoked. Consequently, teachings in this category are said “to be held definitively.”
There are also teachings that belong to a third category and are addressed in the third concluding paragraph of the “Profession of Faith.” The profession describes them by saying: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” These are teachings which are not necessarily infallible or irreformable but are taught authentically by the Pope or the College of Bishops and require one to assent with “religious submission of intellect and will.” This is why the commentary by the CDF says they could be, but not necessarily are, taught in a “non-definitive way.” As such, one must consider the way in which the teaching is proposed in order to determine the degree to which it should be given assent. The commentary says: “As examples of doctrines belonging to the third paragraph, one can point in general to teachings set forth by the authentic ordinary Magisterium in a non-definitive way, which require degrees of adherence differentiated according to the mind and the will manifested; this is shown especially by the nature of the documents, by the frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or by the tenor of the verbal expression.” It is here where we find some wiggle room for doctrinal change. Rather than merely discarding the “changeable conceptions of a given epoch” that the doctrine may have been tangled with, there is real room for doctrinal change with the actual teachings themselves, as long as they belong to this category. However, it should be noted that, in most cases, teachings in this category are true and most likely won’t change. In fact, unless a theologian has extreme reasons to believe otherwise, the denial of a teaching in this category is labeled “erroneous, or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous.”
It is also important to note the difference between dogmatic teachings and non-dogmatic teachings. A dogma is something that the church “proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.” In other words, these are taught as first or second level teachings, as described above. Non-dogmatic teachings belong to the third paragraph, though not everything belonging to the third paragraph is false or won’t end up becoming first or second level teachings. We should also note dogmas always retain the same meaning, so it is impossible for someone to say they maintain the dogma, while redefining it. The First Vatican Councils states: “Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.” Therefore, whatever “development of doctrine” may mean, it must not redefine the meaning of a dogma, and it must not overturn something taught according to the first or second paragraphs.
Lastly, it should be noted that non-definitive teachings may appear to clash with one another at times. If such a case were to arise, the theologian should consider the weight of each teaching. If one is taught with a higher weight of authority, he is to assent to the one with the higher weight and withhold assent from the one with the lower weight, assuming they cannot be harmonized. If the two teachings are taught in documents of the same theological weight, one is to consider which is taught more frequently and with greater force, is to give assent to that teaching, and is to withhold assent from the one taught with less frequency and force.
The Wrong Impression
Having laid out these proper distinctions, let’s return to Mr. Horn’s article. Mr. Horn gives the impression that anything taught in a non-infallible way could be overturned as he says, “we are to accept them [non-definitive teachings] as true, even though there is a possibility they could be amended later.” Very technically speaking, that is true, but it is extremely unlikely a doctrine would change, so it is very misleading. It should be noted that he does carefully state in the immediate context that just because something is not taught infallibly, it does not mean assent isn’t required, or that it isn’t true. But he fails to address that such doctrinal changes are extremely rare and fails to address how we may know when something is taught non-definitively, and thus know when something is eligible for change. In an environment of novelty and in which the people are knowledgeable about ex cathedra teachings and ecumenical councils but are often oblivious to teachings presented by the ordinary and universal magisterium, the people might get the impression that anything not taught infallibly by a pope or an ecumenical council is eligible for change. Moreover, given the vast array of instances in which the ordinary and universal magisterium has taught definitively, leaving out this organ gives the impression many doctrines have not been defined, when in fact, by means of the ordinary and universal magisterium, they have been. Accounting for this organ would significantly reduce the instances in which one could argue a teaching belongs to the third level, mentioned above, and might, in rare cases, be eligible for revision or revocation in the future. Therefore, I would say it is not so much the text of Mr. Horn’s article that was wrong, but the omitted text which would likely lead to incorrect impressions.
Questionable Examples of Change
Mr. Horn gives several instances in which he claims doctrine changed, though each are surrounded by difficulties that may invalidate his claim. For example, he alludes to St. Augustine’s view on baptism and leaves the reader with the impression that Augustine believed the children who die without baptism undergo the pains of hell. Mr. Horn nowhere states this explicitly, but he contrasts St. Augustine with later theologians who believed the children “lacked both the pains of hell and the beatific vision of heaven,” which would be a curious thing to say if he did not intend this to be a contrast. However, St. Augustine, in the very next paragraph of the treatise from which Mr. Horn quotes, denies that infants are culpable for actual sin, which would imply he did not believe they suffered the “pains of hell.” Unless Mr. Horn can show otherwise, his understanding of St. Augustine’s view seems questionable. Moreover, St. Augustine’s writings, considered alone, are not necessarily part of the magisterium. Mr. Horn does not appear to claim that they are thus, but this is the general impression some readers may gain from his article, being that proper distinctions were not made.
Mr. Horn then quotes the International Theological Commission on “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who die Without Being Baptized.” He suggests, based on this document, that limbo as a “border of hell” was not an actual doctrine but a theological opinion. He then suggests the doctrine that unbaptized infants are deprived of the beatific vision was never “definitive” and therefore was eligible for further revision. The concern here is that nowhere does he discuss the concept of limbo or the doctrine of the deprivation of the beatific vision for unbaptized infants in relation to the ordinary and universal magisterium. If these matters were not taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium as definitive, the burden of proof would be on him to demonstrate this. Otherwise, the consensus of theologians in the middle ages would seem to propose quite a difficulty for this position. In fact, he even notes the consensus as he states, “there was a general agreement that they were deprived of the beatific vision because they were not baptized,” but he doesn’t deal with the matter more than saying the ITC states this was just an opinion in the “Western Church” and not a “teaching of the Church itself.” Again, this does not account for the ordinary and universal magisterium as made manifest through the consensus of the theologians, among other means. Neither does he deal with the theological weight of the ITC’s document in relation to the consensus of the theologians. Lastly, he states “Some people may say that the absence of limbo in current Church teaching is not evidence of doctrinal change because limbo was never a doctrine – it was just a common theological opinion,” but he and the ITC does not deal with the ecumenical Council of Florence, which taught “the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin or in original sin alone go down at once (mox) into Hell, to be punished, however, with widely different penalties.” This is an implicit affirmation of the place of limbo, being a subset of Hell, and the possibility of those who die without baptismal grace as being deprived of the beatific vision (going to Hell). True, the council did not necessarily teach this definitively, but how the conclusions of the ITC compare with this explicit instance of a magisterial teaching is left unanswered. Thus, it is unclear how this is a good example of a doctrinal change. Some readers may ask what we are to make of Mr. Horn’s use of the Second Vatican Council as an example of the church overturning the doctrine of limbo. First, even though there is harmony between Florence and the Second Vatican Council on this matter, if there were a contradiction, we would have to compare the magisterial weight of the two teachings expressed by the two councils by examining the theological force they used and considering any other instances of magisterial teachings on limbo. However, it is possible to harmonize the two because Florence is essentially stating that limbo is a possibility for those who die without baptismal grace, and the Second Vatican Council is stating that it is possible that God can apply the grace of baptism to unbaptized infants in a way known to Him alone. Therefore, it would seem unclear how his reference to the Second Vatican Council is a good example of a doctrinal change.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is also used by Mr. Horn, as he states: “the current Catechism does not teach that unbaptized infants are deprived of heaven,” and he goes on to quote the Catechism. The problem here is that the Catechism does not rule out that infants are deprived of the beatific vision. Therefore, the referral to the Catechism as an example of one way in which the Church has changed a doctrine is questionable. Moreover, he does not address the fact that the Catechism itself has no magisterial weight. Each doctrine in the Catechism may have a different theological weight, which is determined by the weight of the external magisterial documents it uses to support the doctrine in question. For example, if the Catechism stated that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father but had no external documents to which it could appeal in order to confirm this teaching, then it would carry no magisterial weight. But if the Catechism makes the same claim and alludes to the First Council of Nicaea having dogmatically defined the doctrine, then one may be confident in the level of theological certainty of the doctrine and may judge the magisterial weight by the supporting source used to substantiate its claim.
Mr. Horn then appeals to the use of the tonsure and its claim that it was apostolic by the Catechism of the council of Trent, but nowhere does he discuss the theological weight of this catechism entry and how it has been revoked other than a reference to the Catholic Encyclopedia and an implication of it falling into disuse. The duration of which a thing must have a lack of reiteration in Church teaching in order to fall into disuse, or how the Catholic Encyclopedia – a non-magisterial document with merely an imprimatur – overturns the Catechism of the Council of Trent remains unanswered and, therefore, seems questionable as to whether there has actually been a change in doctrine in this matter.
The doctrine of usury is invoked next. Mr. Horn references the apparent change in the doctrine of usury but does a relatively good job at explaining how this may not necessarily be an instance in which the church changed its teaching, although he does conclude it is such an instance. He even notes how ubiquitously this doctrine was taught, saying, “As with the church fathers, every ecclesiastical council-whether local or ecumenical-that addressed usury prior to the turn of the sixteenth century was opposed to the practice.” However, he did not grapple with those who would maintain that this was taught with the universal consensus of the fathers and theologians and, therefore is an example of something definitively settled by the ordinary and universal church. If this were so, one would have to maintain the perennial doctrine on usury is something to be held definitively. He also does not demonstrate how the papal documents he cited would overturn the theological weight of an apparent universal consensus, nor adequately indicate how such an overturning of doctrine would not in turn undermine the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s magisterium. Lastly, he does not explain how the Holy Spirit Himself is not called into question when he asserts doctrines can change but “even when the Church is not teaching infallibly the Holy Spirit guides it.” In what sense does the Holy Spirit guide non-definitive teachings and how may he guide something that could be subject to change and yet still be trusted? Questions such as these go unanswered.
The Sin of Temerity
It should also be noted that one who quickly dismisses long established doctrine for an opposed doctrine of questionable magisterial weight commits the sin of temerity. This is the sin of excessive boldness and may be committed by someone who boldly dismisses the perennial magisterium for a novelty that may have made its way into a lower level, third paragraph, teaching. I’m not implying Mr. Horn intends to be temerarious, as he states, “That doesn’t mean a non-infallible doctrine has errors or that we can ignore it just because of the possibility of error.” My point is that Mr. Horn’s article fails to demonstrate that he has not rashly dismissed the ordinary and universal magisterium for more recent teachings of questionable theological weight. Having said this, I do not intend to imply others are free to outright dismiss contemporary teachings from the authentic magisterium, as they may be harmonized with the past or may be of greater theological weight than what was previously taught or may be of equal weight to previous teachings. In the last case, the individual would best be encouraged to remain silent on the matter until the magisterium has clarified the issue or in the case that some severely grave reason necessitates public attention.
In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that Mr. Horn did not provide the proper theological distinctions to avoid the impression that there are many non-definitive teachings that are currently up for grabs. He did not properly demonstrate in which cases and how a doctrine may change. Neither did he adequately provide examples of clear changes in doctrine. Consequently, though it may be true that doctrine can change in very rare and qualified instances, I do not believe Mr. Horn has adequately demonstrated this, nor that he has properly safeguarded against the current culture of doctrinal novelty. It is my sincere hope that Mr. Horn will engage in the “spirit of dialogue,” as Pope Francis entreated us, and will address some of the concerns raised in this paper.
Michael Lofton, M.A.