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Developments in doctrine

Max Charlesworth contends that profound socio-cultural changes, such as the emergence of the democratic state, can play an important part in bringing about changes to the Church's doctrinal position…

The 'Declaration on Human Freedom' of Vatican II presented a view that was diametrically contrary to the dominant view of the Church during the previous 1500 years. It involved a radical change from the principle that 'error has no rights' and that therefore non-Christian religions have no intrinsic right to propagate their beliefs, to the recognition that 'in matters of religion no one can be forced to act in a manner contrary to his beliefs'. This change was justified as being a 'development' in the Church's teaching. 

The notion of the development of Christian doctrine was  much discussed in the 19th century by Newman, in his 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine' (1845) and by theologians such as Moehler, Duchesne and Blondel. Later, the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, the author of the 'Declaration on Human Freedom', had this to say: 'That development has taken place cannot properly be denied. The question is, what is legitimate development, what is organic growth in the understanding of the original deposit of faith, what is warranted extension of the primitive doctrine of the Church and what, on the other hand, is accretion, additive increment, adulteration of the deposit, distortion of true Christian discipline.' (The Question of God Yesterday and Today, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1964, p.58).

The development involved in the 'Declaration on Human Freedom' consisted in making explicit what was implicit  in the fundamental doctrine that the act of religious faith cannot be coerced but must be freely made. But it also involved recognising that there was a contradiction between that view and the Church's doctrinal stand that other non-Christian views should not be tolerated (at least in principle) and its embrace of the confessional Christian state (where Christianity was seen as the 'official' religion) as an ideal. What was crucial here was the rise of democratic societies where there was a separation of Church and State and where a constitutional right of freedom of belief was granted to all citizens. By the time of Vatican II confessional societies had gone out of business and it was recognised that, if the Church were to speak meaningfully to the modern world, it had to recognise that fact. It was the experience of the U.S. and other democratic states that convinced Courtney Murray and the American Bishops at Vatican II of the need for the 'Declaration on Human Freedom'.

The importance of the Declaration was that it opened the way for new aspects of the 'deposit of faith' to be recognised even when there was a considerable body of traditional thought and papal  teaching against them. Again, it emphasised the fact that profound socio-cultural changes, such as the emergence of the democratic state, could play an important part in bringing about changes to the Church's doctrinal position. 

In this perspective, the vexed question of the equality of women in the Church and the ordination of women could be seen as a legitimate development, even though the official view so far has been that there is no scriptural or traditional warrant for admitting women to ordination. It is obvious that the present teaching of the Church on this matter was conditioned by past socio-cultural factors when women were considered to be biologically and intellectually  inferior to men. Now that in most advanced countries the absolute equality of women is recognised, and when women play a significant part in social and political life, it is nonsensical to pretend that women cannot, because of their gender, 'represent' Christ. In a world where Mary Robinson and Mary McAllese have been presidents of Ireland, how can it be said that women cannot be leaders in the Catholic Church? [In parenthesis: ecumenism with other Christian Churches  involves being willing to learn from them. We could learn, for example, from their experiences of a married clergy, women priests and bishops, reproductive ethics (such as contraception and IVF). We can hardly say that our Anglican and Reformed friends are behaving in an un-Christian or sinful way by having a non-celibate clergy, by ordaining women or by approving of contraception and in vitro fertilisation.]

Finally, development is urgently needed in the elaboration of a coherent theology of marriage in the light of new modes of married life. Some theologians still see the obviously mythical account in 'Genesis' of the creation of man and woman by Jahweh (portrayed  as a male figure), and of the emphasis on procreation, as normative. But the 'Genesis' account cannot be taken literally: it has to be interpreted. In any case, it was heavily influenced by the patriarchalist and procreationist (populate or perish) views of the early Jewish people and it was not until much  later that the role of mutual love between husband and wife came to be emphasised.  Again, scientific findings about human procreation in the 19th and 20th centuries have shown that not all acts of sexual intercourse can result in procreative outcomes (because of the naturally occurring infertile period and age-related male and female sterility), and that the procreative phase in a couple's life  is relatively short. In contemporary conditions in advanced societies a married couple is likely to be together until  70-80 which means that they will spend  much more time in a non-procreative state than in a procreative state. In other words, it is simply impossible for sexual acts to be 'open' to procreation for most of a couple's married life.

Sexuality as the expression of mutual love has therefore become much more important, and any theology of marriage must take this into account. One would expect that married people would be better able to develop such a theology of Christian marriage rather than celibate theologians. So far, however, apart from the splendid work of the English psychologist Jack Dominian, very little progress has been made.

An afterthought: The importance of the erotic has been emphasised in Hinduism and certain forms of Buddhism and one might envisage a similar development within Christianity. (A 'theology of the erotic' would be something to conjure with!) Perhaps theologians, both clerical and lay, should be looking at the 'Song of Songs' for inspiration: it is, after all, as much a part of Christian revelation as the 'Book of Genesis' and much more relevant.  (see Ariel and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, University of California Press, Berkeley,1998).

Max Charlesworth is a former Professor of Philosophy and has written on the history of Christian theology in his books Church, State and Conscience (1973), and  Religious Inventions (2000).

 
 
 
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