Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has shown that the teaching of the Church can develop. He called for updates to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to clarify that the death penalty is impermissible and that the use and possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. His educational document on family life, “Amoris Laetitia”, proposes a return to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, opening a door that was previously closed.
These may seem like minor developments, but they highlight a deeper point that the church is the custodian of a living tradition that does not allow the past to bind the present to make updating or developing impossible.
On the plane back from Canada last month, Francis was asked if an elaboration was needed on the church’s teaching against artificial contraception. Without addressing the issue himself, the pope stressed that “dogma, morality, is always on the way to development”, and quoted Saint Vincent de Lérins, a fifth-century monk and author who argued that the doctrine progresses through consolidation and expansion. This is an idea that St. John Henry Newman built on in his work on doctrinal development. The idea is that the doctrine is an attempt to articulate the central and unchanging truth of the Christian faith. Although this truth does not change, formulations or articulations of this truth may develop.
This means that the role of the theologian is critical. On the issue of artificial contraception, some moral theologians have argued for times when it is permitted, such as preventing the spread of HIV or deadly diseases. Speaking to reporters at the in-flight press conference, the pope highlighted a book from the Pontifical Academy of Life, “The Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges,” which is a collection of papers from a seminar on Catholic morality. education. Some of the theologians argued for a distinction between a moral standard and the pastoral application of that standard, with the argument made that couples might be justified in using contraception in certain circumstances.
“You can’t do theology with a ‘no’ in front of it,” Francis said on the plane. But he added that “it’s up to the magisterium to say, ‘No, you’ve gone too far, come back'”.
Any development of teaching, says Francis, requires a dialogue between theologians and the magisterium. Theologians must have the freedom to question ideas, while Rome is free to accept, modify or reject them. This dialogue seems to be taking place right now, given discussions in Rome about a possible new papal encyclical on issues concerning the ethics of life.
“It is legitimate to wonder if Pope Francis will give us a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics which could be called ‘Gaudium Vitae’ [‘Joy of Life’]wrote Fr. Jorge José Ferrer, a Jesuit moral theologian based in Puerto Rico, in a recent essay for the publication La Civiltá Cattolica. His remarks have added significance, given that the article was published in a Jesuit journal read by the pope and whose articles are approved by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.
If Francis writes about these issues, he will likely seek to situate them within the broader moral and social teaching of the Church, and ask that these topics not be used in a politicized way. It is likely that he will rely on the position of “coherent life ethics” set out by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
“A church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense is a church that backs down,” Pope Francis said on the flight back from Canada. “This is the problem of today, and of many who call themselves traditional. No, no, these are not traditional people, these are people who look to the past, who look back. He described this group as “backward” (“indietristi”) and quoted the late Jaroslav Pelikan, a historian of Christianity, who once wrote: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the alive”.
The pope argues that a true understanding of tradition equips the Church to witness to the Gospel in new contexts. The real reform consists in deepening the tradition in order to move forward.
On the flight home, Francis, who is 85 and used a wheelchair for much of his visit to Canada, again raised the possibility of quitting if he was unable to perform his duties. He’s clearly not someone who clings to his desk. Yet, as the discussion of the development of church teaching shows, there is still a lot of work to do.