VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis gave his first full interview after his election in 2013, he was asked about the importance for the Church of providing solid points of reference in a rapidly changing world. The new pope pulled out his thumb-carried breviary and read a Latin quote from a fifth-century French monk.
Highlighting the words of Saint Vincent of Lerins, Pope Francis has lifted a curtain on his pontificate: introducing a little-known but once highly influential theologian whose name and quotes will soon appear in a number of speeches, documents and interviews. papal over the next decade. .
The pope’s favorite quote? That Christian doctrine must follow the true and legitimate rule of progress, so that doctrine may be “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age”.
It expresses how doctrine can develop and how there can be growth in the expression and awareness of faith and morals “while always remaining true to its roots”, he told reporters in the plane to Rome from Morocco in 2019.
It was to this point that the pope returned once again when addressing reporters on his flight back to Rome from Canada on July 29, when he said that St. Vincent was offering a rule “very clear and illuminating” for proper doctrinal development.
Like each of his predecessors, “Pope Francis has the difficult task of protecting the deposit of faith while encouraging legitimate growth and progress,” Bishop Thomas G. Guarino said. Catholic Press Service August 3 in an e-mail response to questions.
“For Vincent, the task of the whole Church – pope, bishops, theologians, laity – is to foster development and growth over time, but always in full accord with the Gospel and dogmatic tradition,” said the monsignor, who is a professor emeritus. of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, and the author of “Vincent de Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine”.
This idea of growth rooted in and guided by the tradition of the Church also led the pope, speaking to reporters on the flight home from Canada, to warn of a perverted sense of tradition, an insidious sin that he calls “retardation.”
People who look to the past don’t move forward with the church, the pope said; they lack the root of tradition, which provides life-giving nourishment for growth and development.
Properly understood tradition, he said, is “the root of inspiration for the church to go forward,” not backward. The tradition “is always open, like the roots of the tree, and that is how the tree grows”.
But, like Saint Vincent, the pope recognizes the opposite risk: going too far and breaking with the leadership of the Church as a whole and ecclesiastical authorities, which he also briefly mentioned on the plane when he confirmed his warning of the German synodal way.
In a letter he sent on the feast day of Saints. Peter and Paul 2019, Pope Francis warned against false reforms and walking “alone”, rather than walking together as “an apostolic body and listening to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t think not in the same way”. … The Lord shows us the way to the beatitudes.
guarino said CNS that Pope Francis “has placed great emphasis on synodality, that is, on listening to the whole Church.”
“It clearly finds its inspiration in the thought of Saint Vincent who, in his major work – known as the Commonitorium – insists that the Catholic faith is maintained by all Christians” and places great importance on the body of bishops across the world, “especially when they are gathered in council or in synod,” he said.
Pope Francis then seems to lean on this fifth-century monk, not only to guide proper doctrinal development – he also believes the saint can help church members navigate the world, moving away from both extremes. of an errant and non-ecclesial desire for change and of a dead nostalgia for a sterile tradition.
However, Guarino said, St. Vincent should not be cited, as the pope has, in cases where there has been “a reversal, such as his teaching in 2017 that the death penalty is ‘in itself contrary’. to the gospel”.
The saint described the natural law of progress as analogous to the growth of a body: the child becomes an adult, so “there is change, yes, but there is also stability — the person remaining the same from youth to old age, even progressing,” the Monsignor said.
Doctrine, too, must follow this “true and lawful rule of progress,” the saint wrote, so that as it matures nothing new is created and nothing of its essential nature is changed or removed – in the same way that the number of human limbs does not increase or decrease over time.
“It is true that the Church’s previous teaching on the death penalty was not a dogmatic statement of an ecumenical council”, and the change can be seen as “a step forward in the understanding of human dignity”. , he wrote to CNS.
However, “St. Vincent cannot be used to justify inversions,” the monsignor said. “He is only interested in developments that go forward, clearly maintaining previous teaching.”
“A good example of the expansion Vincent speaks of is Vatican II’s ‘Lumen Gentium’. The council did not change the traditional teaching on the infallibility of the pope, but added a teaching on the infallibility of the college of bishops when teaching with the pope,” he said. “It was a step forward, a real progress, which nevertheless maintained the previous teaching.”
While encouraging the pope to invoke the saint “with a little more precision,” Guarino said, “I think Pope Francis should be warmly congratulated for rekindling interest in one of the great teachers of the Church. primitive”.
The Lérins monk was clearly committed to protecting the deposit of faith from “secular novelties”, and he “is probably the most thoughtful of all ancient Christian writers in matters of growth, development and progress”, said Guarino.