As I said, it turns out to be a tricky thing to give the Church the authority she needs to clarify doctrine without also giving the laity the excuse it wants to ignore clarifications it doesn’t like.
Newman gave much attention to the difference between valid development of doctrine and its corruption. His purpose was to validate past developments and was thus conservative. Today, the conservative’s task is different, as Catholics everywhere are clambering for the Church to renounce this or that part of her deposit. I’d like to categorize putative developments a bit differently for reference in future posts.
Category 1: specification
The Church at one time teaches X, but X is itself includes several possibilities: X = X1 or X2 or X3 or … Thus, at a later date, the Church specifies that by X she means X1. Before the Church speaks, anyone may argue for X1, X2, etc. After she speaks, everyone must fall into line, and to continue to argue for X2 or X3 would be heretical.
This is the least problematic case. The only danger of relativism is if someone reasons that every statement is ambiguous in that it admits further specification, so we really don’t ever get fully intelligible nuggets of truth, so we can’t ever understand them well enough to say that any future development is off the table. This would be a case of liberating the pope into irrelevance, because, like I said, no one need bother with statements he cannot understand well enough to reason from.
Category 2: re-specification
Suppose at some time there is an argument between X and Y. X, again, has several possibilities: X1, X2, etc. The Church resolves the debate between X and Y by specifying X1. This is a valid Magisterial act. Suppose, though, that people weren’t really thinking about X2 at the time of the debate, but later it becomes a live issue. Is it possible that when the Church said X1, she really just meant X, so that X2 is not really ruled out? I think this is possible, and it is probably what’s going on in those cases of development where continuity seems most problematic (e.g. the ever-growing qualifications to “no salvation outside the Church”).
However, reasoning in this way is dangerous. Ordinarily, we are to concern ourselves only with what the documents say, not with what we imagine past popes were or weren’t thinking about. At most, we may be guided by how the Church as a whole tended to understand a given statement. Only the Magisterium can be authorized to tell us what it meant to say.
This is a difference between category 1 and category 2. In the first, X1 and X2 are equally available to Catholics before the pope settles it. In category 2, X1 is the Church’s official position, and Catholics probably should not publicly argue for X2 against X1, even if they suspect such a development would be licit. Instead, they should direct their concerns to the appropriate ecclesiastic personnel.
Category 3: re-metanorming
The Church teaches very general principles X and Y. Let us say X and Y are vague things like “transcendence”, “sacramental mediation”, or “mercy”. She has long taught that X1 is an application of X. Then those claiming to be enlightened say that their deeper understanding of Y leads them to believe that X1 is incompatible with Y. Therefore, X1 must be rejected, not in defiance of previous teaching, but in obedience to its “deeper” exigencies.
This wielding of “metanorms” against “norms” is credited to the prophets by Pope Benedict XVI, but it is surely illegitimate for Catholics. The Catholic way is that the more specific determines the meaning of the less explicit. Norms provide the concrete meaning of metanorms. The latter may not be turned against the former, and if they are, the principle/metanorm is being misunderstood/misused in a heretical way.
Category 4: deculturing
The Church has always taught X, but X was taken for granted in the background culture of earlier eras, so it is claimed that this was just cultural conditioning, not the real Gospel message. Now that we’re more enlightened, we should chuck X.
This way of thinking is also unCatholic and illegitimate. Church teaching is no less authoritative when it conforms to the cultural expectations of its time of promulgation. People indulging in such lines of thought should learn humility by considering that they too are products of their culture, and it is they, not ancient or Medieval Christians, who are working to conform the Gospel to the sensibilities of their own society.
Category 5: agnosticizing
If the Church teaches X = X1 or X2 at one time, she may later choose to specify X1, or she may specify X2, or she may abstain from further specification, or she may actually state that she does not know whether the truth is X1 or if it is X2. How binding are the latter statements? For example, a commission under Benedict XVI stated that we do not know that Limbo exists, not that it doesn’t exist, but that it’s not part of established teaching. Could the Church declare definitively that revelation is insufficient to distinguish between some X1 and X2, such that it would then be impossible for any future pope to resolve the issue, no matter what future arguments come in?
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