What is Development of Doctrine?

An explanation of authentic doctrinal development.

We hear a lot about doctrinal development. All too often, it is in the context of articulating some novelty that something is called a “development of doctrine.” While there is a true notion of doctrinal development, we must steer clear of what St. Pius X condemned as “evolution of dogma” in Pascendi . Ever since the Enlightenment with its destructive intellectual current of historicism, the tendency has been to reduce all reality to process or progress. We see it in nearly every arena of human existence, producing these among some of its intellectual aberratioins: evolution in the arena of biology, the Hegelian dialectic in the realm of knowledge (truth changes), Communism (dialectical materialism) in the realm of economics, and modernism with its false development of doctrine (and ecumenism) in the realm of religion.

There is an authentic Catholic concept of doctrinal development, which we here outline very briefly.

It was articulated beautifully by the fifth-century French priest and monk, St. Vincent of Lerins. In his Commonitorium , St. Vincent highlighted both the essentially “conservative,” character of doctrinal development (in the literal meaning of that first word), and its “progressive” nature vis-à-vis our growing homogeneous understanding of the mysteries of the faith. He said: “One must be careful to hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all. … That is what is Catholic in the true and proper sense.” Here, we see the unchangeable character of the sacred deposit of the Faith. The revelation handed down by Christ to his Apostles admits of no change or alteration. There is, therefore, no increase in the objective contents of what Christ taught.

However, on the subjective side of human understanding, there is a homogenous development which St. Vincent here describes: “May understanding, knowledge and wisdom progress as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.” As this last passage has been referenced by the First Vatican Council and by many Popes (including Pope John Paul II in an ad limina address to a group of US Bishops), it carries the weight not merely of one Church Father, but of the Chruch’s own teaching authority.

One of the greatest expounders of true doctrinal development is Dom Prosper Gueranger, the intrepid Abbot of Solesmes. His book, Pontifical Monarchy , was a work which Blessed Pio Nono relied upon heavily in his definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I. Abbot Gueranger explained authentic doctrinal development in these words: “It is a fundamental principle of theology, that all revealed truths were confided to the Church at the beginning; that some were explicitly proposed for our belief from the start, whereas others, although contained implicitly in the first set of truths, only emerged from them with the passage of time, by means of formal definitions rendered by the Church with the assistance of the Holy Ghost, through Whom she is infallible.”

Here, Dom Gueranger adds to St. Vincent’s concept of doctrinal development, the additional note of ecclesiastical approbation. For the “progress” spoken of cannot be simply a progress in the minds of theologians. No matter how holy or brilliant these men may be, in order for their ideas to be considered Catholic doctrine, they must be subjected to the scrutiny of the one power on earth confided with the infallible diffusion and protection of the sacred deposit: the Papacy.

By way of summary, the development of doctrine is a progress in the understanding of Christ’s teachings, in perfect conformity to the content of tradition, guarded and promulgated by the Church’s Magisterium.