WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY, “I ABSOLVE YOU”?
by Gerhard Cardinal Müller
First Things, December 15, 2017
This is the first in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church.
Many are suggesting today that sacramental absolution can be given to penitents who, on account of mitigating circumstances, can be said to be free of subjective culpability before God, despite the fact that they continue living in an objective state of grave sin. The distinction between an objective state of sin and subjective culpability is generally acknowledged by the Catholic theological tradition. What is more controversial is its application to the sacramental order. Is it possible to use the probable absence of subjective culpability as a criterion for granting absolution? Would this not mean turning the sacraments into subjective realities, which is contrary to their very nature as effective, visible—and thus objective—signs of grace?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to go to the roots of the sacrament of reconciliation. In his love for us, God takes us human beings so seriously as to surrender his only-begotten Son to a most dreadful and shameful death on the Cross (Joh 3:16), so that our sins may be forgiven and we may be reconciled with him (2 Cor 5:19). If such is the price of our salvation, then bishops and priests cannot take lightly the authority they have received from Christ himself (Mt 18:18; Joh 20:22) to forgive those sins that a penitent has confessed and of which he or she has repented.
For it is with divine authority that the Apostle speaks the word of reconciliation to the faithful (2 Cor 5:20). The sacrament of reconciliation with God and with the Church as the body of Christ requires the confession of all one’s grave sins in their entirety. This necessity derives from a concern for eternal salvation and is as such of greater importance than a Christian’s transient sense of comfort, which a confessor may be afraid of disturbing. In order to be able to judge whether to forgive or to retain the sins of any (Joh 20:23), the priest must know which grave sins the penitent has committed. These are both the open and the secret sins committed in one’s thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions, violating God’s commandments, which are the revelation of his holy and sanctifying design of love for us.
It is not enough simply to call oneself a sinner in general. This could easily be an excuse: One is subject to human weakness, just like everyone else. Sins are then relativized as ever-present human shortcomings. In reality, however, the baptized Christian is not caught up in Luther’s dialectic of the simul iustus et peccator, (“at the same time a righteous person and a sinner”). Through baptism we have been truly changed. We are no longer slaves to sin but have become the friends and children of God. We are in the state of sanctifying grace. It is not with necessity that sin follows from the remaining weakness (concupiscence). Rather, sin is the result of a conscious and deliberate act against the holiness of God and the love of Christ who shed his blood on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins. It was by freely accepting faith and grace that we became children of God. In the same way, we need to cooperate with the coming of the Kingdom into this world, serving the fulfillment of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. The Christian’s whole life is a continuous imitation of the crucified and risen Lord. Through grave sins, we separate ourselves from God and exclude ourselves from the inheritance of eternal life.
Love does not make unnecessary the fulfillment of God’s commandments, but is their deepest form of fulfillment. The commandments are not external prescriptions, which promise reward to those who fulfill them and threaten punishment to those who fail to observe them. Instead, they are the revelation of God’s salvific design, indicating to us the way of his love. Every mortal sin is a conscious and deliberate contradiction of God’s will. This is the formal aspect that turns an evil act into a mortal sin, the material aspect of which is the deed’s content. Hence the Apostle Paul can categorically say: “Neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
The Council of Trent (1551) teaches that mortal sins make us enemies of God and hand us over to eternal damnation unless we repent, confess our sins, and, with works of reparation, obtain absolution and the restoration to the state of sanctifying grace. The penitent, therefore, has to confess to his confessor all public and secret mortal sins of which he is aware after a serious examination of conscience (DH 1680). He or she also needs to indicate those circumstances that are apt to change the nature of the sin (DH 1681). What is referred to here are not the mitigating circumstances that reduce the severity of the guilt and make us deserve less punishment. Rather what is meant are those circumstances that change the species of the act and thus demand a different kind of penance and punishment, which must be determined by the confessor acting as a judge. It is important to underline that the confessor’s motivation is the salvation of the penitent.
Therefore, the Council is quite right in rejecting the Protestant polemic that sees in the requirement of a complete confession of one’s sins a kind of “torture of conscience” in the confessional (DH 1682). What if the penitent is not accountable for his or her sins, because of a lack of knowledge or responsibility? A person’s freedom may be impaired due to ignorance. God alone is able to judge a person’s subjective culpability. All the confessor can do is carefully assist the penitent in his or her examination of conscience. But not even the penitent him- or herself can decide to what extent God holds him or her accountable for the sin. Trying to do so would simply mean to justify oneself.
Even if I am not conscious of any guilt, I cannot be absolutely certain of my salvation and must always entrust myself with confidence to the judgment of God’s grace. The Church cannot preempt or even intervene in God’s judgment. The apostles and thus the bishops and priests are only servants of Christ and stewards of his sacraments. They can administer the sacraments as a means of grace only in accordance with the way in which Christ has instituted them and in accordance with his mandate to the Church.
We also need to take into account the possibility that ignorance is itself culpable, as when it serves as a way of excusing oneself from having to change one’s way of life. Recall the teaching of the Council of Sens, according to which one can sin, even if one acts with ignorance (DH 730). Even if a confessor is able to find reasons that speak in favor of a penitent’s diminished responsibility, the confessor should not forget that these very reasons hinder the person from discerning his or her situation before God in the right way. In any event, to say “I absolve you” in these cases would amount to confirming the error in which the person lives, an error that is profoundly damaging to his or her capacity to live according to God’s loving plan.
It is crucial to remember that the sacraments are not private interior encounters of the faithful with God, but visible expressions of the Church’s faith. This is why the ecclesial discipline governing the admission to the sacraments has always required that the faithful do not find themselves in contradiction with the Christian form of life. St. Thomas says that to admit someone to the sacraments who continues to live in sin means to introduce “a falsehood into the sacramental signs” (S.Th. III q. 68 a. 4 co.). Thus one could be without culpability before God because of invincible ignorance and still not be able to receive absolution.
The words “I absolve you from your sins” do not ratify the penitent’s lack of accountability before God. Rather, they express and bring about his or her reconciliation with God, his or her reincorporation into the visible body Christ, which is the Church. Thus, for these words to be meaningful, the penitent has to make the firm resolution to live according to the way of life that Christ has taught us and that the Church witnesses to the world. To do otherwise would be to “subjectivize” the Church’s sacramental economy, making it a function of our invisible relationship with God. It would mean to disincarnate the sacraments from the visible flesh of Christ and from his body, which is the Church.
A case of a completely different nature exists if, for external reasons, it was impossible to clarify the status of a given union canonically, and, say, a man has proofs that his purported marriage with a woman was invalid, though for whatever reason he is unable to adduce these proofs in the ecclesial forum. This case is wholly different from that of a validly married person who asks for the sacrament of Penance without wanting to abandon a stable sexual relationship with someone else, whether as a concubinage or as a civil “marriage,” which is not valid before God and the Church. Whereas in the latter situation there is a contradiction with the sacramental practice of the Church (a matter of divine law), in the former the discussion centers on the way of determining whether or not a marriage was null (a matter of ecclesiastical law).
Theologically, things are very clear. The words of Christ, the teaching of the Apostles, and thus the dogma of the Church, constitute a clear guideline for any pastoral endeavor to sustain the individual Christian on his or her pilgrimage to God. It was the old Pharisees (whose name nowadays is all too often used as a disparaging term) who tried to put Jesus on the spot with regard to the indissolubility of marriage. For on the one hand, everyone wants to hold on to marital indissolubility as part of the Creator’s plan for the marriage between man and woman. On the other hand, some seek to circumvent Christ’s commandment. Their pretext is that apart from the “strict Christ” as the legislator of the New Covenant, there is also the “merciful Jesus” of the Gospel, familiar with the fact that the ideal is confronted with humanity’s concrete lived reality that is disrupted by the sin of Adam. Jesus responds not as a Pharisee but against the Pharisees—and even against the objection of the apostles who claim to know human praxis and reality better than Jesus himself—that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery,” which he also applies to the woman who marries a man who is not unmarried or a widower (Mk 10:11–12).
According to the Apostle Paul, if the spouses have separated, they should strive to get reconciled. If reconciliation is not possible, they need to remain single until the death of the legitimate partner (1 Cor 7:11, 39). It is true for everyone that the sacramental reception of Holy Communion is only fruitful when one is in the state of sanctifying grace. But even independent of the question of one’s subjective state of grace—of which ultimately only God is the judge—it is necessary that those who live in an objective contradiction to the commandments of God and the sacramental order of the Church take the resolve to change their way of life in order to receive reconciliation with God and the Church in the sacrament of Penance.
In many complicated situations, in the face of ideologies hostile to marriage, and in a context in which the transmission of the faith has all too often been superficial, the wise steward of divine grace will gently guide Christians, who seriously seek a life of faith, to come to see their familial situation in the light of Christ’s Gospel. In cases where there are grave reasons not to dissolve the new union and where a declaration of nullity of the first union could not be obtained, the goal of this often difficult and long journey is for the partners to come to live together as brother and sister and thus also to have access to Holy Communion.
Moreover, we must not forget that the Catholic faith does not reduce the mystery of the Eucharist to the reception of Holy Communion. What is decisive is first and foremost the participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Of primary concern for the Church’s pastors must be the faithfuls’ fulfillment of their Sunday obligation. God will certainly not deny his love to those, who, despite repeated failures, humbly ask him for his grace, so that they can fulfill the commandments. Not least of all in view of our own sins, we should respect and lovingly assist in our common pilgrimage those of our brothers and sisters who feel they are in a dilemma when it comes to their familial situations and find that despite their goodwill, they do not always manage to live according to God’s commandments. It is true that confessors are also judges. But they perform this role not out of human pride, so as to condemn the sinner. Rather, their judgment is like the diagnosis of a wise physician, who seeks to know the nature of the illness and then pours oil and wine on the wounds as did the merciful Samaritan, returning people to the shelter of Holy Mother Church.Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
BY WHAT AUTHORITY? ON THE TEACHING OFFICE of the POPE
First Things, January 16, 2018.
This is the second in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church. The first, on subjectivity, culpability, and confession, may be found here.
How do the pope’s Magisterium and the Tradition of the Church relate? When he interprets the words of Jesus, must the pope be in continuity with the Tradition and the previous Magisterium, including that of the most recent popes? Or is it rather the Church’s Tradition that has to be reinterpreted in the light of the pope’s new words? What if there are contradictions?
In order to answer these questions, it seems appropriate to begin with an important Apostolic Letter that Pope Pius IX sent to the German episcopate on March 4, 1875. In his letter, the pope explained that the German bishops had interpreted the dogma of the papal infallibility and Petrine primacy in perfect harmony with the definitions of the First Vatican Council. What had occasioned the pope’s letter was the German chancellor Bismarck’s circular dispatch that gravely misinterpreted this dogma in order to justify the brutal persecution of German Catholics in the so-called Kulturkampf, or “culture-war.” According to Pius IX, in their response to Bismarck’s provocation the German bishops clearly showed “that there is absolutely nothing in the attacked definitions that is new or that changes anything at all with regard to our relations with civil governments or that can offer any excuse to persist in the persecution of the Church.”
Of course, to appreciate the events, one must be aware of the cultural presuppositions from which Bismarck and his liberal “culture warriors” operated. Although they had mostly abandoned the religious content of the Protestant Reformation that had marked their country, they had widely maintained the related prejudices against the Catholic Church. To their mind, the teaching office exercised by the pope and by the Church’s councils claimed a higher authority than the Word of God itself. Not only did the ecclesial magisterium obstruct the immediate relationship of the believer to God, but it set itself up as a foreign element that stood between the citizens and the state—a state, to be sure, that in the case of the late-nineteenth-century Prussia ascribed to itself a total authority, detached even from the natural moral law.
Bismarck and his supporters were convinced that the pope’s authority extended to arbitrarily inventing and then imposing doctrines and practices on the whole Church, including German Catholic citizens, who would then be bound to adhere to these under the threat of excommunication and loss of eternal life. Against this total caricature of the pope’s fullness of power, the German bishops emphasized that “in all essential points the constitution of the Church is based on divine directives, and therefore it is not subject to human arbitrariness.” As to them, “the opinion according to which the pope is ‘an absolute sovereign because of his infallibility’ is based on a completely false understanding of the dogma of papal infallibility.” Indeed, the pope’s Magisterium “is restricted to the contents of Holy Scripture and tradition and also to the dogmas previously defined by the teaching authority of the Church.”
The fact is that the teaching office held by the pope and by the bishops in union with him is a ministry in the service of the Word of God, a Word that became flesh in Jesus Christ. Christ is thus the only Teacher (cf. Mt 23:10), who proclaims to us the “words of eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:68). With respect to him, Peter, the apostles, and all the baptized are brothers and sisters of the one heavenly Father.
Without prejudice to the fact that all believers are brothers and sisters, Jesus has chosen some from among his many disciples to be his apostles, giving them the authority to teach and govern. He entrusted to them “the message of reconciliation,” so that now they are acting in the very person of Christ for the salvation of the world (cf. 2 Cor 5:19f). The risen Lord, to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, sends his apostles into all the world to make disciples of all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Commissioning his apostles, Jesus also commissions their successors, that is, the bishops, together with the successor of Peter, the pope, as their head. The mandate Christ gives them is to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). In this way he makes it clear that the content of the apostles’ teaching—the criterion of the truth of what they are saying—is his own teaching. The certainty of the Christian faith ultimately rests on the fact that the human word of the apostles and bishops is the divine Word of salvation, not produced but rather witnessed by the human mediator (cf. 1 Thess 2:13).
Since the time of Irenaeus of Lyon in the second century, a terminology has been firmly established according to which the content of revelation is found in Holy Scripture and in the Apostolic Tradition. This revelation is authoritatively proclaimed by the ecclesiastical magisterium consisting of the pope and the bishops in union with him. In contrast to the principle sola scriptura, the Bible alone, as the Reformation had it, the Council of Trent emphasizes that it belongs to Holy Mother Church “to judge the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture—and . . . no one may dare to interpret the Scripture in a way contrary to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers.”
The Second Vatican Council takes up this fundamental way of interpreting the Catholic faith and concludes from it: “This Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith” (Dei Verbum, n. 10).
There is agreement among all Christians that Holy Scripture is the Word of God. But since this Word is conveyed in human language, it does not have the evidence (quoad se—in itself) that the Protestants want to attribute to it. Rather, there is need for a human interpretation on the part of the teachers of the faith whose authority comes from the Holy Spirit. Toward those who hear the Word of God, these teachers represent God’s own authority, making use of human words and decisions (quoad nos—to us). The task of authoritative teaching and governing cannot be left solely to the individual believer who in his or her conscience comes to accept a certain truth. After all, revelation has been entrusted to the Church as a whole. Therefore, the Magisterium is an essential part of the Church’s mission. Only with the help of the living magisterium of the pope and the bishops can the Word of God be passed on in its integrity to the faithful and to all the people of all times and places.
In our creed we profess our faith by making use of human words. These words are subject to a certain change, as far as the mode of expression is concerned. This is possible and indeed necessary, since, as St. Thomas clearly states, “the act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing” (STh II-II 1,2, ad 2). Inasmuch as the teaching of the apostles—and thus the teaching of the Church—is the Word of God in the words of human beings, the Word of God takes shape and develops in the Church’s consciousness of her faith, quite analogously to the way each of the faithful undergoes a spiritual and historical development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the mission of the Holy Spirit does not consist in creating new doctrines, but in making present in the Church the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 16:13).
Insofar as the pope, as the head of the college of bishops, is the principle of the Church’s unity in the truth, he has the mission both to preserve the truth of revelation and to establish new conceptual formulations of the creed (the “symbol”) where necessary. In doing so, he cannot add anything to the revelation given to us in Scripture and Tradition, nor can he change the content of previous dogmatic definitions. But in order to preserve the Church’s unity in the faith, under certain circumstances he has the right and duty to give a new formulation to the creed (nova editio symboli). Thomas Aquinas explains, “The truth of faith is sufficiently explicit in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. But since, according to 2 Pt. 3:16, some men are so evil-minded as to pervert the apostolic teaching and other doctrines and Scriptures to their own destruction, it was necessary as time went on to express the faith more explicitly against the errors which arose” (Sth II-II, 1, 10 ad 1, emphasis added).
For this task, the magisterium draws upon the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) given by the Holy Spirit to the whole People of God under the guidance of the bishops (cf. Lumen Gentium n. 12). But it also draws upon theologians. Without the theological preparatory work of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, there would not have been the Nicene Creed nor its defense and specification in the subsequent councils. Likewise, the decrees of the Council of Trent would not have been possible without the preparatory work of the most learned theologians of that time. It is true that for the Second Vatican Council the faithful and complete historical transmission of revelation has its basis in the charism of infallibility, which is proper to the pope and to ecumenical councils. At the same time, Vatican II does not fail to add: “The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, by reason of their office and the seriousness of the matter, apply themselves with zeal to the work of inquiring by every suitable means into this revelation and of giving apt expression to its contents; they do not, however, admit any new public revelation as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith” (Lumen Gentium n. 25).
Of course, as a Catholic, one cannot ignore the developed doctrine of the Church in order to attend solely to the supposedly pure doctrine of Scripture. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, does not give a catechetical instruction on the sacrament of repentance in its matter (repentance, confession, satisfaction) and form (absolution by the priest). If one were to look at Scripture alone, one could then conclude that, since the son did not actually get around to confessing his sins, neither do we need to do so. However, opposing Scripture against the Church in this way would mean completely to ignore the words of Christ, who entrusted the apostles—with Peter as their head—with the faithful preservation of the entire deposit of faith.
Christ has put the pope “at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion” (Lumen Gentium n. 18). Now, the fullness of apostolic authority does not imply an unlimited fullness of power in the secular sense. Rather, this power is strictly limited by its purpose: It stands at the service of the preservation of the Church’s unity in her faith in God’s Son who came in “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4–6). The pope’s authority is most closely tied to revelation; indeed, it derives from revelation. It is only through the power of God that Peter is able to preserve the whole Church in fidelity to Christ, even when Satan shakes and sifts her, so that the wheat may be removed from the chaff. As Jesus says, “But I have prayed that your own faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32). In his supreme magisterium, the pope unites the whole Church and all its bishops in the same confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). And it is precisely in this confession that he is the rock on which the Lord Jesus continues to build his Church until the end of the world. It is, then, clear that the pope’s words are at the service of the whole Tradition of the Church, and not the other way around.
What has been said above refers to the teaching of the Church, but also to the administration of her means of grace in the sacraments. In its Decree on Holy Communion, the Council of Trent declares that the Church has the power to determine or modify the external rites of the sacraments. At the same time, the Council denies that the Church has the right or ability to interfere with the essence of the sacraments, insisting that “their substance is preserved.” When the Council of Trent defines that there are three acts of the penitent that form part of the sacrament of penance (repentance with the resolve not to sin again, confession, and satisfaction), then the popes and bishops of subsequent ages, too, are bound by this declaration. They are not free to grant sacramental absolution for sins, or to authorize their priests to do so, when penitents do not actually show signs of repentance or where they explicitly reject the resolve not to sin again. No human being can undo the inner contradiction between the effect of the sacrament—that is, the new communion of life with Christ in faith, hope, and love—and the penitent’s inadequate disposition. Not even the pope or a council can do so, because they lack the authority, nor could they ever receive such authority, because God never asks human beings to do something that is both self-contradictory and contrary to God himself.
One must keep in mind that doctrinal statements have varying degrees of authority. They require varying degrees of consent, as expressed by the so-called “theological notes.” The acceptance of a teaching with “divine and Catholic faith” is required only for dogmatic definitions. It is also clear that the pope or bishops must never ask anyone to act or teach against the natural moral law. The obedience of the faithful toward their ecclesial superiors is therefore no absolute obedience, and the superior cannot demand absolute obedience, because both the superior and those entrusted to his or her authority are brothers and sisters of the same Father, and they are disciples of the same Master. Therefore, it is harder to teach than to learn, because teaching is associated with a greater responsibility before God. The affirmation “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) has its validity also and especially in the Church. Against the principle of absolute obedience prevailing in the Prussian military state, the German bishops insisted before Bismarck: “It is certainly not the Catholic Church that has embraced the immoral and despotic principle that the command of a superior frees one unconditionally from all personal responsibility.”
When private opinions or spiritual and moral limitations enter into the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, then sober and objective criticism as well as personal correction are called for, especially from the brothers in the episcopal office. Thomas Aquinas will not be suspected of relativizing Petrine primacy and the virtue of obedience. All the more elucidating is the way in which he interprets the incident in Antioch, culminating in Paul’s public correction of Peter (Gal 2:11). According to Aquinas, the event teaches us that under certain circumstances an apostle may have the right and even the duty to correct another apostle in a fraternal way, that even an inferior may have the right and duty to criticize the superior (cf. Commentary on Galatians, Chap. II, lecture 3). This does not mean that one may reduce the magisterium to a private opinion, so as to dispense oneself from the binding power of the authentic and defined teaching of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 37). It only means that one must understand well the precise meaning of authority in the Church in general and the role of Peter’s ministry in particular. This is especially true when the conflict does not arise between the pope’s teaching and one’s own vision, but between the pope’s teaching and a teaching of previous popes that is in accordance with the uninterrupted tradition of the Church.
As Pope Benedict XVI explained during the Mass on the occasion of his taking possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome on 7 May 2005, “The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.” He continues, “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: The pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter
DEVELOPMENT, OR CORRUPTION?
First Things. February 20, 2018.
This is the third in a series of reflections by Cardinal Müller on questions of present importance in the life of the Church.
Can there be “paradigm shifts” in the interpretation of the deposit of faith?
In commenting on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, some interpreters advance positions contrary to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, by effectively denying that adultery is always a grave objective sin or by making the Church’s entire sacramental economy exclusively dependent on people’s subjective dispositions. They seek to justify their claims by insisting that through the ages there has been a development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a fact that the Church has always admitted. To substantiate their claims, they usually appeal to the writings of John Henry Cardinal Newman, and in particular to his famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). Newman’s arguments are indeed worth considering. They will help us understand the sort of development that is possible in the matters touched upon by Amoris Laetitia.
When Newman started writing the Essay, he was still an Anglican. And yet, prior to finishing it, he left the Church of England to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. As an Anglican, he had been one of the major protagonists of the Oxford Movement. The movement aimed at achieving Christian unity by summoning all Christian confessions to return to the Church’s earliest traditions as contained in Holy Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Newman was an expert in patristics, and he was at first suspicious of later teachings developed in the Middle Ages. It was these that for a long time kept him from converting to the Roman Church. They seemed to him incompatible with the basic principles of Christianity, or at least not derivable from Holy Scripture and the earliest tradition of the Fathers. For him the Catholic practice of venerating the Blessed Virgin and the saints appeared to contradict the idea that Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Other examples of teachings that Newman considered exclusive to Catholicism and not based on Scripture and the Fathers are the following: papal primacy, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the sacrificial character of Holy Mass, purgatory, indulgences, religious vows, and the sacrament of Holy Orders. These were the main issues causing controversy during the Reformation.
At first Newman considered Anglicanism as a middle way (the “via media”) between the Reformer’s complete denial of tradition and—as he then saw it—the Catholic absolutization of tradition. However, his patristic studies made Newman realize that there had already been a development of doctrine during the time when Christianity was not yet divided. The need for such a development results from the nature of historical revelation. It is a consequence of the presence of the divine Word in our human words and understanding. The councils of the first eight centuries formulated the Trinitarian dogma of the one God in three persons and the Christological dogma of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in his divine person. These definitions were the outcome of a long and difficult development of doctrine. Likewise, the dogmas of original sin and the absolute gratuity of grace resulted from the Church Fathers’ great intellectual work, by which they successfully defended the Church from destructive heresies such as Modalism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and Pelagianism. Had these heresies won the day, all of Christianity would have been destroyed. Now the way to combat them was precisely to find new formulations of doctrine, such as, for instance, the pronouncement against Apollinarianism concerning the Incarnation and the assumption of all of human nature by the eternal Logos: “What is not assumed is not saved.”
Of course, to speak of a development of doctrine does not mean to interpret historical Christianity in terms of German idealism, historicism, and modernism. Proponents of these currents think of God, or the Absolute, as a so-called “transcendental a priori,” that is, as the subjective necessary condition of our reason and experience, which is itself prior to our experience and can never be the object of experience. Inasmuch as the Absolute is the condition for our thought and language, it cannot itself be expressed in words and concepts. According to this approach, then, all the dogmas of the Catholic faith are only provisional conceptual formulas that give expression to the ever-changing religious sentiment found in the Church’s collective consciousness. “Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes and are, therefore, liable to change” (Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis). Following this theory, doctrinal formulas aim at uniting the faithful to the Absolute in a wordless fashion, but they do not in themselves really represent revealed truths. Thus, we would not believe really in God, but in the phenomena of our imagination and their echoes in our language. By development of doctrine, however, Newman—and with him the whole Church—did not think of a development in terms of Idealist philosophy as we have just exposed them. Such an understanding of development contradicts the fullness of truth present in the historical person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God.
A fundamental problem of modern philosophy is the relation between truth and history. In its temporality, history seems to be the realm of the transient, the changeable, the contingent, whereas truth is beyond time, always valid, and found in the realm of divine ideas. As such, truth is never completely within the reach of finite human beings, who can approach it ever more closely but ultimately can never get ahold of it. Christian theology, in contrast, does not start with the question of how—under the conditions of historical existence—it is possible to know the truth. Rather, it begins with the fact of God’s self-revelation in time. The Incarnation is not an idea meant to help us grasp the temporal significance of Jesus in conceptual terms. Rather, the Incarnation is a factof divine action in history. Reflecting on it, the Church becomes progressively conscious of all that this event implies and presupposes. The understanding of the faith—the intellectus fidei—presupposes and unfolds the hearing of the faith—the auditus fidei. Jesus appears in the “fullness of time” (cf. Mk 1:15; Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10). In the “fullness of time,” God sends his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, into the world and into history, to accomplish his salvific work, reconciling us once and for all to God and directing our thoughts and actions to the truth and goodness of God (cf. Gal 4:4).
As far as the substance of the articles of faith is concerned, it is impossible to add or subtract anything. In the Church’s efforts to combat heresies and to come to a deeper understanding of revealed truths, there can, however, be an increase in the articles of faith. The filioque, for example—that is, the definition of faith that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son—does not add anything to the Trinitarian faith. This formulation merely gives a clearer expression of a truth that is already known, namely that the Spirit is not the second Son of God. Development of doctrine in this sense refers to the process by which the Church, in her consciousness of the faith, comes to an ever deeper conceptual and intellectual understanding of God’s self-revelation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all the articles of faith “are contained implicitly in certain primary matters of faith, such as God’s existence and His providence” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 1, 7). Development of doctrine is possible because in the one truth of God all the revealed truths of faith are connected, and those that are more implicit can be made explicit. After all, the doctrinal formulas are not themselves the object of the act of faith. Rather, the believer’s faith refers to the very reality of God and God’s truth in Christ. As St. Thomas puts it: “The act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 1, 2 ad 2). Contrary to modernism’s claims, however, the formulas of faith indeed refer to the knowledge of God. They are not just the fortuitous expressions of our subjective consciousness of God.
The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries. This principle is inherent to revelation itself. As Cardinal Newman puts it: “The fact of the operation from first to last of that principle of development in the truths of Revelation, is an argument in favour of the identity of Roman and Primitive Christianity.”
At this point we come to the principal question that Newman sought to answer in his famous Essay. Since revelation is the personal and dialogical self-communication of God in the medium of the historical existence of Christ and his Church, we need criteria in order to tell the difference between a real development of doctrine and what Newman calls a corruption. Development means a growth in the understanding of spiritual and theological realities, guided by the Holy Spirit (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 8). This growth does not occur from any kind of natural necessity, and it has nothing to do with the liberal belief in progress. In fact, as happens also in one’s personal spiritual life, it is possible to regress. A dangerous standstill can occur in the Church, for example, when gifted theologians and scientific institutions are not sufficiently promoted or when bishops are appointed who are ill-equipped for their eminent duty of teaching and preaching (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 25). Bishops do not belong to the periphery, but to the center of orthodoxy.
The criteria that Newman unfolds are useful, then, to disclose how we should read Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The first two criteria are “preservation of type” and “continuity of principles.” They are meant precisely to ensure the stability of the faith’s foundational structure. These principles and types prevent us from speaking of a “paradigm shift” regarding the form of the Church’s being and of her presence in the world. Now chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia has been the object of contradictory interpretations. When in this context some speak of a paradigm shift, this seems to be a relapse into a modernist and subjectivist way of interpreting the Catholic faith. It was in 1962 that Thomas Kuhn introduced his controversial and at the same time influential idea of “paradigm shifts” into the debate internal to the philosophy of science, where the expression received a precise, technical meaning. Apart from this context, however, this term also has an everyday use, referring to any form of fundamental change in theoretical forms of thought and social behavior. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8)—this is, in contrast, our paradigm, which we will not exchange for any other. “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11).
Countering the Gnostics, who tried to make themselves seem important by contriving ever new revelations and insights, Saint Irenaeus of Lyon wrote: “Know that He brought all novelty, by bringing Himself who had been announced.” In the second half of the second century, Irenaeus worked out the formal principles of the Catholic faith as he responded to the gnostic challenge. First of all, revelation needs to be accepted as a historical fact. This revelation is contained in the deposit of faith—that is, in the apostolic teaching—which in its truth and in its entirety has been entrusted to the Church to be faithfully preserved and interpreted. The proper method for interpreting revelation requires the joint workings of three principles, which are: Holy Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Apostolic Succession of Catholic bishops. The Roman Church in general and her bishops in particular should be the last to follow the Gnostic’s suit by introducing a novel principle of interpretation by which to give a completely different direction to all of Church teaching. Irenaeus, in fact, compared Christian doctrine to a mosaic whose stones were arranged to reproduce the image of the King. In his view, the Gnostics had taken the same stones, but had changed their order. Now, instead of the likeness of the King, they have formed the image of a fox, the deceiver. One can in fact sin against the Catholic faith not only by denying some of its contents, but also by reformulating its formal principles of knowledge.
One may think here of the Protestant Reformation. Its new formal principle was Scripture alone. This new principle subjected the Catholic doctrine of the faith, as it had developed up to the sixteenth century, to a radical change. The fundamental understanding of Christianity turned into something completely different. Salvation was to be obtained by faith alone, so that the individual believer no longer required the help of ecclesial mediation. In consequence, the Reformers radically rejected the dogmas concerning the seven sacraments and the episcopal and papal constitution of the Church. If understood in this sense, there can be no paradigm shifts in the Catholic faith. Whoever speaks of a Copernican turn in moral theology, which turns a direct violation of God’s commandments into a praiseworthy decision of conscience, quite evidently speaks against the Catholic faith. Situation ethics remains a false ethical theory, even if some were to claim to find it in Amoris Laetitia.
Apart from the question of objective grave sin, proposals to reinterpret Catholic doctrine in the light of Amoris Laetitia also touch upon the sacramental economy, which is now said to receive its measure from the individual believer’s subjective dispositions before God. Here one needs to recall that no ecclesiastical authority can disregard the order of the sacramental mediation of grace, which is based on the concrete relationships we live out in the flesh. Thus, it is impossible for a Catholic to receive the sacraments in a worthy manner, unless he or she resolves to abandon a way of life that is in opposition to the teachings of Christ. Indeed, for Newman the sacramental principle is among the central principles of Christianity, which cannot change.
What about the other notes that Newman enumerates to distinguish authentic development from corruption and decay? Some of them are most certainly worth reviewing to illuminate the present debate. We may consider the third note, which he calls “Power of Assimilation.” According to Newman, a true development occurs when Christianity is able to assimilate the surrounding environment, informing and changing its culture, whereas corruption happens when it is instead the environment that assimilates Christianity to itself. Thus, a paradigm shift, by which the Church takes on the criteria of modern society to be assimilated by it, constitutes not a development, but a corruption.
In his fourth note, Newman speaks of the necessity of a “Logical Sequence” among the different steps of a development. For a development to be healthy, it must proceed in logical continuity with the teachings of the past. Is there any logical continuity between John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio n. 84—which teaches that the divorced living in a new union must resolve to live in continence or else refrain from approaching the sacraments—and the change of this selfsame discipline that some are proposing? There are only two options. One could explicitly deny the validity of Familiaris Consortio n. 84, thus denying by the same token Newman’s sixth note, “Conservative Action upon the Past.” Or one could attempt to show that Familiaris Consortio n. 84 implicitly anticipated the reversal of the discipline that it explicitly set out to teach. On any honest reading of John Paul II’s text, however, such a procedure would have to violate the basic rules of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction.
When “pastoral change” becomes a term by which some express their agenda to sweep aside the Church’s teaching as if doctrine were an obstacle to pastoral care, then speaking up in opposition is a duty of conscience. Hieronymus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other great Catholic authorities have attributed exemplary significance to the Antioch incident when Paul openly opposed Peter, who, on account of his ambiguous behavior, was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). Above all it is important to recall that the pope, as a “private person” (Lumen Gentium n. 25) or brother among brothers, cannot prescribe his personal theology and lifestyle or the spirituality of his religious order to the whole Church. Obedience as a religious vow is different from the obedience of faith that every Catholic owes to revelation and to its ecclesial mediation. The bishops are bound to obey the pope because of his judicial primacy and not on account of a personal vow they have taken. The papal and episcopal offices are at the service of preserving the unity of faith and communion. Therefore, it is among the pope’s and bishops’ first duties to prevent polarization and the rise of partisan mentalities.
All this means that in the exercise of its teaching ministry, it is not enough for the Church’s Magisterium simply to appeal to its judicial or disciplinary power as if its teachings were nothing but a matter of legal and doctrinal positivism. Rather, the Magisterium must seek to present a convincing case, showing how its presentation of the faith is in itself coherent and in continuity with the rest of Tradition. The authority of the papal Magisterium rests on its continuity with the teachings of previous popes. In fact, if a pope had the power to abolish the binding teachings of his predecessors, or if he had the authority even to reinterpret Holy Scripture against its evident meaning, then all his doctrinal decisions could in turn be abolished by his successor, whose successor in turn could undo or redo everything as he pleased. In this case we would not be witnessing a development of doctrine, but the dire spectacle of the Bark of Peter stranded on a sandbank.
Recently groups of bishops or individual episcopal conferences have issued directives concerning the reception of the sacraments. For these statements to be orthodox, it is not enough that they declare their conformity with the pope’s presumed intentions in Amoris Laetitia. They are orthodox only if they agree with the words of Christ preserved in the deposit of faith. Similarly, when cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity ask the pope for clarity on these matters, what they request is not a clarification of the pope’s opinion. What they seek is clarity regarding the continuity of the pope’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia with the rest of tradition.
Those who seek to accommodate the gospel message to the mentality of this world, invoking the authority of Cardinal Newman in their efforts, should consider what he says about the Church’s continuity of type. According to Newman, the true Church can be identified by the unchanging way in which the world has perceived her through the centuries, even amidst many developments. As Newman says, in the world’s eyes the Church is “a religious communion claiming a divine commission, and holding all other religious bodies around it heretical or infidel; it is a well-organized, well-disciplined body.” This communion “is spread over the known world; it may be weak or insignificant locally, but it is strong on the whole from its continuity,” and it is “a natural enemy to governments external to itself; it is intolerant and engrossing, and tends to a new modelling of society; it breaks laws, it divides families. It is a gross superstition; it is charged with the foulest crimes; it is despised by the intellect of the day.” Newman concludes: “And there is but one communion such. Place this description before Pliny or Julian; place it before Frederick the Second or Guizot. . . . Each knows at once, without asking a question, who is meant by it.” Where would Newman find such a communion today?
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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