How Catholic doctrine developed: case studies from Judge John Noonan

Demonstrators march during a Feb. 25 rally organized by Catholics Against the Death Penalty in Southern California (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters). Demonstrators at a rally organized by Catholics Against the Death Penalty in Southern California. Earlier in Christian history, some defended its use (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters).

Judge John T. Noonan, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the author of many books, including Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (1965), died on April 17, 2017. This essay originally appeared in the April 3, 1999 issue of America.

It is a truth acknowledged by all Catholics that revelation closed with the death of the last of the Apostles. No new revelation has been given or is expected. Novelty—often characterized disparagingly as "dangerous novelty"—is a sign of departure from what has been handed on. Perpetuating the teaching of her Lord, the church does not welcome and cannot abide innovators.

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Yet Christianity is not a relic laid in a museum; it is not a book entombed in an archive. Christianity is alive. It lives in the living people of God. The law of life, as each of us knows from our own lives, is change. As John Henry Newman put it in 1843 in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,"

A living organism, subject to change as a condition of life, and oriented to change for perfection, and yet admitting nothing new to its constituent core—there is the paradox, there is the source of the tensions that mark the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church. It is that paradox that deserves to be approached irenically in reaching common ground for all persons of good will. The desire to deny change is understandable. Those who do so fear the uncertainty for the future that change in the past implies may happen. If this could change, why not that? Doctrines and practices that seem deplorable, even detestable, loom as horrid possibilities, no longer to be dismissed by a simple recitation of the mantra, "Nothing changes."

There is a rational basis for some apprehension. Characteristics of organic life as fundamental as change are continuity and balance. Organisms do not suddenly break from their roots. At all times to live is to keep all vital functions in balance. A seemingly small change can at times be disruptive of the life of the whole. If the biological analogy is appropriate, the majority of mutations are harmful. Change is a law of life but not the only law of life.

Christianity is not a relic laid in a museum; it is not a book entombed in an archive. It lives in the living people of God. 

On the other hand, facts are stubborn. Wishing them away, torturous distinctions, simple denial will not dispel the truth, so refusal to admit the existence of past changes with the implicit possibility of future changes is not a path open to anyone aware of history. Why should experience be feared when the church is its repository and preserver?

That development has occurred in the past is beyond dispute. It was the very fact that the Catholic Church, its doctrines and practices looked in 1843 so very different from the primitive Catholic Church of the first centuries that led Newman to write his essay, a kind of apologia for his conversion, published when he was still an Anglican and reissued by him as a Catholic, an essay that boldly accepted the development of doctrine as a mark of the true church. The essay pointed to various developments: of a canon for the New Testament, of reaching a fixed position on original sin, of instituting infant baptism, of requiring communion in one species, of establishing the consubstantiality of the Father with the Son and the equality of the three persons of the Trinity, of authorizing and encouraging the veneration of the Mother of God and of asserting the supremacy of the Pope—all being so many instances of developments rooted in the revelation but worked out in the course of conflict in the life of the church. Far from being a repetition of a message, these changes made manifest dimensions in the Christian life not immediately grasped by the first Christians.

Newman had a profoundly conservative character, openly distrustful of "the wild living intellect" of the individual that might run off anywhere if not constrained by authority. But he celebrated these developments as authentic and he celebrated development itself as an authentic mark of the living church. He did not fear for the future. And a century and a half after An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Paul II chose in “Fides et Ratio,” an encyclical issued last October, to single out Cardinal Newman as a notable modern guide to the rational apprehension of matters of faith.

Newman did not address the development of moral doctrine. For Americans that is what is of greatest interest. As James Brown informed Alexis de Tocqueville about Americans during Tocqueville's tour of America in the 1830s: "In the depths of their souls they have a pretty decided indifference to dogma. One never talks about that in the churches. It is morality with which they are concerned." Let us, then, look at some of the moral developments that have occurred since the New Testament was written. For convenience I will adopt an alphabetical approach:

Judge John T. Noonan Jr.
Judge John T. Noonan Jr.

Adultery. Adultery is the sexual connection of two persons, one of whom is married to someone else. Adultery cannot occur absent an existing marriage. Whether a marriage exists has been the subject of extensive development. The Gospel texts indicate that those whom God has joined together are married. Addressed to Jews, the words of the Lord make no exception for the unbaptized. Marriage, it is a common teaching, is by nature indissoluble. However, as early as the First Letter to the Corinthians, an exception was recognized: A convert, married to an unbeliever who abandoned him or her, was free to leave and, at least by implication, was free to remarry. By the fourth century, the right to remarry, the so-called Pauline privilege, was clearly asserted. What would have been adultery if the Gospels were followed literally could be lawful Christian marriage. Other changes followed, first in relaxing the conditions necessary to claim the Pauline privilege, then in the creation of the Petrine privilege, a right reserved to the Holy See to dissolve any nonsacramental marriage in order to permit one of the parties to it to enter a valid marriage with a Catholic. The Petrine dissolution of the marriage of two unbelievers in this way could transform what had been adultery for a Catholic living with one of them into what became a Catholic marriage. The redefinition of certain marriages as dissoluble was a development in the meaning of adultery.

Death Penalty. The death penalty was part of the mechanics of govemment of the Roman Empire and was not condemned as intrinsically immoral by Christians of the empire. Christian emperors did not hesitate to employ it. Individual bishops sought mercy but only in individual cases. In the 12th century the church accepted the death penalty as the appropriate penalty for a recalcitrant heretic. During the Counter-Reformation eminent theologians defended the church's role in securing the elimination of heretics in this way. In the 20th century, after World War II, the church began to see matters differently. In 1995, in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope John Paul II found conditions justifying the death penalty as necessary to the defense of society "very rare, if in fact any occur at all." The moral judgment about the death penalty is a very interesting instance of a moral rule in transition. Without justification by social necessity, the implication runs, executions are themselves a form of homicide. Still, the pope addresses governors to ask for mercy, not to tell them that they are about to become murderers.

Religious liberty. Christ forced no one to believe. The Apostles followed his example. But after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, imperial force was employed on behalf of orthodoxy. The Donatists, ultraconservative in not forgiving apostasy, were compelled by beatings to return to the faith: St. Augustine approved and defended the coercion exercised. In the Middle Ages deadly force was used against lapsed heretics and defended by the theologians. In the 19th century it was recognized that, in hypothetical circumstances, a state might not have the duty of suppressing heresy and that such circumstances now obtained in, for example, the United States. Only in 1965, in the "Declaration on Religious Freedom," did the Second Vatican Council proclaim the right of every person to be free from governmental coercion bearing on religious faith. What had once been theologically seen as an obligation (the duty of the state to repress heresy) was now theologically seen as an invasion of the human person.

Like the death penalty, slavery was accepted by the early Christians as a social institution. 

Slavery. Like the death penalty, slavery was accepted by the early Christians as a social institution. Kindness to slaves was recommended; manumission was acknowledged as a deed of charity; but as St. Augustine crisply put it, "Christ did not make men free from being slaves." The opposition to slavery was started in the 17th century by Quakers and carried on in 19th-century America by Congregationalists and Unitarians. Only after slavery had been abolished by all European nations, by the United States and by Brazil did Pope Leo XIII issue a general condemnation of human bondage. The present pope, John Paul II, has declared slavery to be intrinsically evil. Once morally licit and often engaged in by popes, religious orders and otherwise virtuous Christians, slaveholding has become seriously sinful behavior.

Usury. Opposition to exploiting a fellow Jew in lending appears in the Old Testament. Jesus is reported in the Gospel of Luke as teaching, "Lend freely, hoping nothing thereby" (6:35). In the patristic period excessive interest was condemned as cruel. Beginning about 1150 the moral rule was laid down that it was wrong to make a profit from a loan. "Lend freely, hoping nothing thereby," was papally interpreted as a commandment. Popes, councils, bishops, theologians joined in the condemnation of usury, understood as anything added to the principal of a loan. In the 16th century, as the economy of Europe became more commercial, profitable alternative ways of extending credit were recognized by theologians engaged in a fierce battle with curial conservatives. By the 18th century the old usury rule was a shadow, formally maintained by the papacy, ineffective in practice. By the 20th century, investments in banks were commonplace for popes, bishops and ordinary Christian folk. What had been prohibited had become lawful.

The list is not exhaustive, but these five examples illustrate the development of moral values so that the impermissible becomes permissible (certain marriages, once classed as adulterous; lending with the intention to profit from the loan); the permissible becomes impermissible (slaveholding; the common use of the death penalty); and the obligatory becomes forbidden (the state repression of heresy). The developments depend, in part, on changes in social conditions. They also depend, in part, on changes in perspective and theological analysis. For example, the developments on usury were facilitated by analyzing not the loan transaction but looking at the loan from the perspective of the lender. The developments on adultery were facilitated by discovering in the pope a power to dissolve certain marriages. The developments on the death penalty, religious liberty and slavery were facilitated by greater insight into the demands of human nature. In every instance, too, it may fairly be contended, the developments have reflected a deeper insight into the Gospel, a fuller realization of its message, a greater conformity to Christ.

Faced with the facts of change, the informed reader could go in several directions. The facts could lead one to say that the church was simply wrong—the position taken by the Protestant controversialists whom Newman was seeking to disarm and the position taken by 19th-century rationalists such as William Lecky in his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism. Believers in the Catholic Church must find this reaction unacceptable. Another response, that of believers, is to controvert the facts and deny that change has ever occurred. Newman did not believe he could do this; the historical record was too plain. We cannot do it now.

A third response, also of believers, is to exclaim, "All this has changed; therefore any change is possible." Once stated, this position is pushed further. The existence of past change is said to prove the desirability of future change. The discovery of history leads to a reaction like that of first-year students of law who, on discovering the many variations of law, think that there is nothing stable and certain there, that all is flexible, to be molded to taste—a gross misperception of an organic enterprise. The argument that because certain changes have occurred other changes should take place is an equally gross fallacy.

The appropriate response is to conclude: Change has occurred; let us ascertain the principles that guide development. That many doctrines not grasped by the first Christians, and many customs unknown to them, have emerged as part of Christianity as the outcome of prayer, worship, reflection, argument, conflict and the assertion of authority strongly suggests that developments will occur in the future. As long as there is life in the Christian community, there will be development. The discernment of authentic development will never cease to be a task. Believers have no reason to fear.

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