The rationalisation of heresy
At the local level in my diocese, the argument is currently being pushed by archdiocesan administrator Msgr John Woods in a piece in this month's edition of The Voice, the archdiocesan newspaper.
But he is far from alone, with those who oppose the US bishops' opposition to compulsory coverage of contraception in the Obama Health Care plan, for example, making similar arguments in the Jesuit run America Magazine and elsewhere.
The argument generally has two threads, a theological one misusing a set of code words such as the 'hierarchy of truth' to imply that some doctrines are 'truths' are negotiable; and a historical one, that claims some specific examples (such as slavery) where it is alleged that the Church has changed its teaching.
Let's take a quick look at these to see why neither line of argument stands up to scrutiny. History first.
Slavery, usury and freedom of religion
The three historical examples typically given that allegedly support the claim that the Church has outright changed its doctrines are slavery, usury and freedom of religion, and the claim is typically based on a book by James Noonan, called the The Church that Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching.
Yet the arguments in this book have been comprehensively refuted by a number of respectable authors. Consider, for example, the article by Avery Cardinal Dulles, certainly no rabid traditionalist, in First Things, back in 2005.
In relation to slavery, Dulles pointed out that Noonan skips over much of the complex history of the Church's actual teaching on the subject, and misses the nuances of what both older and more recent popes have actually said on the subject.
Noonan claims for example that Pope John Paul II reversed traditional teaching on slavery and condemned it as always inherently sinful. Dulles rejects this view, arguing that in fact the late Pope simply reiterated previous condemnations of the slave trade, as well as of forms of slavery that degrade people. Slavery per se, he argues, has never been condemned as contrary to the natural law, no matter that we might find it discomforting (as for example St Paul did in his letter to Philemon, even while stopping short of demanding that Philemon manumit all of his slaves including the convert Onesimus), what matters is how it is constituted.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the Church is in favour of slavery in some forms. Rather, simply that it recognises that some forms of societal organisation used in the past (such as serfdom for example) were not inherently sinful, even if they are not consistent with what we now see as the best ways of fostering human spiritual, intellectual and societal development.
Usury and religious freedom?
Dulles makes similar points about Noonan's other examples, suggesting that the Church's historical prohibition on usury, for example, still needs to be given real weight in Catholic teaching today, even if the way this prohibition is understood has changed. And indeed, this position is reflected in the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church (para 341). You can find a useful review of the whole topic over at The Distributive Review.
Similarly, on religious freedom, Dulles points out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not endorse a right to error in the name of 'religious freedom'. Rather, it states that:
The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.
While some traditionalists certainly do see this as a change of position by the Church (and therefore an example of where Vatican II's documents are in error), the better view sets the modern understanding of religious freedom in a hermeneutic of continuity.
Social teaching vs dogma and the natural law
The real key though to understanding this debate, is to understand the distinctions between dogmatic teachings on the faith and the moral law, on the one hand, which are fixed forever; and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching on the other, which though the principles themselves are fixed, their particular expression at any particular time, their practical application, is not.
Dulles points out that social teachings depend for their realization on a particular set of societal structures:
"Doctrinal development follows a different course in social ethics than in the realm of revelation. The formulation of revealed truth develops through the discernment of new truths that are formally implicit in the apostolic deposit. Such truths, once proclaimed by the Church as divinely revealed, are dogmas and must be held by all as matters of divine and Catholic faith. Social teaching, on the other hand, consists of behavioral norms for social conduct in conformity with the gospel. While the principles remain constant, the proximate norms are not free from contingency because society itself is in flux. Specific regulations rarely have the universal and permanent character that belongs to dogma. Development in social teaching is not simply a matter of articulating what was always implicitly taught but a way of applying the teaching to new social situations."
Take for example the principle of human stewardship of the environment. It is a principle that we must all accept and give effect to. But it doesn't mean that we have to accept a particular set of disputed factual propositions (such as that global warming is occurring and is due to human activity). And even if we do accept those facts, we don't have to agree with any one possible solution (such as a carbon tax). By contrast, that abortion constitutes murder and is always and everywhere condemned by the natural moral law is a teaching that is fixed for all time and for which there can be no exceptions.
The hierarchy of truths and the development of doctrine?
Yet in fact of course, so-called liberal 'progressives' do deliberately confuse these concepts.
Take this interesting explanation by Msgr Woods of Canberra-Goulburn on now retired Bishop Pat Power's call for 'reform of Church teaching and practice':
"One must, of course, distinguish between personal comment and Church teaching. The teaching of the Church in matters of faith and morals arises from Scripture and Tradition - "the one deposit of faith" - in which a hierarchy of truths, in many instances open to legitimate development by the magisterium or teaching office of the Church, call for varied assent." And yet the hierarchy of truths proclaimed by the Church and the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary teaching of the Church reflects a nuanced understanding in both form and content of that teaching."
But here is the thing. The 'hierarchy of truths' is not meant to suggest that some are subject to change, as Msgr Woods implies.
Rather, as the Catechism points out, it is about the mutual connections between truths, reflecting the idea that some are more foundational catechetically speaking, than others. You can find a good summation of the arguments over the use of the term here.
Nor does the decree of Religious Freedom permit, as some have suggested, a way to 'nuance' around the requirement that we give religious submission of intellect and will to teachings of the ordinary magisterium on faith and morals. The Decree on Religous Freedom is not about what Catholics are required to believe for salvation!
More importantly, though we often speak of 'development' of doctrine, what is really meant is growth in our understanding of the faith (CCC 94). It is not that doctrines can fundamentally change. Rather, as the Compendium of the Catechism puts it, the Church is able to 'penetrate more deeply and to live more fully from the gift of divine revelation.'
Beware false prophets
Msgr Woods goes on to suggest that the 'personal comments' of the bishop might in fact be part both of this 'nuanced' understanding of the form and content of Church teaching and a stimulus to the process of 'development' of doctrine:
"Accordingly, personal comments on matters of faith, morals and discipline might at one and the same time engage some, be judged to be prophetic even, while causing disquiet for others".
Yet there is a basic principle of discernment involved here. Something cannot be 'prophetic' if it is directly contrary to the teaching of the Church.
If someone is advocating something such as the ordination of women which has been infallibly taught not to be possible, it is not a case of a permissible 'personal comment'.
Similarly, if someone advocates the practice of something contrary to the moral law, such as homosexual acts, it should cause us more than mild 'disquiet'! The proper response is not to laud the role of 'individual conscience' as Msgr Woods goes on to do in his July Voice article, but to cry out with horror that the salvation of souls is being endangered.
Oh Lord, give us true teachers of the faith...