- A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching
Noonan's thesis is that while the Catholic Church cannot change in holding to the deposit of faith, its moral doctrine has changed with regard to slavery, usury, and religious liberty, and it is in process of changing with regard to the dissolving of non-sacramental marriages. In his final thirty pages, he offers his reflections on factors that have influenced the development of moral doctrine.
Noonan treats slavery as the prime case of change in moral doctrine. He observes that no condemnation of this institution is found in Scripture or in the writings of the Fathers except for Gregory of Nyssa. Aquinas said slavery [End Page 279] was "added"to natural law, but it did not contradict it. Moral theologians such as St. Alphonsus Liguori raised no objection to it. In the colonial period several popes did condemn the enslavement of innocent people, and in 1839 Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade as "inhuman."But Francis P. Kenrick, the moral theologian later named Archbishop of Baltimore, insisted that the Pope had not condemned slavery as it was then practiced in the United States.
Vatican Council II, however, in Gaudium et Spes included slavery in a list of things it called probra (infamies), and John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor condemned all these things as "acts which are intrinsically evil."Noonan is convinced that here the Pope has condemned the ownership of one person by another as per se and always gravely wrong. But there is a weakness in his position, because the same list includes such things as subhuman living conditions and degrading conditions of work. Here, by "acts which are intrinsically evil," one would have to mean acts that reduce people to such conditions. By the same logic, one could conclude that what John Paul II condemned is no more than what previous popes had condemned, or what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls "a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights,"namely, "to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit."
Noonan next treats the development of the Church's judgment on usury when it meant charging any interest on a loan. In the time of Charlemagne the Church began to forbid this as against the natural law, and in 1182 Pope Urban III interpreted Jesus' words:"Lend, expecting nothing back," as condemning usury. Gradually, with the development of modern commerce, Rome came to understand that there were legitimate titles to interest on a loan, and that Jesus' words did not mean what Pope Urban III thought they meant.
Noonan asserts that, from St. Augustine to the eve of Vatican II, the doctrine that the Church should prevent the propagation of heresy, and rightly calls upon friendly civil powers to enforce its suppression, was taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. Vatican II, however, taught that all persons should enjoy freedom from coercion in religious matters. As Noonan observes, this change raises questions about the irreversibility of what has been taught by the ordinary magisterium.
After tracing the history of the Church's explanation and application of the "Pauline" and "Petrine" privileges, Noonan raises questions about the justification of papal power to dissolve the marriages of the unbaptized. He observes that this doctrine has developed without resolving the tension between natural indissolubility and the power to dissolve the marriages of two-thirds of the world's people. He believes that further development, in both theory and practice, must be awaited.
In his final section, Noonan suggests three ways in which development of moral doctrine takes place:by deepening the understanding of revelation; by the observation of human experience leading to a better understanding of natural [End Page 280] law; and by the enhancement of people's capacity to comprehend what the pursuit of truth and happiness by human beings depends upon.