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  • Beyond Distributive Justice
  • Thomas D. Williams L.C. (bio)

The "development of doctrine" debates of the nineteenth century culminated in the now classic "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine," first published by John Henry Newman in 1845. Drawing on the writings of the Church Fathers, Newman sought to lay out stable guidelines to distinguish between the authentic development of doctrine and its corruption. For Newman, such arguments held more than academic interest. They provided assurance that the Roman Catholic Church (into which he was in the process of incorporating) with its centuries-old structures and doctrines was indeed the same Church founded by Jesus Christ upon the Apostles.

Newman set out to explain certain difficulties and apparent historical inconsistencies in Catholic belief and practice, but in so doing, he also produced an apologia for the necessity of the development of doctrine. Not only is development a historical fact, but it is also a requirement of doctrine. In the first place, this development burgeons, as Newman realized, as an essential fruit of theological study. Theology, in its classical sense as fides quaerens intellectum, [End Page 90] seeks an ever deeper understanding of those truths embraced through faith and offers the Church new ways of understanding and formulating her beliefs. As Newman wrote, these truths "from their very depth and richness cannot be fully understood at once, but are more and more clearly expressed and taught the longer they last." Second, the emergence of variant theological opinions and heterodox beliefs also stimulates the development of doctrine by prodding the Church's magisterium to clarify the Church's stand on questions heretofore undefined. Though not a good in itself, heresy yields the positive by-product of more precise expressions of the Church's beliefs. Last, from a more pastoral angle, the development of doctrine also issues from efforts to make the deposit of faith intelligible to people of different historical and cultural milieus, through the adaptation of its language and explanations to changing situations.

The doctrines considered by Newman in his essay dealt principally with articles of faith and sacramental discipline. These topics, such as the canon of the New Testament, the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, the Eucharist, original sin, and infant baptism, all form part of what we would now call dogmatic or systematic theology. Yet a case can certainly be made that where the development of doctrine in the area of dogmaticsinevitably occurs to accommodate new historical situations, the Church's moraldoctrine necessarily develops at a still faster pace.

Advances in the medical and genetic sciences, for example, necessitate a permanently updated response from the Church to guide and form the consciences of the faithful. Complex ethical issues of recent vintage such as cloning or stem cell research have arisen because of scientific progress that opens up whole new areas of moral concern. Yet nowhere is the need for ongoing development more acutely felt than in the area of the Church's social teaching, that branch of moral theology that deals with the ordering of social, political, economic, and cultural realities according to the exigencies of the Gospel. [End Page 91]

The foundational principles underlying Catholic social doctrine, based as they are on human nature and Christian revelation, do not change. Therefore, the centrality of the human person and his inviolable dignity, concerns for justice and charity, and attention to the common good, will always form the base of the Church's social thought. Yet many other corollary judgments require an ongoing adaptation.

A recent case in point is Catholic just war theory. Originally articulated by St. Augustine and restructured by Thomas Aquinas, Catholic understanding of conditions for waging war justly continues to undergo needed development. The fact that such doctrines develop does not necessarily mean that our predecessors got it wrong or that the Church is simply changing her mind regarding prior teaching, but rather that major shifts in geopolitical structures and military practice have radically altered the character and moral makeup of human warfare. Reacting to the emergence of weapons of mass destruction and the horrors of World War II, the Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, called...


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