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  • Is Dignitatis Humanae a Case of Authentic Doctrinal Development?
  • Ian Ker (bio)

There is a famous sentence in John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that is regularly quoted by liberal Catholics arguing for a change in the Church's teaching or discipline: "In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."1 What, however, is never quoted by these progressives is the preceding sentence: "It [an 'idea' like that of Christianity] changes with them [changing historical circumstances] in order to remain the same." In other words, change is necessary in order to ensure continuity of identity. But, Newman argues, there are two different kinds of changes: there are changes that preserve identity and there are changes that change identity, that is to say, there are changes that are developments and there are changes that are corruptions. The question I wish to address in this article is this, then: granted that Dignitatis Humanae represented a change in the Church's teaching, is this change an authentic development or a corruption, as notoriously was believed by the late Archbishop Lefebvre who voted against the Declaration on Religious Freedom at the Council? In the words of John Courtney Murray, "It was, of course, the most controversial document of [End Page 149] the whole Council, largely because it raised with sharp emphasis the issue that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates—the issue of the development of doctrine."2

Newman's Essay represented the first serious sustained attempt by a Catholic theologian (as he was shortly to be) to account for the undoubted fact of development, and it still remains the classic starting point for any theology of development. In it the author provided seven "tests" as he called them in the first edition of 1845, or "notes" as he termed them in the revised edition of 1878, to distinguish between genuine developments and inauthentic corruptions, or, in other words, changes that ensure continuity and changes that constitute disruptions of identity. I propose to apply these tests or notes to Dignitatis Humanae.

The first and most important criterion—not that Newman says it is, but it is the one to which he devotes easily the most space—is "preservation of type." He is careful to acknowledge that this does not rule out "all variation, nay, considerable alteration of proportion and relation, as time goes on, in the parts or aspects of an idea." In fact, he argues, appearances may be deceptive since "real perversions and corruptions are often not so unlike externally to the doctrine from which they come, as are changes which are consistent with it and true developments" (173, 176). The fact, then, that Dignitatis Humanae may appear to contradict previous teaching does not in itself mean it is not a genuine development. Before the Second Vatican Council, the condemnation of religious liberty meant that people were not free to choose whatever religion they pleased. And it is this false "idea" of religious freedom that is also rejected by Dignitatis Humanae when it declares that the "one true religion subsists in [here, of course, the Declaration echoes the Constitution on the Church which modified, or rather developed the previous teaching that, simply, the true Church is the Catholic Church] the Catholic and Apostolic Church"; and that "all men are bound to seek the truth . . . and to embrace the truth . . . and to hold fast to it." It also "professes its belief that it is upon the human [End Page 150] conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force."

Nowhere does the document speak about "freedom of conscience," implying that a person has the right to do whatever their conscience tells them to do simply because their conscience tells them to. Consciences can be erroneous and need to be informed, or as the Declaration puts it, "every man has the duty . . . to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, with the use of all suitable means" (§ 3). And so Dignitatis Humanae is unambiguous...


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