Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Church and doctrinal change-reply

We have discussed this issue a bit before. One of the things that seems to characterize some discussions of this issue is a bit of proof-texting. It is easy to find an old statement on usury (or religious freedom) and compare it to a recent statement and identify what appears to be a change in Church teaching. The issues are usually more nuanced and careful studies don't jump to the conclusion that there have been changes in Church teaching. The example of usury, which was noted by Martin Marty, is typical. John Noonan wrote a lengthy tome on usury in the 1950s and he concluded (which might be a surprise to people) that the Church teaching hadn't changed. It was when the debate on contraception began in earnest in the early 1960s that John Noonan changed his position and concluded that the Church had changed its position on usury. I don't know that Noonan ever explained his change in position but it seemed to be strategic--to help support the view that it would be ok for the Church to change Her teaching on contraception.

I think the same points can be made about religious liberty. It is easy to find statements of 19th century Popes that appear to contradict Dignitatis Humanae. Yet, if one is careful to examine the problems faced by the 19th century Popes (e.g., religious indifferentism), then the teachings can be reconciled, as scholars such as Cardinal Dulles, Brian Harrison, Russ Hittinger, and Kevin Flannery have concluded. The charge of a "change" seems to be strategic--to help support the view that the Church ought to change some other contested matter.

I explored some of these points (and cite some of the relevant literature) in "A Critique of John Noonan's Approach to Development of Doctrine, 1 St. Thomas L. J. 285-306 (2003).

Richard M.


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