On March 30, the Vatican announced its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle used to justify centuries of colonialism and oppression of Indigenous people. Apart from the significance of the act itself—which Indigenous people and some church leaders had called for as a show of the church’s contrition—the move also revealed a surprising flexibility in how the church relates to itself and its teachings. An unsigned joint statement issued by two Vatican dicasteries (Promoting Integral Human Development and Culture and Education) ruled that centuries-old papal decrees could not be understood as part of the Catholic faith.
An appropriate reaction might be: “They can do that!?”
For a church that holds to eternal, divinely revealed truths, the idea of changing a teaching seems to clash with its mission. This is certainly the case with dogmas—doctrines about concepts such as the trinity and the immaculate conception that the church has defined as being divinely revealed. But other doctrines—such as just war theory and the aforementioned discovery doctrine—are in fact subject to developments in the church’s understanding. (Disciplines such as priestly celibacy and Lenten fasting requirements are the most pliable category.)
“Pope Francis (or any pope) does not have the authority to change church teaching. The Pope is tasked with safeguarding the doctrines of the church, not changing them,” Jason Izolt wrote on the website Catholic365 in 2020.
This reflects the view that the constant nature of Catholic teaching is a beautiful anchor that holds the church fast in an unsettled world. As an institution that understands itself as the body of Christ encountering the world in every time and place, the gospel presents new and different responses, challenges, and consolations alike to each new era. But that is not exactly a static reality.
“I hope nobody seriously believes that nothing can change,” says Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. “I hope it’s more of an understanding of how we can be faithful to receiving tradition and handing it on.”
The church has traditionally responded by discerning the realities of a specific context and prayerfully responding. At times, this has been driven by crises and even failure. And, as the pontificate of Pope Francis enters its second decade, the question becomes whether the church will embrace this facet of its identity with greater intentionality moving forward.
Changes to Catholic teaching—or development of doctrine, to use the technical term—have been frequently in focus under Pope Francis, who, in revamping the Synod of Bishops early in his pontificate, introduced the prospect that the church might loosen its long-held prohibition against divorced Catholics who had civilly remarried without an annulment from receiving the Eucharist. In the resulting document, Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family), Francis threaded together various pastoral and doctrinal concerns into a path of discernment that hadn’t before been explicitly highlighted.
Proponents of this and other changes cite the writings of St. Vincent of Lerins, who spoke of church teaching as a developing body that could grow and mature but that would not mutate to become something extraneous to itself or what it was before.
Such growth might occur because of deeper appreciation of a teaching that relates to and influences another teaching. For instance, in 2007 the Vatican announced its definitive rejection of the long-theorized concept of limbo—a state on the fringes of heaven for babies who die without being baptized—because it was not compatible with Catholic understanding of God’s grace and mercy.
Changes in human reality can also result in doctrinal alterations, such as the loosening of teaching against charging interest on loans (the Fifth Lateran Council in 1517) or greater understandings of mental illness leading to a more merciful posture toward people who die by suicide. Pope Francis changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 to say that the death penalty is now “inadmissible” due to both the ability to protect a population through incarceration and a deeper appreciation of human dignity.
“Perhaps the terminology of evolution is most helpful,” says Stowe. Noting that Catholics don’t see radical change in beliefs but new interpretations in how beliefs inform the church’s thinking, he says, “We’re living with a 2,000-year-old institution that has to adapt itself to contemporary realities. . . . When the Huns are invading, you have a different set of priorities.”
Michigan-based catechist, writer, and podcaster Paul Fahey cautions that the church understands its teaching authority (the magisterium) as applying a living tradition to circumstances in every age and that the catechism cites “frequent repetition” of a teaching as a sign that it still binds Catholics’ consciences. An example of this could include the development of Catholic social teaching, begun under Pope Leo XIII in 1891 with the encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) and restated and teased out in subsequent social encyclicals by nearly all his successors down to Francis.
“There’s danger in imposing historic teachings as binding if they haven’t been repeated in generations,” says Fahey. “We must read past teachings in light of the current magisterium.”
The most recent ecumenical council is also a good benchmark for the development of doctrine. The Second Vatican Council was a major source of contemporary adaptation touching virtually every aspect of church life, from highly visible reforms of the liturgy to the still-in-process centering of laypeople as the protagonists of the church’s mission activity. The council also illustrated how the church’s understanding of doctrine can change in major ways. For instance, as Vatican II embraced a positive view of non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions, teachings such as “no salvation outside the church” and “through Christ all are saved” transitioned from exclusive statements focused on visible membership in the Catholic Church to declarations of the immense power the incarnation holds as the eternal bridge of grace between God and creation—a grace available to all people.
Vatican II also offers a clue as to how two dicasteries could have the authority to one day cancel the Doctrine of Discovery in the space of nine short paragraphs. Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World) speaks of the positive, mutually beneficial exchange between the church and cultures, in effect overriding the earlier Doctrine of Discovery without ever naming it.
All that remained for the Vatican in 2023 was to apply the council, retroactively and explicitly. But such an action requires a firm grasp of what the council said and did.
“The difficulty of talking about change and having Catholics believe that change is possible has to do with the failure to implement Vatican II,” says Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “It’s a highly complex, highly pluralistic world. Vatican II gave help to Catholics to navigate to a pluralistic, multicultural, multi-religious world. That is the most urgent thing.”
Reading the signs
Vatican II and the paradigm shifts it heralded did not suddenly materialize out of nothing. The council reflected decades of theological and pastoral ferment in liturgy, ecumenism, and other aspects of church life, coupled with the reckoning of World War II. This percolation of ideas finding their way into official expressions of doctrine at the council reflects a longstanding, ongoing cycle, says Annie Selak, associate director of the Georgetown University Women’s Center.
“Church teaching should reflect what is currently happening in the church,” she says. “Church teaching and church practice have a cyclical relationship. At its best, church teaching is reflective of church practice, but there are times when church teaching has not yet caught up with church practice.”
“The church is never on the cutting edge of any kind of change . . . but it hopefully responds prayerfully, pastorally, and appropriately,” says Stowe. “Change for change’s sake is not a value in itself.” However, he says, “Without change, things become stale.”
To stave off staleness in its teaching and practice, the church discerns what St. Pope John XXIII—and later, the Council—called the “Signs of the Times.” One widely adopted framework in the church of the 20th century is the “See, Judge, Act” model of Belgian labor priest and cardinal Joseph Cardijn, who was also a council father.
“What are the challenges? What do we see as Catholic? What are the problems we need to overcome? . . . It’s engaging the Holy Spirit to help us discern what we see,” says Cincinnati-based political theologian Vanessa Wibberley Denier. She notes that this model is also on display in the Synod process convened by Pope Francis. He’s basically saying to the hierarchy: “Use this as a tool to engage your flock and let’s become a humble church and overcome these ecclesiologies of exclusion.”
Perhaps the most profound application of this process at Vatican II was the church’s response to the horrors of World War II and the Shoah by repudiating the long-held “teaching of contempt” that the church had espoused against the Jewish people for their purported role in the death of Jesus.
“Bad practices can evolve too and become deeply entrenched,” says Stowe.
The council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, not only repudiated this teaching; it also said the church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in all non-Christian religions. And the council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, declared that all people—not just Catholics—have religious freedom. This reversed a long-espoused doctrine of “error has no rights” regarding the religious freedom of non-Catholics. The motivation for the change appears in the Latin name of the document: a deeper appreciation of religious freedom as part of human dignity.
That the church could recognize its role in contributing to the murder of six million Jewish people and purify centuries of toxic teaching is another indicator of how the Vatican was able to respond to the cries of Indigenous people and reject the Doctrine of Discovery. It also highlights how the church is subject to something expected of all its members: an ongoing process of conversion.
“We have to change our horizon. We have to alter where we’re actually looking,” says Nichole Flores, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, on the process of recognizing the human dignity of people alienated from the church, a process of “reorienting our field of vision in relation to questions of justice and dignity and the common good.”
The conversion to a more merciful posture has been a hallmark of the church’s journey since St. Pope John XXIII heralded the “medicine of mercy” at the opening of Vatican II. But Pope Francis has explicitly made it a pastoral priority from early in his pontificate. His 2013 comment in reference to members of the LGBTQ community—“Who am I to judge?”—began a new approach to a marginalized community, one that quickly rippled throughout the global church.
“I see that as a pastoral question,” says Stowe, whose ministry as bishop of Lexington has included LGBTQ outreach. “There’s a community that needs attention and pastoral care. So you respond in a way that’s affirming rather than denigrating. I do that for the same reason I attend synagogue on the high holy days.”
Barb Kozee, a doctoral student at Boston College, was a senior in high school when Francis was elected. Her journey as a queer adult in the church, beginning with her time as undergraduate at Georgetown University, speaks to the generational shift Francis has affected in a relatively short time.
“I don’t think I have any negative impressions of Catholicism,” Kozee says of her personal experiences, which she also sees as nurtured by and contributing to the still-emerging fields of feminist and queer theology.
“The ability to embody these different images of what it means to be Catholic is one of the biggest gifts the shifts of Vatican II have given us,” she says. “This new understanding of church is a huge, huge change that young people now are growing up with.”
Dominican Sister of Peace Luisa Derouen has ministered to transgender people for over 20 years with the full support of her community, but she did not go public until 2018, five years after the election of Francis.
“As a vowed religious himself, he understands the prophetic role of religious life in the church. Trans people who still cared about the institutional Catholic Church took courage from his plea for a culture of encounter—to meet people where they are and recognize the presence of God in them,” says Derouen. “If ever there was a time for us women religious to stand with the marginalized and outcast, surely now is the time.”
It is a time to listen. As the synodal journey enters its universal phase in late 2023 and 2024, it follows over two years of deep listening at the local, national, and continental levels of the church. That has included listening to marginalized and outcast people, people whose experience of church has included sexism, racism, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. While Pope Francis has cautioned against going into the process presuming to know what changes need to happen, the input people have offered has been candid about where to start.
“The only way the church can credibly be church is to address its own wounds,” says Selak at Georgetown, whose first book, The Wounded Church (Fordham University Press), comes out in 2024. “By glossing over it, that prevents any kind of healing, and it prevents mission.” She adds, “What the synod document is doing right now is pulling together what so many of us know and feel and have said. It’s giving voice to the universal church, to the laity, by saying that racism is in the world and racism is in the church, and these aren’t disconnected.”
“The listening actions of the synodal process are one stage, one kind of event that happens in that process,” says Flores at the University of Virginia. “But I think I would agree that listening does not necessarily lead directly to change.”
Megan Goodwin, visiting lecturer on philosophy and religion at Northeastern University and the author of the book Abusing Religion (Bucknell University Press), herself an ex-Catholic, also tempers expectations for what the process can deliver.
“Do I think the magisterium is going to change meaningfully in the next thousand years? No. Power protects itself,” she says. “At the same time, the church is not the magisterium. The church is the people.” Goodwin says it is in this latter fact that there is a huge groundswell toward lasting material change.
“The limits of Pope Francis could well be the limits of Vatican II,” says Faggioli at Villanova. He offers the example of the synodal way that the German Catholic bishops have pursued in recent years, explicitly calling for changes to teachings and structures alike that have, in his words, had the Vatican under Pope Francis responding with “a certain Vatican II literalism.”
“Can this church work according to the letter of those documents, the way in which the documents have been interpreted by the Vatican in the last 60 years, or should we have something like a supplement?” Faggioli says. “Pope Francis is asking us that question. The answer is not very clear.”
Even if the issues raised and discussions fostered by the synod challenge the church to grow past a container that began to open 60 years ago, Kozee says that the raising of those issues and the act of listening becoming a habit are already major changes.
“The embodied process of just participating is new to us,” she says, adding that major movements in the church get their start from “realizing I’m not the only person who feels this way.”
Flores notes that a public reckoning, such as the one her community in Charlottesville experienced after white supremacist demonstrations and violence in 2017, resonate with what Pope Francis has set out in the synodal process. “[This is] not to create further divisions or exclusion but to have an encounter with truth—but not as understood by one person or one group of people, but a more robust account,” she says. “I think it’s a holy process.”
And the term process can apply not just to the synod or to any doctrinal development, past, present, or future. It can mean embracing, with intentionality and serenity, the fact that the gospel moving through history needs to be attentive to each generation in their encounter with Jesus.
“If we’re trying to live into the mission of the church, making the reign of God known on Earth, that demands that the church is open to change and responding to the needs of the world,” says Selak. “That’s not a threat to the hierarchy. That’s not a threat to the mission. That’s not a threat to the people, but that is in fact a sign of healthiness in the church.”
This article also appears in the September 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 9, page 10-15). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Eric Koch, Dutch National Archives