Lesson 4a: The Development of Moral Doctrine

By development of doctrine in the Church is meant that though public revelation was complete with Jesus and the Apostles, the Church's understanding and formulation of this unchangeable doctrine in the course of history can develop positively or even negatively. Positive developments take place when through prayer, experience of Christian living, controversies that reveal false interpretations, etc. the Church comes to see some element in Jesus' teaching more clearly or formulates it more precisely by freeing it of mistaken interpretations or renders it consistent with other formulations. Negative development is when a teaching formerly well understood in the Church becomes to a degree neglected or less clearly formulated. A positive dogmatic example is the Christological definition of Chalcedon that Jesus is a Divine Person having both divine and human natures, occasioned by the heresy of Arius. A positive moral example is the Church's present condemnation of human slavery that for a long time it had not clearly realized was totally inconsistent with New Testament teaching on human dignity. An example of negative moral development was the way for a long time the Church relied on the state to punish heresy. It had not done this in the Early Church and Vatican II has again declared the full meaning of the rights of human conscience.

Therefore John Paul II has called on the members of the Church to acknowledge and renounce some of their past errors in preparation for the Third Millennium. He has mentioned the Vatican's own condemnation of Galileo in scientific matters and the abuses of the Inquisition in moral matters. The Church in its effort to conform to secular notions of legal due process for some time adopted the procedures of Roman Law that required the use of the torture of witnesses to confirm their testimony. Today the Church condemns torture as contrary to human dignity and the natural law.

How are such admissions of error compatible with the teaching of the Church that the Magisterium by reason of the guidance of the Holy Spirit is infallible in definitive teachings on faith and morals? This question will be discussed in the next lesson. Here I will only note that theologians may and usually do continue to discuss teachings of the Church. They need to do so to determine a teaching's level of authority, to discover its sources in the Bible and Sacred Tradition, to improve its formulation, to show its inter-relation to and consistency with other doctrines -- also to discuss its application to new facts and situations, and even suggest how it it could be better taught. All of this scholarly effort contributes to the development of doctrine. Nevertheless, since theology is based on faith, and the bishops and pope alone have their mandate to teach from Christ, they, not the theologians, can alone pass definitive judgment on what is of faith and what is not. Theological opinion not based on this teaching of the Magisterium is not authentic theology, any more than is scientific opinion not based on observed facts real science. Even if theologians discovers for certain (which history shows is very rare) that the Magisterium has made an error, they ought to present their arguments with humility and in a manner that will not seem to discredit the Magisterium. In particular it is irresponsible of theologians to urge on the faithful dissenting theological opinions as if they had an authority equal to that of the Magisterium. One has only to read such New Testament writings as 2 Peter, Jude, and 1 John to see that the Early Church already had a problem of theological dissent, and the inspired writers urge all to adhere to the Church's official witness to the Gospel.

Some theologians have acted as if a doctrine that is not solemnly and infallibly defined by the extraordinary teaching of the popes or an ecumenical council is free not only for discussion but for dissent and even for campaigns in the media to force the Magisterium to change. They forget that before pope or bishops declare a doctrine as infallible they must be certain that it is the faith of the whole Church. They have no authority simply to define personal opinions. This is why Vatican I in defining papal infallibility said that it was participation by the pope in the same infallibility that Christ promised to his Church. Hence, when in the process of doctrinal development, it becomes evident that a doctrine is with high probability or even certainty explicitly or implicitly contained in the Bible and/or Sacred Tradition, it becomes irresponsible to dissent from such a doctrine. While in this case dissent, since it is not directly against faith, is not formal heresy, it is a refusal to be guided by the Church who according to the Faith is our best guide. Those who so dissent must take this responsibility on themselves before God and cannot claim that they have a right as Catholics to do so.

The Church has never solemnly defined that abortion is a sin. Yet, John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae),declares that the Sacred Tradition has rightly interpreted the revealed Biblical Commandment, "Thou shall not kill," to mean that, "It is always wrong to directly kill an innocent human being." Thus, for example, a Catholic cannot defend President Harry Truman's dropping of the atom bomb on the plea that it saved American lives. We cannot directly kill the innocent, as Truman did, no matter how good our intention. Yet also Canon Law forbids us to accuse other Catholics of formal heresy without being sure that they are really denying Church doctrine in a stubborn way after they have been correctly informed. We should always make allowances that perhaps the person in question although mistaken is subjectively in good conscience (material heresy).

Some theologians have argued that since solemn declarations of the Magisterium that a truth is divinely revealed have in most cases had to do with dogma not morals, therefore very little of the Church's moral teaching is infallible. This is not true, since from the beginning of Church history the Church has included in its catechizing of adults to be baptized a detailed moral teaching based on the Bible. This Sacred Tradition is taught by the ordinary teaching of the universal Magisterium and hence does not require further definition to be known to be revealed or closely connected with revelation and hence infallible. Thus, that to hate all Jews is a sin has never been taught by the Church by an infallible declaration, yet it has always taught that Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the Apostles were Jews and that God's promises to the Jews are inviolable (Rm 12:25-26).

Thus after Vatican II the pope, after consulting all the bishops, issued the Catechism of the Catholic Faith to provide all members of the Church with a clear and safe guide to conscience. In the Catechism Part I is devoted to the Creed, Part II to the Sacraments and Liturgy, Part III to Life in Christ, and Part IV to Christian Prayer. Thus Part III is a systematic treatment of Christian living, which is empowered by prayer as explained in Part IV.


  • Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, Chapter 2, pp.41-88.


  1. Why can the Church never change the moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?

  2. What is the role of the sensus fidelium in the development of moral doctrine in the Church? Why does Vatican II prefer the term sensus fidei?

  3. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the development of moral doctrine?

  4. What is the role of the Magisterium in the development of moral doctrine?

  5. Do you think there can be a development of doctrine that in the future will permit the practice of contraception?


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