Newman, and the development of Catholic teaching on abortion and homosexuality

“… and old principles reappear under new forms. It [a great idea] changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” So goes the argument of Blessed John Henry Newman‘s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Like any great idea, doctrine must change in order to remain the same. Only dead doctrine cannot change, for “a power of development is a proof of life.”

This power of development is what has led to the Church’s unqualified defense of human life at the moment of conception, a teaching that was not formally decided until the 20th century. Those who refuse Church doctrine’s proof of life, the power of development, may perhaps be scandalized by (rather convincing) arguments in favor of early abortion, based upon the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that “ensoulment,” the soul’s entering into the body, did not happen at conception, but at a later point, while the embryo was developing. Thus, abortion was not murder after conception but before this ensoulment. This view also resulted in Aquinas’ denial of the Immaculate Conception, which was declared dogma in 1854.

But Church doctrine must change. “If Christianity be an universal religion, suited not simply to one locality or period, but to all times and places, it cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it, that is, it will develope.” As the world progresses, as societies change, as we better understand biology, sociology, ecology, psychology, philosophy, etc, the Church is constantly assimilating these understandings into Her own teaching. Thus, it is not surprising that the Church did not officially ban abortion from conception until the world’s understanding of embryology required it in 1869. The Church’s principles regarding life issues, particularly the principle that human life is to be protected at all stages, have never changed. The doctrine, however, developed as we better understood human biology. When biology showed that human life began at conception, the Church was required to defend it in Her teaching.

Some have argued that “pro-life” Catholics and Christians are behind the times. What this development shows, however, is that those who are pro-abortion or “pro-choice” are behind the times. They are, as it turns out, stuck in the Middle Ages, with Aristotelean biology and outdated theology, and have refused to enter the modern world with the Church. They are stuck arguing over “ensoulment” (which they now call personhood), while the Church has moved forward and brought into Herself what biology has irrefutably shown.

We change in order to remain the same.

The principle of development may shed new light on arguments concerning the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. In a recent blog post on First Things, Daniel Mattson has defended what he calls “the Church’s challenging language on homosexuality,” against such gay celibate Christians as Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet, who are pushing for a new language that responds to and works with the experiences of gay Christians. Mattson argues that the Church’s language on homosexuality cannot change, because it is true, and as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”

Writers like Hill and Tushnet  are looking for Church teaching that consists of more than a mere “no” to gay sex. For them and other celibate gay Christians, a vocation is a fundamental yes, a unique calling and way of life that is a response to a divine invitation. They do not disagree with the Church’s teaching against homosexual activity. They just want more than what has been presented of this teaching so far. The problem with Mattson’s argument is that it presumes that the only thing that can be said about homosexuality is that homosexual activity is a moral evil. He fails to make the Church’s distinction between “orientation” and “action,” and criticizes Hill for “suggesting that homosexuality is in any way good.”

Mattson suggests that the only direction to which homosexuality points is towards immoral sexual activity. Thus, he writes that “the only way to experience everything the Church offers is by humbly submitting to the Church’s teachings, in toto, about homosexuality—including her language about my disordered desires—precisely because it is the one area which impacts my life most deeply. And because it’s true.” He desires nothing more than what the Church has already written about homosexuality. He requires no further clarification, comment, or expansion.

Meanwhile, writers like Hill and Tushnet are applying orthodox study with their own experiences, hoping for clarification, comment, and expansion. They believe that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality has been presented, but not in toto. And perhaps they are already changing Church doctrine. “An idea not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it.” The Church has entered a new era, as it relates to its teachings on homosexuality. Never before has a devout, vocal, and coherent group of educated, thoughtful, and orthodox gay Christians sought to articulate what the Church’s teachings might mean for someone who is not attracted to the opposite sex. They accept the condemnation of homosexual activity, but they want the Church to say more than this condemnation. New doctrine is not only necessary, but it is inevitable. Newman argues that doctrine is changed by each mind that it enters, and thus it cannot help but be changed by this emerging group of people who are seeking to understand their role in the Church.

The doctrine must change. “Nay, one cause of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.” A doctrine that does not develop is a doctrine that is dying. This is true of the Gospel. It constantly develops and changes as it encounters new peoples, assimilating ways of life that can cohere with it, and being changed by these assimilations. “True religion is the summit and perfection of false religions; it combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately remaining in each. And in like manner the Catholic Creed is for the most part the combination of separate truths, which heretics have divided among themselves, and err in dividing.” The Church will assimilate what it can. While biology may become a heresy when left to itself, it has the power to change and develop Church doctrine when submitted to the Catholic Truth. Similarly, we would be unwise to ignore the unique experiences of celibate gay Christians when developing the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. The power of assimilation is one sign of its timelessness. The test of Catholics today will be whether we, too, will have this power of assimilation, or whether we will become sectarian and “err in dividing.”

A look to something positive:

More of my developing thoughts on these issues:

For fun, here are some of my favorite quotes from Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

“Moreover, an idea not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it”.

“Two persons may each convey the same truth to a third, yet by methods and through representations altogether different. The same person will treat the same argument differently in an essay or speech, according to the accident of the day of writing, or of the audience, yet it will be substantially the same.”

“But outward circumstances have changed, and with the change, a different application of the revealed word has of necessity been demanded, that is, a development.”

“Nor do these separate developments stand independent of each other, but by cross relations they are connected, and grow together while they grow from one.”

“You must accept the whole or reject the whole.”

“Criticisms, objections, protests, there are in plenty, but little of positive teaching anywhere; seldom an attempt on the part of any opposing school to master its own doctrines, to investigate their sense and bearing…”

“It is a first strong point that, in an idea such as Christianity, developments cannot but be, and those surely divine, because it is divine.”

“There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.”

“Doctrines expand variously according to the mind, individual or social, into which they are received; and the peculiarities of the recipient are the regulating power, the law, the organization, or, as it may be called, the form of the development. The life of doctrines may be said to consist in the law or principle which they embody.”

“A development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.”

“Pagans may have, heretics cannot have, the same principles as Catholics; if the latter have the same, they are not real heretics, but in ignorance. Principle is a better dest of heresy than doctrine.”

“A power of development is a proof of life.”

“The attempt at development shows the presence of a principle, and its success the presence of an idea. Principles stimulate thought, and an idea concentrates it.”

5 thoughts on “Newman, and the development of Catholic teaching on abortion and homosexuality

  1. Pingback: Homosexuality and the Development of Doctrine » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Pingback: Homosexuality and the development of doctrine | Spiritual Friendship

  3. Pingback: This is “gay” | Spiritual Friendship

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