Pope Francis on the Development of Doctrine

This is very interesting and important. Yesterday evening, Pope Francis addressed participants attending a meeting celebrating the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. As far as I know, this text is not yet available in English,  so I provide a translation of the portion dealing with development of doctrine. Francis first lays the foundation by quoting from John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council, and then St. John Paul II, who promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He then continues with the remarks below. All emphasis is in the original. awr

Already Vincent of Lérins recalled, “Perhaps some say, Will there be no progress in religion in the Church of Christ? Certainly there is, and indeed great progress. For who would be so grudging toward humans and so hostile toward God that they would attempt to hinder it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). …

“The church, in its doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that it itself is, all that it believes” (Second Vatican Council, dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, 8). The council fathers could find no summary formulation more appropriate to express the nature and mission of the church. Not only in “doctrine,” but also in “life” and in “worship” is the possibility given to the faithful to be the people of God. In a series of words, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation expresses the dynamic development of this process: “The tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress… there is growth… always advancing toward the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in it” (ibid).

Tradition is a living reality, and only a limited viewpoint can imagine the “deposit of faith” as something static. One cannot put the Word of God in mothballs, as if it were an old blanket one had to preserve from vermin. No! The Word of God is a dynamic reality, always living, and it develops and grows, for it is ordered toward a fulfillment which humans cannot stop. St. Vincent of Lérin well formulated this law of progress as follows: “annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate« (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50). …

One cannot preserve doctrine without cultivating its development. One also cannot tie it to a narrow and immutable interpretation, without constricting the Holy Spirit and its action.

“In times past, God spoke in manifold and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets” (Heb 1:1), and “thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” ((Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own in an attitude of “reverent listening” (op cit, 1) in order to allow our ecclesial existence to progress with the same enthusiasm as initially, toward the new horizons to which the Lord wishes to lead us.



  1. Thank you Anthony. This is indeed very important. “The Word of God is a dynamic reality, always living, and it develops and grows, for it is ordered toward a fulfilment which humans cannot stop.” I think this is the first (?) time that Francis has spoken so explicitly about the dynamic nature of doctrine, and referenced this explicitly to the documents of the Council. Although his liturgical acts, such as his first (and later) Holy Thursday celebration, and his engagement in the Lutheran anniversary, have said this more or less implicitly, this address is explicit.
    Almost as an aside, I’m curious about Francis’s references to Vincent of Lérins, if any contributors can add anything to that.

  2. Hi,

    I’ve always been curious about Francis’ relation to Benedict on this topic. In a recent book interview (the one where he admits to seeing a therapist) published in France, Francis said that he agrees with Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” and mentions Vincent of Lerins and the death penalty there as well. Massimo Faggioli mentions this in his commonweal review of it. Can anyone confirm that this is the case?

  3. Google Translate renders that quote of St. Vincent of Lerins as follows: “be consolidated years, it can be expanded at the time, the age of high they are!”. I guess that is an exercise in formal equivalence, although I note that Translate seemingly took it upon itself to punctuate it with an exclamation point. Can it be improved upon, in service to understanding what it’s actually supposed to mean? 🙂

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