Quodlibet 15 - Can the Church change its teaching?
A friend has asked me a number of times if Popes and Councils can contradict their predecessors, or even verses of Scripture. I have told him that they don't, but now he wants to know how they avoid doing that, and I would like to know as well!
The teaching of the Church as expressed by Popes and Councils is an unfolding of the Revelation of God: what God reveals about himself and his creation.The definitive revelation of God to the world is in his Word, Jesus Christ. He is the context for what the church calls the ‘sacred deposit of faith’ consisting of Scripture and Tradition. 'The deepest truth thus revealed both about God and about our salvation shines out for us in Christ, who is the mediator and at the same time the fullness of all revelation’
The Church, as the living community of the gospel, founded by Christ and animated by the Holy Spirit, presents this Revelation in every age in her teaching through the same Spirit. She is a witness to and custodian of Divine Revelation through the ages and not its originator. Thus, in matters pertaining to Divine Revelation there can be no contradiction of teaching by the Magisterium since its role is to declare and defend what has been revealed in Scripture and Tradition not to create.
Further, the teaching office of the Church is animated by the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth (Jn 16.13). In this way too, declarations and defence of Divine Revelation are without error. However, this infallibility in teaching is with respect to the content of the divine and Catholic faith. Not everything that is taught by Popes and Councils is directly such content. Some teachings explain and defend the faith; others provide rules, customs and exhortations for the age. So, there are different levels of magisterial teaching. For example, the teaching of the Council of Nicaea in 325 on the consubstantiality of the Son and Father is part of the creed, revealed by God and so infallibly part of the faith, never to be contradicted. The teaching of Nicaea that, ‘there prevails a custom and ancient tradition to the effect that the bishop of Aelia is to be honoured’ or that ‘one should offer one’s prayers to the Lord standing’ is disciplinary and customary for the age and not being the direct content of revelation is subject to revision.
This Quodlibet was answered by Fr. Bruno Clifton O.P., formerly a member of the Godzdogz team who now works in the Student Chaplaincy at our Edinburgh Priory.