[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Development on Development

In yesterday's post, I made a comment about Newman's Development of Doctrine that I now think was overly facile, and a bit misleading. A long-time commenter called me out on it, and in responding to him, I think I put the matter rather better. I wrote "Now, as a threshold matter, I would point out that Douthat should probably re-read (if indeed he has read) Newman's Development of Doctrine (New Edition, 1878). Because Douthat seems to suggest that views once held by the Church cannot ever be reversed, a notion that is not consistent with Newman, nor with, I should add, modern Catholic practice." My reader gave a very reasoned rejoinder, arguing that in Newman's thought, "an idea does not 'develop' into its opposite."

I originally wrote that Newman gives several examples of exactly that--but that's flip, too. It's more correct to say, I think, that Newman gives examples of positions being reversed by the better understanding of the ultimate idea. In chapter 1, Section 2 [in my original comment , I erroneously referenced this as Chapter 2], he gives a series--the Long Parliament, the Elizabethan Settlement, Locke on Revolution as a "true guide". But here's one in particular; in section 2(6), for example, he gives the example:
The admission of Jews to municipal offices has lately been defended on the ground that it is the introduction of no new principle, but a development of one already received; that its great premisses have been decided long since; and that the present age has but to draw the conclusion; that it is not open to us to inquire what ought to be done in the abstract, since there is no ideal model for the infallible guidance of nations; that change is only a question of time, and that there is a time for all things; that the application of principles ought not to go beyond the actual case, neither preceding nor coming after an imperative demand; that in point of fact Jews have lately been chosen for offices, and that in point of principle the law cannot refuse to legitimate such elections.
As I take Newman here, the application of the idea of citizenship and qualifications for public service was in error, but experience and time showed that the present application was flawed, and the underlying idea was poorly served thereby. So the change is a reversal of the application, but truer to the underlying principle.

Now, my article linked in yesterday's post is pretty clear that I disagree with the easy dismissal of the prohibition against usury, but it provides an example of a moral doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church being distinguished effectively into the grave after over a millennium of adherence to it. It was abandoned because it did not conform to the felt necessities of the culture, and its rescission made possible a wholly new kind of commerce and economic order.

A Newman-style defense of the development would suggest that the position (the prohibition against usury) was not the idea--the idea was that one should not oppress the financially vulnerable, and that the prohibition was the implementation of the idea. The argument would be that implementation showed that the prohibition was too stultifying and did not adequately serve the purpose, or did too much damage in trying to serve the purpose. So it's about the refinement of the application of ideas, which themselves can cause a reversal of perviously held ideas.

Again, I'm not advocating that particular one, but think it makes more clear what I'm saying, and why I think Douthat is not reading Newman right. The idea is not "ban gay marriage"; that's the application of an idea, "Christian marriage should be the norm." OK, what is Christian marriage--

--now here the conversation can veer off into one of two directions. It can anchor the idea in complementarianism or fertility, and stay in the traditional course, or it can define marriage as the spiritual and physical union of two people for mutual aid and comfort, and find that heterosexual Christian marriage works for heterosexuals, but what do we do about those who do not fit that paradigm? Now, eliminating the prohibition against marriage is not the opposite of the tradition of Christian marriage, it's accommodating within that framework those previously excluded.

I'd like to thank my reader--a regular, if too infrequent, commenter--for once again making me think through a point as to which I was previously too glib.


rick allen said...

"here the conversation can veer off into one of two directions."

I guess I would say that the conversation has, in fact, already irrevocably veered.

It is one thing to assert that, say, a Nestorian Christology could just as well have developed as the Chalcedonian. Obviously the Nestorians have been going strong for a millenium and a half. But I don't see in Newman's idea any hint that a "re-do" can be in order, that a long-standing decision against Nestorianism can be reversed simply because it might have developed otherwise.

Obviously Protestants and Catholics have been diverging in our understanding of marriage since the Reformation. But, in our own lifetimes, the Church has declared, in the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes, that marriage is of divine institution, that it is a relationship of a man and a woman ordered to procreation, and that it is by its nature dissolvable only by death. These propositions, having been re-affirmed by the highest authority in the Church, seem to me to be now beyond any "veering" toward their repudiation, at least under any acceptable theory of the development of doctrine.

I think Pope Francis is to be commended for seeking the best possible pastoral approach to those persons unwilling or unable to receive the Church's teaching on marrige and chastity. The synod was widely reported, of course, as an assembly considering reversing Church teaching. I can't say, of course, that anything won't happen in the future, and I can only judge the pope's "real" intentions by what he says in public. But I think much of the media sound and fury--both secular and religious--missed the mark. Douthat's suggestion that tradionalist Catholics need to somehow defend tradition against the pope seemed to me to be based on such a misperception.

Anglocat said...

Right, I don't think I was clear in the marriage example. I was giving two separate examples, not suggesting that either path could be taken at any point. I was instead offering two possible streams that the tradition could take.

If I may offer an analogy from law, it's like the evolution of the common law as described by John Jay Osborn in "The Associates":

"Back in the dusty pages of a volume from 1899, you'll find an egg, ready to hatch, some judge with a new idea. In 1900, you'll find a case where the idea has broken out of its shell. It's sitting there, a sentence, words, a definitive statement, a rule. You catch glimpses of the rule as it flashes through the cases. . . . As it flashes through the cases, you see the rule grow or diminish. Say it grows. The descriptive side enlarges. More and more activity comes under the kind of conduct it outlines. "Do not discriminate." All right, what's discriminate, against whom, for what reasons? You start maybe with blacks, and a hundred years later everyone is included in the description--do not discriminate against the handicapped, women, homosexuals, children, the aged."

Sometimes, of course, the idea does not develop, but dies--as Newman acknowledges in chapter 1. Now, I agree with you that the Roman Catholic Church is increasingly unlikely with every step they take in reifying its existing tradition to change it, but it's only increasingly improbable, not impossible for it to do so. And there are, as I pointed in the original post, examples of long-standing traditions being scragged even as to ethics--usury (after a millennium) and abortion stand out as examples where moral positions of the Church have been reversed. (The sacralization of marriage from St Paul's grudging concession that it "it is better to marry than to burn" is a fairly strong example of the tradition overwhelming the scripture, to use Anglican terms.)

But again, I think that viewing accommodation for same-sex marriage as the "opposite" of the current doctrine is a bit stronger than the evidence permits. Same-sex marriages need not invalidate the understanding of marriage, but extend it, just as marriage between a man and a woman beyond child-bearing would, beyond one of its rationales.