Hi Father, I was wondering about the infallibility of church teachings, my priest said that the church has never changed its moral teachings (not quite clear on my definitions,) but I remember that Pope Bendict changed the teaching on unbaptized infants to say that they didn't go to hell in 2007. Could you help me understand this? Thanks, have a great day!
In the Catholic faith, there is a hierarchy of truths. Dogma is at the top level, which is Church teaching on those truths God has revealed in Scripture and the Apostolic Teaching (Tradition).
Lower down there are doctrinal teachings of faith and morals. At the lower level of certitude of truth, there are pastoral teachings, which apply the dogmas and doctrines to specific practices and programs, such as the Catholic Bishops’ support of more liberal immigration laws.
Dogmatic truths cannot be reformed or altered because the Church is certain that God has revealed them through Scripture and Tradition. Doctrinal truths which are taught with high levels of certitude also do not get reformed or altered.
Doctrinal teachings which are not based on the Gospel or Tradition itself, however, are not proposed by the Catholic Church with the same level of certitude, because they are not based in Scripture or Tradition. For instance, teachings about religious freedom were more “liberal” in the ancient Church, with Christians believing firmly that governments should not coerce people’s religious choices.
When Church and State entered into a sort of union after the Roman Emperor Theodosius made the Catholic faith the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church’s teachings about religious freedom became more restrictive, with various church teachers allowing for government intervention to discourage people from practicing others faiths besides the Catholic faith.
That restrictiveness on religious freedom lasted until the appearance of democracy in the 1700′s in the United States. At that point, church teachers began to speculate on whether the Catholic Church could allow for more religious freedom in the civil laws. Finally, by Vatican II, the Catholic Church returned to a teaching of religious freedom which reflected more the ancient Church’s liberality, instead of the restrictions of the medieval Church later on.
How could this happen? Because neither Scripture or Tradition speaks clearly on the role of the State, in matters of religion, or religious freedom. Therefore, the Church’s moral doctrine that other religions should be outlawed or totally restricted, was authoritative teaching. However, it was teaching that admitted of development or even some change, because the medieval teaching itself had departed from the convictions of the ancient Catholic communities.
Thus, the medieval teaching about religious freedom did not really have the same level of certitude as, say, the teaching about the immorality of abortion and contraception. Abortion and contraception could be easily inferred from the Scriptural teaching on fertility and the precepts of the Natural Law, which direct humans to respect their body’s health and fertility.
However, there was nothing in Scripture, or Tradition, or the Natural Law, which mandated that governments make Catholicism the only, legal religion of a country.
To answer your question, a doctrine of faith and morals proposed by the Church, but not based clearly on Scripture or Tradition, can undergo some development and even a change if later circumstances show that the doctrine is untenable and goes against what right reason mandates. Thus, there have been changes in other doctrines, such as how the Church regards interest rates on loans, how the Church regards slavery, and how the Church regards the death penalty.
A dogma or a doctrine proposed by the Church and more clearly linked to God’s will, manifested in the Bible and Apostolic Tradition, can be better understood and taught with more development or nuance, but does not undergo any change or alteration. An example of this is the teaching of “No salvation outside of the Church.”
While that teaching is not altered, the Catholic Church has refined its theological concept of what “outside the Church” means. At one time, it was understood that anyone who is not a baptized Catholic is completely unconnected to the Church. Now, we say that such people are not members of the Catholic Church, but they are connected to the Church in a certain way because the Church prays for them, and hopes that they follow what is right in their mind and heart, so that God can reach them.
It is not changing “No salvation outside the Church” but the modern teaching of this dogma has undergone some refinement and development for how we see God reaching people who are not baptized Catholics. If at one time Catholics could not envision such people being saved, now we can, because of the Church’s intercession for those outside of the fold of her membership.
Pastoral teachings, such as about immigration, can certainly undergo change, depending on the specific circumstances of the nation, which the Church is studying.
This is a very complicated subject, but I have tried to bring simplicity to it. I hope this answer is helpful. God bless and take care, Fr. Angel