A tentative stratification of the categories of “teaching”

Jurisdiction, several justices of the Supreme Court have bemoaned, “is a word of many, too many, meanings. This variety of meaning has insidiously tempted courts, this one included, to engage in less than meticulous, sometimes even profligate … use of the term.” 1 In Catholic parlance, a similar difficulty bedevils the word “teaching.” What in the Church is amenable to change? Can teaching change? Is Francis simply repeating what previous popes have said in the area of “social teaching”—“surely that makes it okay,” this line of reasoning means to say, “for surely we cannot fault a pope for saying what another pope said twenty years ago!”—and if not, can it change? Defenders of the Synod underscore that it has changed no teaching; defenders of the Kasper proposal before the Synod insisted that they wanted a change only in discipline, not teaching. 

The common issue between these conversations and others like them is classification. I want to suggest that it may help to think of the Church as having five different bodies of material that are sometimes called “teaching,” with varying degrees of validity.

The first class of material is properly “Teaching” in the strict sense—one meriting a nice, big, capital T. The “deposit of faith,” the revelation handed down to the apostles by Jesus, and in turn handed down by them to us through apostolic succession 2; this is “the Catholic faith” in the narrower sense of that phrase. This is what converts confess when we come into the Church: This is “teaching” in the sense meant in the reference to that which “the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God” and that we in turn “believe and profess.” And this class of material, these “teachings” never change. If Jesus said “divorce is a mortal sin,” “there are seven sacraments,” “only men can be priests,” etc. such things become fixed stars in the sky: The Church has no power to change them and has never hitherto pretended otherwise.

The second class of material that the Church has is often called “teaching” but is better called “Doctrine.” This is the authoritative elaboration of the deposit of faith and its application to moral questions, most prominently but by no means exclusively in councils and ex cathedra pronouncements. 3 A familiar example might be the elaboration of the elements of mortal sin: That which is latent and tacit in Teaching is made explicit in Doctrine. Now: Does doctrine change? As Cardinal Newman showed, doctrine does in a certain sense develop (perhaps it would be more precise to say that as our understanding of the objects of doctrine evolves, so the sophistication of the language addressed to them increases) in an organic, contiguous process of development. 4 Development is a kind of change, so, in that sense, doctrine changes; in another, more profound sense, however, doctrine does not change: Indeed, it is a lack of substantial change that Newman makes a marker for authentic development as contrasted to corruption. 5 What is later understood is always present ab initio, even if latent and glimpsed dimly if at all. So, by way of analogy, Michelangelo said that he sculpted David by recognizing the figure already in the marble and setting him free; did the block of marble change? Yes and no: Its beauty and elegance have increased, perhaps its mass has decreased and its dimensions have changed, some inessential parts have sloughed off, but is, after all, still marble. Our doctrine of the papacy, for example, is more sophisticated (or at least more elaborate) than that of St. Irenaeus, but one sees in his Adversus Haereses a view of the papacy that is consistent with our own; similarly, it is more precise than that which was pressed by the ultramontanes before Vatican I.

(Here we might note that Teaching plus Doctrine compose “the Catholic faith” in the broader sense of that term.)

The third class of material that “the Church” has is “Discipline,” which includes ritual, devotion, canon law, etc. (Here, I put “the Church” in scare-quotes because the kind of thing referred to under this heading are usually to be found at the level of the churches sui iuris rather than the Church universal.) This is in no sense “teaching,” and no one with any real familiarity with Catholicism would seriously suggest that it is. But sometimes it gets called teaching anyway, whether as a sincere shorthand or out of confusion. And of course, not uncommonly, people find it helpful to pretend otherwise in order to advance particular agendas; items that belong properly to discipline are misappropriated and labelled as teaching, sometimes in order to insist that those items cannot be changed, and sometimes—by an entirely different set of persons—to “prove” that “teaching” has and therefore can change. Discipline has changed throughout time. Orthodox and Conservative Catholics would urge that this happen rarely and organically, Reform Catholics would urge that it happen whenever they see fit, 6 but almost everyone—almost—concedes the basic reality that discipline is man-made, and therefore can change. 7

The fourth thing that the Church has is words. I realize that this class stands uneasily with its stablemates, but I want to underscore the importance and independent personality of words. Teaching and doctrine can be transmitted only through words, and these words, these formulations, can be changed. But changes in words are a sharp and double-edged sword. When traditional words are replaced with novel words, as Pius X foresaw, there is a great danger that something important will be lost, that traditional understandings will become shaky or that misunderstandings will creep in. (Worse yet—if the spirit of the age is a constant and pervasive changing of words, a sense will inevitably develop that it is not only words that are malleable, but substance, too. John XXIII unleashed great mischief by saying—not incorrectly but inopportunely—that “the substance of [teaching] … is one thing; the formulations in which it is presented are another”; how much of the catastrophe of the last five decades could have been avoided but for the plastic spirit of the age?) At the same time, however, when ambiguous or misleading words are replaced with clearer words, when conflict and disagreement has been predicated on misunderstandings arising from misinterpretations of words, there is a great opportunity that something important might be gained. An example that I have cited before is Ladislas Orsy, SJ’s suggestion that “infallibility” was an infelicitous choice of word to describe the charism that protects the extraordinary petrine magisterium. So words can be and have been changed—but they should be changed only with enormous care and delicacy and after lengthy reflection and discussion.

The fifth and final class of materials that the Church has (and perhaps the most controversial when summarized this way) might be called “commentary.” This category is hard to label but easy to describe, and it is problematic, not only because a habit of labeling it “teaching” has a propensity to improperly merge it into Teaching proper, but also because such a label, taken in a looser sense than the one used above, is not wholly unwarranted. The Church’s “social teaching” is a prominent example: A body of commentary in which the Church or particular agents within her have taken principles from Teaching and Doctrine (or derived second-order principles thence) and applied it to concrete situations of modern life. 8 It is a homily writ large. 9 And it is, inherently, wholly unlike Teaching and to a great extent quite unlike Doctrine. Like Discipline, it is human-created, lacks any divine protection, and it rests entirely on the presuppositions and knowledge that its authors bring to it—and, worse yet, those creating it do not bring the professional expertise or training to those subjects that, for example, a bishop can be presumed to have in subjects more directly within the episcopal ambit. For example, popes have written about labor unions in certain times, under certain pressures, presupposing certain facts, and having marinated in a particular political outlook: The rise of socialism, for example, the nature of work, the nature of the economy, the position of the individual, and so forth. Changes in the reality of industry have obsoleted many of those notions in some places just as they have obsoleted Marx, and to pretend that the assumptions that guided popes when writing about workers on a moving assembly line hold good for those of us who work in the Western information economy—even though they may continue to apply to those who even today work on moving assembly lines—is fantasy.

People often bridle when I use the term commentary to describe social doctrine (among other things); they imagine it as a crosshairs and project their favorite encyclical into the reticle. But the point here is not to eliminate or elide social doctrine so much as to label it in a way that its proper weight and office is understood. Moreover, popes and bishops routinely offer commentary that is not intended to be binding. My example is St. Paul , the last of the itinerant bishops, who, in a letter to St. Timothy, bishop of Ephesus, says that he does not permit women to teach or assume authority over men, preferring that they be silent on such matters. 10 Is that statement Teaching, in the strict sense, binding then and now? Doctrine, binding then as now? Certainly it was not discipline, because Paul doesn’t tell Timothy “you must do this,” he says only “I do this.” It’s commentary.

Thus, it’s very important, when someone says “the Church changed x,” first to unpack the verb (who did what, precisely) and second to understand precisely what x was and to properly categorize it. This is even true (perhaps especially true) at the acme of temptation: When x looks like teaching. Examples on this point might include usury and religious freedom. 11 This is why a clear taxonomy is necessary to assigns each item to its proper office: One cannot argue that teaching can change predicated on examples of discipline changing—priests marrying and so on—because discipline isn’t teaching. Nor can one predicate such an argument on examples of commentary changing—on the death penalty, for example. But while commentary is, as we have seen “teaching” in a broad, rhetorical sense, both idiomatically and in literal application of the language, it is not “teaching” in the narrow, technical, binding sense. This also means that yesterday’s social doctrine cannot baptize today’s; when people defend Francis by saying that he’s just saying what social teaching already says, that is not saying an awful lot.

The Church speaks in many ways and capacities, and unpacking the context is critical. It also suggests that while commentary may be useful, it cannot (wisely) ever be made the Church’s focus, for that would confuse a body of non-authoritative, human, time-bound materials for that which can properly be called the inheritance of the faith: The Catholic faith, the disciplines that shape and give it concrete forms, and the traditional formulae in which it is transmitted. It is upon those things that the bishops must focus.


  1. Bowles v. Russell, 551 U.S. 205, 215 (2007) (Souter, J., dissenting) (alteration in original) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
  2. See, e.g., 1st Clem., cap. 42 (circa 95) (“The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ … thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their work], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe”); Tract for the Times no. 15 (Palmer, with Newman) (1833) (“if it is plain that the Apostles left successors after them, it is equally plain that the Bishops are these Successors. For it is only the Bishops who have ever been called by the title of Successors; and there has been actually a perpetual succession of these Bishops in the Church, who alone were always esteemed to have the power of sending other Ministers to preach and administer the Sacraments”).
  3. Cf. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity 279-80 n.4.
  4. Compare John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) with Pius X, Pascendi (1907).
  5. See Newman, ch. 5.
  6. See The Strands of Catholic Thought for more on this taxonomy.
  7. An example of dissent on this point would be those who insist that Quo primum has permanent, binding effect that cannot be modified or augmented (still less abrogated) by later popes.
  8. Cf. Dodd, In re Firearms debate, 3 MPA 23, 25 (2013) (“Outside of the privileged categories of faith and morals, our shepherds’ views are always entitled to respectful consideration, but they are not controlling” (footnotes omitted)).
  9. Cf. GIRM 65-66.
  10. 1 Tim 2:12.
  11. See, e.g., Jay Richards, Did the Church change its doctrine on usury, Crisis Magazine, Dec. 8, 2014, http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/church-change-doctrine-usury; Thomas Pink, Conscience and coercion, First Things, Aug. 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/08/conscience-and-coercion.