Does Doctrine Ever Change?

Catholics often hear the terms “doctrine” and “dogma,” sometimes from Catholic theologians, but many don’t know what the words mean. A Twitter follower recently asked Patrick Madrid to explain these terms and whether or not Catholic doctrine can change.

According to Patrick, doctrine is “a teaching of the Church that finds its root in God’s divine revelation.” He went on to give an example of doctrine: Scripture is inspired by God.

“The Bible says that. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, ‘All Scripture is inspired by God.’ Now it doesn’t there tell us which books belong in the Bible so alongside doctrine we also have other aspects of divine revelation that help us understand doctrine more clearly. … He is the one who inspired these 73 books of the Old and New Testament, not the Church. But the Church had to recognize it and codify it,” said Patrick.

So could doctrine ever change?

“This is where a term comes in that is sometimes misunderstood by people, and that is what’s called the development of doctrine,” said Patrick. He explained that Saint John Henry Newman wrote at length about this concept. The development of doctrine takes place when the Church can clarify or expand upon a doctrine—not changing the doctrine but delving into the fullness of its meaning.

This can be seen in the teaching of the Holy Trinity. “This is what the Church has always taught. Now it wasn’t until the about the beginning of the fourth century in the early 300s when the Church got to the point where it was in a position to actually articulate the specific meaning of this word that had been around for a while: the Trinity,” Patrick explained.

There were many important questions about the Holy Trinity that needed answers, and it wasn’t until the 4th century that the Church began to really articulate the doctrine. At the First Council of Nicea, “the Church began its first systematic way of defining some of these things.” At that council, they “[annunciated] the dogma, which is the formally defined, the formally promulgated, the formally expressed meaning and the parameters of this doctrine that Jesus is God,” he said.

These things take time, and the many-centuries-old Catholic Church isn’t known for rushing into things, especially when it comes to formal teaching.

“It took a while for the Church to figure this out. It took development, the Church Fathers steeped in the Scriptures, and meditating and praying upon this and commenting on it and thinking about it. It took up to that point where the Church was finally in a position to articulate something that had been true all along. It’s not that the doctrine changed, it’s not that the Church invented some new doctrine—it’s a rich development of the Church’s understanding of this truth and it didn’t change anything,” explained Patrick.

Listen to the full, in-depth explanation from Patrick:


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