The National Catholic Review

The problem with discussing development and change in church teaching using the language of “conservatives” or “liberals” is not that differences among Catholics do not map broadly onto this template, but that it imports the political sense of a zero sum game: there are winners and losers and those with whom I disagree are my opponents. In the spirit of all of us belonging to one church, I want to offer some thoughts on how development has occured in church teaching, using examples from the New Testament.

This is offered as a response to some recent Ross Douthat columns, blog posts and Twitter discussions, particularly his requests that his interlocutors engage him in a discussion on the theological issues. One of the surprising aspects of Mr. Douthat's thought regarding the issues discussed at the recent Synod on the Family is that he seems to hold a fundamentalist view of Scripture, namely, that its sense is always plain. Scripture is not self-interpreting, though, but it requires the believing church. The positions taken by the Roman Catholic Church on divorce, remarriage and communion are not self-evident, but the product of numerous interpretive moves. Father Paul Keller gives excellent examples of these interpretive choices, so I will not cover a lot of the material he does but encourage you to read his post.

For instance, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have interpreted Jesus’ teaching differently in one significant practical matter. Mark Silk points out that the Orthodox Church does allow second and even third marriages, but that a penitential path has to be followed prior to a second marriage, and this is the case even if the person seeking a second marriage is a widow or a widower, since one, indissoluble marriage is the ideal. On the other hand, in the Catholic Church, if a spouse dies, one can marry again with no questions and no problems. But given Catholicism’s understanding of the indissolubility of marriage, why should this be? Why should the death of one spouse end this marriage? There are arguments to be made for both Orthodox and Catholic positions, but that is the point: arguments and interpretations of the evidence must be advanced and different churches, neither of whom consider the other to be heretical, have taken different positions. Fr. Paul Keller also points out that the supposed strict indissolubility of marriage in the Catholic context is also limited by the Petrine and Pauline privileges

Jesus on Marriage

So what does Jesus say? This passage from Mark 10 is at the heart of all Christian teaching on marriage and divorce:

1He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' 7 "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

It’s clear: no divorce and no remarriage if you do divorce, unless you want to live in adultery! There is nothing here about communion, annulments, the Petrine privilege or the Pauline privilege. But as always with Scripture, it is fair to ask for the context of the teaching, which means at a minimum we should look at Jesus’ other teachings on marriage, divorce and celibacy, but also include the historical and theological contexts for Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus’ first teaching on marriage is embedded in his divorce sayings, in which Pharisees “test” Jesus on whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife” (Mk 10:2; cf. Mt 19:3). In Mark 10:6-9, Jesus answers “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6 offers a similar response from Jesus, adding, however, in 19:8 that divorce was only allowed due to hardness of heart, but “from the beginning it was not so.” It is important to note, though, that Matthew has already changed Jesus’ clear teaching on marriage and divorce, which will be discussed below. There is no question that Mark has the original statement of Jesus, with Matthew or the Matthean community already offering an “exception” for the case of porneia, itself a much contested word in this context, since moicheia (adultery) could have been used if that is what the author intended.[1]

As numerous commentators note, Jesus’ answer takes us “back to the beginning,” that is, to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 and the creation of male and female.[2] Marriage for Jesus is seen as a fulfillment of the Edenic realities of sexual differentiation and the unity of the male and the female prior to the primal disobedience. Yet, Jesus suggests that something has changed for humanity which allows them to return to the pre-lapsarian ideal now so that divorce is no longer necessary. What has softened the “hardness of heart” that necessitated divorce?

Ben F. Meyer has said that Jesus’ moral teaching in Matthew is a characteristic of “high, eschatological idealism,” in which a lustful thought can be equated with an act of adultery.[3] For Jesus, the situation is not normal, as he understands the Torah “at this moment being made new…appointed and reserved for the end-time,” radicalizing even a foundational institution like marriage.[4] Underlying Jesus’ radicalizing of marriage is that as Messiah, he will bring about the eschaton which will create the human perfection necessary to follow this new Torah.

The eschaton, the end of the world, is the context in which we must understand Jesus’ teaching on marriage, but this is also the context for understanding “the beginning.” In the two versions of the marriage saying, Jesus brings us back to the beginning three times: “from the beginning of creation;” “the one who made them at the beginning;” and “from the beginning it was not so.” Primal origins, however, are also about the end: Urzeit ist Endzeit, as we see in Jubilees and other Jewish writings of this period.[5] Jesus proclaims the end of divorce because God’s kingdom is on the verge of breaking through and will soon be here. The eschatological orientation makes sense of the teaching on marriage, for now people will be able to fulfill their vows perfectly, in large part because marriage itself will soon come to an end.

For Jesus also says that there is no marriage in the Endzeit (Mk 12:18-25; Mt 22: 23-30; Lk 20:27-36). In reply to a question from the Sadducees regarding Levirate marriage in the world to come, Jesus rebuffs his questioners: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk. 12:25; cf. Mt.22:30). This would seem to be the earliest strata of the Jesus logion and the import of it is that in God’s kingdom marriage is not required since human beings are asexual and do not reproduce.[6] Since people live eternally, the need for procreation, the prime purpose of marriage, has come to an end. And since the question concerns those who have been married to each other, it also indicates that marriages which were contracted here on earth have also come to an end. Why bring a marriage to an end through divorce when the eschaton will soon bring the institution of marriage itself to an end?

The Lukan version of this pericope is even more intriguing. Luke’s version indicates that marriage is for people tied to this world not the world to come, for “those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk. 20:34-35). It is possible to read v. 34 as arguing that marriage is only for those of this world, though it is not clear if v.35 means that those who marry now will not share in the world to come, or simply have to give up marriage in the kingdom of God.[7]  Luke 20:36 stresses the reason for the end of marriage, since “they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” The twofold use of children in this verse might also indicate the goal for which humanity is intended, namely, permanent childhood. Childlikeness is put forward as a criterion of a follower of Jesus to enter the kingdom (cf. Mt.18:3) and it is possible that the eschewal of marriage fits with the childlike and eternal nature of Jesus’ heavenly disciples.

Jesus on Celibacy

One of the passages just noted, Matthew 19:3-12, also has an important reference to celibacy. In response to Jesus’ claim that divorce is not possible in marriage, except for porneia, Jesus’ disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10).  Jesus’ response to the disciples offers an enigmatic saying on eunuchs: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt 19:11-12). Without question, this is an actual saying of Jesus.[8] But what does it mean?

What does it mean that “not everyone can accept this teaching”? Does it mean there is a choice among Jesus’ followers to accept or reject the teaching? Does it mean that only those who can accept it can be Jesus’ followers? (That was the position of the early Syriac Christian Church who only baptized celibates for the first few centuries.) The second clause, “but only those to whom it is given,” might indicate that only some followers of Jesus can accept the teaching regarding marriage and divorce or that only those who have had this insight given to them - by God? - are fit to be Jesus’ followers. It is unclear whether all of Jesus’ disciples should be single or if some have a choice to be married. The linking of the eunuchs to the kingdom of heaven, though, clearly indicates that the ideal of the single and celibate state is the state of all disciples in the eschatological Kingdom of God.

Jesus on Divorce:

If the eschatological context is pervasive for Jesus’ teaching on marriage, this, too, is the proper context for Jesus’ understanding of divorce. Jesus does not offer conservative Jewish teaching, but radical teaching, intended to promote sexual asceticism, a form of “self-control in imminent expectation of the kingdom of God.”[9] Jesus’ teaching on divorce is far more stringent than that of the rabbis, in which divorce was possible in most, even trivial, situations.

Jesus’ teaching is that marriage ought not be contracted more than once and divorce is not allowed, a form of the intensification of the Torah due to its messianic fulfillment and eschatological asceticism (Mk 10:2-12; Mt 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Lk 16:18). Matthew’s pericope, however, offers an exception clause, in which divorce is allowed if the wife commits porneia. This clause is not original to Jesus’ saying, and the basic outlines of Jesus’ teaching is modified: Jesus would prefer new marriages not be contracted, and existing marriages ought not to be ended, unless they were not truly marriages to begin.

I believe this exception clause was first concerned with marriages which ought not to have been contracted due to degrees of consanguinity outlawed by Leviticus and maintained later by the rabbis and does not concern adultery, though this is much disputed. [10] What we can say is that current Catholic Church teaching on annulments has moved much beyond any scholar’s interpretation of what porneia meant to the Matthean community in the first century, that is, technically incestuous marriages, adultery, or other sexual sins, to include numerous emotional and psychological conditions and situations. So the exception clause itself was a development of what Jesus said, namely, that since the eschaton is soon to arrive it is best not to divorce. But Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 say that marriages can end due to porneia andthat remarriage is possible if the divorce was due to porneia. And today the annulment process ends marriages even if porneia was not present and allows for remarriage.

Clearly, there has been development in teaching, practice, and interpetation. But Mr. Douthat raises a significant question: how do we know what is authentic development? The development which is in the New Testament is obviously authentic development, since it is part of the deposit of the faith. Yet, the Church teaches authoritatively, so development which takes place within the Magisterium also constitutes authentic development. Can there be no further development in teaching, practice, and interpetation regarding marriage and divorce?

Two Models of Evaluating Change or Development

I want to offer two models for examining development in church teaching. My model emerges from Acts 15, though it is best to examine all of Acts 10-15 to see the way in which the change develops organically in the early church. The other model is taken from the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  

Model 1: Acts 10-15

In Acts 10-15 a decision is recounted by which Gentiles were accepted into the church as full members without the need to follow all of the dictates of the Law of Moses. It is hard to imagine a more central aspect of Judaism than the 613 commands and prohibitions of the Law of Moses.  There are hints in the Gospel tradition that Jesus is moving in the direction of the acceptance of Gentiles (cf. Mark 7:24-30), and hints, too, that Gentiles remained beyond Jesus' ministry (cf. Matthew 10:5), but it is clear that the Jerusalem church had continued to see its worship of Christ in the context of Torah- and Temple-centered Judaism. The acceptance of Gentiles into the church as Gentiles appears to be, as with the post­exilic prophets of the Old Testament, something which would occur with the coming Day of the Lord. Certain events and experiences, however, begin to push the Apostles to an understanding that perhaps that time is now. How is this determination made? Is it simply the sense and experience of some individuals that the Spirit is moving amongst the Gentiles that leads to this change?

There are a number of elements in Acts 10-15 which lead to the church’s decision, none of which should be seen out of context, all of which are significant:

1. The manifestation of the Spirit in the life of Cornelius;

2. The visions of Peter, in which he comes to understand that all foods are now declared "clean";

3. The prayers of Peter and Cornelius;

4. The experience of Paul and Barnabas in their Gentile mission;

5. The discussion within the church of dissenting opinions;

6. The rejection of some biblical teachings;

7. The grounding of Gentile inclusion in the church on other biblical promises;

8. The authoritative decision and blessing of the apostles and the church, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The element which might strike us as most beyond the bounds of church order is the initial manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius, who is neither a Christian nor a Jew. He is, however, a devout man “who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). He receives a vision while in prayer one afternoon that he is to seek out Simon Peter (Acts 10:5). When the scene switches to Peter, he, too, is in prayer; while in prayer, he sees a vision of animals, clean and unclean, which he is instructed to eat, contrary to the clear teaching of the Law of Moses (Acts 10:9-16). While still puzzled by the vision and its meaning, emissaries arrive from Cornelius. Peter takes them in and then goes to Cornelius the next day. Peter begins to understand not only the meaning of his vision, but its import for the Church: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34). During Peter's speech to Cornelius and his household “the holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:44-46). Peter then baptizes Cornelius and the other Gentiles, or rather, “he ordered them to be baptized” (Acts 10:47-48).

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius and his compatriots leads Peter to the decision to offer them baptism as Gentiles. He does this, of course, without consultation with the whole of the Church and faces criticism for it when he returns to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2-3), though he appears to convince many when he explains what took place (Acts 11:18). Likewise, news of Gentile conversions filters from Antioch to the Church in Jerusalem, who had sent Barnabas to investigate (Acts 11:19-26). It appears that the decision to preach to and accept Gentiles into the Church without requiring the Gentile converts to follow the Torah was maintained by Barnabas and Paul, though there was not yet an official stance of the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 13-14). It does seem, however, that Gentiles were being ministered to, baptized, and welcomed into the church.

Not everyone was in agreement with this decision, as some members of the church still insisted on the Law of Moses as a necessary requirement for Christian life (Acts 15: 1-5). Regardless of the practices of Peter and Paul, this was not a settled question as “the apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter” (Acts 15: 6). Peter, Barnabas, and Paul all spoke of God's activity amongst the Gentiles, particularly the manifestation of the Holy Spirit amongst them (Acts 15: 6-12).

James finally speaks on behalf of the “whole assembly” (Acts 15:12) and relates the mission to the Gentiles to a number of prophetic passages from scripture in which God calls the Gentiles to Himself (Acts 15: 16-18). James then states that Gentiles should be welcomed in if they maintain select dictates, which are similar to the Noachide laws (which Paul does not mention in Galatians 1-2) (Acts 15: 19-21) and, after “the apostles and the elders with the consent of the whole church” choose men to accompany Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:22), James sends a letter to this effect to the church in Antioch (Acts 15: 22-29).

It seems that, ultimately, personal, pastoral experiences (the manifestation of the Holy Spirit; visions; and prayer) coincide with the authority of the church (citation of scripture; the decision of the assembly; the role of Peter and Paul as apostles) to lead to a new decision. This is a fascinating decision, both because it gives us an example of the church making a practical decision about how Christians must live and because it is the decision that itself leads the Church to be less governed by prescriptions, in this case, the very Law of Moses. The fact that Christians need not be circumcised or keep the laws of Kashrut to live as Christian cements the fact that the authority for determining the content of the moral life rests with the authority of the church.

There are, however, a number of questions which arise from this passage: Do Peter and Paul (perhaps the whole of the Antioch mission) act beyond the dictates of the church by reaching out to Gentiles prior to the decision of the church? Is their authority to act in such away delimited by their authority as apostles? Is the recognition of the Holy Spirit active among the Gentiles prior to their membership in the church dependent upon Peter's position not only as an apostle, but as the “rock” of the church? Can this decision be looked upon by Christians today as a model, in any way, for development, especially those that challenge tradition and suggest a “new” path?

For, realistically, the clearest evidence of Scripture is on the side of the Christian Pharisees, who say in Acts 15:1, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” and Acts 15:5, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” These Christian Pharisees would certainly have recited Genesis 17 to the church council:

God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

How do you argue against that sort of clear biblical evidence? What’s hard to understand about “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant”?

Peter’s decides, though, to baptize Gentiles without prior consultation with the church in Jerusalem. We might attribute this to the overwhelming sense of the Spirit that Peter experiences, as do Cornelius and the others, but one still wonders why he does not wait. It is possible, of course, that this decision also forms a part of the process by which the church comes to understand how it is to function authoritatively as a governing body discerning the will of the Spirit. That is, Peter does not tell the church that he, as an apostle, as "the Rock," has made his decision, but assents to explaining his decision to the whole Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-11). Apart from Peter's individual authority as the chief apostle, he comes to understand the means by which this authority must be accepted in the church. The same, therefore, is true of Paul and Barnabas; Paul is in no doubt of his authority as an apostle, or of his commission by the risen Lord to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:1-9), but he, too, accedes to meet with the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-5; Gal. 2:1-2). Paul, as assured as a man could be in the truth of his revelation and the Gospel he preaches, nevertheless states that he went “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (Gal. 2:2). He submits his Gospel to the church in Jerusalem because he accepts the authority of the church and explicitly acknowledges their authority to judge the validity or faithfulness of his mission. It is possible that in this new time of excitement the preaching came first, but when questions were raised about the validity of the preaching and practice all parties submitted to the authority of the church. The question was to be discussed with the “apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:2).

What was happening amongst the Christians was something new in the life of the church, in the life of the people of God, but it had also been prophesied: there would come a time when the Gentiles would be welcomed in to God's people. James cites or alludes to Amos 9:11-12, Jer. 12:14-17 and Isa.45: 20-23, but he could have easily cited Zech. 14:16-19 or Isa. 25:6-10 or any other of the numerous prophetic passages dealing with Gentile inclusion. The prophecy of Gentile inclusion they all knew; discerning that this was the time and the way it was to be enacted, and not at the eschaton, struck them like a thunderbolt.

Peter and Paul paved the way for the decision, responding to the reality of the experience of the Holy Spirit amongst the Gentiles, but regardless of their authority as apostles, it was necessary for them to argue their case before the church and to have the church assure them that they had not “run in vain.” It is also telling that this decision, as new and stunning a reversal as it is, runs counter to some of the clear Scriptural evidence, but makes sense of a wealth of passages dealing with Gentile inclusion in the Scriptures. Finally, the authority that the church has it has as the body of Christ: it is the Apostles and elders, together with the whole church, discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit, which allows the church to act authoritatively.

Model 2: Ratzinger’s Kern und Schale:

For Ratzinger’s model I am working with Aaron Pidel, S.J.’s article titled “Joseph Ratzinger on Biblical Inerrancy” (Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2014): 307–30) to expound his “tests” for discerning proper understanding of biblical inerrancy. Ratzinger’s model is more focused on how we distinguish between matters that might change and matters that might not by distinguishing between what belongs to the Kern (or “core”) of biblical teaching and what belongs to the Schale (“husk” or “shell”).  But, again, how to determine?

Ratzinger does not want to maintain that the Bible speaks truth just in matters of faith and not in science, such as history. For Ratzinger holds that “a God that cannot intervene in history and show himself in it is not the God of the Bible. For this reason, the reality of Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary, the real institution of the Last Supper by Jesus himself, his bodily Resurrection from the dead—the fact that the tomb was empty—are all an element of the faith itself that it can and must defend against supposedly better historical knowledge” (323). On the other hand, the Bible’s “manner of thought, even in respect to religious topics, has been determined by the world in which it arose, ” and Ratzinger points to “the stipulations of James, the veiling of women, marriage legislation of 1 Corinthians 7” as “ethical and religious directives” which “are subject to the same methodological scrutiny as historical and scientific claims” (324).

Pidel writes that “in each domain, then—science, history, religion and morality—a similar problem surfaces regarding the relationship between the perennial truth of revelation and the transitory thought world in which it is mediated. Quite simply, the former must be held as inerrant and binding, whereas the latter, the “mythology” of Scripture’s cultural container, may be left behind” (324). How we decide what belongs to “the transitory thought world in which it is mediated” is the task of the church, the People of God and theologians (324). This sort of discernment of the Scripture is the ongoing, never completed task for the church and theologians (325).

Ratzinger offers an example of how to determine what is essential using the example of the Devil. Herbert Haag, a German biblical scholar, argued “that the biblical motif of the ‘Devil’ is nothing other than the concept of  ‘sin’ in mythological garb. Haag is arguing, in Ratzingerian terms, that the notion of personal evil represents a historically conditioned Schale, whose abiding Kern is reducible to personal and social sin” (326). Ratzinger disagrees with Haag, not that the process can be engaged, but he denies Haag’s conclusion, since he understands that the reality of the Devil is central to the Church’s teaching and theological core. Ratzinger believes that “Galileo’s call for the demythologization of Scripture’s geocentrism” offers a better example of the way in which understanding and interpretation can change (326).

Ratzinger offers four tests, with each of these tests taken from Pidel (326), to judge whether a teaching of the New Testament might belong to its “core” or its “husk”:

1. The relationship between the two Testaments with respect to the affirmation in question:

“Whereas preoccupation with cosmology shows a ‘movement of contraction’ from Old Testament to New, interest in the demonic shows a ‘movement of expansion’”(326). That is, the demonic becomes more not less significant in the New Testament, while cosmology becomes less significant.

2. The relationship of the affirmation to the inner shape of Christian existence:

“Ratzinger observes that Christ not only drives out demons but also hands this mission on to his disciples in such wise that it comes to belong to the way of discipleship itself. In other words, ‘The form of Jesus, its spiritual physiognomy, does not change, whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth moves around the sun . . . but it changes decisively, if one cuts out of it the experience of struggle against the power of the demonic kingdom.’ If we can no longer affirm a reality so central to the self-understanding of Christ and his followers, then we cannot claim to share in the same faith” (326-27). Here we can say that the reality of the Evil One is too central to Jesus’ own life and that of his disciples to marginalize in our own understanding. Geocentrism is simply not that important.

3. The relationship of the affirmation to the church:

“Yet this same baptismal liturgy takes the Devil so much in earnest that the ‘exorcism and the renunciation of the devil belong to the core event (Kerngeschehen) of baptism; the latter, together with profession of Jesus Christ, forms the indispensable entryway into the sacrament.’ Among the signs related to the baptism, Ratzinger points also to the perfection of baptismal life—the witness of heroic sanctity” (327). The Church has always continued to affirm the reality of the Devil in the sacraments and life of the Church, but matters of geocentrism are not important for the core teachings of the Church.

4. The relationship to right reason:

“Any worldview incompatible with the ‘Devil’ is also incompatible with God, with human interiority, and ultimately with ‘sin’ in the Christian sense. Haag’s approach ends not in a subtle discrimination between Kern and Schale, but in a wholesale rejection of Kern and Schale alike” (328). The view of God and Satan are so central to how Christianity understands itself that to cast the Devil aside is to cast Christianity itself aside. The earth’s geocentrism, says Ratzinger, simply is not that significant to the worldview of Christianity. It need not be maintained, but the reality of the Devil must.

These four “tests” do not offer simple answers regarding scientific, historical, moral, or religious claims, and Ratzinger asks only that biblical claims be judged carefully according to these four criteria. Does a change in understanding fit with the Church’s perennial faith? Would a change in how we understand divorce, remarriage, and communion for the divorced fit into the category of the “Devil” or geocentrism?

As Pidel says of Ratzinger, “his approach to inerrancy, needless to say, does not align neatly with the approach taken by the biblical magisterium of the early twentieth century” (328). This very reality shows us that the church is not static, but that the ancient tradition grows and develops on a constant basis. As Ratzinger writes,

there are magisterial decisions which cannot be the final word in a given matter as such but, despite the permanent value of their principles, are chiefly also a signal for pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional policy. Their kernel remains valid, but the particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction. (328; The Nature and Mission of Theology, 106)

Pidel says that “Ratzinger would not equate Scripture’s inerrant content (pace the antimodernist biblical encyclicals) with what individual, historical authors ‘intended to affirm,’ but instead with the requirements of the Church’s faith in Christ” (329). Scripture, Ratzinger says, makes inerrant claims but “these claims can be adjudicated by the faith of the Church” (330).

Development in teaching, development in interpretation, or change in teaching, change in interpretation – depending upon what word is preferred – has happened throughout Christian history, from the beginning of the Church. Acts 10-15 offers a practical model of change in teaching within the Church, and Joseph Ratzinger offered a model of  four tests for distinguishing what belongs to the perennial teaching of the Church and what is just the “husk” in which it rests. Niether model offers easy answers, but both offer processes within the Church for discussing difficult matters.

I have written a lot– Mr. Douthat did ask, after all, for academics to respond—but there is much more to say than I have written here. This is my contribution to a conversation that, frankly, has been going on since the beginning of Christianity. But it is especially important to stress: nothing has happened in the Synod on the Family which alters current church teaching on the matters of remarriage and communion for divorced Catholics. Yet if it does, it will be important to recognize that teaching can and does change on important matters, including marriage and divorce, and already has, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. The church is the locus for change. And as much sympathy as I have for the Christian Pharisees, who saw their tradition and scriptural understanding crumble in front of them, and who argued, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses,” the church decided it was not.


[1] On porneia see Kyle Harper’s From Sin to Shame.

[2] William Loader, New Testament on Sexuality, 2012: 274-85. Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Savior,  2006: 132-34.

[3] Meyer, Five Speeches that Changed the World, 1994: 43

[4] Meyer 1994: 45.

[5] I have a forthcoming article on this in a collection of essays dealing with Roman late antiquity, “(Why) Was Jesus Single?”

[6] William Loader, Making Sense of Sex, 2013: 97-101; Martin 2006: 110-11.

[7] Martin 2006: 137-38.

[8] Loader 2013: 436-434; Raymond Collins, Accompanied by a Believing Wife,  2013: 100-06

[9] Martin 2006:131-32.

[10] Loader 2013: 244-53.

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Guillermo Reyes | 11/13/2015 - 12:47pm

The financial scandals in the Curia that were recently published by the 2 Italian authors leave no room for supporting "remember when" or "we need to go back to the way things were done" arguments. This type of thinking is a deceitful way of following Christ. These "leaders" (conservative and liberal) have given the Church a huge black eye no matter their proclivities. It is precisely this type of "divide and conquer" mindset that has caused the Church to hemorrhage.

No one is without stain here and the sooner we drop the liberal/conservative labels, the sooner we can get out of this terribly black hole we have seen others dug while wearing mitres and zucchettos, while claiming to be "orthodox" or "progressive". There is no Christ in "conservative" or "liberal" for Christ is not divided.

Ya basta!

Tim O'Leary | 11/11/2015 - 3:24pm

While I do not agree with Ross Douthat's characterization of the synod, it is incorrect to think he is being fundamentalist with regards Scripture. If anything, he is adhering to the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law (i.e. being orthodox). However, as the Holy father kept repeating at the Synod, the doctrine of the Church (i.e. the Catechism) will not change. The discipline (the Code of Canon Law) may indeed need change. I very much appreciated his reform of the annulment process and I am emotionally sympathetic to the idea that ways be found for binding repentant (penitent) remarried divorcees closer to the Church (if it can be done without endangering the true doctrine of our Lord). Same for certain Protestants?

I agree that Catholic doctrine is not "self-evident" from Scripture, since Jesus did not intend to cover all circumstances, beyond the man-woman and indissolubility principle. But, that is why we have the Petrine charism (cf Matt 16:18) and the Holy Spirit's protection from doctrinal error, a charism that is not accessible to speculating theologians (or journalists) or other churches, even the Orthodox.

But, I must laugh a little re the Orthodox position. They will permit a third but not a fourth marriage? Is it 3 strikes and your out?

Robert Lewis | 11/11/2015 - 1:48am

"Doctrinal orthodoxy" may, but rigidity in the pastoral "discipline" definitely will not. It is increasingly made obvious by such pronouncements as the attack on the "conservatism" of the Italian Church yesterday.

Guillermo Reyes | 11/9/2015 - 8:14pm

Working through St Teresa of Avila's "Interior Castle", I am struck with how she hounded her Sisters / Daughters to strive for humility. She wrote that no grace were possible from God if one lacked humility. She also had the following to say about theologians. Juxtapose these words of the great Saint to modern Catholic internet bloggers, and there really is no question how far we have fallen from the Way of Perfection

" In difficult questions, although I think I understand them and am speaking the truth, I always say ‘it appears to me’; for, in case my opinion is wrong, I am most willing to submit to the judgment of theologians. Although they may not have had personal experience in such matters, yet in someway I do not understand, God Who sets them to give light to His Church enables them to recognize the truth when it is put before them"

in The Fifth Mansion, Chapter 1, # 7
"Interior Castle" Book
by St Teresa of Avila

Brian McDonough | 11/9/2015 - 11:46am

Regarding those who opposed Francis at the Synod, it does not matter: he has the numbers in his favor. Francis not only "holds the cards," he is the "House." The Synod's cynics "showed their hands" to Francis, and they most certainly revealed the importance of Francis' successor as being utterly essential to his Papacy.

Francis has appointed 39 Cardinals since February 22, 2014, and 32 of them are younger than 80. Francis need only appoint 29 more Cardinals younger than 80 to have appointed 61 Cardinals younger than 80, and he will have appointed a majority of the 120 Cardinals younger than 80 who shall elect his successor.

It is probable that Francis will reach that number 29 over the next 2 years because 53 current Cardinals are over 85, and 29 of those are over 90. The probability that some of these Cardinals sadly may die over the next 2 years is relatively high, and Francis shall appoint their successors.

Francis may also create new Cardinals in places where none existed because he already has done this 5 times (Cabo Verde, Panama, Tonga, Myanmar, and Morelia, Mexico).

Francis has done and shall do the same with some new Bishops/Archbishops. Francis has been and shall continue to appoint progressive Bishops/Archbishops [as he just did with Fr. Zuppi in Bologna and Fr. Lorefice in Palermo], some of whom he shall elevate to Cardinals. The age of one Bishop whom Francis recently appointed, Fr. Anthony Panengaden, is 39 years old. Therefore, expect most future new Cardinals and Bishops/Archbishops appointed by Francis to be younger than 65.

Finally, if Francis is Pope for another 5 years, then only 52 of the current Cardinals, who were NOT appointed by Francis, shall be younger than 80 and shall be able to vote for Francis' successor. There will be only 38 of them if Francis is Pope for another 7 years. Some of these Cardinals agree with Francis because they voted for Francis as Pope.

In the end, Francis not only "playa the game," he also decides who "playa the game" which chooses his successor. This is the game which every Pope has played: John Paul II appointed 99 cardinals, and Benedict XVI appointed 79 in only 8 years.

Therefore, the utter importance to Francis of Francis' successor is one of the great lessons to be learned from the Synod, and it is written in the numbers what kind of Pope the successor of Francis shall be.

Tim O'Leary | 11/11/2015 - 3:26pm

This analysis is highly political and forgets that the Holy Spirit ultimately controls the teaching innerency of the Church. Moreover, Pope Francis does not seem to have any doctrinal litmus test in his selections, but selects those with a strong pastoral record. I expect doctrinal orthodoxy will persist in the vast majority of his appointments.

Richard Murray | 11/9/2015 - 11:42am

Professor Martens, thank you, your discussion of Acts 10-15 is very helpful.
The changes and carefully-made decisions seem to have benefited Salvation History. In fact, our Church might not exist had those changes not been implemented. The opening of the relationship with God to the Gentiles, to the globe, is a central part of Christianity.

And I especially like your discussion of Pope Benedict XVI's work. He is such an extraordinary thinker, and the roots of his thought go deep into our Faith.

And regarding those who would hurt and divide the Church, and your discussion of demons: In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the demons seem almost to be employees of God (see Job, e.g.). But in the New Testament, Jesus wants the demons gone as quickly as possible. The human mind must evolve, and always be adhering to, and searching for, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful.

Joe Murray | 11/8/2015 - 10:56pm

Topical, readable, well-argued, informative. America Magazine should aspire to publish more pieces like this.

Stephen McCluskey | 11/8/2015 - 10:56am

Deleted duplicate.

Richard Booth | 11/8/2015 - 2:28pm

Very interesting. Thanks for the link.

Beth Cioffoletti | 11/7/2015 - 4:38pm

Though I could not follow the whole thing, I think I get the gist of this -that Jesus' words carry with them deeper levels of understanding and interpretation, so don't think that one sentence from Jesus is the final word and that's that.

I am not a professional theologian, nor do I want to delve into the finer details of academic Biblical scholarship. I am dismayed by the partisan "argument" about the matter of divorce and re-marriage. I have been fortunate to have had a good marriage (43 or 44 years, I can't remember), but I know that I would not have stayed in a "bad" marriage and would have been heart-broken over being refused the Eucharist. And not just heart-broken, but seriously disordered in my ongoing dialogue/relationship with God and Reality. The Church holds that much spiritual power over me that I'm not sure I could have found my way without totally turning away from the Church. And I'm not sure that I could find my way without the Church.

Ross Douthat's columns confuse and depress me. I feel like he's making God/Heaven/Eternity into a big test for which we must follow certain rules and judged worthy. Thank God for Francis, and for this response to Douthat.

Richard Booth | 11/7/2015 - 5:14pm

For centuries, clerics have sought ways to make the Church indispensable to those who would lead a Catholic life. Clerics also have a history of attempting indispensability to kings, nations, and so on. One must have a priest for confession; one must have a priest to say Mass, a bishop to confirm and, formerly, one must have a cleric to crown a king. It is interesting to watch while the "priestly class" becomes subject to disagreement, disrespect, and lower numbers in today's culture. Maybe this "indispensability" worked better when the People of God were more ignorant.

Beth Cioffoletti | 11/7/2015 - 7:30pm

Yes, I hear you, James. But despite the clerics and indispensability, there is a vein of truth that runs through the history of Catholicism. I believe that we've outgrown "Church" in the usual sense of understanding salvation, but something happened to human consciousness with the birth of Jesus and the awakening of Christianity. That is worth holding on to, in whatever form it takes in the future.

Richard Booth | 11/8/2015 - 2:10pm

Interesting you should mention this, Beth. Of course, my comments neither denied nor affirmed whether Jesus said what they say he said. Rather, I agree that we have outgrown "Church" as a cleric-centered institution. I have no quarrel with your idea of consciousness-raising and whatever good may have come from that. Thanks for responding.

Richard Booth | 11/7/2015 - 4:31pm

William does have a right to his opinion, of course; disrespect is another matter. But, let me get on to my point.

I just want to add that "Mark" and "Matthew" may not have historically been Mark and Matthew, as many readers may already know. But, whoever they were or might have been, it is they who wrote what Jesus said. We don't know if Jesus said what they wrote or not; that is a matter of belief. The article places the authority of the words about divorce, marriage, and other constructs in Jesus's mouth, but it is good for us to wonder rather than blindly accept. Arguments from within a stringently locked system of thought alone often go 'round and 'round.

joseph o'leary | 11/7/2015 - 3:10pm

That was worth carefully reading, thank you.

Mark Brumley | 11/7/2015 - 2:45pm

"It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses".

Does the teaching authority of the Church today stand in the same relevant position vis-a-vis the teaching of Jesus, the definitive Word, as Jesus and apostolic recipients of foundational revelation stood in relation of the law of Moses and the OT? It seems not.

There seems a danger here of slipping into thinking of today's Magisterium and theological reflection as holding an analogous relationship to Jesus' teaching and the foundational interpretation of that teaching in the apostolic age, as Jesus and his apostles held to the OT. That risks collapsing the distinction between the definitively "given" Word in Jesus, even historically and developmentally mediated, on the one hand, and the Spirit-guided development of doctrine or its humanly prudential application on the other.

The definitively given Word is received today and that reception can, in a sense, be regarded as the reception of revelation. But that sense of "ongoing" revelation, even if it is understood as bound up with development of doctrine, doesn't imply a "fulfillment" of the original Word in the way revelation in Jesus "fulfilled" the OT and in the way Jesus' meaning was foundationally interpreted by the Spirit in the apostolic age. Jesus' teaching and work relativized the OT's meaning in relation to himself. Unless we are to expect some Newer Covenant Still, we have nothing in our time and the history to come, that can relativize the teaching of Jesus in that way. Hence to point to how in the apostolic age definitive-sounding parts of the OT were relativized in relation to Jesus or how the apostolic recipients of ecclesially foundational revelation were guided to understand the teaching of Jesus, threatens to undermine the definitiveness of Jesus and the teaching of the apostolic age. The Church in both the apostolic age and subsequent eras has been guided by the Spirit to understand the teaching of Jesus. But the Spirit's work in apostolic age participates in the foundational revelatory moment of Jesus in a way that the post-apostolic Church does not. That foundational revelatory moment of Jesus understands what preceded as relative to Jesus, including OT norms about circumcision. And, of course, OT norms regarding divorce and remarriage.

Paul Diczok | 11/7/2015 - 11:27am

I think it important that the development of understanding in the early church involved actors who forthrightly understood and asserted that "change" was what they were about. This doubtless aided their work. Today's protagonists, however, assert "no change" is afoot. This impedes discussion, discernment and and mutual respect.

Mark Brumley | 11/7/2015 - 3:14pm

Also, just because church teaching can "change" in certain respects doesn't mean any particular proposed change falls within the respects in which church teaching can "change". We can spend lots of time quoting the Bible to establish the fact that some kind of change is consistent with God's revelation. Ok. That's not really in dispute among serious participants in the debate.

We can quote chapter and verse about "change", but we still have to distinguish the "change" from the OT to the NT; the "change" of the early Church moving from its self-understanding as Jesus' band living within Judaism and its self-understanding as, in a sense, the new and fulfilled Israel; and the "change" called the development of doctrine or change in prudential application of doctrine.

But none of even that shows that particular proposed change X is justified. That is really the issue. No amount of appeal to biblical examples of justified change (whether from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, or from the Church's understanding of herself as Jesus' people within Judaism to the Church's understanding of herself as the New People of God; or in the development of doctrine) will demonstrate whether a particular proposed change is justified. That has to be argued out on its own terms.

William Rydberg | 11/6/2015 - 10:28pm

In my humble opinion, this is not a response but rather a mystery meat "sausage" of Media comments.

Catholicism is based upon Scripture, Tradition and teachings of the Magisterium over time. The arguments presented read like the comments section of the Times - undoubtably heart felt, but certainly not scholarly!

While I am by no stretch a Theologian, some of the statements that jump out in no particular order include:

The assertion that Catholicism is not based on the fundamentals, seems to be referencing the Protestant Text "The Fundamentals" published by a minority of Protestants. Frankly, makes no sense to me?

Completely ignores Catechism of the Catholic Church - a standard

No references to The teaching documents of sitting Popes, although disrespectful commentary on "Ratzinger" radiates disrespect.

Reference to Orthodox teaching on "divorce" is incorrect, no authoritative source. Although anecdotally, I understand that the second marriages do not approach being "sacramental"... Again, which national Orthodox group, or are they referring to the Ecumenical Patriarch; just flabby argument in my opinion...

Lot's of quotes, however I question the context and wonder why the writer wouldn't ask the Authors that are Catholic and still alive. In my opinion people don't tend to ask questions if they know that the likely answer will be contrary to theirs...

Finally, contrary to Protestantism, ordinary "pew" Catholics do not have to defer to Scripture Scholars and Protestant Ministers.

Any Catholic with a reasonable understanding of Catholic teachings and a relationship with Jesus is entitled to an opinion.

Richard Booth | 11/8/2015 - 2:23pm

William - the author, who is an academic, is writing in semi-academic terms, I believe. It is common to be critical and straightforward in academic writing, and to use only last names of other authors, for instance, Ratzinger. As you can see below, I have problems with what he wrote (including, but certainly not limited to, his overextension of the meaning of eunich as we know it today), but he had a goal for the article and, in linear fashion, he did achieve it. You are right - there are many other ways he could have constructed the issues, but I think he purposely avoided straying from his main goal for the article. Thanks.

Stephen McCluskey | 11/8/2015 - 10:54am

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the standard statement of Church teaching as of 1992.

Bill Moynihan | 11/6/2015 - 11:51pm

In my humble opinion, you are likely a troll. You radiate disrespect to the author.

Paul Bowman | 11/7/2015 - 8:15pm

I think it’s fairer just to say that Mr. Rydberg doesn’t recognize what the article’s after. He objects that it doesn’t address matters it clearly wasn’t written to address. That’s misunderstanding. It doesn’t make him a troll.

William Rydberg | 11/7/2015 - 6:05pm

Really?

John Martens | 11/9/2015 - 1:38pm

I want to make a few things clear, in case there is misunderstanding.

Someone sent me an excellent e-mail and asked me if I thought Jesus was mistaken, especially regarding the eschaton. I am completely a follower of my late teacher Ben F. Meyer on this score, as laid out in his essay “Jesus’ Scenario of the Future” in his book Christus Faber: The Master-Builder and the House of God. I am not citing him, just paraphrasing: No true prophet is mistaken, least of all the greatest of them. Jesus is the Messiah, Lord and the greatest of prophets, but Jesus’ scenario of the end was not a sort of blueprint giving us exact dates and timelines. Jesus sensed the imminence of the end. Jesus and his first disciples believed that the end was nearer than it was according to human measurement of time, but he was not wrong. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” This is not a supposition to me; this is a promise. I believe it.

 

Do I think of "Matthew" putting words in Jesus' mouth? No. think the exception clause is inspired – it is a part of Scripture – but it was not, I would suggest, a part of Jesus’ earliest teaching, but a development on the part of the tradition of the earliest Church.

 

Do I think that Jesus’ teaching on marriage can be discarded because it was based on a false premise, i.e., that the end was nigh? I do not believe that. No passage of scripture can be discarded; it is the inspired word of God, but there is development in understanding and development in the tradition.

 

I think Jesus is correct (naturally) – that marriage is intended for a lifetime – but that situations can arise in marriages (including divorce) which must be addressed. The Church had to deal with these from very early on, as we see in Matthew (I would argue) and 1 Corinthians 7. But this point is important: Jesus’ teaching is not superseded.

 

Practically today we need to do more to support people, counsel people and to make certain they understand the nature of marriage before they enter in. For me it is a true joy! I love it!

Henry George | 1/7/2016 - 3:50pm

Dear Professor Martens,

I enjoyed your well written article but do have some questions:

a) How can you or anyone be so sure what are the "words of Jesus" and what is added on ?
For if you are incorrect, your whole series of deductions based upon those words may be quite fallible.

b) As for the "End Times", I think you, and your teacher, Ben F. Meyer, are rather limited in your view.
Jesus by His birth/life/death and resurrection free us from the "Snares of Satan"
and so we should seek to live as we will live in Heaven:
Forgiving and forgetting all the sins that have been committed against us, asking for forgiveness from all
that we have offended. We do not have to renounce marriage in this life but if we do enter into marriage
we have to stay within that marriage and forgive our partners if they stray/fall and ask forgiveness if we
stray/fall. When Jesus says the Kingdom of God is around you - He is saying that Satan has no hold
over us anymore, Satan may seek to deceive us into believing that life is too hard/God too far away/
Grace too weak to help us avoid all sins, but that is not true.

c) Liberal Theologians seem to want to assert that the Holy Spirit first seeks to work through them and then
they can act as correctives to the Magisterium which is too dull/Pharisaical to listen to the promptings of
the Spirit. But why can't the Holy Spirit also work through the people of God - most of whom never asked
for or desired the radical changes in the Liturgy after Vatican II and wish to be strengthened in the faith instead
of have its tenets doubted and dismissed by "Liberal Academic Theologians" - many - who if pressed, would
deny most of the tenets of the Nicene Creed ?

d) While Christ was empowered to supersede/fulfil the "Law" and the Holy Spirit actively/manifestly taught the
Early Church that God wants Gentiles to become Christians, there is nowhere where you can show such
power/authority/manifestations have been given to justify the novel claims of Academic Theologians of the 21st
century.

e) We are Christians and Jesus is not the greatest of the Prophets, He, alone, is the Son of the Living God,
the Creator of Heaven and Earth, as such His words and no other Christians are what should and must
guide us, it is up to us to conform to His teachings, not Jesus or His teachings to conform to us.

Richard Booth | 11/10/2015 - 2:04pm

Scripture? Yes. But, written by whom and for what purposes we are not sure.

William Rydberg | 11/9/2015 - 6:47pm

I am assuming that you are the Author, J.W. Martens. Judging by the brief summary on these pages of your background, I understand that you are not a co-religionist, and therefore no formal obligation to adhere to ordinary Catholic Teaching, I suppose.

So, It's nice that you have heart-felt opinions about Jesus that informs your work and think highly of marriage. But I, as an ordinary "pew" Catholic. and someone busy otherwise with my daily life, I defer to authoritative Catholic teachings (naturally based upon Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium).

While not an expert, I understand that Scripture Scholars and Protestant Ministers occupy a kind of quasi-magistral role in certain denominations. But as such, I prefer the new wineskins that in my opinion is Catholicism. Which is why I like to follow identifiable Catholic Magazines and news sources. For example, I never go to Mormon or Jehovah Witness, or for that matter7th Day Adventist, etc (I understand that it is estimated that there are over 5,000 protestant break-offs from Anglicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and their variants..).

In my opinion, what we are talking about is ordinary Catholic teaching presented for example in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So I recommend that the first reference be same to encourage dialogue in this Catholic forum.
But that's just my opinion...

Bruce Snowden | 11/12/2015 - 9:24am

Dear Mr. Martens,

It’s said, “ fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” so maybe I’m being foolish as a non-academic to address the following question. However, let me tackle it.

Regarding Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, is not Truth, like Scripture layered by design, allowing a primary teaching, followed by a secondary and every a tertiary one, perhaps others? Certainly Truth and Scripture are familiarly linked as one, so that when one speaks of Truth Scripture stands attentive ready to accept questions, and when one speaks of Scripture, Truth instinctively responds in the same manner. Lift the layers through humble prayer and theological study and find Jesus’ “other” teachings towards marriage and divorce. Is this just a pipe dream?

Recently by John W. Martens

Along the Road (September 22, 2016)
What Disciples Do (September 15, 2016)
God’s Watch (September 8, 2016)
Serving God (September 1, 2016)
God’s Joy (August 18, 2016)