No definition of dogma, by decree of a pope or council, was ever understood to change Church teaching but rather simply to recognize ("define") something regarded as always there.
The headlines last week proclaimed that Pope Francis had changed the Church's teaching on the death penalty, causing consternation among some Catholics. Why? They were reacting not simply to the evident glee among makers of elite culture ("the Church has at last caught up in this matter at least") but also to the very idea that the Church could "change" its teaching on faith and morals.
But hasn't the Church changed its teaching on many matters, such as usury, slavery, and religious liberty? Actually, no, although seeing why requires some subtlety and patience. To make money off of someone's destitution rather than helping him with a gift is still wrong, as are loansharking and the entrapment practiced by credit card companies, while asking for compensation for the "opportunity cost" of money in "commercial society" is only just. Chattel slavery was always regarded as wrong, whereas service which binds someone to a particular household is right or not depending on the context: there are countless farmhands and domestics today who are in no real sense free to leave and work somewhere else. Again, it remains true that if circumstances are right the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion can be best for a society.
No definition of dogma, by decree of a pope or council, was ever understood to change Church teaching but rather simply to recognize ("define") something regarded as always there. Vatican I declared -- made clear -- that the pope always had been regarded, at least implicitly, as not capable of getting it wrong on faith and morals, given certain conditions. Pius XII in defining the Assumption of Mary reviewed the teachings of saints and doctors and claimed, correctly, that he was simply making manifest what was always held. He was not changing anything in 1950.
What Newman called "development" of doctrine was just this, greater understanding and clarity about what was always held, often in response to someone's initiative in denying it.
Note that development is different from what we might call "disentanglement," that is, when the Church as teacher wishes to emphasize that some attitude which, lamentably, has often accompanied Christianity, is a cultural accretion which should be distinguished and rejected, for example, the deplorable attitude of anti-Semitism. The Church never "changed its teaching" to forbid persecution of the Jewish people, because it never taught persecution in the first place (not that that makes our ancestors blameless).
We want to say the Church does not change, because a change in judgment is a sign that somewhere there has been a lack of truth. Either one did not know the truth before and came to know it; or one knew it once but lost hold of it; or one never did know it, either then or now, and one is shooting in the dark, continuing in ignorance.
Yet ignorance in matters involving the soul is disastrous. We want to know how we should live. What path truly is good? What leads to God, and what does not? Mere good intentions, we are told, lead to someplace other than God's presence. Christ came to take away both sin and such disastrous ignorance.
More than that, a change in judgment in matters of importance implies disunity, because a change is simply disunity across time. A person who changes his mind on some important matter becomes separated from his former self. In a group all of whom believe the same thing, if some members change, then the group loses its unity. If the leader says that all must change what they believe, unless they do so instantaneously and simply in response to his will, they lose their unity.
For simple reasons such as these, it has always been said among Catholics that "the Church does not change its teaching." The true Church, we say, an "expert in humanity," safeguards the "deposit of faith."
In contrast, and sadly, Protestantism is full of changes in teaching and therefore disunity. Protestant denominations regularly get swept away by this or that latest cultural movement, becoming separated from their own past, and from one another. They attempt to solve this problem by in effect changing Christianity. The "liberal" forms change Christianity into a perpetual discussion group, or they produce a false unity based on a unifying political program. The "conservative" forms simply give up the aspiration to be universal, inherent in Christianity from the beginning. Yet others try to save unity by constantly reducing what beliefs are to count as essential, leaving their followers without guidance in many areas of life.
I recall a conversation once with a famous writer who, disturbed by the disunity of Protestantism, converted to Catholicism: "My friends said that the Catholic Church had often changed its teaching too. So I decided to find out the truth on the matter. I went back, studied all the councils and decrees, and I found that, no, it had never changed its teaching, not once." Many converts have been like this. The Church's vitality in carrying out the "New Evangelization" depends upon a similar conviction.
Has Pope Francis "changed the Church's teaching" on the death penalty? I have wished to explain solely why the claim is not ho-hum but astounding.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St. Peter, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in March 2019.