The development of church teaching


A theologian and educationalist challenges the view that the church’s moral teaching never changes.

One of the myths about the Catholic Church dear to the hearts of certain right wing elements in particular is that the Church never changes its moral teaching.  Some even go so far as to claim that the Church’s moral teaching is simply the teaching of Jesus, overlooking the fact that there were and are many moral issues on which Jesus did not utter a word, albeit he did command us to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  But, as we shall see, it sometimes took the Church a very long time to discover what was involved in loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.  As we reflect on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome, which holds out the prospect of effecting some changes, it would be salutary, I believe, to challenge this myth of the changelessness   of the Church’s moral teachings.  For the sake of clarity, let me add that I am not suggesting that Church dogmas such as the Incarnation or the Trinity are subject to change, though I would say that our understanding of these truths can develop.

Let us begin by considering the issue of slavery, clearly a moral issue and one on which the modern position adopted by the Church is unambiguous – the Church condemns slavery outright as being incompatible with human dignity and the equality of all human beings under God.  Yet this was not always so.

St Paul exhorted Christian slaves to be obedient to their masters and urged masters to treat their slaves kindly but he did not condemn the institution of slavery as such.  Because of this, some theologians in the early Church attempted to justify slavery as the result of sin and part of God’s plan of salvation, neither wrong or inappropriate.  Canonists in the Middle Ages went further and argued that slavery was positively beneficial to society.  Four General Councils of the Church – Lateran III in 1179, Lateran IV in 1215, Lyon I in 1245 and Lyon II in 1274 – approved of slavery and saw no objection to it being used as a punishment or deterrent.  In fact, the Church herself was a slave owner.  Popes, bishops, monasteries and parishes owned slaves for centuries.  Slavery was so much part of the social structure that it was simply taken for granted until the 18th century.  The practice of owning Christian slaves died out in Europe round about the 14th century, but Church leaders condoned the ownership by Christians of Turkish of black slaves.  In 1488 King Ferdinand of Spain made a gift of 100 slaves to Pope Innocent VIII, who distributed them among the Roman nobility and Cardinals.  In the same century Pope Nicholas V gave the King of Portugal permission to invade and conquer the lands of Saracens, pagans and enemies of Christ, and to subject the inhabitants to perpetual slavery.

Slavery is not the only issue illustrating how the Church’s moral teaching has changed.  Another example, one that strikes a chord in modern sensibilities, relates to the moral principle of freedom of conscience.  Vatican II’s document on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, spoke eloquently about the dignity and importance of human beings’ moral conscience, proclaiming that:

‘Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man.  There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbour.  In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals and from social relationships….’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16)

All very impressive and uplifting.  Yet we only need to go back to the 19th century to find Popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX condemning freedom of conscience in no uncertain terms.  Those wishing to query this statement should consult Denzinger[1] on the sources of Catholic doctrine at number 1690 (1960 edition), where Pius endorses his predecessor (Gregory’s) condemnation of freedom of conscience and his judgment that those advocating such freedom are preaching nothing less than ‘freedom of perdition.’  As Sean Fagan writes, ‘Even allowing for the theological and historical circumstances that made those  earlier statements understandable to some extent in their day, they could never be justified nowadays…Quite simply, the Church got it wrong in the past and now sees things differently’.[i]

In the area of human sexuality, always a fraught area in Christian moral teaching, there has been a truly remarkable change of outlook over the centuries.  Peter Brown, an authority on what is called ‘late Antiquity’, the later stages of the Roman empire and hence the early centuries of the Christian era, refers to what he terms the ‘sexual asceticism’ that was a characteristic of the period, a tendency towards a renunciation of sex and a revulsion towards the body.  He cites St Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, as the apostle’s response to this tendency, when he tells the wife that her body is not her own but her husband’s and the husband that his body is not his own but his wife’s.  Despite these admonition of Paul’s, by the second century AD onwards there were Christian groups and sects who believed that salvation was dependent on sexual continence and that the material world, including sex, was to be rejected as evil.  Brown comments that ‘By the fourth century, there were orthodox writers, such as Jerome, who were obsessed with physical purity.’

The thinker who exercised the greatest influence on Christian attitudes to sex in this period and right through the Middle Ages and beyond was probably  St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD).  According to Augustine it was virtually impossible for a man and a woman, even when married to each other, to have sexual intercourse without incurring sin.  He believed that the fact that the sexual act usually takes place in private was proof that those who took part in it knew that it was shameful, noting that even ‘legitimate’ intercourse required for the procreation of children and the survival of the human race seeks ‘a chamber secluded from witnesses’.  And as for the male sexual organ, its unruly behaviour, the fact that it is not subject to reason as the hand and the foot are, is a result of original sin; what is more, original sin is transmitted down through the generations by means of sex.  In short, according to Augustine human sexuality is fundamentally disordered.  Augustine’s very negative attitude to sex infected Christian thinking on the subject for centuries to come.  It was under Augustine’s influence, for example, that Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, said that ‘carnal copulation distracts one from the service of God’.[ii]

The principle governing Catholic sexual ethics right up to the mid-20th century was that the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, the other purpose, namely the unity of the spouses, being secondary and subordinate.  However, during the 20th century, as more positive attitudes to sex developed among Catholic theologians, the subordination of the unity of the spouses to the procreation of children began to be called in question and it is possible to say that today very few moral theologians would deny that the unity of the spouses is at least equal in importance to the procreation of children; likewise the notion that sex is intrinsically disordered as a result of original sin has all but disappeared.  Moral theologians are aware that sex can lead to sin, that sexual abuse, rape, adultery and pornography, for example, are all sinful.  But Augustine’s wholesale condemnation of human sexuality is no longer a feature of official church teaching or papal documents, which reflect a much more positive and healthier appreciation of the importance of sex in society and family life.  Catholic teaching on sex has changed – and thank God for it.

I have cited only three areas in which the Church’s moral teaching has changed.  There are many other areas where this is also the case, but I hope what I have said is sufficient to explode the myth of the Church that never changes its moral teaching.

[1] Enchiridion Symbolorum, first edited by Henry Denzinger.  There are many editions.

[i] Sean Fagan S.M., Does Morality Change? Gill & Macmillan 1997, p. 101

[ii] Summa Theologiae, 2-2, q 186, a 4


Joe Fitzpatrick is a former Inspector of Schools and author of and many studies and a book on the philosophy of the Jesuit scholar, Bernard Lonergan.  His most recent book is The Fall and the Ascent of Man, published by the University Press of America, 2012.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.