The questions posed by the editors are, I am glad to say, very easily answered. Yes, the church can confess error. She has done so innumerable times. She does so every time her members—laity, priests, bishops, and popes—go to confession. As for more public confession of error, see, for instance, Luigi Accattoli’s valuable little book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness (Pauline Books), in which are collected no less than ninety-four statements by John Paul II expressing sorrow or repentance for corporate sins in which Catholics have been implicated.
But, of course, the editors likely did not intend to pose questions that are so easily answered. I expect the intended question goes something like this: Can the magisterium of the church confess that, in the clear exercise of its teaching authority regarding faith and morals, it has taught erroneously? Not inadequately or partially or in a way that creates misunderstanding, mind you, but erroneously. Put differently, has the church taught as true that which we now recognize as false? That way of putting the question raises the stakes by posing the question of whether the Catholic church is what she claims to be. Obviously, that is a question of considerable importance for Catholics, and everyone else as well.
In the current discussion of these questions—a discussion that has been going on for centuries—frequent reference is made to issues such as slavery, usury, and the church’s relationship to Judaism. For the testing of the questions at hand, these issues are not terribly pertinent. Space does not permit an extended discussion of these interesting issues, but I believe it is accurate to say that most, but not all, of the church’s leaders, like almost the entire world until the eighteenth century, thought slavery was an unavoidable part of the social order; unlike most of the world, the church generally regretted that, sought to mitigate the cruelties attending slavery, and in notable instances tried to abolish it. As for usury, or the taking of interest, the church rightly condemned it as exploitation of human need, until the beginning of modern economics when interest was recognized as a form of partnership in enterprise. As for Judaism, the church’s teaching has not taken one substantive step beyond the agonizing complexities of Paul’s reflections in Romans, chapters nine through eleven.
More interesting test issues are, for instance, the church’s teaching about the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, the real presence in the Eucharist, and the canon of the New Testament. Among currently agitated moral questions, one might mention abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics. What if the church was and is wrong on these matters? Those who want the church to say that she can and has taught error typically insist that "of course" they are not questioning those great articles of faith and morals, but that, I am afraid, is an embarrassingly obvious evasion.
The subject at hand is the development of doctrine, and the classic reference here is John Henry Newman, whose argument has been embraced by the magisterium. He wrote about the church’s teaching:
From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
We should not, as is frequently done, pit change against development. Of course there is change. That is undeniable. The question is whether it is the change of discontinuity, correcting an error, or the change of continuity, developing the truth. The evidence is at times ambiguous. The question cannot in all cases be definitively adjudicated by historical study or hermeneutical reflection alone. Faith, which engages both will and disposition, is involved in whether one does or does not think with the church (sentire cum ecclesia) and thereby discern the promised guidance of the Spirit in the development of doctrine.
I confess to being surprised when I hear it said that the church refuses to address the question of change in her teaching ministry. One of the more recent addresses is the 1990 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. It is a candid, careful, and thorough treatment of the questions raised with respect to change, development, dissent, and intellectual freedom. It is deserving of much more attention than it has received. It is not a secret document. Although addressed to theologians, it takes up the difficulties that any reflective Catholic might have with aspects of the church’s teaching. While offering wise counsel on how to cope with such difficulties, it also readily acknowledges that such difficulties, if engaged with intellectual honesty and a disposition of sentire cum ecclesia, can serve as a welcome "stimulus" to the magisterium in further clarifying and developing the mind of the church.
The room for intellectual speculation and scholarship proposed by the instruction is truly capacious. I cannot imagine that I will ever be able to explore it all, never mind feel a need to go outside it. In fact, I don’t know what it would mean to go outside it, since theology, understood as reflection on the Word of God encompassing everything, encompasses everything. Of course, one can decide that the church and her magisterium are not what they are claimed to be. One can decide not to think with the church, or at least not with the Catholic church that is, as distinct from the Catholic church of one’s imagining. In that case, as the CDF instruction says, "the church has always held that nobody is to be forced to embrace the faith against his will."
It should occasion no sense of crisis if one has difficulties with the church’s teaching. After all, the church has taught so much and so variously, and still does. One begins from the premise that the difficulty is in oneself, without excluding the possibility that the difficulty is in the teaching. To be perfect is to have changed often, and the church’s articulation of the fullness of truth will not be perfect until our Lord returns in glory and "we shall know even as we are known" (1 Corinthians 13). At that point, we will no longer need the magisterium. Meanwhile, I keep in mind a letter that Walker Percy wrote to the editors of this magazine some years ago. He said he was weary of editorial complaints about Rome doing this and Rome doing that. Without Rome, he said, the Catholic church would not be as interesting as it is, and certainly there would be no Catholic novelists. He concluded by urging the editors to face up to the fact that it is "either Rome or California." It is Rome or California. That strikes me as an excellent motto for theologians and other reflective Catholics to keep prominently displayed where they do their thinking and writing.
Read more: Can the Church Admit Error?