Unchangeable Doctrine or NOT

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I am converting to catholicism. Due to take first communion this Easter. My question concerns what is unchangeable Dogma and what is potentially subject to change. For example I know that celibacy for the priesthood is a REQUIREMENT, and obviously it is the belief of the church that this is how it should be, yet it is technically a discipline and is subject to change.

What about something like birth control (I don't want to debate birth control), but is the prohibition against artificial birth control subject to change. If it is not how do I know that? At sometime the church stated that pre-meditated sexual relations at a time when it is unlikely to cause pregnancy is O.K. Well the INTENT of this action is the same as other forms of birth control, so is a further refinement on this matter a potential or is it not subject to change?

Sorry for the long question. To summarize again, How do you know that it is doctrine (dogma) not subject to change or not.

Thank you,


-- Shelton Clough (msclough@cox.net), January 27, 2004


Disciplines are "rules" and "regulations" made BY the Church, and are therefore subject to change by the Church.

Doctrines are beliefs of the faith, entrusted to the Church by God. God is the author of doctrine, not the Church. The Church therefore has no authority to change that which God has revealed. The Church however does have the responsibility of studying, interpreting, and applying doctrinal truth in light of current and previous scholarship and divine inspiration. God does not reveal new doctrine; nor does He contradict Himself; but the Holy Spirit never stops revealing new insights and understanding of existing doctrine to the Magisterium of the Church.

Morality likewise has been revealed by God. The Church cannot change its teaching regarding artificial birth control because artificial birth control IS intrinsically immoral. If the Church said otherwise, artificial birth control would not thereby become any less immoral. The Church would simply be WRONG. Such acts are not immoral because the Church teaches that they are. Rather, the Church teaches that such acts are immoral because they ARE objectively immoral. That fact can never change.

-- Paul M. (PaulCyp@cox.net), January 27, 2004.

Paul is right, in every word.

The Church's stance on contraception cannot change. (You have some mistaken understandings though, that would be good to discuss, but you asked not to so I will respect that.)

As for how to tell the difference . . . well there are good places to start. First, the Church speaks infallibally (in many ways) only on issues of faith and morals. Therefore, on any issue look and see if it is those catagories. If it is not about faith or morals then it is likely just a rule. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if it is faith related, though, so look also to the Catechism - it is usually very clear on the nature of these things.

The best way is to talk to other Catholics. You may not always instantly find the answer here, but you will eventually. Obviously, watch out for the folks who want everything to change. You can usually tell who is arguing from a 'I want it to be so' point of view.

If all else fails, look it up in the Catholic Ecyclopedia.


-- Dan Garon (boethius61@yahoo.com), January 27, 2004.


Hello, Shelton. You wrote:
"At sometime the church stated that pre-meditated sexual relations at a time when it is unlikely to cause pregnancy is O.K. Well the INTENT of this action is the same as other forms of birth control ...

Shelton, I know that you "don't want to debate birth control," so I won't get into a big debate with you about it. However, I urge you to think about the fact that the mere intent of our actions is not enough information for judging those actions. -- because the means by which one achieves what one intends are an essential ingredient too. If you have a family, you want to be its breadwinner by morally upright means (e.g., working for an honest wage), not by immoral means (e.g., stealing). In spacing children [the intent], a couple must use morally upright means (NFP), not immoral ones (e.g., contraception).

On your general question [How do I know if a teaching is "subject to change"?], I would say that Catholic teachings on faith and morals never "change" -- in the sense of beginning to contradict what was taught before. There is evidence going back to the early centuries of Church history to show that contraception was always forbidden. Therefore, we can be confident that the Church will never contradict herself and begin to teach that contraception is (always or sometimes) permissible or virtuous.

However, doctrines are subject to what is called "development," whereby the Church teachings more (or more clearly) about something than she had taught before -- thanks to greater insights, often coming through theological reflection. Think of a rosebud that gradually blooms to full flower. That which is at the "heart" of the rosebud is not fully seen by us until after much "development" has occurred -- though it was hidden inside from the beginning.

God bless you.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@Hotmail.com), January 27, 2004.

Hi Eugene,

I have no intention of misleading another person. Isn't the Magisterium the teaching authority of the Church? Aren't Catholics bound to believe whatever the Magisterium teaches? Aren't we bound to obey whatever the Magisterium says? Isn't the Magisterium infallible in matters of faith and morals? Doesn't the Magisterium have the final say? Isn't obedience to the Magisterium a virtue?

Please explain your arrogant, pompous, conceited, bloated self who parades to know a lot about our Church. What are your ecclesiastical credentials anyway, if any? The Archbishops, the Cardinals, and the Pope certainly sound more humble than you do, any day.

The Saints, upon reaching their level of sanctity, always acknowledge that they know nothing at all.

-- fred (frederick81@hotmail.com), January 27, 2004.

Aren't Catholics bound to believe whatever the Magisterium teaches?

It depends. Read this thread.

-- Bill Nelson (bnelson45@hotmail.com), January 27, 2004.

If we misunderstood one another, let me explain.

The holy magisterium is a body of Catholic pastors authorised by their office to speak for the Holy Spirit. Those who follow in the faith of the apostles do so because the Holy Spirit doesn not lie; we have faith in His Word.

He does not say JUMP. We don't ask, How high? In my 66 years, before and after Vatican II we have never been ''hood-winked'' by the Catholic Church, meaning her magisterium.

If I seemed an arrogant, pompous, conceited, bloated self to you and others (I'm deleted, so maybe?) it's this defense of the Church and her hierarchical authority you misunderstood. Your attitude wasn't bloated, Fred. It was irreverent. But then, you have ecclesiastical credentials, I suppose?

-- eugene c. chavez (loschavez@pacbell.net), January 27, 2004.

In my 66 years, before and after Vatican II we have never been ''hood-winked'' by the Catholic Church, meaning her magisterium.

I have the obligation of making a slight disclaimer; very important here. My own lifetime is irrelevant. The Church stands almost 2,000 years today without ever having made erroneous teachings in faith and morals anywhere in the world. Forget My pompous 66 years.

-- eugene c. chavez (loschavez@pacbell.net), January 27, 2004.

There was apparently a great deal of controversy "within" the Church in the mid-late 60's about this subject. I have no personal recollection about this, as my attention at the time was focused on learning how to scate-board.

Anyway, a while back, I read an article by Garry Wills (Wills is highly critical of the Papacy, I only use this source because its the only place I've ever heard this.) That being said, Wills reports that there was a Pontifical Commission set up by John XXIII to study birth control. During the time Paul VI was drafting Humanae Vitae, the commission met 5 times. At the final meeting, when polled on whether the Churches teaching on contraception should be "changed," 9 said yes, and 3 said no, and there were 3 abstentions. Apparently the commission's results were leaked to the press and there was a was an expectation by many that the teaching would change.

Needless to say, Paul re-affirmed the Church's stance on contraception in 1968 with Humanae Vitae. My question revolves around the idea I got from this article that at least a fairly substantial number of bishops very close to the Pope felt Church's teaching could change. In fact that was what the vote was about. (unless the story is a total fabrication by Wills) The fact that it didn't, (change) could be the answer to my question, but then, ... Why the Commission in the first place? Why the vote?

My question really has nothing to do with contraception; its really about the purpose of "Pontifical Commissions" and "voting." Both seem to at least open the door to the possibility of change ...that being on any issue. Also I fully understand that the source (Wills) of the anecdote is to be considered "dubious." I'm not concerned with his conclusions, just the incident he described that could probably be corroberated by someone else. Wills mentions John T. Noonan of Notre Dame who was called in as a consultant to the Commission.

-- Jim Furst (furst@flash.net), January 27, 2004.

Lately the bishops have started making specific exceptions to Humanae Vitae's absolute prohibition of condom usage, in the case of couples where one partner has HIV. Not a complete abandonment of previous Church teaching by any means, but a definite though minor change from what was taught before.

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 27, 2004.

Lay Eugene, General obedience to the Magisterium was the point I was trying to make. I was not the one who elevated himself on the pedestal of great Church knowledge; in fact, I must be really naive to want to obey whatever the Pope and his Magisterium says. I rely on the Magisterium to guide me. I have full trust in her because she's guided by the Holy Spirit. A simple correction from a fellow Catholic would have sufficed me; I have many things to learn about our Church. But I did not need the little knowledge that I have about our Church squashed, judged, and insulted by your pretentiousness and irreverence. For a man with zilch ecclesiatical credentials, you behave as if you could belittle a fellow Catholic with lesser knowledge. Or I would have simply withstood the insult from a man with the eccesiastical credentials like Paul M. -- but Paul would never have addressed a naive Catholic person like me in the pompous manner you did. This is the sad part -- for a man of 66 years, you still sound like a roguish teen-ager.

Bill, The little knowledge I know about obedience to the Magisterium is pretty much in keeping with the Catholic entries on the thread you suggested for me to read. The Universal Catechism, written by the Magisterium, is one of the guidebooks I use.

-- fred (frederick81@hotmail.com), January 27, 2004.

OK, Fred,
The magisterium says jump and we have to ask how high. Nothing improbable about that. I stand corrected.

-- eugene c. chavez (loschavez@pacbell.net), January 27, 2004.

Jim, The story as you received it is full of half-truths and errors, as well as some important omissions.

First, the commision was not commenced to discuss birth-control, but the birth-control pill specifically. It functions differently than other contraceptive practices. It was the commision itself that expanded its mission to discuss birth-control in general.

Second, the commission was made up of all sorts of people, not just bishops. There were scripture scholars, patroligists and the like but there were also doctors and even married couples invovled.

Third, the commission made two reports: a majority report, and a minority report. The majority report was indeed leaked to the press and was pro contraception. The minority report stated that the age old teaching of the Church cannot be changed. The two reports did agree on one thing, that the pill was the same as any other form of contraception. Essentially, one said the pill like all others is okay, the other said the pill like all others is not okay.

Fourth, the commission's purpose is to do some legwork and advise the Pope, it is not a source of revalation, it is not infallible, and it is not the final word on what the Pope or the Church should teach.

Fifth, so what if some bishops disagree. At the height of the Arian Heresy 70% of Bishops had fallen prey to the error. It was the heroic stance of some faithful individuals that made the difference. Paul IV was/is a hero (and a prophet - read Humanae Vitea and you will see all his predictions have come true.)

I think your guy (not that he is your guy) was intentionally giving a half baked version of the facts to stir up some support for the dissent position.

If I made any errors, someone please correct them, I am functioning from memory and don't have my documentation on hand.


-- Dan Garon (boethius61@yahoo.com), January 27, 2004.

Hi Dano,

Thank you for your response. It answered much of what my post was trying to express. Garry Wills definitely has an axe to grind. He did also bring up something about the Church's "changing" position on usury as outlined by James T. Noonan in a study that aparently brought him significant acclaim.

I recall that in the middle ages there were certain fairly defined prohibitions against it (usury) which explains why Jews, having no such prohibitions, and because they were excluded from so many other "occupations" became involved in banking throughout Europe. Did Church teaching change, or was this a Doctrine that as JFG noted earlier could become better defined?

-- Jim Furst (furst@flash.net), January 27, 2004.

I believe I saw this explained many years back; and a clear distinction made between usury and investment. In its original function money was for exchange, and usury was plain larceny in some ways. Modern functions are much different since. In modern economics capital has a legitimate place in the economy, over and above usurious practices. I think I'll have a Google search back to that explanation if it's possible. Then I might actually make sense. It was a revealation to me then, but my memory stalls a bit. Hope I can find something /

-- eugene c. chavez (loschavez@pacbell.net), January 27, 2004.

Christopher Kaczor, who is on the faculty at Loyola Marymount University, has written several articles on the development of Catholic doctrine:

Usury and Lending at Interest in the Catholic Tradition: Then and Now

"Aquinas’s account of usury, taken with his general theory of compensation, thus identifies principles (not rules made up by moralists or ecclesiastics) which enable us to see why in his era it was unjust for lenders to make a charge (however described) in the nature of profit, but with the development of capital market for both equities and bonds it was to become fair and reasonable to make precisely such a charge, correlated with (which is not to say identical to) the general rate of return on equities." (Quote from Aquinas by John Finnis.)

Why the Death Penalty? Capital Punishment and the Contemporary Development in Catholic Teaching

"Some see contemporary teaching as a radical rejection of previous tradition; others hightlight tradition, downplaying the significance, importance, and novelty of the contemporary teaching.The first tendency emphasizes change to the detriment of continuity; the second emphasizes tradition without sufficiently taking note of development.I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle and in the final section of the paper will explore the ramifications of this view of capital punishment for building a culture of life."

Thoma s Aquinas on the Development of Doctrine

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 27, 2004.

Usury is the lending of money at very high rates of interest and this still remains a sin. The Church has not changed its teaching on usury, which is always a sin. The Church has simply recognized that if someone lends money they are taking a risk the money will not be returned and that some interest can be charged.

-- Bill Nelson (bnelson45@Hotmail.com), January 27, 2004.

The Church has simply recognized that if someone lends money they are taking a risk the money will not be returned and that some interest can be charged.

Current Church teaching also allows for a "risk-free rate of return", e.g., the prime rate in the U.S.

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 28, 2004.

Even a risk-free rate of return is OK, as long as the making of money is for the sake of sustaining a household, helping the poor, or for public benefit. This would not be considered usery.


-- Bill Nelson (bnelson45@hotmail.com), January 28, 2004.

As long as the interest rate is not excessive, it is not considered usuary regardless of how the profits are used. Of course, the proper use of the profits is subject to the same rules of good stewardship as the use of any income, including, for example, wages from honest labor.

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 28, 2004.


Thanks for the article on the Development of Doctrine. I enjoyed reading it.

-- (@@@@@.@), January 28, 2004.

You're welcome.

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 28, 2004.

Hello, Mark.

You wrote: "Lately the bishops have started making specific exceptions to Humanae Vitae's absolute prohibition of condom usage, in the case of couples where one partner has HIV."

It is highly advisable to use the phrase, "the bishops," with great precision. Otherwise, various people are going to understand it in various ways, with a resultant lack of communication. Personally, I doubt the accuracy of your statement and invite you to present some proof that you are right and I am wrong.

But if you have something official to link for me, please also explain what you mean by "the bishops." Some people would take it to mean "all the bishops of the world, in union with the pope." Others would take it to mean, "many bishops [or most of the bishops], but without the pope weighing in yet." Others would take it to mean some or all of "the bishops" in your particular nation. Others would take it to mean "a few 'creative-thinking' bishops" here and there.

To be honest, I have not heard of a single case of a bishop approving of the use of any form of contraception in a marriage in which one spouse has AIDS. I think that the Vatican would shoot such an idea down, stating that the couple must either risk communicating the disease or voluntarily choose to remain continent for the rest of their marriage. I think that the use of condoms will always be rejected, based on the moral principle of a good end (keeping one spouse free of disease) does not justify an immoral means (using contraception and thus thwarting God's creative power).

The only thing close to what you have said (that I have heard about) is the Belgian cardinal's unwise approval of the use of condoms by men with the Same-Sex Attraction Disorder.

God bless you.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@hotmail.com), January 31, 2004.

In 2001, the South African Catholics Bishops' Conference said that married couples can use condoms when one or both of them is HIV- positive, provided that they abstain from sex while the woman is ovulating.

I don't have any links to "official" documentation. You can Google the news stories just as easily as I can, but so as not to leave you without any link, this is from one story by the BBC:

The South African Bishops Conference issued a statement last month outlining the narrowest of exceptions on condom use to aid the country in combatting its AIDS epidemic. The SACBC said married couples could use condoms if one or both partners are infected and if they abstained from sex when the woman was ovulating.

-- Mark (aujus_1066@yahoo.com), January 31, 2004.

Thanks for the clarification, Mark.
It will be interesting to see what the Vatican says about this, given the fact that it is impossible to know with absolute certainty "when the woman is ovulating." In other words, the act could be contraceptive, rather than just prophylactic. Perhaps there is a principle in moral theology that would allow for this.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@Hotmail.com), January 31, 2004.

It will be interesting to see what the Vatican says about this

If that's the case, and the Vatican hasn't commented.......

Given that it's been over two years, good thing I didn't hold my breath waiting for a comment from the Vatican.

-- Isabel (joejoe1REMOVE@msn.com), February 02, 2004.

Since I had never before heard of this alleged South African bishops' ruling (nor, of course, a Vatican reaction), and since I tend to doubt most of what I see in the secular media (especially from the BBC), I have now decided that I must "suspend belief" in the example you have given, Mark.

This decision of mine has been prompted by two things:
-- the long and improbable delay (mentioned by Isabel) in a Vatican reaction [I had not previously noticed that you mentioned the year 2001], and ...
-- the clear error (which I will now highlight) in the passage you quoted: "... The SACBC said married couples could use condoms if one or both partners are infected and if they abstained from sex when the woman was ovulating."

If "both partners are infected," there is no prophylactic (AIDS-preventing) purpose to a condom, so it becomes solely a contraceptive! Such a thing could never be approved.

God bless you.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@Hotmail.com), February 02, 2004.

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