Monday, May 17, 2010

Why can the Church never change the moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?

NOTE: This is one in a series of posts from my moral theology assignments. They are intended to be brief responses. In many cases, the topics could be extensively explored, but that was not the intent of the assignment.

The moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles would be those teachings considered so closely connected with revelation that they too would have to be infallible.[i] These teachings have been taught consistently since the beginning of the Church and have been held “always, everywhere, by everyone.” As such, and as perpetual teachings by the bishops of the Church, they represent teachings of the ordinary universal Magisterium.[ii] As infallible teachings, they fall into the category of those teachings proposed in a definitive way or taught universally and perpetually by the college of Bishops in communion with the Holy Father, while dogmatic teachings are those teachings that are de fide, the very basic beliefs required of Catholics and solemnly declared as revealed truth.[iii] Ashley points out that personal opinion cannot be offered as infallible. Such teachings can only come from the deposit of faith and must be clearly held by the whole Church.[iv]

While the Church can never change the moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, these teachings can be developed. This development happens when the Church’s understanding of the gospel message and Christ’s intent becomes clearer. One example of this development is the Church’s teaching on slavery. The Church had always taught that all people share a common human dignity and were commanded by Christ to love brother and enemy alike.[v] Yet the Church began in an era in which slavery was commonplace. In addition, St. Paul had mentioned slavery in the “Letter to Philemon” without overtly condemning it. However, as practiced, the institution of slavery clearly denied the slave equality in law, which pragmatically also meant inequality in terms of human dignity (in treatment, not in essence). To be consistent with the gospel message, the Church had to (and did) condemn the institution of slavery.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 4A—Lesson 7,” International Catholic University, 27 February 2010,
ii. Ibid.
iii. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” 24 May 1990. EWTN Global Catholic Network, 28 February 2010,
iv. Benedict Ashley,
v. Ibid.
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