Hi, everyone. This is a post on the topic of whether or not it is possible for some of the Church’s teachings to “change” (and, if so, which ones and how).
As near as I can figure, it is not possible for Church teachings to “change” in the sense of “It is ‘A’, it is ‘A’, it is ‘A’, it is ‘A’…whoops, now it’s ‘B’!” This is because it is believe that the Church was given the whole entire Truth by Christ from the very beginning–the Deposit of Faith. None of this Truth can be lost, nor can anything truly new (regarding faith or morals) be learned. This is apparently why the “Universal Magisterium” is considered infallible. If the entire Magisterium teaches something, in can’t be false, because that would mean the entire Magisterium fell into entire and an aspect of the Deposit of the Faith was lost. That can’t happen, so the teaching must be true.
However, it is possible that, while an aspect of the Divine Truth can’t be lost, it can be marginalized or forgotten by the greater part of the Magisterium (defined as the entire episcopacy in its teaching authority) or even that the great part of the Magisterium can fall into error, as happened famously with Arianism. Thus, while no teaching can change, it is possible for a teaching to “shift” or be reformulated, so long as it can be evidenced that this “new” formulation was always at least implicit somewhere within Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, even if highly marginalized. Then, it can be argued that is in an authentic part of the Deposit of Faith. At least, that is my understanding from what I’ve read.
Such “shifts” in Church teaching can also be seen in history, with her teachings on slavery, religious rights, and the possibility of salvation for those outside the visible Church being commonly mentioned examples. However, the most obvious example, in my opinion, is that of usury. I’ve read quite a few current apologetic arguments to the effect that there was never any real shift in the Church’s teaching on this subject, that it never really meant all money-lending on interest, or that the nature of money has changed. However, none of these arguments have been satisfactory to me. My own look into the history has suggested to me that the, for most of her history, the Church authoritatively taught that (a) usury is a sin and (b) usury applies to all loans on interest and (b) that’s that, period. This is especially clearly shown in 17th and 18th century debates regarding the sinfulness of usury, and the numerous condemnations from Rome of theological opinions allowing for “loopholes” in the usury teaching.
Most interestingly, it appears that there has never been any actual, definitive shift in Magisterial teaching on this topic. That is because the last authoritative Magisterial statement on the subject (as far as I’ve been able to find) occured in 1745. It is the encyclical Vix Pervenit of Pope Benedict XIV. It is the most recent statement of the Magisterium on usury and it seems to explode most of the current apologetic arguments regarding the nature of that teaching. It states:
I. The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract. This financial contract between consenting parties* demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received.** The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but **any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious. **
II. One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully, either to increase one’s fortune, to purchase new estates, or to engage in business transactions. The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan.*
So much for arguments that the Magisterium now teaches usury only means “exhorbitant” interest or interest on non-profitable loans (which still wouldn’t allow for most credit card usage, by the way). Vix Pervenit, the most recent teaching specifically addresses and condemns both those arguments, as well as arguments to the effect that “times have changed and the nature of the money/the economy is different now.” Rather, it states:
We exhort you not to listen to those who say that today the issue of usury is present in name only, since gain is almost always obtained from money given to another…it is clearly invalid to suggest, on the grounds that some gain is usually received from money lent out, that the issue of usury is irrelevant in our times.