The “Coming Out” of Christian Doctrine

I came out to one of my friends recently. We’ll call her Jane. As had often happened, I took forever to get it out, but after a certain point I just told her something like, “There’s a secret that I’ve had for a while that I want to tell you.”

She nodded her head up and down, smiling tenderly, and responded, “It’s ok. You can say it. You can just say it.”

So I told her I was gay.

When someone nods and says, “It’s ok, you can just say it,” I know that they know what I’m about to say. After she hugged me for a full minute, I asked her how long she had known. She said that she knew when I said that there was a secret I wanted to tell her. She had never consciously thought that I was “gay” before then, but it made sense looking back, and it made some experiences and interactions with me in the past clearer. She only knew it when I was just about to tell her, but in a certain way, even if unconsciously, she had always known.

Not everyone had responded in this way. A couple of friends had been completely shocked when I came out to them, telling me that they never would have believed it if I hadn’t told them. But I had known Jane for a long time; she was one of my most intimate friends growing up, and we had always had a special kind of love for each other. She was a very faithful friend, a friend with whom I had opened up to quite freely, even if I hadn’t opened up about being gay until then. After reading and reflecting upon John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, my experience of coming out to Jane seems to me to be quite similar to Newman’s idea of the development of Christian doctrine.

Newman argues that Biblical prophecies operate with “a process of development: the earlier prophecies are pregnant texts out of which the succeeding announcements grow; they are types. It is not that first one truth is told, then another; but the whole truth or large portions of it are told at once, yet only in their rudiments, or in miniature, and they are expanded and finished in their parts, as the course of revelation proceeds.” That is, a prophecy gives a whole and complex truth that is not immediately understood in its fullness when it is spoken for the first time. This truth comes to fruition as it goes through the process of interpretation and explanation and as it is applied to new historical and social contexts.

Newman continues, “But the whole Bible, not its prophetical portions only, is written on the principle of development. As the Revelation proceeds, it is ever new, yet ever old. St. John, who completes it, declares that he writes no ‘new commandment unto his brethren,’ but an old commandment which they ‘had from the beginning.’ And then he adds, ‘A new commandment I write unto you.’ The same test of development is suggested in our Lord’s words on the Mount… ‘Think not that I am come to destroy, but to fulfill.’ He does not reverse, but perfect, what has gone before.”

Jane had always known me, and I had always been honest with her. Thus, my “coming out” to her was not a reversal or a break with our relationship and what it always had been. Rather, it was a kind of development, an articulation of what had always been there, that doesn’t “destroy” but, in a sense, “perfects” her understanding of and relationship to me. When the Church articulates a new doctrine, it is not something “new,” in the sense of not having existed before. It is “new” in its articulation and in its relationship to a new context. It is not “new” in the sense of being an alien addition, but it is new in not being explicitly stated or needed before.

Further, my “coming out” to Jane had the effect of making all of my history clearer. After I came out to her, I did not only make more sense in what I was at that particular time. I made more sense in what I had always been. This “development,” my coming out, was a development that had an effect on all of my history. It is not only a perfection in understanding what I am, but it is a perfection in understanding what I always was.

In the same way, a new doctrine in Christianity will have a “perfecting” effect on our view of the whole Church, including all of its history. A new doctrine, if truly rooted in the faith, will not only cause the Church to make more sense today. It will cause the Church of the 1st century, the 3rd century, and the 12th century to make more sense. It will make our understanding of the Church, as it always has been and always will be, “clearer.”

Further, Jane’s realization of me being gay anticipated my actually saying it. Because she had known me so well, she knew what I was about to say just as I was about to say it. But she was a good friend, and did not insist upon my coming out. She didn’t say the words for me and insist that I take them up as my own. Rather, she gave me time, and let me use my words when I was ready. She was a good friend, a friend practiced in the virtue of humility. She knew that my story was my story, and, while she could help me tell it, she could never really tell it for me. She gave me time to say it when I knew the time was right.

This seems to me to be the proper approach of the Catholic theologian, a theologian who loves the Church and places himself at Her service. The true theologian will seek to know the Church, to understand Her history and to let Her articulate Herself as She is. He will spend time with Her and aid Her as best as he can. And while the theologian may anticipate a new doctrine or development, he also respects the particular authority of the Church’s magisterium in articulating Her teachings and proclaiming Her doctrines.

Newman originally opposed the defining papal infallibility as dogma in the First Vatican Council, although he was personally convinced of its truth. He feared that the definition would be too broad and that the Catholics at the time might misinterpret the teaching. Nonetheless, he was pleased with the definition that came out of the Council, although he predicted that the dogma would be completed, in the sense of being qualified and further defined, at a future council. He wrote in a letter after the First Vatican Council, “Let us be patient, let us have faith, and a new Pope, and a re-assembled Council may trim the boat.”

Pope Benedict XVI has called Newman the “Father” of the second Vatican Council, and Newman’s writings on papal infallibility provide good reason for this title. Newman understood papal infallibility quite well, but he did not claim the authority to articulate his understanding as doctrine. Rather, Newman always saw himself as a servant of the Church and Her magisterium, hardly an equal in authority to the Pope and bishops.

I think this is one thing that has always preserved my relationship with Jane. We’ve never seen ourselves as equals. I have always seen her as my better, and she has always viewed me (quite mistakenly) as her better. We are friends, but we are not equals. Our friendship is preserved and developed in our mutual subservience and service to each other.

Chris DamianChris Damian recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing degrees in Law and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

4 thoughts on “The “Coming Out” of Christian Doctrine

  1. I appreciated this perspective & analogy – thanks for posting! I am a bit concerned, however, that this sort of progressive thought could be used to undermine/supplant scripture, and lacks divine self-authentication (which I believe only scripture possesses) …which I guess isn’t much of a surprise, since I’m a reformed protestant 😉

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tyler. You bring up a very important difference between the Catholic tradition and many Protestant traditions. In the Catholic tradition, there’s been much more emphasis on a dogmatic/doctrinal principle, while in many (perhaps most) Protestant traditions, there’s been a particular emphasis on a biblical principle. Speaking from within that Catholic tradition (insofar as I’m able), I think you’re quite right about the danger of undermining/supplanting scripture. But, at the same time, the perspective of Newman is that any true doctrinal developments will be in accord with scripture. Being God’s revelation to man, no truth could really contradict the truth of scripture. There is One Truth, and all other other “truths” flow from this One.

    Newman would argue (as far as I understand it) that the significance of an emphasis on a dogmatic/doctrinal principle preserves the “proper” reading of scripture. That is, scripture can be subject to a variety of interpretations, and these interpretations often contradict each other. This is one reason why we have as many Christian denominations as we do today. But two contradicting interpretations (if they truly contradict) can’t both be right. So the dogmatic/doctrinal principle aids one in discerning a “right reading” of scripture.

    I’m not sure if that responds well to your concern. If you’re looking for more developed thoughts on these issues, Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is a very interesting read.

    I’m not quite sure how to respond to the question of “divine self-authentication.” In the Catholic tradition, this is something that comes both out of Scripture and out of the Magisterium (pope and bishops), so that would be one key difference.

    Thanks again for your comment!

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