The Catholic idea of intellectual growth has always meant deeper penetration of inexhaustible mysteries, not breaking free of those mysteries. The Church has maintained an organic concept of doctrinal development, in that sometimes quite bold new theories can be entertained to the degree that they are not contradictory of past formulations. The scholar or theologian has been defined as a participant in the full life of the Church, taking nourishment from that life, not an outsider subjecting the traditions to a sterile and “objective” scrutiny. But the concept of the Catholic intellectual’s function changed drastically within a few years’ time [after the Second Vatican Council], as many people came to think of themselves as precisely capable of evaluating and judging the Church’s traditions from some superior stance – Scripture, scholarship, or the demands of modern culture.

It must be acknowledged that every age tends to distort the Christian traditions in terms of its own culture and that there is, consequently, no wholly pure period to which the believer can look (although some ages are certainly purer than others). Thus the need for reform is perpetually present, and the traditions can never simply be accepted uncritically.

However, at no time in the past did churchmen, no matter how corrupted their understanding may have become in certain ways, fail to acknowledge the existence of some authority superior to their own judgment, whether Scripture, tradition, the general councils, or papacy. Every age maintained in principle the ability to correct itself in terms of authentic doctrine. The postconciliar period is the first in the long history of the Church when certain influential have claimed liberation from all the authorities of the past. Thus this age is also the first in the history of the Church to render itself in principle irreformable; it recognizes no source of correction outside itself.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)


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