What one means by change is the tricky question in matters of religious doctrine and morals. Defining change in this context is key to making any sense of the deeper questions at stake. In other words, sometimes it is less interesting to ask what has changed than to ask how apparent changes have occurred and how they stand in relation to what preceded them, and what if anything has followed them. In part, this question can be answered by considering another question, namely, how these apparent changes are related to the authorities that seem to declare them, and the communities to which they are relevant.
This paper seeks to address these questions by closely examining a particular case of change in moral teaching in the Catholic Church, namely, the declaration by the Second Vatican Council of a right to religious freedom in the 1965 Declaration on Religion Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. The work of philosopher Stephen Toulmin on the function and development of ethics will be used as a lens through which the declaration of a right to religious freedom can be examined.
Based on Toulmin’s work, this paper will show: (i) that the apparent change in the moral teaching of the Catholic Church on religious liberty is best understood not as a change (in the sense of radical difference or rupture) in a teaching, but rather as the development (or renewal ) of Teaching (the difference between ‘a teaching’—a particular rule—and ‘Teaching’—as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—being important here); (ii) that this development occurred because an existing teaching no longer served what Toulmin calls ‘the function of ethics’—i.e., to harmonise communities and prevent avoidable suffering, and which I will argue is analogous in the Catholic Christian context with ‘Teaching’—and it was replaced by a teaching better suited to achieving the function of ethics (the Teaching) in the community; and that this development was precipitated by other changes in the community that led the community to call the justice of the existing teaching into question in light of the function of ethics, i.e., the Teaching.