St. Vincent of Lerins: What defines a true Catholic and the Development of Doctrine in the Catholic Church
Very little is known about the details of the life of Saint Vincent or Vincentius of Lerins. This humble saint of the late 4th to mid 5th century AD was a Gaul (territory of modern France) who was a member of the famous monastery of Lerins on the island off the coast of southern France known both as the isle of Lerins and the isle St. Honorat. This esteemed center of Christian spirituality and scholarship was also home to Vincent's contemporaries, Saint Honaoratus who served successively as Bishop of Arles and Faustus and Saint Hilary, who was the pious Bishop of Poitiers. Vincent is best know for his treatise known as the "Commonitory", subtitled "For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of all Heresies", written circa 434AD.
Saint Vincent states that his purpose for writing the treatise is to provide for himself a general rule by which to distinguish Catholic truth from heresy and to commit what he has learned to writing as a reference, a "commonitory" or "remembrance, to refresh his memory. The following excerpts are from Chapter XX, "Notes on a True Catholic" and Chapter XXIII, "On the Development of Doctrine in the Church" which denies the charge that the Catholic Church has added to or distorted the revelation of Jesus Christ to His Apostles.
Chapter XX, "Notes on a True Catholic" by Vincent of Lerins
 "....he is the true and genuine Catholic who loves the truth of God, who loves the Church, who loves the Body of Christ, who esteems divine religion and the Catholic Faith above every thing, above the authority, above the regard, above the genius, above the eloquence, above the philosophy, of every man whatsoever; who set light by all of these, and continuing steadfast and established in the faith, resolves that he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure the Catholic Church has held universally and from ancient time; but that whatsoever new and unheard-of doctrine he shall find to have been furtively introduced by some one or another, besides that of all, or contrary to that of all the saints, this, he will understand, does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, 'There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you:' as though he should say, This is the reason why the authors of Heresies are not forthwith rooted up by God, namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest; that is, that it maybe apparent of each individual, how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith."
Chapter XXIII, "On the Development of Doctrine in the Church"
 "But some one will say perhaps, 'Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ's Church?' Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alternation, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.
 The growth of religion in the soul must be analogous to the growth of the body, which, though in process of years it is developed and attains its full size, yet remains still the same. There is a wide difference between the flower of youth and the maturity of age; yet they who were once young are still the same now that they have become old, insomuch that though the stature and outward form of the individual are changed, yet his nature is one and the same, his person is one and the same. An infant's limbs are small, a young man's large, yet the infant and the young man are the same. Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which mature age has given birth, these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly a true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or, at the least, would be impaired and enfeebled.
 In like manner, it behooves Christian doctrine to follow the same laws of progress, so as to be consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterated, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits.
 For example: Our forefathers in the old time sowed wheat in the Church's field. It would be most unmeet and iniquitous if we, their descendants, instead of the genuine truth of wheat, should reap the counterfeit error of tares. This rather should be the result, there should be no discrepancy between the first and the last. From doctrine which was sown as wheat, we should reap, in the increase, doctrine of the same kind-wheat also; so that when in process of time any of the original seed is developed, and now flourishes under cultivation, no change may ensure in the character of the plant. There may supervene shape, form, variation in outward appearance, but the nature of each kind must remain the same. God forbid that those rose-beds of Catholic interpretation should be converted into thorns and thistles. God forbid that in that spiritual paradise from plants of cinnamon and balsam darnel and wolfsbane should of a sudden shoot forth.
Therefore, whatever has been sown by the fidelity of the Fathers in this husbandry of God's Church, the same ought to be cultivated and taken care of by the industry of their children, the same ought to flourish and ripen, the same ought to advance an go forth to perfection. For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes one, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but no that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain withal their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties.
 But the Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another's, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view, if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if any already ratified and defined to keep and guard it. Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practiced negligently should thenceforward be practiced with double solicitude? This, I say, is what the Catholic Church, roused by the novelties of heretics, has accomplished by the decrees of her Councils this, and nothing else, she has thenceforward consigned to posterity in writing what she had received from those of olden times only by Tradition, comprising a great amount of matter in a few words, and often, for the better understanding, designating an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name. — Saint Vincent of Lerins
Note: in this final reference to a "new name" or "characteristic" Vincent is referring to pronouncements by the universal Magisterium like those at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD which declared the Virgin Mary the "Mother of God" and the councils which defined the proper divine and human nature of Jesus Christ by the new term "Homousios", meaning "consubstantial or of one substance, essence."
Saint Vincent of Lerins is commemorated in the Church on May the 24th.
Resource: Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series volume 11, pages 146, 148-9.
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