Vatican II and Earlier Papal Teachings

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I have read all of the documents of Vatican II as well as some of the apostolic exhortations, encyclicals, etc. of earlier popes and would ask whether or not Vatican II Council Fathers were at liberty to alter or change the meanings of earlier Church documents. As an example, could it be argued that Pius IX reached different conclusions regarding salvation outside the Church?
Teachings that have been infallibly taught do not change. The Church can come to understand them more deeply or apply them more generously, however. We call this development of doctrine.

“This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts ( Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (Dei Verbum 8).

“Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life” (*Lumen Gentium *12)

Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church:
  • “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts”; it is in particular “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth”.
  • “from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience”, the sacred Scriptures “grow with the one who reads them.”
  • “from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 94).
Mysteries often seem to contradict. How can God be three persons but one God? How can a virgin give birth? How can God become man? How can there be victory in the cross? How can we live only if we die?

How can only those in the Church be saved? How can we reconcile this with, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved? It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” (Catechism #1260).

So the mystery seems to unfold in the understanding of who precisely is in the Church. Just as one can have an explicit desire for baptism, so it stands to reason that they can have an explicit desire to belong to the Church Christ founded and thus be saved when they die in the state of grace.
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