With the approach of the Synod and a number of moral issues in the public domain this summer, I hear of anguish, anger, and uncertainty among many who fear that Pope Francis might “sell the store” to make accommodations to various pastoral constituencies, notably those Catholics married outside the Church or those in same sex marriages. Today seemed like a good day to talk about the question of what is changeable and what is not in the life of the Church. I am indebted to the June 2015 issue of Theological Studies and an essay by T. Howland Sanks, S.J., “A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Dynamics of Tradition.” (76:2, June 2015, essay available for purchase here)
The basic issue at hand is the issue of “hierarchy of doctrines.” Are all teachings of the Church equally binding on the Catholic conscience? I would have to say that this statement would be the “official” response of the Church, certainly of the Catechism, based upon the structure of St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology that every act of a man should bring him closer to his eternal destiny with God. Thus the slightest deviation from the divine order of the cosmos is a grave moral question. I should add here, though, that discussions of hierarchy are more common in matters of morality and church order. There was much more discussion of rhythm and the pill than of the Real Presence in the Eucharist in say, 1960.
On the other hand, issues of Church change have been discussed by loyal Church academics, including saints, whose writings enjoy preeminence in most circles of Catholic thought. Sanks discusses three such theologians, the first being St. Vincent of Lerins, a monk from southern France whose Commonitorium is a product of his own years of reflection on the matter. Vincent wrote his main treatise after the Church Councils of Nicaea (325) and Ephesus (431), which had declared Jesus to be homoousios (or for Latins, consubstantial), of one substance with the Father, and that Mary was consequently the Mother of God.
Vincent believed both doctrines of these Councils, but he also recognized that neither of these teachings were taught in this conciliar form in the New Testament. This “development” prompted him to examine its strength and liabilities; he devoted himself to the study of what we might call a progression of doctrine and belief, specifically how we discern what is growth and new formulation from erroneous or even heretical ones. In doing so Vincent coined the classic Theology 101 phrase memorized by all new students of religious study, that the Catholic Faith is ”what was believed always, everywhere, and by everyone.” It was a satisfying formula adopted as a principle in manuals and textbooks for centuries, but it came under criticism as too simple. How did Latin Catholics know what Greek Catholics really believed in Vincent’s day, given the differences of language and mindset? Moreover, the definition was too static: it did not actually solve Vincent’s original dilemma of progression of Gospel to Creed. Vincent himself would write that “over time, growth undoubtedly occurs in Christian doctrine,” and he compared the Christian body of faith to a child growing into adulthood or a wheat seed coming to full maturity.
Vincent’s writing and thought survives to the present day (his feast is April 24), and his work came to the attention of St. John Newman, who in the 1840’s was still a priest and historian in the English Anglican Church. Newman was a key figure in the Oxford or Tractarian renewal of study of the Church Fathers and he himself translated Vincent’s Commonitorium, but he found Vincent’s foundational platform inadequate to present day discourse, living as he did in the age of Hegel and Darwin. For Newman, issues of development of doctrine and practice were very much on his mind: he believed Protestantism had jettisoned too much of the writings of the early Fathers, and Roman Catholicism had added too much to them. Newman saw his Anglican Church as “a middle way.”
Newman believed that Catholic doctrine had grown and developed over the centuries, and like Vincent, he attempted to explain the process. Unlike Vincent, Newman did not find novelty necessarily a fearful or dangerous thing, and he coined another theological maxim, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Where some would see heresy, Newman saw vitality, but he too needed to explain fidelity to origins. Among his analogies is that of the Christian Church receiving its revelation from God in the beginning, but only gradually coming to fuller awareness of its implications “until she had tried them out in life, in the world, in the gamut of heresy, and the gauntlet of philosophical onslaught.” Under such challenges, the Church would gain some aspect of an understanding of its doctrine not previously held in its consciousness. Newman goes on to explore the process of receiving doctrine by individuals, who generally grasp a broad outline first and then proceed to specifics, and applies this process to the Church’s understanding of what it has received in Apostolic times. Newman’s maxim on change was no idle theory: he himself converted to Catholicism and would become a Cardinal and a saint.
A very practical application of this discussion of change came to the floor of the Council Vatican II (1962-65) in the person of the French theologian and peritus or expert at the Council, Yves Congar. At the heart of the Council, Congar (and everyone else present, for that matter) sat through four years of debate on how the Church should reform itself. Congar proposed four criteria to discern the validity of change in teaching and practice in the Church: (1) a primacy of charity and pastoral concern; (2) unity and communion with the whole Church; (3) patience with delay; and (4) an honest and full assessment of the Church’s history of sources in the light of today’s circumstances and challenges. On this fourth point, for example, the reality of nuclear weapons renders much of what was called “”just war theory” obsolete, particularly in terms of noncombatants.
Speaking of change, Congar, incidentally, was a prisoner of war for five years during WWII. Upon his release, the Vatican censured his writings, primarily due to his views on ecumenism. John Paul II, on the other hand, made him a Cardinal.
The challenge of living a timeless faith in an ever-changing world has been with us since St. Paul and the Evangelists. It is probably no accident that the opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the ultimate paradox of a God who is “wholly other” involving himself in the creation and the history of the human experience. The Church, imperfectly but accurately, reflects this mystery till the end of time.
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