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On "Changing" Catholicism


Since Jorge Bergoglio became Pope, we have had countless discussions of "change" in the Church.


Francis himself has frequently spoken about changing things in the curia, or in pastoral approaches, or in emphasis on this or in areas of civil life — poverty, hunger, economics, and politics.  He has emphasized, though these are not exactly new ideas, the "joy" of the Gospel and the "light" of faith.  He talks of a different approach to homosexuals and the divorced.  His words and actions are very closely, even excitedly, followed in the media.  He has gained international publicity as a "new" kind of pope.  He lives in a residence hotel, likes to walk, greets everyone in sight, and seems to enjoy simple things.

Nothing the Pope says is ignored, except perhaps when he reaffirms that nothing basic in Christian teaching will or can be changed.  His opposition to abortion is known but not much mentioned when he speaks of it.  He asks, famously, about "Who am I to judge?"  But he asks this only after he presupposes that a person sincerely wants to follow God's will in every way.  Many conclude from this way of putting things that the Pope is about to approve gay "marriage" or the homosexual lifestyle.  But it turns out that this latter type of change is not at all what he intended.  He was just interested in making it easier for those who wanted to straighten out their lives to do so, not that it is ever easy.  That God has the final judgment in everything is standard Catholic teaching, not a new doctrine brought up by Pope Francis from Buenos Aires.

The word "change" has deep philosophical roots.  From Parmenides' "Nothing changes" to Heraclitus' "All things change," to Aristotle's "Some things change; some do not," we pretty much cover the field of possibilities.  Change means that something becomes different from what it was in one way or another.  Aristotle talked about accidental changes — say, one's beard grew, or his hearing became weaker.  The subject of the change — the person, John — remained what he was throughout the change.  Such changes in quantity, quality, or capacity happen all the time.  They are part of daily life.

Aristotle also talked of substantial changes.  When a man dies or a star blows up, such changes remove the subject itself of accidental changes.  We cannot help but be familiar with both kinds of change.  They happen around us all of the time.  Yet, we also live in a world in which other things do not change at all.  Even though rabbits can come in different colors or may lose one of their legs to foxes, the idea of what-it-is-to-be-a-rabbit does not change.  Even if no actual rabbits now exist, we could still know what a rabbit is.  Mathematical things do not change.  They are what they are.  God does not change.  First principles do not change.  Because we human beings can know things that do not change, it seems that our own souls and intellects, as Plato thought, are immortal; otherwise we could not know things that do not change.

Each human person, moreover, is unique.  No two absolutely identical persons could exist, even in a world of twinning and cloning.  This personal identity means that the world is filled with persons who remain what they are.  John is always John, and Mary is always Mary, however much each develops or changes in a lifetime.  And once dead, no one changes.  Each of these persons, in his one passage through this world, decides freely how he will finally change himself to be forever what he is.

Each human being is in charge of the changes that make him a good or bad human being.  Each person finally decides, in other words, how he will permanently change his basic orientation to God or to himself.  He will change, of course, in the sense of becoming more what he has chosen to be.  But no person chooses to exist in the first place.  This what-it-is-to-be-John-and-no-other is given to each person.  His existence as John and not someone else may be a choice, but it is a divine choice, not a human choice.  To the existing human being, his actuality, his what is, can only be seen as a gift, not as something due.

Accidental" changes in the Church

On the question of whether Catholicism "changes," we again make the basic distinctions — substantially, no; accidentally, yes.  Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke famously of the "development of doctrine."  By this terminology, he did not mean that the original teachings of Christ changed.  He meant that they did not change.  But it was always possible to state them more clearly or understand them more profoundly as we learned other things and had more experience with human living.

The most widely known statement about the Church is that "the Gates of Hell shall not stand against it."  This position is taken to mean that what was revealed by Christ to us will both exist and remain the same throughout all ages.  The Church does not exist to bring forth "new" practices or teachings every so often.  Rather, it exists to make sure that, down the ages, what God wanted men to know would remain available and intelligible to them unchanged in essence.  This view meant that, over time, in the normal proceedings of its ordinary life, the Church would see to it that what Christ taught in the first century was also taught unchanged in every century in the meantime, including our own.

We might object that no one likes to hear the same old "stuff" over and over again.  The fact is that most people have never really ever listened to what revelation teaches.  Often, they simply refuse to hear or are prevented from hearing by local politics, religion, or custom.  We all, no doubt, long for something novel and striking.  Yet, we recall that the teachings of the Church are not its own.  They are called "good news" for a reason.  We begin to see why God might have been so insistent that what Christ taught in the name of his Father when we consider the alternatives.  In fact, the history of heresy, even up to today, however much we no longer use that noble word, is a constant changing presentation of human thinking and living.  It upholds an alternative to the precise Christian understanding of man, cosmos, and God.  In retrospect, it seems quite clear that the only way that God could guarantee that human beings did not change the essence of what he wanted them to know was to guarantee it himself.

The office of the pope is not justified by the wisdom of its "changes."  Rather, its primary purpose is not to change.  Often our mentality is that we "stagnate" if we do not change.  In the case of the Church, it "stagnates," as it were, if it does change what it teaches or practices.  We should be able to walk into any Catholic Church at any time in history or in any place and find there exactly what was revealed to us through Christ.  Revelation was designed to tell us, every one, what he needed to know for his salvation, both what was true and what he needed to do.

As is often pointed out, the Church is the last major institution in the civilization to maintain that truth exists in things, including human things.

On the surface, to be told that within the one Godhead is a life of three different but equal Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, and that one of these Persons, the Son, the Logos, became man to redeem each of us, is quite an impossible tale by human standards.  No mere human being would have done what God wanted to do in this way.  The notion of redemption by the Cross is definitely not likely.  And there is this bit about how living just and good lives, of being judged and made responsible for our lives before a standard, seems to prevent us from "being our own person."  The fact is that this way of the Cross is the only way we can be what we are made to be.  The wonder of Catholicism is that we could not think up a better system by ourselves.

Everything that we could think as an alternative to what God has revealed has already been tried at some time or other.  What we call "multiculturalism" today means that all these "alternatives" to Catholicism are equally good.  We cannot judge between them because we have no "criterion" once we reject revelation and the grounds for its truth.  It is interesting to reflect on why the men of our time have such an aversion to truth.  Often, what is behind demands for "changes" in the Church is precisely this relativism that wants the Church to tone down or transform its deposit of truth into what men have proposed.

We are told that it does not matter what we believe or do.  We are all equal.  We all have a "right" to define our own happiness.  We all have the same destiny no matter what we do or think.  There is no "final" judgment.  Catholics would hold, on the contrary, that it is a sign of humility to acknowledge that God's truth is better for men than any "truth" concocted by man.  But once we affirm that we create our own world, it becomes an act of pride to deny that any truth at all exists but our own.

And it is this latter "change," to a world of our own making, that many want to take place in the Church.  As is often pointed out, the Church is the last major institution in the civilization to maintain that truth exists in things, including human things.  We want a "changed" Church that does not think its teachings or practices are of divine origin.  We want a philosophy that is not rooted in reason.  We want a Church that does not claim that it is true.  When this happens — and many think they see it happening — we can welcome these stubborn Catholics into the "modern world."  There they will be loyal citizens who do not think that what is revealed is really true, but only a kind of practical way of life equal in dignity and purpose to any other.

So, in the end, something is at stake in these widespread discussions and urgings for "change" in the Church.  Once all the "cosmetic" changes that Pope Francis envisions are put in place, however, the Church will still be teaching exactly the same things it always has taught.  To that final "non-change," I suspect, only two alternatives are possible — conversion or persecution.  That is pretty much what is implied in Scripture.  St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that "in a twinkling of the eye, we shall all be changed."  (1 Cor 15:51-52).  We will be "changed" into what we are intended to be from the beginning.  This last "change," effected by the Lord and not ourselves, is the one few want to hear about, lest it require an admission that truth and conversion to it are at the heart of our human reality.



Father James V. Schall, S.J. "On "Changing" Catholicism." Catholic Pulse (January 17, 2014).

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Pulse. All rights reserved.

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The Author

Schall3schall91Father James V. Schall, S.J., is emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

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