A Church That Can and Cannot Change

Somebody posted a link to this article on the forums recently: nytimes.com/2005/05/22/books/review/22STEINFE.html

It’s a review of a book called “A Church That Can and Cannot Change” that unless I’m misunderstanding it, is pro-Catholic. But the article is certainly not sympathetic to the church. The charge is that:

Historically, Catholicism solved the problem of change simply by denying it.

Here are some snippets:

In ‘‘A Church That Can and Cannot Change,’’ Noonan drives home the point that some Catholic moral doctrines have changed radically. History, he concludes, does not support the comforting notion that the church simply elaborates on or expands previous teachings without contradicting them.

In 1888, after every Christian nation had abolished slavery, the Vatican finally condemned it – with a kind of historical rewriting and self-congratulation that palpably offends Noonan’s sense of honesty.

Noonan’s other exhibits deal with usury, religious freedom and marriage. Lending money for interest, long condemned as usury, became accepted as lawful. In certain cases, modern popes have claimed the power to dissolve marriages once considered indissoluble. And instead of insisting on government’s imposing legal penalties, including death, to uphold religious truth, today the church positively forbids it.

Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty reversed a long-held position that ‘‘error has no rights,’’ despite the fact that only a few years previously a theologian like John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit whose defense of American separation of church and state laid the groundwork for the decree, had been silenced.

NOONAN’S four case studies demonstrate beyond question the fact and the extent of change. But do they offer insights that might aid Catholics in distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate developments in doctrine? In a negative sense, yes. Noonan believes in an unchanging element in Catholic teaching, a core continuity from Jesus to today. But from his cases he can deduce no rules of thumb to determine what falls within this continuity. His cases contravene the organic image of a gradual unfolding of latent truth. Nor does he find that categories like ‘‘unnatural’’ or ‘‘intrinsic evil,’’ meant to sort out the immutable from the mutable, make solid sense of past changes.

My question: Is the article correct? Does the church pretend to “develop” when they are really just arbitrarily changing their position? Where is objective truth?


No, the Church affirms objective truth but through the centuries, often has to understand these norms in new social and historical contexts.

For example, a quick search led me to this on slavery:

Noonan’s other exhibits deal with usury, religious freedom and marriage. If that’s the best he can come up with, I think he should give up frankly. There are more important issues of Catholic teaching than getting wound up about one liberal’s attempts to drag down the Church based on his own lack of understanding.

I was irked about the change in the Church’s position on gambling. (Look up the article on gambling at www.newadvent.org)

The Church forbid gambling for centuries, because there was an overtone of idolatry to it. But, after the Council of Trent, the theologians pencil-whipped the position and said it was up to the local bishop to rule on the matter – which today means there is little guidance, to wit, that a person should not gamble away his home and money for his essential needs.

So,it appears that the context changed and so the rule changed.

St. John Paul II seems to have softened the interpretation of Limbo, to the point of virtual meaninglessness, some years ago.

Dogma (Greek for “decree”) cannot change, but doctrine (teaching) can change.

The church must change and update itself with respect to the times. It must react to changes in society and conditions within the Church.

The “new” evangelization is a modern case in point. I had 12 years of catholic education years ago and it certainly did not emphasize a personal role in evangelization, it if mentioned it at all. Back then, evangelization was on my mind, but I never heard anything about it.

During the year of Faith a couple years ago, I followed the recommendation to read the Catechism. At the local parish level, there was no involvement in that year-long observance. Well,that’s a separate problem. But, my eyes were opened that the Catechism did not set down rules of conduct for bishops or parish pastors. So, encouragement of Bible reading and study is really hit-or-miss, depending on the pastor, for example.

The type of Steinfels “Catholic” can be gauged from this:
Peter Steinfels wife, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels: “The issues that the bishops seem to count as paramount—the legal right to contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage—they have already lost the cultural argument, even with many Catholics.”
As “cultural” = relating to the shared knowledge and values of a society, that myopia is not surprising coming from Margaret O’Brien in Commonweal, noted for its dissent.

This commentary from the great Fr Richard John Neuhaus expresses well the dissenting attitude they value.
Pope Benedict on Love and Justice
by Fr Richard John Neuhaus
May 2006

‘Patty Crowley has died at age ninety-two. She and her husband Pat were once very major figures in American Catholicism. The Christian Family Movement, which they led, was a powerful force of renewal for Catholic family life and lay leadership in the Church. Then came 1968, the concerted attack on the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the shattering of, among many other things, the Christian Family Movement. Peter Steinfels reflects in the New York Times on the death of Patty Crowley: “She was, in other words, representative of a large segment of American Catholics who have come to enjoy material security, good educations, and confidence in their own initiatives. If, like her, they reached maturity before the crisis over Church authority that began with the birth control controversy, they often have a kind of bred-in-the-bones Catholicism. . . . Patty Crowley and her peers never doubted that the Church had something to say, but after 1968 they began to wonder whether it was interested in listening.” That puts the matter very nicely, I think. The Chicago funeral of Patty Crowley was, writes Steinfels, “a kind of last hurrah” for a certain kind of Catholic. A half-century ago, they were often called “Commonweal Catholics,” referring to a magazine of which Peter Steinfels was once the editor, being succeeded by his wife Peggy Steinfels. They were “American Catholics” rather than “Catholic Americans,” a distinction that I develop in* Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth*, published in March by Basic Books. They thought they were pioneering an American way of being Catholic, rather than being called to model a Catholic way of being American. They were bred-in-the-bone Catholics who felt betrayed by a Church that did not accommodate itself to their having “arrived” in America. But of course, the Church is universal, not just American, and is obliged by truths that are eternal and not limited to the Camelot moment of Commonweal Catholics. With the dramatic expansion of the Church on other continents, it became evident that American Catholicism, while not exactly a sideshow, is certainly not front stage center. This is a bitter pill for nostalgists who gathered for the last hurrah in Chicago. Steinfels’ recent book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, looks back longingly to what he views as the inspiring leadership of such figures as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago and Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, and laments the era of John Paul II and Ratzinger, now become Benedict XVI. What he laments as the derailing of the American Catholic “coming of age” a younger generation of Catholics is discovering as the high adventure of fidelity.’

Noonan has some of the dissenting vagaries of the Steinfels.

all this is interesting, but I can’t connect it to the topic of this thread.

What have we established in this thread, so far? Essentially, the purpose of the Church is to change us, not vice versa. It does this by clinging to and elaborating scripture, in the context of the tradition of the church. the Church changes in response to new challenges but not to undo, necessarily, its own precedents, e.g. married priests, celebate priests and female priests, and its precedents on teachings about homosexuality.

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