Our changing church, from organs to medicine


It is not God but we who fear change. Psychologists have found that even teens, who see themselves as cutting edge, forging into the future unafraid, dislike change, and for the same reason adults do: it requires work adjusting to the unfamiliar. If the family has to move outside the school district, youth object.

Some Catholics think the church cannot change. So when someone suggests changing something, like Latin, loyal members look on him or her askance. Yet we have a built-in mechanism of change. It is the ecumenical council, and we have averaged one a century starting with that small community of believers in Jerusalem after the resurrection. There, Acts tells us that liberals like St. Paul insisted on changing the age-old Torah prohibition of worshipping with gentiles. A gentile is any non-Jew. Since in his time more Jews lived outside Israel for historical and economic reasons, Paul wanted to take the good news to fellow Jews in the diaspora, or dispersion around the Mediterranean. Before long, gentiles heard this report of a crucified yet risen Jesus and wanted inclusion. The council of Jerusalem featured the conservatives balking at this radical change, but the liberals persevered and won. Lucky for us gentiles.

While it was not until the 1545-63 ecumenical council of Trent that council fathers settled on just what books belong in the Bible, the earliest church had the Scriptures and tried to sort out how Jesus was related to the Father, the one and only God. So the Roman emperor, Constantine, tired of all the theological and political mayhem in his realm over whether Jesus was on a par with God or not, convened in 325 the council of Nicea, a suburb of his capital city of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. Summoning bishops from all over the empire, he presided over the deliberations. These concluded with the new use of the word “consubstantial,” the word we today trip over in our newly reworded creed at Mass. What a change it was for the conservative Arians, who feared declaring equality was blasphemous. Another council in 381 gave equality of substance to the Holy Spirit.

If anything is common among the councils, it is that bishops decide that social changes and economic developments and ethnic considerations are new realities demanding some kind of adaptation. They have the authority to change the changeable, leaving untouched the unchangeable. But since many members are not trained to know the difference, and since we all resist change by our very nature, even popes and bishops are accused of heresy —even by reluctant bishops! — when they institute something new. Hence the uproar at Vatican II and recently at the synod.

Just a few of the hundreds of changes include the pipe organ. Who can imagine anything more traditional in our worship? Yet when it was first introduced, people rioted at this new, secular contraption being brought into church music, as they did more recently with guitars. Or else, the ready access to the mercy of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation: Nicea said it was useable only once in a lifetime, but a later council changed that, to our great relief. Invasive surgery was forbidden as an encroachment on the Author of Life’s preserve. Today every Catholic hospital performs it, using general anesthesia, something once barred because it deliberately dulls the intellect whose nature is to be alert. Biblical banning of taking interest on a loan vanished when theologians argued that the lender should be compensated for the risk of not recouping the loan. Slavery, found in the Bible, was allowed, but St. Pope John Paul II decreed it intrinsically evil. Ecumenical worshipping and attending a friend’s wedding in a Protestant church were outlawed as collaborating with the enemy, but Vatican II changed that. It also legitimated Christian burial of a suicide, seen as a psychological aberration and not as an intentional choice. Even the wearing of hats by women in church was never a law but only a custom that many thought was a law. Milliners lament this change. And we haven’t even mentioned church-tolerated burning of witches and heretics. Let’s not have our feet anchored in concrete in the name of fidelity, lecturing Pope Francis about church change.

Since these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.