Both change and resistance to it can be good


As my colleague columnist Michael Canaris wrote recently in these pages, England’s Cardinal John Henry Newman (+1890) famously said, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” The godfather of the 1962-65 Vatican Council opened the floodgates by considering church change not bad but good. Many 19th century thinkers viewed change as a flawed characteristic of human life, as opposed to the divinely unchanging life of heaven. Forward-looking church thinkers had risked their writings ending up on the Index of Forbidden Books for linking eternal verities with evolution and development. Remember how we felt about Darwin up till a few decades ago? Change became allowable.

The cardinal prefect of the Holy Office, Alfredo Ottaviani, saw a sacred mission in opposing change at the council.  His motto was Semper idem, always the same, gotten from Pope Pius IX (+1878), whose Syllabus of Errors catalogs nearly a hundred objectionable modern things like civil democracy. He had his allies. Doctrine could not change even if so much around it undeniably did and does. The project became sorting out the difference. 

What about particulars, like the responsibility of bishops giving moral leadership on secular matters like war or capital punishment? Given the old mindset, bishops avoided pronouncing on these and many other secular issues because there is little in Scripture or church tradition about them. So to take a public position could jeopardize the magisterial voice. For instance, a good case could be made — and was — that the use of state execution not only kept justice but conformed with past practice. In the Vatican Museum you can view the Vatican guillotine, which was used at least 150 times. Yet Saint Pope John Paul II outlawed capital punishment in all cases except where states do not have adequately fortified prisons. Pope Francis removed even this exception.

It was an awkward split. Church authorities did not want conflict with political leaders, so they abstained from moral problems of public life. Yet in times past, Catholics would ask for direction on who would be a better candidate, or what would be the referendum choice on matters of lesbian-gay-bisexual-transsexual people, or what vote to give on matters of one-payer universal health coverage. The list goes on. What is the pro-life answer to the question about immigration, when people by the thousands are fleeing death, violence and poverty? Doesn’t life preempt lesser values like secure borders? What about support for the nation’s 75 years of military allotments exceeding 65 percent of the total discretionary budget? These are moral matters, and moral leaders should venture out into the deep to give leadership.

We congratulate ourselves for adjusting moral stances when fitting. We say we no longer endorse things like slavery, which is permitted in the Bible against gentiles and on which Catholic hierarchy took no position during the Civil War. We say we no longer burn witches and heretics at the stake, even though we did so for centuries, with leadership’s approval. Forty-six hundred African-Americans were lynched up to the mid-1950s without ecclesial interference. We expect that today’s leadership would not hesitate to lead if these issues somehow resurfaced. 

Today we approve of the vernacular in the Mass, attending Protestant wedding and funeral services of friends, taking reasonable interest on loans, women and men serving at Mass as ministers of the Eucharist and lectors and musicians, ending the religious requirement of male circumcision, and dozens of other changes. Some would not approve of banning nicotine, which kills 1,100 Americans every day and another thousand second-hand smoke victims every week. Similarly they would oppose outlawing handgun possession like nearly all other nations of the world, and the simultaneous, lightening-like seizure of every bullet on sale in the U.S. from Maine to Guam.

So there seems to be room in the all-inclusive Catholic community for progressives and traditionalists since each has a contribution to make for the good of all. Problems come only when one side wants to excommunicate the other. Without the steadfast adherence to tradition from the right and the progressive outreach to adaptation from the left we would all be impoverished.

And the same kind of left-right tolerance would help in the civil sphere as well. Each side serves as a mutual corrective.