I’ve had a lot of interesting (and sometimes intense) conversations of late about the Synod, the Church’s teaching on moral (usually sexual) matters. Shouldn’t the Church allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion? When is the Church going to allow women to become priests? How can the Church say gay people can’t get married when we all know they cannot help who they are and how they feel? Isn’t Natural Family Planning really, at bottom, another form of contraception?
And it has become clear to me that the real issue, the real question, goes much deeper than many people suppose.
These questions of doctrine really, at the deepest level, boil down to a single question:
What is the Church?
The more “liberal” (I’m sorry for the useful but loaded political term) people tend to believe that lots of Church teachings should change. They believe this because they believe these teachings are not only outdated, but also wrong. For them, the Church changing its teaching would be a sign that those old men in the Vatican were finally listening to the Holy Spirit. Doctrine changing would not be at all catastrophic to their view of what the Church is.
The more “conservative” people, on the other hand, believe that Church teaching should not change because it cannot be changed. It helps that many of them also happen to agree with a lot of these teachings anyway, and wouldn’t want to see them changed even if they *could* be. For them, the Church changing its teaching would be a sign that… well… the Church is not the Church. In other words, doctrine changing would be catastrophic to their view of what the Church is.
Liberal Catholics and Conservative Catholics continually talk past one another because they are operating under completely different definitions of the Church.
Liberal Catholics think of the Church as a huge group of people, followers of Christ, who are shepherded, taught and sometimes oppressed by the hierarchy. The hierarchy are men who can make mistakes – sometimes big mistakes, even about doctrine. History, culture, and sin can cloud human judgment. According to this view, changing Church teaching on marriage, communion, the priesthood, etc. would be a sign that the Holy Spirit is breathing new life into the Church. Welcoming as many people as possible into the group of Christ’s followers is kind of the idea. Doctrine changing is a big deal only in the sense that the Church would finally be catching up with the times.
Accordingly, many liberal theologians try to find instances in history in which Church teaching has changed in the past, in order to prove that since it has happened before, there is no good reason why it should not happen again. (Eg: They usually cite teachings like limbo, the infusion of the human soul after conception, the Assumption, etc. as examples of important teachings that have changed.)
Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, think of the Church as a divine institution. It consists of people – sinners and saints a like – but it also has a mysterious divine element – The Holy Spirit – which works through it in very specific ways. Doctrine is therefore something that cannot change because it is safeguarded by the Holy Spirit (and established by God). Human beings did not make up the doctrine, and therefore they have no power to change it.
Accordingly, many conservative theologians go to great lengths to prove that although doctrine has developed (Newman) it has not changed – the apple tree grows stronger and taller and wider and more fruitful, but it doesn’t decide one day to turn into an oak tree instead. They emphasize the distinction between a discipline (a practice that can be changed with no theological catastrophe – e.g.: married priests) and a doctrine (a divine teaching that, if it were changed, would call the whole nature of the Church into question – e.g.: women priests).
At bottom, that’s why lots of people have been freaking out about the Synod.
Some liberals are hoping Church teaching might finally change under Pope Francis. They see this as a step toward justice and a movement of the Spirit. Finally, the Church they belong to will no longer be so embarrassingly judgmental. The Church will catch up with the times.
Some conservatives are afraid Church teaching just might change under Pope Francis. And if so, what then? “To whom shall we go?” The gates of hell will have prevailed, despite what Christ said. And then we shall know that the Holy Spirit, despite what we had hoped, had never really been guiding the Church to begin with.
Other conservatives are afraid that although Church teaching will not change because “the gates of hell cannot prevail against it”, that there still may be catastrophic schism in the Church because bishops will fall into teaching heresy. That has certainly happened before. The Arian heresy involved all sorts of confusion, and at one point a huge number of bishops taught it as doctrine. You think the Church is divided now? Just wait, they say.
So when Catholics argue about moral teachings of the Church, what’s really going on is a battle over the nature of the Church itself. Can her teaching change, or can it not?
And if it does, is the Church what she claims to be at all?