Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
There are often strident demands, coming from both within and outside the Church, that she change her teachings to conform to modern notions. Given our era’s preoccupation with sex, many of the demands for change involve related issues: homosexual acts, same-sex “marriage,” adultery (particularly divorce and “remarriage”), premarital sex, contraception, and abortion.
But such demands show a misunderstanding of both the nature and power of the Church. There are many mistaken ideas today regarding the theology of the Church (ecclesiology), even among the faithful. It is commonly thought that the Church (or at least her current leaders) can simply decide what we want to teach on any given topic; for example, if we want to simply change what we teach about abortion we can just do it. And modern critics assert that if we can do it, then we should do it. The same goes for any of our “controversial” teachings such as contraception, the male-only priesthood, and so forth. This is mistaken ecclesiology and an exaggeration of the Church’s power.
The Church has no authority whatsoever to overturn the teaching on abortion, contraception, the male-only priesthood, or divorce and “remarriage” (that one who leaves a valid marriage and enters another is in a state of ongoing adultery). We have no authority to overthrow biblical doctrines, the doctrines of Sacred Tradition, or any of our defined dogmas and doctrines. Something cannot be morally or doctrinally true one day and untrue the next.
Still others insist that the Church should read the surveys and change her teachings to conform to what the people in the pews think or want. Again, this is flawed ecclesiology. The Catholic Church, which is the Body of Christ and His visible presence on earth, does not exist to reflect the views of this era or even of her current members. The Catholic Church exists to proclaim the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ. She is His living and active presence and voice in the world.
Scripture says, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings (Heb 13:8-9). Indeed, there are surely many “strange teachings” in our time! But Jesus and His Body the Church, which are one, cannot and do not change in the proclamation of doctrinal and moral truth. Doctrine proclaims perennial truth.
While our understanding of doctrines may deepen and develop over time, this development cannot be such that a doctrine changes its fundamental meaning, that a “yes” becomes a “no” or vice-versa. That would not be development; it would be a negation.
The Church must insist, in St Paul’s words, But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes” (2 Cor 1:18-19). Our affirmation of the revealed truth cannot change from “yes” to “no.” We cannot negate what God has revealed; we cannot tear pages from Scripture; we cannot overturn sacred dogmas. Our “yes” to God’s certain truth cannot become “no.” Our “Amen” cannot become Non serviam (I will not serve).
Once again, the Church has no authority whatsoever to overturn what God has definitely taught. No one—not even a pope—can change the truths of Scripture, Sacred Tradition, or the doctrines definitely put forth for our belief by the Magisterium.
Those who demand that the Church change her teachings to reflect the views of our times or of her current members also err in a second way. They do this through a kind of temporal arrogance or forgetfulness, for there are many who have gone before us but are still part of the mystical Body of Christ, the Church; I am certain that they would hardly agree with many of the debased and erroneous notions of our time.
Consider, for example, the heroic witness of St. John the Baptist, St. John Fisher, and St. Thomas More, all of whom died rather than affirm or overlook divorce, “remarriage,” or any illicit or adulterous union. Consider the example of St. Maria Gorretti, the young girl who died rather than yield to her attacker’s demands for illicit sexual union. Are their voices to be silenced as some (even within the Church) seek to set aside or erode the seriousness of the teachings they died to affirm?
As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Their voices and their example still matter. To those who erroneously seek truth in opinion polls: Don’t forget to poll the “dead,” who are still very much alive and a part of the Church! They get a vote, too. The Church cannot simply concern herself with the needs, views, and demands of her current earthly members. She regards all of her members, past, present, and future.
The Church cannot simply reinvent herself to conform to current demands or preferences. She is in service of her Lord, Savior, Groom, and Head. She exists to proclaim His teachings and to hand on the sacred deposit of faith, which He died and rose to give to His Apostles. She is to reflect Him who is truth incarnate, not the changing mores of the world.
So many modern problems and errors come down to faulty ecclesiology. Is the Church just a human “club,” which exists to reflect the views of her members and can therefore adapt herself to their desires and demands? No. The Church is the Body of Christ, the living and active presence of Him who does not change, who is not “Yes” and then “No,” but only “Yes.” To those in the world (and even within the Church) who would erroneously insist that the Church change her doctrine to suit their views, we can only say, with the Holy Spirit and St. Paul:
Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, deceitful ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:1-6).
Somebody say, “Amen!”