So, why can’t the Church change?
Today’s episode of More2Life Radio was titled, “Stand Your Ground.” We looked at the challenge of knowing when we need to draw a line in the sand and when we need to be more flexible. Part of that discussion involved an interview with Bishop Jeffrey Montforton of Steubenville (former rector of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary) about why the Church can’t just modernize.
The answer to both questions (when do we change and when can the Church change) is really the same. It all comes down to knowing who you are. As a Church or as individuals, you can change the things that don’t jeopardize the core of your mission–the heart of your identity–but you can’t change the things that do or you cease to exist in any meaningful way.
Catholics have been given a special gift. God has shared with us, directly, his truth, his vision of what the world was intended to be and is destined to become again. He has communicated to us what he intended the world to look like from the beginning of time and he has tasked us with the mission of doing whatever we can to make the world fall more in line with that vision. In other words, it is not the Catholic Church’s mission to look more like the world. It is the Catholic Church’s job to make the world look more like the Catholic Church–a community of love dedicated to using our time, treasure, talent and selves to work for the good of others and, in the process, become the best version of ourselves.
We can’t fulfill that mission if we accommodate to the culture. True, we can change things that aren’t at the center of that blueprint for building the Kingdom that God has given us. We can move some furniture around. We can change some words here and there as long as we don’t tamper with the meaning behind those words. But we can’t be a prophetic sign of what the world is supposed to be by allowing ourselves to become what the world already is!
But, of course, there are objections to this. I can think of two huge ones off-hand.
1. Oh, Sure! The world should look just like the Church!?! You mean we should all be pedophiles?
Answer: I’m glad you brought that up. This is a perfect example of how the Church accommodated to the world. Seriously, what’s more worldly than committing sexual sin and covering it up? In fact, the reason the world is so angry at the Church for the scandal is because it didn’t behave like Church. The world WANTS there to be a sign of goodness in the world (the world hates it, but wants it all the same–like kids and rules). The world NEEDS a sign of grace in the world and for the world to think that the Church isn’t a sign of grace is infuriating to the world. The relationship between the world and the Church is like the relationship between an abusive husband and his wife; the more the wife tries to accommodate to her abusive husbands expectations, the more the abusive husband comes to hate the woman. Only when she stands up to his abuse is there any hope.
2. But Catholicism is just one brand of Christianity. Lots of other Christians have modernized their teaching.
Answer: Yes, well, that’s what happens to the branches that fall off the tree. Jesus Christ created a Church (Matt 16:18) and entrusted to that Church the vision of what the world should look like. It is the Church’s job to pass that vision–that Tradition (capital T)– from one generation to the next. Apostolic succession is the means of transmitting that vision. Those Churches that preserve Apostolic Succession maintain the Tradition, the vision of what the world must become. Those Christian and Christian-flavored sects that cut themselves off of the apostolic vine lose the Tradition and end up taking their cues more from the world than from Christ’s original vision. At best, the messages of these various latter-day Christian sects represent the seeds sown on rocky soil. Their work sprouts buds that quickly die if they are not transplanted into more fertile soil (Matt 13). In fact, we see exactly this. Sociologists of religion show that there is immense turnover in Evangelical mega-churches. Their gospel-lite message attracts new seekers but their disconnection from the vine causes the new shoots to starve and die. And that’s the best case scenario. At worst, these sects sow weeds that threaten to choke out the vision, weeds that will be gathered up with the wheat but then burned on the last day (Matt 13:24-30).
Belief in the Sun-god.
In his encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis quotes St. Justin Martyr as saying that “no one ever gave his life because of his belief in the Sun.” That’s because worship of the sun-god was a secular religion. It didn’t exist to challenge the culture. It existed to give people a safe way to vent their spiritual feelings. That vision of church is what most people imagine church to be even today. That has never been the mission of the Catholic Church. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if that’s all church is then to hell with it. We exist to hold up the truth. To be a sign for the Truth and, if necessary, to be willing to die to defend that Truth.
The Church cannot change because if it changes it ceases to be Church and becomes an exercise in what Cardinal Ratzinger once referred to as “spiritual auto-eroticism.” God know, no one needs more of that.
The Right Question
When we encounter some teaching that offends us, annoys us, irritates us; some teaching that the Church stubbornly insists it can’t change and makes us say, “Why doesn’t the Church change that already?” it is best to recognize that the better question is, “Why is this teaching so central to God’s vision of what the world must become and, having discovered that, how can I get on board and do my part in promoting that vision?”
We do not ask how we can change the Church. We ask how the Church can change us.