Over the last two weeks, Pope Francis made some courageous steps in dragging the Catholic Church into the 21st century. First, he called a Synod to discuss non-traditional family arrangements, including divorces, those raising children outside of wedlock, and gays and lesbians. Then he began the synod by telling the assembled bishops to speak their minds honestly, not holding anything back.
Halfway through the synod, the Vatican released a provisional report on what they were discussing, and it contained language so welcoming to gays and lesbians that it ignited a global debate. After another week, the final report was released, and it lacked much of the language that welcomed gays, lesbians, and those who choose to raise children without getting married. Andrew Sullivan called it, “Two steps forward, one step back.”
What has most surprised Sullivan and others who watch the Vatican closely is that instead of just releasing the final report, the entire report was released — including the defeated paragraphs — along with the vote tally for each paragraph. This kind of transparency from the Catholic magisterium is a revolution itself, and its possible significance should not be underestimated.
Sullivan concludes his post on the Synod,
The church is not a political party, voting on a platform, and shifting from one convention to the next. Its core doctrine is unchanged and unchangeable. But it has evolved and grown and changed in the way it has encountered the world throughout history. It has absorbed and assimilated new ways of thinking and newly discovered truths about humankind and attempted over the centuries to integrate them into its internal dialogue.
Here Sullivan echoes a refrain of many Catholic leaders, both conservative and liberal. It was voiced earlier this month by a bishop who was attending the Synod:
On the floor of the synod, “there was no language whatsoever of a need to change doctrine,” reported Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica who attended the closed sessions. Rather, the desire was “to repurpose what we know in a way that’s accessible” to all.
“I didn’t hear anything about changing doctrine, but I heard a great desire to deepen our understanding of doctrine,” he told journalists.
This is an longtime linguistic game that the Catholic leadership has played — doctrine never changes, our understanding of it changes.
The error here is based on some old school Platonic metaphysics, there there is some perfect, some ideal, that is transcendent and unchanging. The problems are twofold — one pragmatic, one philosophical. First, the Catholic church has changed innumerable doctrines, and saying that it’s just a change in interpretation is semantics. Second, and more problematic, is the idea that there is some perfect, unchangeable ideal that emanates from an unchangeable God.
But that’s not the God of the Bible, not the God of history, and not the church of history. God changes. Yes She does.
PS: Do yourself a favor and read the pope’s closing comments to the Synod. They are beautiful and wise and a model of what Christian leadership is all about.