Our spirituality

A message for Our Times

I was reading in the paper recently that the Church has often changed its teaching. How can this be, since it claims to be transmitting the teaching of Christ?

In the 1970s, the students in a Presbyterian Divinity College were anything but enthusiastic about the lectures of one of their professors. He had been very successful and popular when he began his teaching career thirty years earlier, just after World War II. His decline in popularity over time was a great puzzle to his wife because, as she said, 'he is still giving exactly the same lectures'.

Adapting the Message

Good teachers need to know how to adapt their message to their audience, without falsifying it. St. Paul, perhaps the greatest of all Christian teachers, had this gift. His way of speaking among the sophisticated pagans at the Acropolis in Athens was different to the one he used among his fellow Jews at Antioch. If he were alive today, he would deal differently with the Californians or Rwandans than he did 2000 years ago with the Corinthians or Romans, but his message would still be the same.

The professor's wife did not seem to have realized that human life is lived among the changing circumstances of history. These throw up challenges that have to be met creatively. The alternative is irrelevance, decadence and disappearance.

Some of the greatest thinkers, including Aristotle himself who lived a few centuries before the birth of Christ, have grappled with the implications of our reader's question. How can something grow and change, and yet remain one and the same?

Physical Analogy
Vincent of Lerins, a contemporary of St. Patrick, wondered about the possibility of a development in the doctrine that Jesus revealed to his apostles. ‘Let religion’, he wrote, ‘which is of the spirit, imitate the   processes of the body. For, although bodies develop over the years and their individual parts evolve, they do not change into something different.'

We must distinguish between true development and disintegration. Development of fine biceps is a good thing, but a cancerous growth is not. When this happens there has to be surgery or some corrective action taken. In the centuries since the time of Jesus, the successors of the apostles have had to deal with many different interpretations of the message.

As guardians of what is called 'the deposit of faith', they have watched over its unfolding through history. Occasionally, they have felt obliged to reject interpretations that they considered a corruption, not a development, of the faith. On the other hand, over the centuries, they have welcomed changes for the better. Changing your position on something because of a deeper understanding is surely a good thing, and to be encouraged. This is different from going back on something essential.

Before he left us, Jesus said to his disciples, 'I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you to bear now' (In.12:12). In the light of these words, it is not surprising that after Pentecost and the writings of the New Testament had been completed, the Magisterium - the teaching authority of the Church moved very slowly.

It took a few centuries before it asserted with absolute clarity that Jesus had revealed himself as truly God and truly man. Sometime later, after further prayer and reflection, it concluded that his mother was truly Mother of God, a title more breathtaking than Mother of Christ. Still later more than a thousand years, in fact - it declared infallibly that she was totally preserved from the least taint of sin.

Change and Constancy
The Church does not hesitate to give its opinion on the morality of things when the issues are clear-cut, as in the case of torture, murder or abortion. While reflection is ongoing about complex problems that have only emerged in our own day, the Church authorities have clearly rejected as immoral such things as the manufacture and employment of nuclear weapons, the use of scientific knowledge to produce children in laboratories and bizarre adaptations of the divine institution of marriage.

This does not mean that mis¬takes were not made in the past. Things were done in the Church that we cannot condone. But the incidence of this has been rare in the area of teaching. It would be hard to point to an area where there has ever been an 'aboutface' with regard to essential doctrine.

The areas where changes have been made, and thank God for them, have been mainly in practical matters, like the liturgical form of the Mass, a greater openness to participation in the services of other denominations and, something that caused great pain in the past, funeral arrangements for un-baptized children. Adaptation to changing circumstances is a constant feature of life, not only in religion.

Beyond Reading
When Jesus left this world, his only reported writings were in the sand near the temple. The last line of the gospels is a reminder that his message is more comprehensive than anything recorded in a book: 'There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself would hold all the books that would have to be written' (In.21:25).

Jesus, however, left his disciples much more than a reference library. He left them his Holy Spirit: 'When the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth' (In.16:13). He did not promise his followers that there would not be incidental mistakes based on their frailty, but he did guarantee that in what concerned faith and morals they would not be on their own.