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On ‘Changing’ Catholicism


by Father James V. Schall, S.J.

Pope Francis leads Benediction outside the Basilica of St. Mary Major on the feast of Corpus Christi in Rome June 4.

Since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, we have had countless discussions of “change” in the Church. Pope Francis himself has frequently spoken about changing things in the curia, or in pastoral approaches, or in emphasis on this or that in areas of civil life — poverty, hunger, economics and politics. His words and actions are very closely, even excitedly, followed in the media. He has gained international publicity as a “new” kind of pope.

Nothing Pope Francis says is ignored — except when he reaffirms that nothing basic in Christian teaching will or can be changed. For example, his opposition to abortion and “gender theory” is known, but hardly mentioned when he speaks about it. On more than one occasion, the pope has told reporters that he is “a son of the Church” and that the Church’s teachings are clear.

Yet, the pope’s most famous quotation remains “Who am I to judge?” Many conclude from this way of putting things that Pope Francis seeks to approve of things like same-sex “marriage” or even the homosexual lifestyle. But it turns out that he does not at all intend this type of change. Rather, presupposing that a person sincerely wants to follow God’s will in every way, he was simply recognizing that God has the final judgment in everything. Such recognition is standard Catholic teaching, not a new doctrine of Pope Francis.


Of course, there are some ways in which the Church can and does adapt to historical circumstances. However, these changes never alter the deposit of faith that the Apostles entrusted to the Church through sacred Scripture and Tradition.

The word “change,” which means that something becomes different from what it was in one way or another, has deep philosophical roots. From Parmenides (“Nothing changes”) to Heraclitus (“All things change”) to Aristotle (“Some things change; some do not”), the Greek philosophers pretty much cover the field of possibilities. Aristotle also distinguished between accidental changes — changes that are a part of daily life, such as in quantity, quality or capacity — and substantial changes. When a man dies or a star blows up, such changes remove the subject itself of accidental changes.

We cannot help but be familiar with both kinds of change. They happen around us all of the time. Yet, we also live in a world in which some things do not change at all. Even though rabbits can come in different colors or may lose one of their legs to foxes, the idea of what-it-is-to-be-a-rabbit does not change. Even if no actual rabbits now exist, we could still know what a rabbit is. Mathematical things do not change. God does not change. First principles do not change.

On the question of whether Catholicism “changes,” we again make the basic distinctions — substantially, no; accidentally, yes. Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke famously of the “development of doctrine.” By this terminology, he did not mean that the original teachings of Christ have changed. He meant that they do not change in substance, but it is always possible to convey Christ’s teachings more clearly or understand them more profoundly. In Newman’s words, doctrine develops just as “the butterfly is a development of a caterpillar.”

Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” Quoting St. John XXIII, he then added, “The deposit of the faith is one thing... the way it is expressed is another” (41).

The new evangelization, as St. John Paul II said, is to be “new in its ardor, methods and expression.” It is not new in its essential content, which is to say that the Gospel does not change. Still, this does not mean that the Gospel is stagnant or can ever become obsolete, for it remains the source of “abiding newness.”

Jesus established the Church and said that “the Gates of Hell shall not stand against it” (Mt 16:18). This is taken to mean that what Christ revealed to us will remain throughout all ages. The Church exists not to bring forth “new” practices or teachings, but rather to ensure that all of what God wanted men to know would remain available and intelligible, unchanged in essence, at all times. In the normal proceedings of its ordinary life, the Church has seen to it that what Christ taught in the first century was also taught in every century since, including our own.

Even up to today, the history of heresy — though we seldom use that noble word — is a constant changing presentation of human thinking and living. It upholds an alternative to the precise Christian understanding of man and God. In retrospect, it seems quite clear that the only way that God could guarantee that human beings would not change the essence of what he wanted them to know was to guarantee it himself.

The office of the pope is not justified by the wisdom of its “changes.” Rather, its primary purpose is not to change.

Revelation was designed to tell us — everyone — what we need to know for our salvation, both what is true and what we need to do.

Everything that we could think as an alternative to what God has revealed has already been tried at some time or other. What we call “multiculturalism” today frequently means that all these “alternatives” to Catholicism are equally good. We are left with no criterion with which to judge them once we have rejected revelation and the grounds for its truth. Often, what is behind demands for “changes” in the Church is precisely this relativism, which wants the Church to tone down or transform its deposit of truth into what men have proposed.

We are told that it does not matter what we believe or do; that we all have a “right” to define our own happiness; that we all have the same destiny no matter what we do or think, because there is no “final” judgment.

Catholics would hold, on the contrary, that it is a sign of humility to acknowledge that God’s truth is better for men than any “truth” concocted by man.

It is often pointed out that the Church is the last major institution in civilization to maintain that truth exists in things, including human things. But many desire a “changed” Church that does not think its teachings or practices are of divine origin, a philosophy that is not rooted in reason, a Church that does not claim that it is true. When this happens — and many think they see it happening — we can welcome these stubborn Catholics into the “modern world.”

In an address during his visit to Korea in August 2014, Pope Francis warned against “the deceptive light of relativism, which obscures the splendor of truth and, shaking the earth beneath our feet, pulls us toward the shifting sands of confusion and despair.”

He added, “It is a temptation which nowadays also affects Christian communities, causing people to forget that in a world of rapid and disorienting change, ‘there is much that is unchanging, much that has its ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever’” (Gaudium et Spes, 10; cf. Heb 13:8).

So, in the end, there is much at stake in these widespread discussions and urgings for “change” in the Church.

Once all of the changes that Pope Francis envisions are put in place, however, the Church will still be teaching exactly the same things it always has taught. To that final “nonchange,” I suspect, only two alternatives are possible — conversion or persecution. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “we shall all be changed … in a twinkling of the eye” (1 Cor 15:51-52). That is, we will be “changed” into what we are intended to be from the beginning. This last change, effected by the Lord and not ourselves, is the one few want to hear about, lest it require an admission that truth and conversion to it are at the heart of our human reality.

JESUIT FATHER JAMES V. SCHALL is professor emeritus of Georgetown University. His most recent books include Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press, 2013) and Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic Reading (The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).