The Changing Church
There is no doubt that the Second Vatican Council, its proceedings and debates, the differences of opinion that became apparent, the press reports that retailed and exaggerated them, the existence of tendencies and parties thus reveals, the struggle for decisions this way and that the alterations in liturgy and law decided upon -- all these experiences caused profound astonishment, disquiet and consternation in many Catholic circles, even to a considerable extent among the clergy. The remark, falsely attributed to a conservative cardinal, that he would like to die a Catholic, is merely a slight, odd symptom. Other Catholics greeted the Council and its work enthusiastically as the long-awaited and already really overdue apertura, throwing open the Church’s windows to let in some fresh air, and as a rebuilding of the old fortress with its narrow loopholes into a house, equally strong but with broad glass walls and the world shining in through them, and at most thought the tempo and results still too modest. But the first had an inescapable impression of profound alarm.
Their previous experience had shown them the Church as an unshakeable tower in the seething waves of time -- stat crux dum volvitur orbis -- as the only authority with the courage to hold unalterable principles, as the herald of eternal granite-firm dogma, of enduring natural law, of venerable tradition unquestioningly accepted and lived, of clear-cut Yes and No, of plain principles which are always known from the start and only need fearlessly to be put into practice, whether the world approves or not. To them precisely the unshakable immutability of the Church’s doctrine and life seemed a decisive characteristic of the Catholic Church in contrast both to other Christian denominations and to the spirit of the age generally. And now they have the impression that people are discussing anything and everything, questioning everything, that everything is collapsing, that their own perhaps hard-earned and dearly-bought rigid adherence to the doctrine, and above all the traditional practice, of the Church even to the slightest concrete detail of the style of religious and secular life, is disavowed and almost despised by the Church and its leading representatives. The bitter feeling of being left in the lurch by the Church, of standing as an object of reproach before the eyes of the world of non-Catholics "who always knew it", temptations against faith, mistrust of the reliability and trustworthiness of ecclesiastical authorities, such are the consequences of "Council experiences" of this kind which in fact -- there is no doubt about this -- have rightly or wrongly been undergone by many Catholics.
It is not necessary to illustrate this situation here at the beginning of our reflections with particular examples of the questions or proceedings which gave rise to disquiet, since we shall have to go into the matter, as far as is necessary and possible, when forming a judgment on it.
The situation in question should be clear enough already. It is the state of those who ecclesiastically are conservative in face of the experience of profound changes in the Church. And in this context the word "conservative" means in principle something quite positive, for it also includes the courage to affirm continuity, clear principles, detachment from ephemeral fashions, fidelity to the Word of God which endures for ever, respect for tradition, for what has organically developed, for the wisdom and experience of our ancestors.
What is to be said of this state of affairs? What has the Council taught, decided, done in this respect, and what has it not taught, decided, done? What is to be said regarding mutability and immutability in the Church’s doctrine and in Christian morals and life? That is the question with which we shall be concerned here. We are not concerned with the manifold changes in the Church which form the main theme of Church history, in other words changes which are simply imposed on the Church as an inevitable consequence of the Church’s insertion in a total pattern of historically operative forces (State, civilization etc.). We are concerned with the change which the Church itself actively undertakes in its law and doctrine, and in which the Church changes itself, and is not merely subjected to change, though of course both sets of changes mutually affect one another.
In order to make some advance in the obscurity and complexity of the question, and to provide a guiding line for our reflections, a distinction must first be drawn, even though we cannot but realize that the two poles of the distinction are linked by manifold connections of the most complicated kind. We refer to the distinction between ecclesiastically binding and, in the strictest case, dogmatically defined teaching of the Church on the one hand, and Church law and the actual living practice of the Church on the other. Let us assume for the moment this distinction as valid and important and its meaning as understood. It will follow as a matter of course from what we are about to say, and will be seen to be necessary and profoundly justified.
Changes in the law of the Church
That distinction being presupposed, let us first ask what is to be said on the question of mutability or immutability of canon law and the Catholic style of life bound up with it, if we may so describe all the practices, rules, modes of behaviour in a Catholic’s church life and his secular life lived on Christian lines, which hold good or previously held good through education, church precept etc. On occasion these go beyond the strict rules of law, but to a certain extent constitute their expression in everyday concrete terms, their practical realization. What we mean by canon law in relation to the present problem is plain, but merely for the sake of clarity, and making an arbitrary choice, I list a few examples without system or order of importance: Friday abstinence, the law of fasting, the rules for the eucharistic fast, the law regarding the form of contracting marriage which alone is valid in normal circumstances for the Catholic, his duty of yearly confession and Easter Communion, the precept of burying the dead in the earth, the prohibition in certain circumstances from joining certain political parties, the rules of the Index of prohibited books, the regulations concerning church collections (cf. the Church tax in Germany), ecclesiastical procedure in matrimonial causes etc. There are very many laws of that kind and they deeply affect the life of the layman.
What is to be said of them in relation to the mutability and immutability of the Church?
In the first place, the difference and the connection between divine law and positive Church law must be considered. The first is unchangeable, either because it is law which flows from the absolutely immutable nature of God and man, or because it is law which promulgates God’s revelation as the divine will for the whole Christian era of grace and Church. Positive Church law is in principle subject to alteration and has to be changed by the Church if a new historical situation requires this. Perhaps this difference has not always been very clear to the average Christian without special theological formation, but it has always been clear to the theologian, and consequently the Christian need not be surprised that it plays a part in the Church’s practice. It is of course impossible here to demonstrate with full grounds the fact that such and such a provision of canon law belongs to immutable divine law, whereas others belong merely to mutable Church law.
The general principle is, however, easy to grasp. Examples of one or other of the two kinds of divine and unchangeable law would be, that a marriage between brother and sister is now invalid independently of the will of the Church; that a validly consummated marriage between baptized persons is indissoluble and that the Church has no power to alter the fact; that the Church cannot abolish the fact that there are seven sacraments, nor alter the ultimate features of the Church’s own constitution. No bishop at the Council ever called that in question. In a particular individual case it may be doubtful whether a concrete norm belongs to unchangeable divine law or to changeable human law; for example, whether, "in itself", apart from the Church’s law, it would be possible, after the death of his father, for a step-son to marry his father’s second wife. But that makes no difference to the principle. There is immutable divine law in the Church and the Church in its clear unclouded awareness of the faith has always been conscious of the fact in regard to such fundamental laws as a whole. And it would be simply faulty theological formation, and rashness, if a Christian were to assert that because the Church can change or has changed a mutable positive Church law, it is also in a position, or obliged, to alter a law which it knows is divine and unchangeable, simply because it has a certain material affinity with mutable canon law. Though the Church can, for example, abolish certain existing prohibiting impediments to marriage, of purely ecclesiastical law, if it considers this advisable in the changed situation of today, it by no means follows that it would be equally possible for the Church to revalidate and sanction any invalid marriage whatever, if the Church were only rather more liberal and understanding.
But there is also mutable positive ecclesiastical law. It probably in fact constitutes quantitatively the greater part of the rules of law binding on a Catholic. We cannot of course go more closely here into the question why the Church has the right and duty, not only to promulgate and inculcate the precepts of immutable divine law and to supervise its observance, but on its own initiative to go beyond this and lay down positive legal prescriptions, and impose obedience to them as a Christian’s duty, although they are enacted with full consciousness that they are not necessarily eternally valid but can be changed and even abolished. On this point we will only remark that Christ gave his Church such a plenary power and duty because without it a common life in the Church and concrete pastoral care by the Church for the salvation of the individual would be quite impossible. And it should at once be noted also that as long as such a Church law is in existence, the character of its obligation, the possibility of being excused or dispensed from it, the possibility of discussing its expediency or the need to change it, the possibility of knowing oneself not bound by it in a particular concrete case etc., are of quite a different kind from any case in which an immutable divine commandment is involved. At all events there are such changeable ecclesiastical laws; the Church’s theology was always aware of it and has always successfully endeavoured to draw a clear distinction between divine laws and Church laws and to keep it clearly in mind. That normally a Catholic’s marriage has to be contracted in the presence of the priest if it is to be valid, that cremation is not usually permitted, that Communion must ordinarily be received fasting, that in a mixed marriage the non-Catholic partner too must promise that the children will be brought up as Catholics, that in the case of serious sin the sacrament of penance must be received within the year, that we must assist at Mass every Sunday, that without special permission it is forbidden to read a book on the Index, even when there is no danger to one’s own faith or morals, that flesh meat may not be eaten on Fridays, that it is not permitted without special dispensation to contract marriage with a non-baptized person or with a relative within the third degree etc. --all these are, or were, not only precepts differing greatly in importance and therefore entailing very different degrees of obligation, very different possibilities of exemption and dispensation, but they all belong to positive ecclesiastical law and, as such, are susceptible of change. The Church was always clear about that. It makes no difference if some individual Christian does not know it, but regards such precepts as immutable principles of his life and then is surprised when the Church makes changes in them.
If the Church alters laws of that kind and to that extent itself changes, it does so only within the immutability of a fundamental principle, namely, that the Church has the right and duty to make changeable regulations for the spiritual good of its members. Of course the Church does not enact and alter such changing laws arbitrarily and capriciously. Moreover, the justification, expediency or inopportuneness of such change is very different from law to law. The Church ought, for example, long ago to have abolished genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament in Japan in favour of a deep bow, in deference to Japanese feelings, or to have ceased using spittle at baptism, as has now been done. But the Church is scarcely likely to abolish the obligation of confession within the year in the case of grave sin, even though this obligation only dates from 1215, for positive Church enactments of that kind, for all their alterability in principle are, after all, ultimately the concrete embodiment of the changeless precepts of the Gospel, determinate ways of carrying them out, means of making them clear. Church laws on the plane of positive human law very definitely stand in closer or remoter relation to the precepts of divine law. Consequently the possibility and tempo of their alteration are rightly different.
Change of that kind, however legitimate, and however much it was allowed for from the start in the Church’s legislation, can of course lead to unrest and uncertainty in the practice of Church life, especially among the laity. Behind even a law of the Church there stands the holy authority of God, to the extent that he empowered the Church to make laws. But it validates such laws quite differently from the commandments of God which follow directly and imperatively from the essence of the natural or supernatural realities created by God himself, and which therefore were posited by the very fact of God’s directly positing those realities. But in the average practice of life, the Christian is often not clearly conscious of this radical distinction. He therefore reacts to an alteration in such Church precepts almost as if God or the enduring nature of the Church had altered, and as if, as a consequence, neither of them were to be trusted any more. He becomes uncertain. He can be very disillusioned if he has observed such a law (that of burial of the dead in the earth, for example), perhaps at the cost of considerable moral efforts and personal sacrifices, and now suddenly has to see that things -- if we may so express it -- are all at once much easier. The only help here is patience and understanding of the fact that even the Church necessarily and in accordance with its duty has to bow to the law of history by which what was good yesterday is not good today. New epochs, the emergence and character of which are not under the Church’s control, require from the Church action different from that of the past.
Such adaptations are necessary. They cannot simply always be left to the various individual and smaller units of the Church. Yet it may be that an alteration that has to be imposed universally, is urgently needed or even overdue in one place, but in another is less necessary and may even lead to disturbing or destroying still useful and well-tried institutions belonging to a traditional manner of life. Evening Mass, for example, can be an imperative requirement of attentive pastoral care in a large town, whereas in a village it may tend rather to have an adverse influence on piety of a genuinely traditional kind. Yet it may well be that a general regulation has to be laid down. It must not be overlooked either that, even in the Church, human strata coexist chronologically which sociologically, intellectually and culturally belong to quite different epochs. Yet the same law has to be laid down for all. In a new industrial district, for example, only a single church can be built for all, yet it has to be used by people of the most heterogeneous artistic taste, so that to one a crucifix may seem blasphemous which others find a most genuine expression of their religious feelings.
In earlier periods of the Church such changes in canon law and the style of Christian life could take place so slowly that the individual scarcely noticed them, his own span of life being so short, or at least they did not come as a shock to him. Nowadays the tempo of all domains of secular history is so accelerated, and the scale of intellectual, cultural and social changes has so increased, that the Church can scarcely fulfill its obligation to meet the demands of every age in any other way than by hastening and increasing the tempo and scale of its own changes in what can be changed.
When a Council sets itself a task of that kind, it is inevitable that there will be surprises, that what is dear and well-tried will be sacrificed, that experiments will be risked and innovations introduced, the ultimate consequence of which no one can foresee with certainty. In comparison with the breadth and depth of the intellectual, economic, cultural, social changes of today and tomorrow in the secular sphere, however, which also contribute to determine the task of the Church, it must even be said that the Church in its aggiornamento proceeds very slowly and cautiously, so that there is more reason to ask whether it is reacting sufficiently quickly, courageously and confidently to the future which has already begun, than to fear that it is sacrificing too quickly and in too "modernistic" a way what is old and well-tried and has stood the test. Of course such an alteration involves for hierarchy and rank and file an uncomfortable period of transition: the old and well-tried is no longer there; the new has not yet got into its stride, has not yet become something that is taken for granted without discussion; the intellectual and religious attitudes necessarily required if the new institutions are to succeed have first slowly to develop. Consequently it may seem as if the old were better than the new. An apparently "laxer" law regarding mixed marriages, for example, can only bear genuine fruit of a positive kind when a personal, religious, responsible mentality has grown up among Catholics in this matter. It may be that the ecumenical attitude and mentality now officially adopted by the Church will lead to a decrease in the number of conversions, at least temporarily, or lead in some cases to indifference in regard to the denominational question. And yet such ecumenism is a sacred imperative of our age.
Such periods of transition have to be endured with patience and courage and without morbid nervousness. It must be calmly realized that every reconstruction, even the most necessary, produces discomfort and raises a lot of dust. It must be soberly realized that no human enactment, whether old or new, has advantages only and no disadvantages; that the old days were good only for those who enjoyed the benefits of them, but not for all without distinction and that for the most part they only begin to look splendid when they are past and gone; that even the new age will produce tribulation, inadequacies and defects, and that the reform of the Church is never at an end. Nor is it the case that every well-meant alteration in the human law of the Church or in its para-canonical mode of life (which is often even more important than canon law itself) necessarily achieves the sole correct solution by the mere fact that it is well-considered and well-meant. It is still possible to remain divided in opinion, for example, about the right age for Confirmation or first Confession, even if the Church has laid down some definite practice with greater or less binding force. In short, anyone who appreciates the rapid change in historical circumstances and does not flee from this into a ghetto; anyone who knows that there is and always has been a mutable, human law of the Church, and that this kind of change has always been practised; anyone, moreover, who reflects that the Church not only has the right but the duty of shaping its canon law in accordance with changes in the times, will not be surprised at the change in many legal regulations which he is living through at the present time, but will recognize and accept this as a sign of the vitality of the Church and its pastoral care. He will recognize in the change itself the immutable which would itself be betrayed by rigid immutability: fidelity to the eternal Gospel and obedience to the Lord of history, which both go to produce the change in the Church’s legislation.
We said at the beginning of our reflections that we must distinguish between ecclesiastically binding (and in the strictest case dogmatically defined) doctrine on the one hand, and canon law and the living practice of the Church on the other. We also stressed that despite this necessary distinction, there are close relations between the two. This affirmation can now be grasped more precisely. To the extent that in canon law there are maxims which belong to divine, immutable law and derive from the essence of natural or supernatural realities, they also belong to the Church’s doctrine of faith, to its dogma. Consequently what will have to be said in a moment regarding the mutability and immutability of the Church’s doctrine of faith applies to them. Yet to the extent that canon law contains mutable human positive law enacted by the Church itself, it forms an object in itself distinct even materially from the Church’s doctrine, and which as such is not directly the object of the Church’s teaching authority and of faith, but of the Church’s jurisdiction, of obedience, of considerations of expediency etc. It follows that the principles of change and permanence for this kind of ecclesiastical law are different from those which govern the Church’s doctrine of faith.
The mutable element in the doctrine of faith
This brings us to the question of change and immutability in the Church’s doctrine. In this connection it must be clearly realized from the start that the belief of the Church, the object of its teaching office, contains both statements about divine realities such as the blessed Trinity, the Incarnation of the Logos, grace, redemption etc., and equally clear and equally obligatory statements about man’s correct moral principles. "Murder is a sin" is just as much a proposition of faith as "there are three persons in God". It must not be overlooked that the most disturbing question regarding the immutability of the Church’s doctrine of faith has been raised very recently by a real or supposed change in the Church’s moral teaching, in moral theology, especially in regard to sexuality. What is to be said of the immutability and mutability of the Church’s doctrine?
In the first place it can be taken as axiomatic in the Catholic view of faith that where the Church’s magisterium has once unambiguously required at any time an absolute, ultimate and unconditional assent of faith to a definite doctrine as revealed by God, the doctrine in question is no longer subject to revision and is irrevocable. This is so even if previously, in earlier times, it had not been taught with the same absolute requirement of belief. It may even have been controverted, though this does not of course mean that the Church ever taught the contrary as absolutely binding. Such a dogma of the Church is truly unchangeable, i.e., it can never cease, even by an act of the Church, to be binding on the conscience of the Catholic. Only journalists very badly instructed in theology could therefore suppose that Vatican II might cancel the doctrine defined by Vatican I regarding the papal primacy of jurisdiction and teaching authority, or out of ecumenical spirit and desire to please, might revoke the dogma of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nothing of the kind ever entered the head of a single bishop at Vatican II, even among the most progressive. There was never a discussion in the Theological Commission or in the full assembly of the Council which implied any such supposition. But the immutability of the Church’s dogma does not exclude, on the contrary it implies, that there is a history of dogmas. Such a history does not only exist because a very great deal of time and theological development and clarification was needed in some cases before the Church’s awareness of its belief had finally fought its way to a clear realization that such and such a definite doctrine of the Church is really contained in divine revelation, is a genuine expression of what has always been globally believed or an obligatory defence against heretical misinterpretation of what has been handed down.
There is a legitimate history of dogma also where a dogma is already unmistakably present and expressed. For even the meaning of a dogma of this kind can be thought out still further, more profoundly clarified; freed from misunderstandings which spontaneously accompany it and which earlier times cannot have been conscious of; brought into more explicit connection with other truths of faith. And by all this the meaning and limits, scope and significance of the dogma become clearer. It can be expressed in new formulations which the spirit of a new age suggests and which place it in quite different perspectives which make it intellectually more assimilable to men of a new age. In ecumenical discussion with non-Catholics it can be expressed in a new way so that these Christians may more readily recognize its compatibility with those Christian truths which they hold as the core of their own position as Christians.
In these and other respects even the Church’s unchangeable dogma can have a history and can change even in spite of its immutability. It cannot change back, it cannot be abolished (like a positive ecclesiastical law). But it can change forwards in the direction of the fullness of its own meaning and unity with the one faith in its totality and its ultimate grounds. In that case it resembles a man who remains true to himself and his nature and the law according to which he has first begun, who becomes identified more and more completely with his origin, expresses his enduring nature more and more, and in that way changes and yet remains precisely the same man. There is no doubt that in this sense there was a development of dogma at the Second Vatican Council. But no old dogma was abrogated or even obscured. Undoubtedly a certain insight was promoted in regard to such questions as how the papal primacy and the episcopacy founded by Christ can exist and work together in the Church, how the necessity of the Church for salvation is compatible with the possibility of salvation of a human being who does not belong to it, how in the realm of grace each of the regenerate can depend on every other and so above all on Mary, while there is nevertheless only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. Development of dogma took place in these matters without prejudice to existing dogma.
Of course this can involve quite considerable changes in the individual’s understanding of the faith. Anyone who previously had unthinkingly understood the dogma of the primacy of the pope as meaning that the bishops were only subordinate, provincial papal officials, was given a fundamental lesson by Vatican II. But his previous conception of the dogma of the primacy was a misunderstanding, not a dogma that had to be annulled. Naturally such a change can also have incalculable ecumenical importance because even Catholic theology cannot foresee all that is still possible in this sense and in this direction. Otherwise this part of the history of dogma would already be over. And no one should say beforehand that future change of this kind (the validity of existing Catholic dogma remaining unaltered) would not be sufficient to restore unity of belief among all Christians. For such change within the unchanging identity of the one enduring dogma can be very extensive indeed. It can exhibit the "old" dogma from quite a different angle, and profoundly alter the concrete form in which it appears in the thought and especially in the life of the Church. We profess, for example, the dogma of original sin to this day, with Augustine; it was defined as a dogma in his time. Yet what an alteration this enduring dogma has undergone in regard to its more precise formulation, its more exact theological interpretation, its perspectives, the consequences that are to be drawn from it, the weight it has in religious life. That would have to be demonstrated in detail in order to give those untrained in theology some idea of what development even an actually defined dogma can still undergo, without being abrogated and without its original sense ceasing to be guaranteed. This sort of thing can be seen retrospectively from a later point in history but can at the most be guessed at from an earlier one. God’s truth remains the same, yet it is living and has always a history which will only come to an end in the vision of God. Until then even the enduring, permanently valid truth is only partial, spoken in images and parables, wandering and therefore changing on the pilgrim road of unpredictable history.
For life within the Catholic Church, the stumbling-block as regards change in the Church’s doctrine is not so much the question of defined dogmas as other doctrines of the Church in dogmatic and moral theology which are taught authoritatively but which in principle cannot count as defined doctrines of faith or as irreformable dogma.
In the first place it should be recalled that there is and must be doctrine of that kind. Even the concrete knowledge of truth which a human being possesses cannot be confronted with the alternative either of affirming a proposition with ultimate unconditional certainty and determination or of abandoning it as absolutely uncertain and without obligation. In their life and reflection, human beings possess various items of knowledge which, though they lack the ultimate degree of clarity, certainty and obligation of a theoretical and moral kind, yet are and must be valid for them, at least until they attain better insight. So it is with the Church. Its teaching is not, of course, the small sum-total of a few isolated, ready-made propositions which simply stand side by side like the ultimate axioms of geometry. Its doctrine expresses the one unfathomable mystery of God, of his presence in Christ, of grace and of the permeation of the immensity of human existence by this absolute communication of God. Such a doctrine is necessarily of incalculable multiplicity. It is always present in its entirety as an unanalysed whole of inexhaustible depth and breadth. At the same time it is involved in the history of the Church’s faith. It possesses in its elements and their interrelations innumerable cross-links, connections, aspects. It presents ever-new facets when in the course of the intellectual history of mankind it is confronted with ever-new human experiences, because it points to the infinite mystery of God as the centre of our own existence.
Such a doctrine cannot be presented with the alternative either of enunciating on all occasions what is absolutely binding or of saying nothing at all. It is not possible to state the propositions of actual dogmas themselves without expounding them, elucidating the terms employed in them, establishing connections, offering aids to their understanding etc. Without all that, which is not itself dogma, the dogmas themselves would be unintelligible and as regards faith no longer assimilable by the hearer. But if that is done by the Church’s magisterium, it can only be through propositions which are not themselves absolute dogma but serious and valid items of knowledge (in varying degrees, of course, and of very many different kinds), but knowledge which in principle is subject to revision and capable of improvement, and which can be deepened, clarified, given greater discrimination, improved in this or that respect, or even abandoned. If such propositions are put forward by the magisterium itself, they require respect and assent from the individual believer. He must regard them as the at present available and binding ways of access, as elucidation, as props to understanding the dogma of the Church relating to salvation. He can and must do so, even if he is neither entitled nor obliged to give the same kind and degree of assent to such doctrine as to actual dogmas, because genuine internal assent and the irrevocable assent of faith are not the same thing.
Such propositions of the Church’s magisterium and of theology (derived from the former or preparing them) exist above all in the sphere of moral theology. For here it is a matter of the application of the ultimate fundamental attitudes and doctrines of the Gospel to the unimaginable multiplicity of situations in human life which, moreover, are involved in a perpetual historical flux and change. What is to be done when money slowly comes to represent productive goods, which was not always the case? Is interest then allowed, which it was not before ? What morally is to be done when nuclear weapons are invented ? What is morally permissible when technical physiological possibilities of birth control appear which did not exist previously? How is the danger of a possible over-population to be avoided, something which in former times was quite outside men’s field of vision? How can the legal and social position of women in public life and in the Church be rightly assured as God wills it, in circumstances which 200 years ago were quite unthinkable? To such questions and many others the answer cannot simply be drawn ready-made and plain from the Gospel or from traditional teaching, because it is just not already contained there in that way and cannot be. On the other hand the Church cannot in all cases leave the individual human being to seek the answer on his own account and at his own risk. The Church in many cases (I do not say in all) must first find such an answer. The Church has to seek an answer and that requires a development, a history of reflection, time.
At such a time obscurities, oscillations, essays, a certain onesidedness, are unavoidable. That is easily observed for example in the period of transition from a feudal authoritative state and a society with a closed mental outlook, to a democratic, pluralist social order. From Gregory XVI to the Declaration of Vatican II on toleration, the Church traveled a long way before it could formulate its position in regard to modern society in a many-sided and to some extent mature form. That long process was needed because the reality to which the Church had to adopt an attitude was itself in movement and still is. It would be childish and unjust to think, on account of the historical character of its doctrine in such questions, that the Church says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Even where the Church is still only on the way with its own doctrine, it draws its formulas each time out of its own enduring basic convictions, which always recognizably and unchangeably shine through the attitudes and concrete formulations, which at first sight by their merely literal tenor appear different or contradictory. When, for example, at first in the 19th century down to Pius XII the Church adopted a very reserved attitude to any inclusion of the human bios in the idea of evolution, that was motivated, and rightly so, by a fundamental conception of the nature of man which for good reasons required to be defended. That fundamental view is still that of the Church now, but it has been recognized that the previous reserve can be abandoned. To affirm that in this way a necessary, unavoidable, historical process of development on a large scale in the doctrines which are not defined dogma is legitimate and a matter of course, is not to say that this history does not also contain mistakes, over-hasty (though only provisional and revocable) decisions, cases of short-sightedness and lack of understanding. Such things can and will happen. They too belong to the Church’s figure as a servant and a pilgrim, which must be patiently borne by its members.
There exists, therefore, and must exist, a teaching of the Church which possesses an importance and binding force for the faith and moral conscience of the individual Catholic, although in what it directly states it cannot and does not intend to make any claim to the absolute assent of faith, and although it is not irreformable but is still involved in the elucidatory development of the Church’s consciousness of its belief. Even what in itself is mutable can be binding on us if in the Church’s judgment it is here and now the safest, what presents least danger of coming into conflict with the unchanging spirit of the Gospel. Conversely, what is now really binding need not necessarily on that account be absolutely immutable and definitive. A mother, for example, who has to support her children and is faced with an operation which in the considered opinion of all the specialists is necessary, has the absolute moral duty of permitting the operation although she knows that the doctors’ judgment may be wrong and is subject to revision, and is therefore not itself unconditional. The Christian must normally adopt an analogous attitude in theory and practice in regard to teachings and moral precepts of the Church which are put forward authoritatively by the Church, even if not as irrevocable dogma. Otherwise in theory or in practice he would be acting irresponsibly, and unjustifiably hazarding his conviction as a believer or his subjective morality. Normally in such cases he can only change with the Church’s whole consciousness of its belief, if such a change really takes place in respect of a more precise discernment of the fundamental moral guiding principles or of certain applications of these to new situations.
As such advance in the Church’s knowledge must be made in the first place by individuals, in the minds of individuals, the case is of course conceivable that someone, even while exercising due self-critical caution about his own possible shortsightedness and the opacity of his own judgment, may, after thorough evaluation of the grounds for the attitude of the Church’s magisterium at the moment, and after serious examination of his conscience before God and in view of his eventual responsibility before the judgment-seat of the incorruptible God, come to the conclusion that in this or that individual case a doctrine of the Church which has not been defined as a dogma and is therefore in itself a reformable doctrine of the Church, is in fact in certain details in need of reform. Then in the circumstances we have presupposed, he is also justified in his private judgment and in his private practice in diverging even now from this reformable teaching of the Church’s magisterium. That does not mean that such a case often happens in the concrete. But Catholic theology frankly admits in principle such a possibility, which follows from the temporal, historical character of the non-defined doctrine of the Church. Twenty years before Pius XII’s pronouncement, a scientist and theologian who was thoroughly conversant with paleontology could in certain circumstances have formed conscientiously as regards his faith a judgment that an evolutionary theory of man is compatible with the dogmatic doctrine of man, even though at that time the Church’s magisterium still prevented within Catholic theology, by use of the Index, the affirmation of such compatibility. Such cases are also possible in the domain of moral theology.
Naturally it cannot be the task of these general reflections about principles to discuss here such concrete instances of moral theology and to verify in detail whether and why there is concrete need of reform in regard to this or that doctrinal pronouncement of the Church on moral theology in the last few decades. Such a task would have to be the theme of new reflections of its own. Finally, it must be observed that it is not easy and simple in every case to indicate whether some particular teaching of the ordinary magisterium is already a dogma or merely authentic but in itself reformable teaching. This difficulty, which ultimately can only be settled by the solemn declaration of the extraordinary magisterium in a definition pronounced by the Pope or a General Council, makes the practical application of the principles referred to even more difficult.
Development in the direction of leaving matters open
Another observation may be made in reference to "change", whether of doctrine or of law. It is possible, and in fact it already clearly seems probable, that the teaching Church in many moral questions which concern the concrete applications of first principles, will leave the Christian of today and tomorrow more to himself than was formerly the case, and must leave him to his conscience, his own power of moral discrimination. Not that the Church will be cowardly or more "cautious" or would not acknowledge in principle its own full authority to lay down specific moral norms. But because the situations of concrete human existence, in contradistinction to the simpler structures of human living conditions in earlier times, are so innumerable and complex, the "cases" are becoming so different, that a uniform regulation of an authoritative, direct and concrete kind will in many respects no longer be possible, even though a decision in such a situation is still morally relevant.
Just as earlier the official Church could not and would not give any authoritative answer to someone about their choice of a profession, even though it could be a moral question of importance for salvation, so today and tomorrow the Church in many questions, even those of public interest and far-reaching importance, will not, even ratione peccati, be able to give a specific answer officially and directly. May nuclear weapons be manufactured ? What moral obligation in the concrete binds some nations to give aid to developing countries ? How in the world as a whole and in the individual family is birth control to take place? (This remains an obscure question even on the assumption of all the Church’s existing or future pronouncements.) How precisely is a genuine relation to be attained in society between authority and freedom? On questions of this kind and innumerable others, instruction on the part of the official Church is undoubtedly more likely to be more sparing in the future than in former times, although the questions, even in concrete terms, are moral ones.
Something similar can occur in the future even in regard to dogmatic questions in the narrower sense. The differentiation of the philosophical and conceptual presuppositions of theological statements is perpetually increasing, and consequently the general intelligibility of such presuppositions and the description of individual positions with the help of a ready-made terminology continually decreases. The questions of a doctrinal and historical kind which are raised become more and more complicated and more difficult of access for a simple, universally intelligible official statement of the Church. Quite recent examples are well-known. The most recent declarations of the Biblical Commission or of the Second Vatican Council on modern exegetical problems may be welcome indications and useful broad delimitations of frontiers. But the possibility of expressing them "officially", in a generally intelligible and binding form, has been paid for by a caution and generality which may give the impression that the actual concrete problems are not really "solved" by them.
On that basis it is conceivable that genuine "progress" in dogmatic development in the future will move, not so much in the direction of a wider, more exact unfolding and precise definition of traditional dogma, but simply in that of a more living, radical grasp and statement of the ultimate fundamental dogmas themselves. A unified, universally valid statement of this kind could be accompanied by quite a number of theologies juxtaposed in a pluralist way, not contradicting each other of course, but not susceptible of being positively incorporated into a higher synthesis. In short, it is conceivable that the "change" in the Church’s teaching on dogma and morals may move in the direction of quite considerable "decontrol" and a general tendency to leave questions open. That does not mean leaving people to do what they like, but imposes a greater burden of responsibility on the individual. The same applies to the practice of Christian life and consequently, retroactively, to the importance of canon law in the life of the individual and of society.
There is no doubt that a non-sacred sphere, a secular world, has grown up, which can no longer be so directly and uniformly permeated by universal Christian custom. There is no definite Christian ethos ready-made in the old obvious way with plainly defined guiding lines and patterns of conduct. Similarly, canon law leaves this secular world to its freedom much more than in former times. Here too "change" for the future probably to a large extent will consist in transferring responsibility from direct regulation by the official Church to the individual and his conscience.
Courage to change
In life, law and doctrine, a change is therefore taking place even in the Church. The Church is not a finished, solidly built and furnished house, in which all that changes is the successive generations who live in it. The Church is a living reality which has had a history of its own and still has one. There really is change in the Church, therefore, change which is different in nature and magnitude according to whether it concerns style of life, law, dogma or non-defined but authentic doctrine. Whatever the change, however, one thing endures: the nature of the Church as the presence in social form of God’s grace in Christ, in doctrine, worship and life. The history of what is enduring in the Church is the history of the reality which alone among social realities has God’s promise that it will not lose its identity or die if it descends into the stream of history. The Church is always in the flux of history, not on the motionless bank, but in this movement God’s eternity is present with it, his life, his truth and his fidelity. Consequently the Church has less reason than any other historical reality to fear its historical character. For the current of history does not carry it to the shore of death but to eternal life. The Church can and must, therefore, have the courage to change by adapting the eternal which it possesses ever anew and more and more to its own needs. For it is the Church of a world which has increased the tempo of its history to a gigantic extent; it is the Church which is to bear credible testimony, before that world, to God’s truth, mediate the grace of God to that world, be the sacrament of salvation for that world. In that situation the danger of too slow an advance is greater than the danger of courageous involvement in change. Its dogma is clear and firm and sufficiently explicit, and the wisdom, experience and foresight of its leaders great enough, to meet the dangers of making changes in itself. God addresses to the Church the question whether it has the courage to undertake an apostolic offensive into such a future and consequently the necessary courage to show itself to the world sincerely, in such a form that no one can have the impression that the Church only exists as a mere survival from earlier times because it has not yet had time to die. But even if it has the courage to change, time is needed, and time must be taken. Not too much and not too long, but time nevertheless. For the Church cannot change into something or other at will, arbitrarily, but only into a new presence of its old reality, into the presence and future of its past, of the Gospel, of the grace and truth of God himself.
Consequently the individual Christian himself must bear the courage and patience of the Church. He must rejoice when he sees that the Church is re-thinking the old, abiding Gospel and is not simply repeating monotonously the old, though true and valid, formulas of its understanding of that Gospel. Even if he must abandon what has become dear and familiar to him, he must rejoice if the Church within the framework of divine law changes its human law and adapts itself to the new situation. He should feel that he has a share in responsibility for ensuring that change in the letter does not come to nothing through the rigidity of his own mentality. Of course change of that kind demands sacrifices from the Christian, too. He must give up what has long been dear to him and do what is new and unaccustomed. Especially if he is a priest, or has otherwise received a good and coherent religious formation in youth, he has to go on thinking and not rigidly repeat the formulas he once learnt or simply defend the old positions. He must strive to feel the impact of new questions, to understand the mentality of the human beings who raise these questions out of the distress of their own personal life. He is not entitled to think that everything is perfectly clear already, or that something is false by the very fact that it is new. He can have confidence that even a new solution in the concrete only brings home more vividly the old truth on the basis of which he has always thought and lived, if he has really been thinking and living as a Christian. He must have confidence that even nowadays serious questions are asked and inquiry conscientiously made, and that people who are not entirely satisfied with yesterday’s answers are not always either impertinent people or miscreants who want to obscure what has long been clear. He must really risk mutual discussion with the world, must take for granted that he will not only teach but learn thereby, that the whole truth is always richer and more mysterious than what he has already explicitly grasped, that between the real truth of yesterday, today and tomorrow there exists a deeper hidden agreement than is realized either by insensitive innovators or diehard defenders of the old at any price. He will make the experience that what endures is alive, and the ultimate depth of what is changing is the eternal, that what endures is what has the strength to change. The Church is something enduring of just that kind. We grasp what is enduring in it if we trust to the changes which its own Spirit gives to the Church throughout history by leading it more and more into all truth and into the plenitude of God’s life.