Can The Catholic Church Change?

Will anyone care 500 years from now about today's debates? Women priests? Married priests? One thing is certain: the expression of priesthood will change by default if not by design.
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On Halloween in 1517 a Catholic theologian nailed a list of 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, urging reform. His name was Martin Luther. The church condemned him. "Here I stand," he said. "I can do no other." What followed was the Reformation.

Some 500 years later, early this year, 227 theologians from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, together with 249 from other countries, have signed a forthright letter to the hierarchy, demanding reform. The reforms include ending mandatory celibacy, opening the priesthood to women, and involving the laity in decision-making. "We can no longer be silent," the theologians announced. What followed this time was a welcome from the church, calling the document a contribution to "ongoing reform discussion."

But can the Catholic Church really change?

Yes and no. Rules, rituals, and even teachings change all the time. What doesn't change is the chosen part of things. What the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called "the dearest freshness deep down things." Truth, not statements about the truth. Beauty, not representations of beauty. Goodness, not deeds. The chosen part can never change because it is spiritual.

What always troubles people about the church are the things that don't matter because they are made of matter.

In the first century Peter and Paul fought over the mandatory requirement of circumcision. Who was worthy to become a Christian? Cut or uncut? -- final answer! Their debate was such a big deal that historians memorialized it as the Incident at Antioch, the religious version of Gunfight at the OK Corral. Today nobody even knows it happened.

Since "nobody knows when" until 1966 every Catholic who ate meat on Friday went to hell. Those who were born after 1966 did not. Catholics before 1966 believed that rule and its penalty would never change. Now they wonder what happened to the poor souls who ate a hamburger before the change.

We have to have a sense of humor about the human condition. What doesn't change is the chosen part of fasting: gratitude in place of gratification.

It's not only rules that change, so do rituals. Did you know that the church never reached a consensus on how many sacraments there are until the 13th century? That Mass was said in the vernacular (native languages) until the Council of Trent in 1563 when the church mandated Latin until 1965, and then changed it again to the vernacular? That bishops banned the laity from reading missals for centuries and now are editing the language in the millions of missals they encourage the laity to read?

We have to be patient with the human condition. What doesn't change is the chosen part of liturgy: the grace in the silence between the words.

It's not only rules and rituals that can change, so can teachings. Did you know that the church considered slavery morally acceptable, as long as the masters treated their slaves humanely, from day one until after the Civil War? That Galileo was condemned in 1633 for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way round as the church believed, and the poor guy wasn't let off the hook until 1992? That the church taught sex in marriage to be a necessary evil for the procreation of children until the 20th century?

We have to forgive the human condition. What doesn't change is the chosen part of church history: the opportunity to learn and forgive.

Will anyone care 500 years from now about today's debates? Women priests? Married priests? One thing is certain: the expression of priesthood will change by default if not by design. It's no secret: the male celibate priest is a vanishing species. God bless all the good guys -- and that is most of them -- for their kindness and dedication. But the form will be as different in the future as Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral is different from the Cathedral of Cologne, and when the rule does change (sooner than we think), people will wonder what the fuss was all about. They probably won't even know there ever was a fuss. The form of priesthood changes. It's chosen part remains the same: service to others for the sake of the kingdom of God.

The church has not only changed throughout the ages, it has changed more in the 50 years since Vatican II than in the first 2,000 years -- just like everything else in the world. The future came yesterday and the rate of change is the blink of an eye. Today's cell phone is tomorrow's telegraph. Two or three of the teachings of the church are poised to fall like the Berlin Wall, unexpectedly but not as a surprise. Consider birth control. In 1966 a Papal Commission of 72 experts from five continents, including bishops, clergy, physicians, and married couples, after three years of study advised Pope Paul VI that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves what methods to use. But the head of the commission, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, counseled the pope that a change in this teaching would jeopardize the church's credibility. In 1968 the pope issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae which reiterated the church's anti-birth-control position. Immediately the church's credibility was in jeopardy. In 2011 eight out of ten Catholics are certain that artificial birth control is a blessing, not a sin. This non-definitive teaching can change. What will not change is the chosen part of sexual intimacy in marriage: love.

The church has changed. It is changing. It will change.
After the dust settles, the gold will remain.

Michael Leach, a leading figure in Catholic book publishing for 30 years, is the author of the recently published book 'Why Stay Catholic? Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question' (Loyola Press, March 2011).

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