But what of our Catholic Church? We don’t change, right? And so all of us are in a tizzy, from those of us who want it to change right now to those of us who plant our feet firmly and insist such change would be sacrilege or sin. Who among us can be happy?
I don’t presume to predict how these social changes will affect the Church, or to which of the many shifting social fronts the Church will react. What I know is that the Church has changed and can change and will change, and will do so very slowly.
Practice stems from doctrine, and doctrine from theology, and no shift ever happens until we have the theology to back it up. At times this consoles me deeply: every bit of what we do and believe can be traced back to some fundamental theological truth.
Take limbo, for an example. Remember when that disappeared? It was 2007, decades after the Church moved from a mechanistic understanding of Baptism to what Rahner referred to as Vatican IIs “optimism about salvation”. A thorough examination of the big ideas of salvation, mercy, and sacraments led to letting go of that doctrine.
So it will be with our contemporary trends. People will keep working in feminist theology and liberation theology and queer theology, all fields new to our changing world. Church doctrine and practice will evolve along with their discoveries, though I know not how. I doubt those brave souls know either, but they continue probing questions and ideas deeply, applying our ongoing experience to our most ancient wisdom.
Lived experience is key, especially when we examine a lived experience informed by love. Would Cardinal Cushing have pushed back so hard against Father Feeney’s “no salvation outside the Church” line if his brother-in-law had not been Jewish? Feeney wasn’t saying anything unorthodox, but the lived experience of Cushing, Boston’s towering, iconic Archbishop, had taught the prelate something different. So Feeney was excommunicated, and the Vatican backed up Cushing. Another shift.
Most of these changes do not happen quickly. We take our time examining an issue. We examine changes in theology. We take care to get it right. This can be quite painful. All of our hot-button issues – divorced Catholics, limits on ordination, gay unions – prompt fiery responses because they cause people real pain. As someone called to (and finding ways to engage in) leadership in the Church, I can understand the pain of loving a Church that at times has been wishy-washy on female leadership. All I can say in response to that pain is that I want the entire worldwide Church to be ready for a change before it occurs. It’s not my place to drag the universal Church along with my first-world, New England tendencies.
There are times when the Church has been on, as we call it, the wrong side of history. Gregory XVI opposed democracy, trains, and gas streetlamps as unacceptable signs of devilish modernity. The Church didn’t buy into the American abolitionist movement.
But what we do isn’t calcified. We don’t settle upon a firm set of rules and assume that settles all questions for all eternity. What makes Catholicism extraordinary is our capacity to respond to the world, to listen to the Holy Spirit and use our most basic truths to inform our belief and practice.
To be a disciple is not to be stuck in one place, but to be always moving.
There has been much talk lately of the arc of the moral universe, and which way it bends. There is no doubt that it has been bending toward justice for a long time, since our modern ideas of equality, opportunity, and care for the vulnerable, are quite remarkable when one considers the totality of human history. That we even bother to fight for such things is a marvel. Who would have thought we would?
But I wonder if that moral universe is bending toward something even greater. I wonder if we lean toward that which God came to earth to teach us. Perhaps we lean toward a truth that undergirds our desire for justice and fairness and equality. Perhaps that long arc of the moral universe bends not only toward justice but toward love.
Photo credit Robert Goulston.