When it comes to Church teachings that are unpopular, the common tactic is on one side of the coin to dismiss them as old teachings and point out how some teachings have changed from the past. People argue that If the Church changed teaching X, she can also change her teachings on contraception or divorce/remarriage. On the other side of the coin, when it comes to actions of the Church that people wanted to remain as they were, the common tactic is to appeal to the old writings and argue that they are irreformable and attempts to make changes are heretical.
These two attitudes demonstrate the truth of the adage, “A little knowledge is dangerous.” In both cases, the proponents cite a portion of a Church document with the intent to demonstrate that the Church has changed with the purpose of undermining the authority of the Church. The only difference between the two is that one cites it with the intention to alter other teachings (claiming that the Church’s refusal to change is unjustified) while the other cites it with the intention to reject changes they dislike.
I believe both groups display a lack of understanding about the Church and how she teaches. The fact is, when the Church teaches something is to be done or not done, we need to discern the moral absolutes that the Church holds always and the elements of what the Church mandates as how to follow the Church teaching when facing certain evils of a particular time.
The Case of Usury
For example, it is popular to cite the “fact” that the Church “changed her teaching” on lending money at interest. Since the Church seems to have changed from saying lending money at interest is a sin to saying it is not, the argument is that any Church teaching can be changed. The problem is this argument is based on a false understanding of what the Church taught. For example, Pope Benedict XIV wrote in the bull Vix pervenit (published in 1745) that, on one hand it is usury to loan money to a person in need with the intent of charging interest, but on the other hand he warned against extremes:
III. By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles—which are not at all intrinsic to the contract—may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract. Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. From these types of contracts honest gain may be made. (Vix pervenit #3)
Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1740–1878 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 16.
In other words, the Church did not change her teaching on usury. She merely recognized that there were some circumstances—not existing in the past—that permitted a legitimate return on investment. So, as I understand it, if somebody comes to me and says, “Dave, I need $20 for gas so I can drive to the hospital and see my sick child,” I would be committing usury if I said in reply, “Sure, just pay me back $30 next week.” But I wouldn’t be committing usury if I invested money in stocks or bonds, expecting interest in return. I’ll leave it to theologians to decide whether modern credit cards and payday loan companies commit usury (I’m inclined to think the latter certainly do), but the point is, the Church considered the changes to the ways economics worked and determined that investment was not the same thing as usury—though she would condemn usury disguised as investment.
It doesn’t always work that way. For example, in 1960, The Pill was invented. It worked differently than the traditional barrier methods of contraception, and people were asking whether that meant it was not contraception. So the Church investigated the question, “Is the pill contraception?” It soon turned out that the answer was yes. It still intended to take the sexual act and frustrate the potential of pregnancy. So Blessed Paul VI issued the encyclical affirming that all contraception was wrong. [†]
These examples are why I am not alarmed when Pope Francis calls for an investigation into an issue (for example, the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried). The fact that a question is asked does not mean that a change will be made. In fact, when it came to the question being raised at a press conference [*], the Pope replied,
Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration.
For all of the fears and false hopes about the synod of the family changing Church teaching, it turned out that the Pope had no intention to change Church teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” He merely did what Benedict XIV and Blessed Paul VI did—he consulted with theologians to determine if the changing times involved new situations that were not covered by previous documents.
The Cases of Denouncing Recent Teaching from the Church
There are also cases where individual Catholics object to the teaching of the Church in the period from 1958 [When St. John XXIII was elected Pope] to the present, on the grounds that these things contradicted Church teachings from the past. It is argued that these earlier teachings were irreformable and therefore the changes must be heretical. This ranges across many issues. The Vatican II document on religious freedom [§], Blessed Paul VI making changes to the Mass and so on.
In these cases, people overlook the fact that even when the Church teaches on irreformable doctrine, there are elements where the Church is making disciplines which apply to certain times but the successors to the Chair of Peter can change if they determine a single dispensation or an overall change of practice is needed. For example, Benedict XIV ruled, “The Roman Pontiff is above canon law, but any bishop is inferior to that law and consequently cannot modify it.” (Magna nobis #3). Some two hundred years later, Pius XII would point out that when it comes to changing practices, “If it was at one time necessary even for validity by the will and command of the Church, every one knows that the Church has the power to change and abrogate what she herself has established." (Sacramentum Ordinis #3). [∞]
Here’s an example. In 1769, Pope Clement XIV issued a document on avoiding the appearance of simony, and seeking to reduce corruption in the Church. Now the evils of simony and corruption are not something which will change with time. If a member of the clergy demands money for performing a work of the Church, that is always wrong. [∑] However, the things Clement XIV discusses in Decet quam maxime involves all sorts of discussion of what sorts of fees could be collected and by whom. He talks about aureus and obols and junios. Coins were once used in the Papal States, but no longer exist (just try to work out the rate of exchange for an 18th century obol to a modern Euro for example). When a future Pope decides to make changes to the rules set in Decet quam maxime, he will not be changing the teaching of the Church on simony. He’ll simply be applying the teaching of the Church to the conditions that exist in modern times.
This is how changes can happen in the Mass. The Mass is of vital importance to the Catholic. No Pope could abolish the Mass or change the meaning of the Eucharist. But some people confuse the discipline of the Mass with the essence of the Mass. St. Pius V reformed the Mass in 1570, abolishing rites less than 200 years old (Quo Primum). Some Catholics interpret the words of this bull...
Therefore, no one whosoever is permitted to alter this notice of Our permission, statute, ordinance, command, precept, grant, indult, declaration, will, decree, and prohibition. Would anyone, however, presume to commit such an act, he should know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
…as if it meant that nobody in the Church could make any changes to the Mass. But his successors did make changes to the Mass. Changes were made in 1604 (Clement VIII), 1634 (Urban VIII), 1884 (Leo XIII made official the changes since 1634), 1920 (Benedict XV, completing the work of St. Pius X), 1955 (Pius XII, radically changing the Mass for certain holy days) and 1962 (St. John XXIII, implementing the changes of Pius XII). That’s not even counting the changes between the first century AD to St. Gregory the Great. Basically, it’s a cycle of changes are made, and then the missal is eventually revised to implement all the changes between editions.
The point is, nobody the time understood Quo Primum to mean the Mass was irreformable. The successors of St. Pius V did not consider themselves heretics in making changes. [ø]. The objections that “denied" Blessed Paul VI the right to make changes to the Mass tend to be ignorant of those facts.
A Little Knowledge is Dangerous
That ignorance is ultimately the problem. Both tactics try to create the appearance of a break where there is no break. The appearance of a break only seems to be there if one is not aware of all the facts of the case. The danger comes because the person who does not know all the facts is unaware of the fact that he or she does not know. When a person is aware that they do not know something, they can learn. But when a person is ignorant of the fact that they do not know, it never occurs to them to see what the facts are. Thus they can build elaborate theologies of dissent without ever considering the possibility that they are the ones in error.
The remedy is to stop assuming that one’s personal knowledge and interpretation of Church documents is sufficient to pass judgment on the teaching authority of the Church. When one sees a conflict, the first task is to see if one’s own understanding is correct. The next step is to determine what the truth actually is, and how the Church herself understands the document. Catholic theology is not done in the same way as “the plain sense” that some Protestants ascribe to Scripture. We believe that to understand a Church document, we need to read it in the sense that the Church understands it and not assume that the Pope and the magisterium has somehow forgotten or chose to ignore the older documents.
In the over a quarter century since I first began my studies of Catholic theology, one thing I have learned has stuck with me: Just because one cannot personally find an answer to a seeming conflict does not mean the Church has no answer. Sometimes it has taken me years to find the needed information, but I have always found out that the apparent conflict did not exist when studied. It was that searching that led me to realize that when I haven’t found the right answer yet, the solution was to trust that the Church had an answer which I had not discovered yet.
The reason for this is, instead of trusting in my own knowledge or in the personal holiness and wisdom of the individuals in charge of the Church, I trust that God keeps His promises to protect His Church. I have never been let down in this trust.
[†] Unfortunately part of the commission issued to study the issue exceeded their mandate and argued “Yes, it’s contraception, but the Church should change her teaching.” They had no right to do this and the Pope was under no obligation to make their abuse into Church teaching.
[*] Literacy and research skills seem to be lacking nowadays when people misinterpret these things. People tend to give full weight to the media rushing to scoop their competitors by sending out quotes without context, and then use those reports to interpret the actual transcripts that are released later when they should be evaluating the reports by the transcripts.
[§] Judging by reactions, people never bothered to read it. Otherwise they would have read the part in Dignitatis Humanae about:
First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you” (Matt. 28:19–20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (DH #1)
Catholic Church, “Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).
[∞] I have encountered some people who, legalistically, try to limit these documents to only applying to one specific case: the minimum canonical age for marriage (in Magna Nobis) or whether the imposition of hands was enough for ordination (Sacramentum Ordinis). However, in both cases, the Popes assumed that they had the authority to change how Church disciplines were to be applied in a given time.
[∑] I’m of the opinion that Pope Francis’ speaking about eliminating fees for annulments altogether is not just based on avoiding a barrier to getting an annulment but is also based on the concern that some people think of it as “buying” an annulment.
[ø] The principal weakness to the appeal to Quo Primum is that we have had these missals existing uncontested. If the Mass of 1570 was irreformable, then any changes by Popes would have been heretical. Some try to counter this by saying it was the same Mass since the time of St. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604) but this gnores the existence of valid Masses before his pontificate that had differences in form.