Bad—I mean really bad—arguments for changing the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 14, 2017

Cultural change, as we all know, has a profound impact on our convictions. Very large numbers of people cheerfully form their values according to the signals received from the dominant culture in which they live. Since human cultures undergo continuous change, so do human values. It seems not to trouble the great majority of people that they now embrace as good some things that they formerly opposed as evil—or vice versa.

But the comfortable assumption that the dominant values of our culture are always right, no matter how often they change, tends to create problems for Catholics. Despite their best efforts, lax Catholics cannot avoid reminders that the Church is out of step with the times, that the Church regards many things as evil which the surrounding culture celebrates as good. Things get interesting when such Catholics care just enough to attempt to justify their departure from what the Church teaches.

I was reminded of this effort at justification last week when I wrote about the ordination of women to the priesthood. In response, those who think the Church is wrong in excluding women from the priesthood offered four different arguments in their angry emails. It is worth noting that the same four kinds of arguments are always deployed, in one way or another, whenever the Church’s moral teachings conflict with the judgments of the larger secular culture. I hope it will prove useful to review these arguments.

1. Christ was culture-bound and so is the Church.

For a great many years, those in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood have argued that the only reason Our Lord did not include women among the apostles was that He acted within the normal customs of Jewish culture at that time. The obvious answer to this is that Our Lord quite frequently taught and acted contrary to cultural conventions, such as in the observance of the Sabbath, the rules followed by the Pharisees, the meaning of “unclean”, the cultural expectations concerning the Messiah, and many other matters.

When combined with our Western idea of “progress”, this notion that the Church is culture-bound imparts to all such arguments an overwhelming bias in favor of whatever is new. Whenever the latest cultural developments contradict earlier ideas, the presumption is that it will always be the newer ideas that are correct. This assessment is strengthened by a great blindness which afflicts those whose spirituality is not very deep: They consider that people were always culture-bound in the past, while those of us who live in the modern world are never culture-bound. In reality, we all find it difficult to think critically about whatever it is we take for granted.

Sometimes this argument can work in reverse. Some people are prone to assume that the way the Church has done things in the past is sacrosanct, and that no alteration whatsoever is possible without selling out to the spirit of the age. The majority of people, however, have a marked chronological bias in favor of the present (or even the future). They run around saying things like, “Come on, it’s 2017!” Yet all such “calendar arguments” are equally absurd.

2. The letter kills and the spirit gives life.

The “letter and spirit” argument from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (3:6) is generally used to emphasize the precedence of charity over mere rules. Properly applied, it is actually quite correct. Thus the normal requirements of the Code of Canon Law may (and should) at times be overridden by charity. To take an obvious example, it is wrong to insist that a person who is ill must still observe the rules of fast and abstinence because it is the law of the Church.

But the validity of this argument depends on our ability to distinguish what Catholics refer to as discipline and doctrine. The Church uses many rules to foster good order and spiritual well-being, rules that can vary with time and place and circumstances, according to what popes and bishops believe will be most conducive to spiritual growth in varying situations and cultures. It is these that constitute “discipline”. In contrast, truth is the object of “doctrine”. If it is true that Christ is really (substantially) present in the Eucharist (body, blood, soul and divinity), then no amount of charity can abrogate that reality for someone who finds it a hard saying.

This is also true for the moral law. It may not be suspended or obscured out of “charity” for a sinner. First, it is in principle a grave evil—a rebellion against God Himself—to deny the truth (which is the mind’s conformity with reality); second, the refusal to help people know and observe the moral law may seem “nice” in that it avoids making demands on someone who considers such demands unpleasant, but it is never charitable because it is not conducive to the person’s well-being. In the same way, if the Church has no authority from Jesus Christ to ordain women as priests, then it is a signal disservice to women and to all the faithful, as well as an affront to Our Lord, to engage in the fiction of ordaining them.

3. Church discipline can change.

It is quite common for those who refuse to accept some part of Catholic practice to argue that what they oppose is merely a matter of discipline, and so it is subject to change. For example, clerical celibacy is a matter of discipline, and so the question of celibacy must be settled according to what the Church considers to be most conducive to priestly ministry and the care of souls. (Those interested in this question may wish to read Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical on the subject, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.)

The question arises, therefore, of how we know if something is an unchangeable doctrine or a changeable discipline. Often this can be discerned from whether a statement describes reality or specifies a practice. But the distinction is not always clear and, in any case, some practices are not prudential in origin, but mandated by God. Thus, to determine the force of “women may not be ordained as priests”, we need to know whether this means something like “currently the Church does not permit the ordination of women” or something like “the Church is not capable of ordaining women.”

Sometimes this is a question that only the Magisterium of the Church can answer. And that is exactly what Pope St. John Paul II did in 1994 in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: He specifically rejected the assertion that “the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force” (#4). To learn some of the reasons for this conclusion, we can also study the Declaration Inter Insigniores from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI in 1976.

4. The Church teaching in question lacks force owing to a defect of form.

Finally, those who are reluctant to accept the decisions of the Church in particular matters will very often argue that, owing to some defect in the form of the statement in question, that statement is robbed of its force. Perhaps the most well-known example is the argument of those who reject some teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Since the general purpose of the Council was pastoral, they assert that the Council did not intend to officially teach anything. But the Council itself stated that the intention of the Magisterium in any teaching is determined by the manner in which the passage in question is expressed. Thus, when the Council intended to go beyond discussions and recommendations of a pastoral nature, in order to teach a specific truth, this intention is determined from the words used to express it.

Many similarly irrelevant arguments have been made by recalcitrant opponents in the effort to debunk obvious Magisterial teachings. Interestingly, two particular specious arguments have been made specifically against Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The first is the claim that when John Paul said “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”, he failed to settle the matter because what the Pope should have said is “this definitive judgment is to be held by all the Church’s faithful”.

The mind boggles, but I can go one better, from an email I actually received in response to my own article on reopening the question of women priest. My correspondent claimed that John Paul II’s teaching in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was invalidated because the Pope had not used the royal and pontifical “we” and “us”, but instead had referred to himself as “I” and “me”!

. . .

It is fitting to end this catalogue of common excuses on such an obvious pinnacle of absurdity. No further conclusion is necessary. John Paul II understood that the tradition by which kings, queens and popes referred to themselves in the first person plural (the “royal we”) struck everyone as stuffy and off-putting by the latter part of the twentieth century. Consequently, he dropped this practice in favor of the first person singular. Pope St. John Paul was a man of considerable warmth and eminent good sense. All subsequent popes have done the same.

Finally, in dismissing this ridiculous argument, I cannot help but recall the way St. Peter closed his first letter, not hesitating to speak in his own voice: “I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: msrsm19887530 - Feb. 15, 2017 8:21 PM ET USA

    Those who reject an infallible teaching of the Magisterium reject the Magisterium itself. Those who reject the Magisterium reject the Church as constituted by Christ. I am appalled by not only lay people but members of the hierarchy who consider themselves Catholic while rejecting the Church authority, the fundamental distinguishing feature of Catholic Christianity. The dissenters high and low seem oblivious to the constitution of the Church. See Lumen Gentium 25 from Vatican II.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Feb. 15, 2017 1:09 PM ET USA

    I thought it was self-evident that what you wrote about the ordination of women to the priesthood was correct, so I didn't comment. I see that I was wrong not to write anything.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Feb. 15, 2017 9:05 AM ET USA

    A well stated presentation. Thanks

  • Posted by: bruno - Feb. 15, 2017 8:41 AM ET USA

    Thanks, Dr. Mirus, for the lucid rebuttal of the major complaints in favor of women's ordination. You can add to point #1 that Jesus Christ, of one substance with the Father and the Spirit, is at once unfettered by human custom and incapable of falsehood. The idea that such a being might quake at the prospect of harming people's expectations bespeaks the anthropomorphic bias of the critic. "My ways are not your ways..." etc. Lord forgive our hubris!