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The real cost of changing Catholic teaching on marriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 18, 2015

Many Christian bodies change their teachings fairly frequently. We have been acutely aware of this pattern in the Anglican Church over the past century, but many other denominations have also changed their position on such things as divorce, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage. There is no need to observe that such changes are always in favor of prevailing cultural sentiments.

The same thing has been tried, though ultimately without success, in the Catholic Church by dissident theologians and their followers among the laity, by priests and religious and even by some bishops. Several members of the German hierarchy are currently leading the campaign to change Catholic teaching on the nature and indissolubility of marriage. Even if they do not advocate a formal change in Catholic doctrine, they advocate policies of inclusion and absolution which would for all practical purposes indicate that what was once taught as true is now at best unimportant and at worst simply false.

This never ceases to amaze me because it carries such a high cost, as we will soon see. The reason behind the push for such changes is nearly always the same: Either the changelings believe that contemporary attitudes are a more reliable guide to the truth than Divine Revelation, or they fear the Church cannot retain an effective role in contemporary life if she insists on beliefs which the dominant culture rejects out of hand.

Theological Quackery

The theological justification (really, a rationalization) for a change of teaching is found in the Modernist principle, which holds that the truth about God is always mediated to us through human culture. Therefore, our perception and understanding of that truth “legitimately” change as the interests and desires of the culture change. There is even an alleged Scriptural justification for this inconstant approach to religion. It is found in Our Lord’s condemnation of the religious leaders of his time, when He said:

When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.” And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. [Mt 16:2-3]

Modernists and other dissidents identify the teaching authority of the Church with the ancient authority of the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Christ denounced in this passage. In context, however, Our Lord is rebuking them not for respecting Revelation but for refusing to adhere to what Revelation had already foretold about the Messiah. Therefore, He refuses to coddle them with signs of their own choosing: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Mt 16:4).

Obviously we are to learn from the “signs of the times” what the contemporary situation demands of the Christian. We are to be alert to the ways in which each generation is both open and closed to grace. We need to adjust both our lives and our efforts accordingly, so that we do not become stumbling blocks, and so that our evangelizing, advice and service can meet real needs and bear good fruit.

But just as obviously we are not to take the public rejection of the Revelation of Jesus Christ as a sign that it ought to be changed. This was the attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Trust me on this: Nothing is gained by being absorbed into an evil and adulterous generation.

The Nature of Revelation

While it is evident from the natural law that God exists and that the human person owes him gratitude and worship (hence the virtue of religion), God so surpasses us that on our own we can know only the broadest outlines of his supernatural being and providential care. What we need for a richer understanding and a fuller relationship with God must come through God’s own more direct self-disclosure, that is, through Revelation.

Because of what we do know through nature (including our own interior nature), we actually expect such a Revelation. We know from the faculty of conscience, for example, that God cares how we act and will judge us accordingly. It follows that we can expect Him to reveal His will. Many arguments can be adduced for the authenticity of His Revelation to the Jews and, ultimately, His Revelation in Jesus Christ. Still more arguments establish that Our Lord committed this Revelation to the Catholic Church as a kind of sacrament of His Presence throughout history.

Regardless of how we have come to accept this Revelation, however, all Christian bodies do in fact claim to accept it as the very basis of their existence. All Christian bodies also recognize that this Revelation was completed in Christ, and that the period of public Revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. After that time, it is the Christian task to accept, understand, spread and live in accordance with that Revelation. The Christian has no warrant to change it in any way, for he has received it from God Himself.

Like God, then, Divine Revelation is both immutable and beyond human control. Once disclosed, Divine Revelation is permanent.

The Cost of Impermanence

I said above that the modern tendency of Christians to tinker with Revelation never ceases to amaze me “because it carries such a high cost”. Note that I am not amazed that we humans are changeable in our commitments, or that we sometimes desperately want the truth to be other than it is, or that we can be tempted to be unfaithful to it. No, what amazes me is that we would ever set out to alter what Christ has revealed while still claiming to be Christian.

The issue is very simple. Logically, if we can change some matter of faith or morals that Jesus Christ and His Church have taught, then we must not regard this matter to be Divinely revealed at all. And if we do not accept that God has revealed Himself in Christ and committed that Revelation to the Church, then the whole Christian project is a charade based on the imperfect and rapidly changing ideas of human beings.

I have been saying this for years: Christianity is not merely a naturally kind sentiment to be shaped as we will. We cannot at the same time claim to be Christian and claim to be able to make up Christian teaching as we go along.

If we really can change the teaching of Christ, then Christ is not God. If Christ is not God, then there is no “Good News”. Our case is as bleak as that of pagan Romans at the time of Augustus. Any hope we claim to have is based on an illusion: Christ did not conquer death; there is no salvation, and no future. St. Paul himself made the point with frightening clarity:

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. [1 Cor 15:14,17]

This is the real cost of changing Church teaching to suit ourselves. It is a supreme act of self-destruction. In one simple yet deadly stroke we give the lie to Christianity. Salvation instantly becomes a myth, and we are lost.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 21, 2015 12:57 PM ET USA

    Matthew 18:18 is not used by dissenters but by people of faith who believe that Christ remains with His Church and we are not to fear the outcomes of synods because in the final analysis the Holy Spirit will prevail.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 19, 2015 8:26 AM ET USA

    "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." Matt 13:34. The essay's severity - no matter the charity, no matter the kind and gentle disposition of the messenger- is unavoidably absolute. It's life and death. The crucifix is central; the mystery that even God endured death so that we might live. It's serious business. And fidelity's reward is happiness untold.

  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 18, 2015 9:49 PM ET USA

    The usual response of dissenters is, "I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" [Mt 18:18]. Thus they would claim divine origin of their authority to tweak the Truth at will. And of course, they dismiss the quotes, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" [John 14:15], and "Whoever breaks the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" [Mt 5:19].