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JHN change

To be against change is like being English and objecting to the varied weather one gets in a day – natural but somewhat pointless; it will happen any way. How does a Church which founded on the revelation of the Good News of Jesus deal with that process? Newman wrote that if there was a revelation, as we believe there has been, there would be a teaching authority to pronounce on it. Catholics believe that Christ provided just that authority in the form of His Church which is the foundation and pillar of the truth. That Magisterium pronounces of truth and error in matters of faith and morals, and is protected from error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, although as someone commented to me the other day “Catholics seem to disagree a great deal”, as I replied, “that does not mean the Church disagrees”. That does not mean there is not and cannot be disagreement, but it does mean that once the Church pronounces, the matter is closed – until, as may need to be the case, it reopens in another way at another time. We are not closed to the promptings of the Spirit – we simply do not think He is forever agitating us, and we refuse to identify Him with the spirit of any one age.

Although it has not always been so in practice, in theory this ought to allow a greater degree of discussion and debate within the Church. The possession of an authoritative teaching Magisterium ought to mean that the faithful can engage in discussion and debate freely – as long as they are prepared to accept that the umpire’s verdict is final. Being composed of sinners, this tends not to happen as much as it ought. But without it, without the ability to debate and discuss, the Church would risk ossifying. In my own limited experience of Orthodoxy, the absence of an authoritative Magisterium inhibited debate in a Church which was attached to tradition; that did not mean there was none, it meant that there was a good deal of hesitation about the process and a tendency to attach oneself to a part of tradition as a way of justifying some new development; the very idea of a new development tended to produce fits of the vapours in some quarters, as it does in our own Church.

Things change, and we change with them. However much anyone wishes to claim for himself a conservative position, no-one whose consciousness was formed in the twentieth century West can fully possess the mindset of someone born in twelfth century Venice; no one can step into the same river twice. So even in a Church (rightly) attached to Tradition, fresh minds in new contexts approach things in ways which those in the past would not have done, because they could not have done. One of the great virtues of the Church is that she gives great weight to the wisdom of our ancestors, especially the Church Fathers and the Councils, but she is not hidebound by them, or by one time-bound view of part of their great oeuvre. Her theologians range far and wide through the immense gifts bequeathed us by the past, and the Magisterium gives it the weight always needed to ensure that mankind’s tendency to favour the novel is countered. That is not to say it gets it right all the time in every generation But it is to say that because the mind of the Church thinks in centuries rather than decades, it has the confidence to know that it will get the balance correct across time – and that in the meantime, no error in faith or morals will be taught to the detriment of the souls of the faithful.

How can we be sure of that last? Well, if we believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s Church, we do so through faith. If we want human guarantees we shall get none, for we are not, here, dealing with the principalities and powers of this world, but with a promise made by God. If we cannot bring ourselves to believe that promise, we should pray for more help – for there is no other reliable source.

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