via Crisis Magazine
by Stuart Squires
“When will the Catholic Church come into the twenty-first century?” As a Catholic theologian, I often hear this question posed by non-Catholics and Catholics alike. One of the most important questions facing the Church today, it implies a set of issues that are known to all: same-sex “marriage,” contraception, and divorce (to name only a few), which Pope Benedict XVI has called “the canon of issues.” Because the teachings of the Church on these issues are at odds with our modern secular culture, non-Catholics—and even many Catholics—are left scratching their heads and wonder why the Church doesn’t finally come to the same conclusions that are so obvious to the secular worldview. This confusion deserves serious attention. Although we could address each of the issues individually, I think it is much more helpful to discuss the underlying principles that determine why the secular society and the Church disagree.
Assumptions of the Modern Secular Worldview
Before we look at the Catholic Church’s theological principles that dictate why the Church does not change its teachings on the “canon of issues,” I think we first must review certain key assumptions of the secular worldview. Since the Enlightenment, western secular culture has assumed that we are progressing slowly toward a perfected humanity. With enough time, willpower, money, technological advancements, and scientific breakthroughs, humanity will be able to claw its way out of its barbaric past that is pockmarked by wars, poverty, disease, and social injustice. Over time, this narrative says, we will arrive at a just society. Despite criticisms from many Postmodernists who look at the twentieth century as proof of the failure of the idea of progress, most Americans still agree with this view. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, the Columbia University economist and author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, believes extreme poverty can end by 2025, and this has been echoed by Bill Gates in his 2014 Gates Annual Letter where he said that “by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.”
The second assumption has to do with our modern culture’s understanding of secular laws. The idea that our secular laws are dictated by natural law (which had been the standard belief for centuries) is largely dismissed today. Natural law, according to The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, is the “intelligible and consistent order which exists independently of human opinion or construction, and that this order is a source of moral constraint and command for human beings.” In recent decades, the dependence of secular law on natural law has been replaced by the idea that there is no independent, objective moral order; moral and immoral are categories that are individually and culturally constructed.
Putting these two assumptions together, the secular worldview believes that the progress of the human person over the centuries has led to changing cultural norms that then become codified in law. As cultural norms change, so, too, our laws do and must change. For example, our society has progressed over the centuries to come to understand that relationships between people of the same gender are acceptable and, therefore, our laws have been changed to allow homosexual marriage.
Assumptions of the Catholic Worldview
With this understanding of the secular assumptions about the world, we may turn to the Catholic Church. Long before the Enlightenment, Christianity had to address a similar claim to the one we saw above about the perfectibility of humanity. In the early fifth century, men like St. Augustine and St. Jerome fought a theological battle that has come to be known as the Pelagian Controversy. This fight addressed many important issues about the human person. Most importantly, because the Pelagians rejected the notion of the sinfulness of humanity, and embraced the notion that we have an unimpeded free will (because they rejected the idea of original sin just as Enlightenment thinkers would do centuries later), the Pelagians concluded that—if you really wanted it badly enough—you could arrive at a perfected state of sinlessness. This position was ultimately condemned by the Church because both the Pelagians and, later, the Enlightenment have an overly optimistic understanding of the human person.
If the Church rejects the idea of inevitable progress towards perfection, what, then, can be said about the human condition? Are we just terrible sinners who cannot make any progress in this life at all? Are we left at the mercy of a capricious God who may, or may not, choose to save us from our misery? The Catholic Church makes two claims simultaneously that may, at first, seem contradictory: yes, we can change, and no, we cannot change.
The Church believes that we, as individuals, can change. When many people in our age question the need to go to Mass on Sunday, the Church holds that all sacraments, but most importantly the Eucharist, can and do change our lives. Augustine’s Confessionsrecounts God’s response to his prayers, saying “’I [God] am the food [the Eucharist] of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on Me. And you will not change Me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into Me.” This belief in the power of the Eucharist continues into our own time. Thomas Merton, the great twentieth-century Catholic mystic, said in his book The Living Bread that “the grace of the Eucharist is not confined to the moments of thanksgiving after Mass and communion, but reaches out into our whole day and into all the affairs of our life, in order to sanctify and transform them in Christ.” The Eucharist is not hocus pocus, and change does not happen overnight. But the Church believes at her core that the sacramental life, over time, leads us towards holiness.
At the same time, the Church rejects the idea that societally we will ever arrive at a utopia. Jesus himself said that human ills will never be eradicated when he anticipated Sachs and Gates, saying that “you always will have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7). Pope Paul VI, in his 1971 encyclical Octogesima Adveniens, said that “the appeal to a utopia is often a convenient excuse for those who wish to escape from concrete tasks in order to take refuge in an imaginary world.” Although societally we may progress technologically, medically, and scientifically, and, individually, we may make progress through the sacraments, this progress will never translate into heaven on earth.