Douthat on Change and the RC Church


Though of course this view is hardly confined to conservative Catholics. Many a liberal op-ed on How the Church Must Change starts out by suggesting that teaching X (on divorce, homosexuality, etc.) needs to be revamped and proceeds to acknowledge (or celebrate) the fact that this revision will also imply a wholesale abandonment of teachings Y and Z and P and Q as well. Hence the conservative sense — I would call it a suspicion, but it’s rather more than that — that when we’re asked to concede that the church could get something wrong, the people doing the asking often really want us to concede that the church has gotten almost everything wrong, from sexual ethics to sacramental theology to the idea of a priesthood to the person of Jesus of Nazareth himself, and that actually some combination of Arians, Gnostics and Protestants were right about most of the controversies of the Christian past.

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue tothe ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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