By DEACON JAMES H. TONER
(Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, whose most recent book is Worthy of the Promises, serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro, N.C. Another version of this article appeared in his diocesan newspaper.)
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“That a good many Christians today kneel before the world is a fact perfectly clear” — Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), The Peasant of the Garonne.
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A number of prominent politicians have recently suggested that their thought has been “evolving” on various moral subjects. Inevitably some will ask why the Church’s doctrine (cf. Titus 2:1) isn’t, they think, similarly evolving. They tell us to prize novelty above everything else. The only thing we can be sure of, after all, is change, and nothing is forever. The newer something is, the better; and nobody wants to appear old-fashioned, out of date, or medieval!
The idea that everything is in flux is an ancient one, dating to the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. But is everything change? Is it true that the only thing that doesn’t change is, well, change? Is there anything permanent?
Philosopher J. Budziszewski of the University of Texas — a convert to Catholicism — has written, however, that there are some things we cannot not know, much as St. Paul wrote about what is written on our hearts (Romans 2:14). The brilliant Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton told us: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” In fact, the Catholic faith tells us to bind our minds to what is the most solid matter of all: Jesus the Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8).
By the same token, our human nature doesn’t change, either. I have been in debates for years about this with anthropologists and sociologists, but they have never responded to a key argument: If human nature is continually evolving (toward perfection), how is it that we can understand (in translation) the philosophical writing of Heraclitus, the history of Herodotus, the war accounts of Thucydides, the plays of Aeschylus, the poetry of Aristotle, and the accounts of salvation history in the Old Testament?
It was C.S. Lewis who used the term “chronological snobbery,” meaning that some hold, mistakenly, that whatever is new in philosophy, religion, art, or science is invariably better than what preceded it, merely because it is newer.
It was Pope Gregory XVI who in 1834 condemned “the contemptible and unrestrained desire for innovation,” because, so often, it “does not seek truth where it stands in the received and holy apostolic inheritance.” The quest for novelty was denounced by such Popes as Blessed Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, Pope St. Pius X, and Pope Pius XI (cf. Eccl. 1:11).
In fact, we are well advised to think that what has come down to us should be preferred until the innovation, or change, can be demonstrated to be an improvement over, or to be superior to, what it is supposed to replace. As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) told us in the Declaration of Independence: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the great parliamentarian, similarly believed: “People will not look forward to posterity who never looked backward to their ancestors.”
The Deposit of Faith — the settled teaching of the Church — does not change. What is good and true and beautiful does not change. If it did, that would mean that morality is a function of the clock: What was critically wrong at one time may be right at another; or what was seen as right at one time may be viewed as critically wrong at another.
“But,” some will object, “isn’t that an accurate understanding of, say, slavery, which was socially acceptable at one time? Isn’t morality dictated by time and geography?” That is a common view, and it is wrong.
We do not make truth, like architects; we discover truth, like archaeologists. Our perception of truth, our understanding of it, and our commitment to it may vary according to the state of art or science or philosophy. But the truth doesn’t change. For example, our understanding of the tenets of the Catholic faith should be much more mature when we are fifty than when we are five; but the faith itself hasn’t changed, only our grasp of it.
Many may kneel before the world — that is, deify time and circumstances (cf. 1 John 2:15) — but Catholics believe and, better, know that the universe is shaped by and around the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). That is the direction and destination of “evolving thinking.”
Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) pointed out, in discussing the “development of doctrine,” that there is a gradual understanding of the meaning of what God has revealed, but the substantial truth of a revealed mystery remains unchanged. Again: What changes is our personal understanding of revealed truth, not the objective truth itself.
The fads, fancies, and fictions of a given time may, and should, be rejected as inimical to the truth which transcends them. St. Paul told us that we must “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2 RSV).
As Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch comment in The Ignatius Study Bible: “Because worldly wisdom and values are often deformed ([Romans] 1:21, 28), Christians must allow God to transform them….The grace of the spirit enables us to interpret our lives and evaluate all the influences of our culture with respect to the gospel. In all things, God’s will should be the central object of our discernment, for it alone is acceptable and perfect (CCC nn. 2520, 2826).”
When someone says that his thinking about a moral issue has “evolved,” we must inquire whether his thinking evolved in line with what is perfect and permanent (in line, that is, with the holy Gospel) or whether the evolution in his thinking is inspired, rather, by political opportunism, or by peer pressure, or by financial desires.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul explains that we must not be “carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men who lead others into error by the tricks they invent. Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ” (4:14 GNB). So we are to hold fast to the truth; we are constantly to grow in our understanding of it and in our commitment to it; and, in all things, we must strive to follow Christ and His Bride, the Church.
If and when we distort or deny the truth which comes to us from apostles, we may deceive ourselves or others into believing that our thinking has “evolved,” but, in fact, in such cases, we have only knelt before the world. We Catholics, by the grace of God, kneel only, but always, “in honor of the name of Jesus,” as we openly proclaim the unchanging truth that “Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).