Who says the church can't change?

THERE IS AN APOCRYPHAL STORY IN MY FAMILY ABOUT MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER PHILOMENA, WHO DIED WHEN I WAS ABOUT 12 OR 13. Great-Grandma was a big TV watcher—soaps, Lawrence Welk, and the evening news—as well as a devout Catholic. When she was in her early 90s, she heard on the news one day that the Vatican, amid preparations for the Second Vatican Council, had just released the conclusions of a study on the historicity of certain saints and had determined that some saints were no longer official saints because of insufficient evidence of their historical existence. The list of these included not only popular saints like Christopher and George but also Philomena, the saint for whom she was named.

Anyway, when she heard this news, my Great-Grandma Philomena clutched her chest and cried out in pain. Nothing my Aunt Nellie could say comforted her hysteria, for she kept repeating that if her name saint wasn't a saint, then her Baptism was no good, and if her Baptism was no good, then her marriage was no good, and she had lived in sin for 40 years and borne three bastard children. She had been taught that in order to be baptized, you had to be named after a saint, that only church marriages were real, and for a sacramental church marriage, one had to have been baptized.

No one had taught her to distinguish minor legal rules from the validity of sacraments, and no family members who observed her pain knew any better. Nor did the priest sent from her parish help much. At least a few versions of this family story detail the priest telling her that he was sure God would forgive her her failings in this regard—as if her good and loving Father would hold it againsther that she had allowed herself as an infant to be named after a saint the church later discarded! Great-Grandma died soon after, and some in the family considered her a martyr to the Vatican II spirit of church reform.


Siege mentality For many Catholics during the 1960s, it seemed as if nothing in the Catholic Church would remain unchanged by Vatican II. The changes were especially unsettling because they all seemed so sudden. For hundreds of years there had been almost no change in the church at all. In fact, many people in the pews had been encouraged to believe that there had neverbeen any change in the Catholic Church, that the entire deposit of faith—the hierarchy, the sacramental system, canon law, and all the rest—had all been instituted by Christ in their present forms and merely handed down unchanged ever since. Vatican II signaled the end of a long period in which the Catholic Church had tried to prevent trauma to the faithful by separating and insulating the church from a modern world it viewed with great suspicion.

In the early modern period the Catholic Church suffered a number of terrible shocks, one after another. The first was the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Roughly half of Europe was lost to the Catholic Church, and more than 2 million lives were lost in wars between Protestants and Catholics.

The Enlightenment followed in the 18th century, during which much of the European intellectual community turned to science as the path to knowledge and redefined reason based on scientific process—which placed faith outside of reason, on the side of superstition and magic. Since the capacity for reason is inherent in all humans, the Enlightenment demanded that government be based on the consent of reasoning humans and not on a revealed divine order. The result was that faith became a private, and intellectually suspect, commitment. The contested issues between science and the church were one part of this larger battle; new scientific discoveries, such as those by Copernicus and Galileo, which contradicted earlier theories of Scholastic philosophers, were interpreted as attacks on the church itself.

In the later political phase of the Enlightenment, the state was declared secular, and citizens were taught to separate their faith from their civic endeavors. In the 19th century, this secularization of the state led, in many places, to confiscations of church property, the loss of church control over civil marriage, and loss of the right to operate Catholic schools. In Italy, democratic nationalism led to the loss of the kingdom of the Papal States in the 1860s and the loss of Rome itself in 1870 to the new nation of Italy.

Thus, it was no accident that there were no church councils implementing periodic reforms in the church between the end of the Council of Trent in 1580 until the start of Vatican II in 1962. The church was preoccupied with resisting modernity. The only intervening council, Vatican I in 1870, was ended just as it began by the entrance of Giuseppe Garibaldi's troops into Rome. Its definition of papal infallibility was promulgated as a defense of the authority of the church in a modern world hostile to the church intellectually, politically, and even militarily. The energies of the church during these centuries were engaged in defending the church's past role and privileges and its understanding of how the world was properly organized.


Some things change...
Pope John XXIII's call to Vatican II signaled that the church had come out from behind its castle walls and felt strong and energized enough to constructively engage the modern world with all its promise and problems.

Vatican II reminded us that the history of the church has always been one of continuing development in belief and practice, although some periods have highlighted change and others conservation of past belief and practice. Today, for reasons both internal and external to the church, many Catholics need to be reminded that the Catholic Church is not an unchanging monolith.

The news media often uses the Catholic Church as the yardstick of conservatism to which other churches that institute changes are compared. One (Catholic!) reporter recently told me, "The Catholic Church is so easy to report on—nothing changes. The popes and bishops are usually in place for years and years, the calendar and rituals are the same, and you can predict that the answer to most new proposals, especially in sexuality or church leadership, will be `No,' but in anything having to do with ending war or poverty will be `Yes.' The predictability makes the Catholic Church easy to draw on for comparisons or just for filler stories, like the pope's Christmas Mass."

While it remains to me somewhat mysterious how quickly the image of the Catholic Church shifted away from one of renewal and change in the '60s, it seems pretty clear that the shift is complete not only within the media, but within the pews as well. Recently I was called an agitator for mentioning in a talk to a parish group that one of the first things John XXIII did upon becoming pope was to officially affirm that Latin was the sacred language of the church and an integral part of its liturgy. Four years later, of course, the first session of Vatican II shifted the liturgy from Latin into the vernacular.

It has become a truism that institutions and relationships that do not change die. Dynamism is an integral part of God's creation and reflects the divine character. Human beings intuitively recognize this dynamic tendency periodically and imperfectly within their own lives. When my husband and I look back on our 30 years of marriage, we see not one long, unchanging relationship, but a series of different, evolving relationships—almost different marriages. Our relationships with our children are similarly dynamic. When we treat 15-year-olds like 5-year-olds, we ask for disaster. How many of our workplaces have remained the same over time? Why should the church, another human institution constructed upon multiple relationships, be different?

In fact, the church is not an exception to this pattern of change. But the church also responds to another aspect of reality—the human desire for continuity. Our ability to make sense of our world and of our relationships with others, even to understand ourselves, requires a certain degree of continuity in all of these. Both change and continuity are constants in our lives, and both are necessary for individuals and communities. Problems arise when change is artificially prevented or when too much changes too fast, as in situations of war, recession, or extended natural disasters. There are varied, dysfunctional reactions to too much sudden change, but the most common is to attempt to prevent future shocks by exerting rigid control of the situation. All such attempts ultimately fail, but they can sometimes persist for a long time.

Vatican II reforms did not spring full-blown out of the church of Trent. Theologians, such as Karl Rahner, who were re sponsible for the theological framework of the council, endured suspicion and harassment for these same ideas for decades prior to their vindication in Vatican II. Catholic social teaching, a tremendous modern innovation, was begun by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The mission encyclicals of Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI ended the exclusion of American Indians, Africans, and Asians from the clergy, and, together with the episcopal appointments of native clergy by Pope Pius XII, they signaled the end of colonialism in the structure of the church.

Although most aspects of modernity, including democracy, separation of church and state, religious freedom, socialism, and the truths of science, had been condemned by the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, Vatican II not only accepted democracy as a system of government but also the separation of church and state, with its guarantee of religious freedom for all. Furthermore, though the popes never went so far as acceptance of—and consistently warned of dangers in— Marxist thought, John XXIII and Pope Paul VI created an opening for rethinking the church's position on socialism and communism, and acknowledged the possibility of elements of Marxism contributing to justice and offering useful tools to Christians. This was a clear reversal of earlier church teachings under Pius XI and Pius XII.

One important thing to keep in mind is that while all aspects of church teaching and practice change in some ways over time, not everything changes at the same rate. In general, practices, especially matters of discipline, change more quickly than doctrine; particular teachings change more quickly than general teachings; and social teachings change more quickly than theological teachings.

Because the first Christians were Jews, their early Christian community understood the Christological title "Son of God" as a prophetic title that meant that Jesus, like the prophets, carried out the work of God just as sons do for their fathers. The idea of Jesus as fully divine only developed after the church had become largely Greek—no longer under the sway of strict Jewish monotheism—and was more interested in questions of essence than function. But theological changes like this are rare once doctrine is set; the development of the doctrine of the Trinity has become foundational and is unlikely to be much changed in its general outline. On the other hand, rules of behavior, such as those regarding fasting before Communion, head coverings in church, or holy days of obligation, are more readily changeable because they reflect some degree of social custom, which constantly changes.


We've come a long way
Today the popular reputation of the Catholic Church is that it remains mired in outdated concepts of women. I can no longer even guesstimate how many people have said to me over the past 20 years, "But how can you remain a Catholic with what you believe about women's rights and roles?"

One part of me has always wanted to respond that I never abandoned my children because they thought that my sole purpose in life was to care for them, so why should I leave the church? Defined by traditional church teaching, my purpose as a woman was threefold: (1) care of my children, (2) care of my husband, (3) the salvation of my own soul! And not necessarily in that order. But in the last decade or so, it has really galled me that the same question continues to be asked in the same way, as if there have been no changes at all in church teaching on women. I suspect this means that those changes in church teaching on women that have been pronounced from the top have not penetrated to the teaching of the church at the local level. How much in the following trajectory of church teachings on women would members of your parish recognize? If your parish hasn't been taught the newest pronouncements, ask why.

It doesn't make much difference where you start in church history, the tradition on women after the first century looks pretty terrible to contemporary Americans. Saint Augustine of Hippo taught that while men were made in the image and likeness of God, women only resembled God when joined to a man. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that women were made for procreation only and agreed with Augustine that when God called Eve a helpmate of Adam, God must have meant for procreation only, for "in any other work, a man would be better helped by another man."

Believe it or not, though, for his own time, Aquinas was pro-woman. He answered one of the continuing theological questions of his time—whether women had souls and could be saved—in the affirmative, although he agreed with numerous other clerical teachers that because women's rationality was so limited, they were prone to sin and needed to be controlled by men at all stages of their lives. Aquinas even considered the question of why women couldn't be priests and determined that the disproportionate carnality of woman compared to man, and her correspondingly lesser share of rationality, made her so inferior to man that ordination could not have the necessary transformative effect. The necessary material basis for priestly transformation simply wasn't there in women.

Not a whole lot changed in the teachings on women over the next few centuries. In the late 19th century, encyclicals proclaimed the inferiority of women, condemned as heretics those who taught the equality of the sexes, and insisted as well on the headship of men over women in marriage as the Lord's permanent will. Pius XI in the 1930s condemned both coeducation and physical education for girls. He condemned as "false equality" those movements that taught that women were equal to men, in particular the idea that married women be allowed to control their own property or hold employment.

By the 1940s the message was still basically unchanged but was delivered in softer forms. Pius XII insisted that women and men are spiritually equal but that this equality did not extend into "the Church and in the family, which are visible societies." Pius XII repeatedly reiterated the headship of men over women, which he softened with a romantic, sentimentalized description of all women as made to be loving mothers: "A cradle consecrates the mother; the more cradles sanctify her, and glorify her in the eyes of her husband, her children, the Church and the nation....If she has not the joy of having a little angel, the loneliness and solitude in her home becomes a prayer and invocation to heaven." He taught that men were the heads of families and women were the hearts of families.

The one area in which Pius XII sounds like a contemporary is his demand for equal pay for those women who were forced to work outside of the home and who performed the same work as men. John XXIII did not substantively differ from Pius XII: women were equal in dignity but not in function. Their role was motherhood, under the headship of men. For John, order required hierarchy, and the natural hierarchy in the family has men at the top and women subordinate.

With Paul VI the traditional teaching began to show cracks. He condemned sex discrimination in public life and affirmed women's rights to employment and participation in cultural life, although he taught that such rights were to be implemented in accord with women's nature and duties. At the same time, Paul VI continued to speak of motherhood as women's vocation. He echoed his predecessors' condemnations of false equality without explaining what that entails and ignored male headship, neither repeating nor rejecting it.

Under Paul VI it became clear that the church would no longer teach the subordination of women in the social world. The new line was not between women's spiritual equality and their subordinate function, but between their equality in the world and their inequality in the church. Of course, from a papal perspective, women were not unequal in the church; their participation was merely limited by the divinely ordained structure of the church.


Little for women in the church
Paul VI's 1974 address to Italian Catholic jurists demonstrated his support for women's equality in the world: "We willingly vote for (1) the recognition of the civil rights of women as full equals of men, wherever these rights have not yet been acknowledged; (2) laws that will make it really possible for women to fill the same professional, social, and political roles as men, according to the individual capacities of the person; (3) the acknowledgment, respect, and protection of the special prerogatives of women in marriage, family, education, and society."

But in the church his message was different. The 1976 declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, maintaining the exclusion of women from the priesthood, was not the only exclusionary document. Paul VI's 1972 document on the offices of lector and acolyte began: "Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation of the Christian people as `a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people' (1 Pet. 2:9) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism." But number seven of the accompanying norms regarding the access of the laity to these offices of lector and acolyte read: "In accordance with the venerable tradition of the Church, installation in the ministries of lector and acolyte is reserved to men." All the faithful are to participate?

This was the teaching that Pope John Paul II inherited. He has not resolved the inherent tension between women's rights and responsibilities in the world and in the church, but he has moved the church's stance on women in the world significantly and made incremental advances for women within the church.

On the subject of women's roles within the church, John Paul II has modified rules on women's participation in liturgy while insisting that priestly ordination of women is not possible. He has long allowed bishops' conferences like that of the United States to commission women not only as eucharistic assistants but also as lectors, and more recently he has moved to allow females to serve as acolytes. While these moves do not satisfy many, they do broaden women's ability to participate in the liturgy, raise the number of women experienced in altar service, and create situations in which women may develop interest in more priestly service.

Women's exclusion from priesthood is a serious issue theologically. It has become symbolic of the tension between John Paul II's two very different stances on women in the church and women in the world. Because he has also insisted on a rigid distinction between clergy and laity and the retention of all decision-making power in the church by clergy, women's exclusion from priesthood is not just exclusion from one important role in the church but from all decision-making in the church.


Subjects no more
John Paul II's major changes regarding women are in teaching on women in the family and the world. Specifically, in his 1988 apostolic letter "Mulieris dignitatem" ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women"), he definitively abandoned the long-standing teaching on the headship of men in marriage: "All the reasons in favor of the `subjection' of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a `mutual subjection' of both `out of reverence for Christ.'" For the pope, this rejection of relations of domination is the innovation that is at the heart of the gospel. Male domination of women, he says, is the legacy of original sin that should be overcome through membership in the Body of Christ, the church. And he finds the message of mutual love and subjection within the very New Testament texts that seemed to sub-jectwomen to men! It remains, he says, to later generations to properly interpret the radical message: "The awareness that in marriage there is mutual `subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ,' and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior, and customs. This is a call which from that time onwards does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew."

The end of female subjection to men in marriage is a monumental move in church teaching. Like most other revolutionary changes in church teaching, this one has been introduced as if it were not a revolutionary change, but as if it has existed in the New Testament from the beginning. This should not be surprising. One of the first things I learned in seminary graduate school 20 years ago was a joke about change in the church:

How does a pope go about introducing significant new changes in the church?

He says, "In accordance with the teachings of my predecessors,..."

The rejection of male headship in marriage is only one part of the church's developing teaching on the equality of men and women. But it is a rejection of a scripturally based, constant teaching of the church that makes it significant theologically. It is tremendously sociologically significant, for it opens the door to women's claims to participation in decision-making in marriage and thus has the potential to influence many other changes in the actual marriages lived out by the faithful.

How many battered wives might find the courage to report or leave abusive husbands if they knew the church no longer taught unilateral wifely subjection? How many women, raised in the assumption that church teaching validated the subjection of women to men in their homes, have quietly acquiesced to male sexual harassment on the job as simply part of their lot in life, their share of Christ's suffering?

There is no question that unilateral subjection of wives to husbands has contributed to the abuse of women, but its damage extends much more broadly into negative effects on the quality of marriage relationships themselves. For the mutual perfection of selves at which marital love is supposed to aim can only happen in the context of equality. I am the best person I can be, the most loving, because I care what my spousethinks and feels about me when I want him to cherish me and remain in relationship with me. If he knows that I am subject to him, why should he bother to be the best person he can for me? Good marriages, like good friendships, require equality—not sameness, but equality—between the partners. There is no room for unilateral subjection.

Even more recently, in June 1995, before the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, John Paul II further moved this shift in church teaching on women. He wrote a letter to the women of the world in which he apologized for the church's complicity in the oppression of women; called for the full integration of women into social, political, and economic life; condemned the long history of sexual violence against women; and expressed his admiration to women who have devoted their lives to fighting for women's basic social, economic, and political rights "when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin."

While all of these were significant points to make, it is hard to overestimate the importance of the pope recognizing the history of sexual violence against women. The silence on this issue from the church has long conveyed to women victims of sexual violence that such violence is not a social and moral problem but rather their own personal responsibility. The condemnations of sexual violence by the pope and, to date, a few groups of bishops can support women to both free their bodies from physical victimhood and begin the process of healing their souls. These are not small steps, however long overdue they may have been.


New wine for new wineskins
In short, the Church changes its teachings because the context in which we live changes, and that changed context requires alterations in how the church lives out its permanent tasks. One new obligation comes from the new forms that evil and sin take in new historical contexts, for a central task of the church is to teach its members to recognize and mobilize against new forms of evil and sin. Catholic social teaching, for example, arose because new forms of labor injustice had arisen in a new industrial context.

Changing historical contexts also mean that new perspectives arise that allow the church to better recognize long-standing evils to which earlier church communities had been blind. The church's rejection of slavery and the subjection of women are examples. Neither suddenly became evil after having been morally good or neutral for hundreds or thousands of years; what changed was the moral perspective the church used for interpreting the reality.

Changing contexts also involve changes in the interpretations of language and concepts so that the preservation of traditional meanings may require new forms of expression. Gregorian chant, for example, is a European form of liturgical worship that long served as a vehicle for reverent communion with God. But when the church spread to Africa, liturgical use of Gregorian chant in a colonial setting served to connect the divine to the European at the cost of exclusion of the African, and thus necessitated the church's substituting African drums and dancing for the European expressions of worship.

At Vatican II the Holy Spirit was depicted as a dove flying in and out the open doors and windows of the church, bringing fresh air and change. The image of the Spirit also evokes the breath of God, which is active and moving, a primary sign of life. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the church manifests itself in the change necessary to effectively mediate God's love and justice to all of creation.

Christine Gudorf is a theology professor at Florida International University in Miami and author of Body, Sex and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1995)

All active news articles