Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Plant yourself like a tree

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

I’m not sure when it happened. It’s been this way for a long time. But, someone slipped in under the cover of night and moved the goalpost. There was a time when I could say something with such conviction, not only because I honestly believe it to be true, but I could also cite a paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church or a canon from the Code of Canon Law. There was no ambiguity, there was no need for any legal gymnastics to force a round peg into a square hole, there was just plain clarity in the teaching and position of the Church. I guess it no longer feels that way. Only the other day, someone asked me whether I was aware that a particular teaching had changed because Pope Francis had changed it. I was quite certain that he hadn’t and I was trying to convince the person of the same, but she wasn’t buying it. Instead, I received a stinging retort, “Father, you should actually update yourself!”

Yes, we seem to live in a world of shifting theological goalposts, where what used to be the perennial unchanging and solidly anchored teachings of the Church are now subject to supposed “changes” because the Church needs to move with the times. Society needs trendsetters, not theologians. Any resistance to adaptation with the latest fashion and fad would be condemned as rigid and intolerant. The Church that refuses to “update” its teachings is seen as being obstinately blind to changing fads and disrespectful of the feelings of certain groups of people.  The sole purpose of moving our goalposts is the fear that we will lose people; never mind, even if we are leading them to hell or selling them a lie. Being accepted by the media is more important than the truth. It’s strange that lying to someone isn’t considered disrespectful. The whole purpose is to ensure that everyone feels welcomed, un-discriminated, and un-judged, even though their aim seems to be way off the established parameters of the goal post. If their ball can’t reach the goal-post, we will just have to bring the goal post to them!

When push comes to shove, our Lord held His ground. He was not going to shift the goalpost just because it was unpopular, just because the crowds and even some of His own disciples were threatening to leave Him. These past few Sundays Our Lord had been speaking of Himself as “the Bread of Life”. He was of course setting the people up for what would be the most difficult statement to understand that He ever spoke. Twelve times He said He was the bread that came down from heaven; four times He said that they would have “to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The real game changer is that He meant that not just merely in a symbolic way but in a literal manner. In today’s passage we read: “After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Christ said, ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’” Notice that He made no attempt to soften what He said, no attempt to correct “misunderstandings,” for there were none. Our Lord’s listeners understood Him perfectly well. They no longer thought He was speaking metaphorically. If they had, if they mistook what He said, why no correction? On other occasions when there was confusion, Christ had explained just what He meant. Here, instead of attempting to correct any misunderstandings, He repeated Himself for greater emphasis.

He knew many would leave at that point and yet He persisted. “After this, many of his disciples left Him and stopped going with Him.” (John 6:66). Our Lord let them go. He did not chase after them to assure them He was just talking “symbolically” because they understood His words correctly but they could not accept it. This is the only record we have of any of Christ’s followers forsaking Him for purely doctrinal reasons. If it had all been a misunderstanding, if they erred in taking a metaphor in a literal sense, why didn’t He call them back and straighten things out? Both the Jews and His followers would have remained with Him had He only said He was speaking only symbolically.  But He did not correct these protesters.  Faced with the risk of mass desertion and the unpopularity of our position, many of us lesser mortals would have crumbled under the pressure and moved the goalpost to fit in with our audience’s perception and expectation. But our Lord didn’t. He held His ground.

So when you next read or hear from someone that the Church has rethought and changed its doctrines, well you can confidently tell the person, “No, the Church cannot change its doctrines no matter how badly some theologians or groups may want it to or how loudly they claim it can.” The doctrines of the Catholic Church are the deposit of faith revealed by Jesus Christ, taught by the apostles, and handed down in their entirety by the apostles to their successors. To change that would be to change Christ. The Church does not, indeed cannot, change the doctrines God has given it, nor can it “invent” new ones and add them to the deposit of faith.

However, this closure to public revelation doesn’t mean there isn’t progress in the understanding of what has been entrusted to the Church. It is true that the Church does not have the power to do the impossible, to change or delete divinely revealed truths. But it is also true that the Church has the ability to dispense individuals or the whole Church from observing certain ecclesiastical disciplines. Changes in Church legislation does not mean and cannot mean changes in Church doctrine. Furthermore, the Church has a duty to clear up obscurities and misunderstandings regarding the deposit of faith.  The Second Vatican Council through its Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 11) explained, “The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down… For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”

One good example of this has to do with the doctrine of Transubstantiation (the teaching that at the moment of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine becomes, the substance of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, though the appearances of bread and wine remain). This is a doctrine that had always been believed by the Church, but whose exact meaning was understood more clearly over time. The Bible clearly says this change happens, but it is silent about how it happens. The technical theological term “transubstantiation” was not formally adopted by the Catholic Church until the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215. This was not the addition of a new doctrine, but was the Church’s way of defining what it had always taught on this subject in terms that would be so exact as to exclude all the incorrect explanations.

So, if you are unhappy with some teachings of the Church because they don’t seem to match up to your expectations or approve of your present lifestyle, grow up! Don’t expect the world or the Church to bend backwards and move the goalposts to feed your sense of entitlement.  Catholics don’t have to follow every fad, fashion or new fancies of the world. We just need to follow St Paul’s command: "Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). Our anchor is Christ. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, our foundation. No matter what else changes or catches the fancy of man, the Gospel does not change. The Commandments do not change. The capital sins do not change. Morality does not change. Truth does not change. When they do change, or when man’s perception of them changes, it’s good to remember the advice of Margaret Carter, the belle of Captain America, narrated by her niece at her own funeral, “Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong, is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.”

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