IS THE CHURCH AN IMMUTABLE INSTITUTION?
1. Is the church immutable? Yes and no.
We can reflect on John XXIII’s opening speech to Vatican II, where he asserts, “For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.”
The classic criteria for testing whether changes are legitimate are embedded in the creed, as the “marks” of the church; we believe in a church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” I have recently been pushing my students to see if they can find the contemporary church – in their parishes, in the campus ministry work where they are engaged – expressing the “marks.”
In the five and half decades since Pope John’s speech we have continued to struggle with the attitude that we are “the church that never changes.” As Newman reminds us, “…to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed more often.” We are not yet perfect, nor immutable.
Dan Finucane, Saint Louis University
2. Immutable? Yes and no
There is indeed a core to the Church that is immutable. It must be. Christianity is not an "anything goes" religion or a chameleon religion. If we try to be everything, we end up being nothing. Scripture and Tradition, including the Creeds, keep us focused on what we are.
As many of you know, I am ELCA Lutheran. In one of our confessional documents, the Augsburg Confession, the Church is defined as "the assembly of saints where the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly" (Article VII). This is immutable.
The Church may be mutable when it comes to adiaphora but not when it comes to that core identity and calling. Helping the poor, caring for the planet, working to end war and violence, standing up to leaders who exploit women, caring for human life in all forms -- doing all of this in the name of Christ is what we are to be about.
David VonSchlichten, SetonHill University
3. Questions to Dan and David
Dan, I have a question. “The classic criteria for testing whether changes are legitimate are embedded in the creed, as the ‘marks’ of the church.” So, in the Catholic Church, “change” has to be proven to be “legitimate?” Most Protestants and Orthodox believe in “one, holy, and catholic church” but they would deny that the Roman Catholic Church is the one and only one. Does “one, holy, and catholic” apply only to the Roman church?
I have also questions to David. “The Church may be mutable when it comes to adiaphora but not when it comes to that core identity and calling.” This distinction seems to hide the deep conviction that there is an “immutable core.”
“In the Augsburg Confession, the Church is defined as "the assembly of saints where the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly" (Article VII). This is immutable.” What is immutable? 1) the definition (the church as defined)? No. definitions can change. 2) the facts that “gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered?" If these are facts, they can be investigated and found to be partially false.
Pierre Hegy, Adelphi University
3. A church that does not change cannot mediate salvation
It has been argued that Cardinal Ottaviani held the view that error cannot be right; this was his response to the call for ecumenism during the Second Vatican Council. I do not know the veracity of that story. However, if that were to be applied to the view of the church as immutable, then, I would conclude that such a church cannot mediate salvation. For the following reason: the church is only a sacramental witness to God's own self-giving. If God cannot be comprehended exhaustively then the sacramental medium cannot claim to be unchangeable unless it has replaced God and become an idol itself.
Aihiokhai Simon, University of Portland
4. The church lives by change
"I will be with you even to the end!" In that sense, yes, the church is immutable. There will be Christians and He will be there, with them. Immutably. But when "immutable" is stretched far to cover this or that formulation beyond the kerygma and when the ecclesiological form (governance for example) overshadows, even dominates the content of the communal lives of Christians, the church has become a victim of hardening of the arteries and, eventually, the death of the Spirit
The church lives by changing. It should be open to any and every change except the kerygma our duty to proclaim it and our living it in apostolic communities. Tradition makes sense as a guide to how the Christians before us have proclaimed and lived it but it cannot be made Law! It is a help and not a handcuff. It is a mirror, not a bond.
Wlliam M. Shea, College of the Holy Cross
5. Mutability-immutability is not a binary issue
Talking about immutability in a yes/no binary response, in my opinion, is not helpful. The church indeed has changed both at the macro and micro levels in ways we do not want to acknowledge. I am not sure if the rabbi from Nazareth returns today, he can recognize the community he founded.
In some matters, when the Church wants to change, for example, from the Sabbath to the First Day of the week as our holiday, it did in the name of Christ (“he who hears you, hear Me”). Likewise, when the Church has to deal with a divorce in a mixed marriage, they allows Pauline & Petrine privileges against the absolute Marcan prohibition of divorce. In other matters, when church leaders do not want to change, they will cite Scripture & Tradition to back up their unwillingness to change, even in disciplinary matter (e.g., married clergy in the Latin Church, for example).
Church authority likes to talk about the “evolution/development” of doctrines & disciplines instead of “changes,” but what kind of development doesn’t involve change? And change by definition involves mutation. Perhaps, we should be more honest to talk about what we want or don’t want our church to change, instead of the theoretical hypothesis of whether the Church is or is not immutable.
Anh Tran, Santa Clara University
6. Immutability: dogma vs doctrine
I have found helpful Gaillardetz's and Clifford’s distinction between dogma and doctrine helpful (Keys to the Council, p. 37).
Dogma: “Any authoritative formulation, (1) the content of which is divinely reveled; and (2) that is proposed as such by the magisterium, either through a solemn definition of a pope or council, or be the teaching of the college of bishops in their ordinary and universal magisterium.
Doctrine: Any authoritative or normative formulation of a belief of the church, whether revealed or not. A church doctrine is intended to articulate a formal belief of the church that it draws in some fasion from its reflection on divine revelation, even it if may not itself be divinely revealed.”
Example: the dogma of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist vs. the doctrine of transubstantiation is not revealed. Another example is the dogma of the triune God. The use of the term “person” is a doctrinal explanation of the dogma. That is another question.With all my study of the Eucharist over more than 50 years, I can think of no better expression of the change in the elements than transubstantiation when substance is translated as “underlying reality” and accidents as “sense perceptible attributes."
Jill Raitt University of Missouri, Columbia
7. The church not an Archimedian fulcrum
We often have a tendency to think of immutability in the Church on an intra-ecclesial level. A dialogical view of ecclesiology, however, needs to make room for an understanding of the mutable Church in its evolving relationships with both culture and other religious traditions.
Nostra Aetate #2 acknowledges the subjectivity involved in interreligious dialogue, and thus can undermine the idea that the Catholic Church is an Archimedian fulcrum that remains stable while the religious others orbit around it.
Christopher Denny, St. John's University
8. Change has come to the Holy Family
There is also plenty of room for change in the way that faith is outwardly expressed, and that change can reach hearts. Our church stretches to make liturgy a powerful experience each week, even for those who are with us who may not be active Catholics. We regularly use large screens with messages of impact. We flash significant words from the readings on them, watch video clips, present introductions to upcoming speakers on them. On days like Veterans Day/Memorial Day, we put our parish’s heroes on these screens.
Our Small Christian Communities take on unique projects of the Parish. One of them handles hospitality for all of our major events. Others take on specific issues such as human trafficking.
Our Lenten social justice projects are forward-thinking and bold. Last year we raised $95,000 to help rebuild Catholic Churches in Cuba. We put large pictures of the broken down churches and the people of the community we would help all around the church. We had prayers during Mass (on our screens) led by the priest from the Cuban church, and we sang songs that they would sing, in their language. We imagined their struggles and became one with our brothers and sisters in faith in Cuba, learning each week about the oppression they experienced under Communist leadership.
Those who like more traditional liturgy come to daily Mass, our Wednesday night Mass, and pray in our Adoration Chapel. I prefer dynamic, Spirit filled experiences that remind me that the Mass NEVER ENDS...and we go in peace to truly serve Lord and each other! Thanks be to God!
Mary Whiteside, Holy Family parish
9. Change as a blessing
The Catholic Church in Spain is the institution that has most changed in the last 100 years and I just approach 60! This has not been a change of doctrines but of style. In Italy they say that many changes happen to keep everything the same; I would say the opposite, even under Pope Francis: to keep all doctrines and core teachings the same, allow for deep changes.
Having witnessed more than 30 years of church life in Rome I would say that yes, it moves (as Galileo said), or that it changes, and this is a blessing; the opposite, immutability, would be a disaster.
Lluis Oviedo, Antonianum university, Rome