An excellent reflection on the necessity of changing Church teaching and practice, from Catholic World Report.
If we attempted to describe what, in general, Christian revelation was about to someone who never heard of it, what would we say? Everyone knows that, through the centuries, many controversies have arisen over the content, structure, and meaning of this revelation. In what, if any, organization is it embodied? What are its limits? Indeed, these controversies about the meaning of this particular revelation were occasions for an authoritative resolution of the issues at hand. They gradually became creeds, statements that established, as accurately as possible, what was meant by a controverted doctrine or practice. Any legitimate organization, including one said to be founded on divine revelation, should be able to protect and to explain itself as to what it is in its own terms.
Some ideas and practices are simply incompatible with revelation as handed down. These errant teachings also need to be defined and identified. Some understandings needed to be clarified, to be made precise or to be rejected. Out of this experience of disagreement, more systematic and unified explanations arose to show how everything fit together. After the decision was made about what the doctrine or practice meant, those who still did not accept the resolution usually went their own way. Thus, we still have about a few Nestorians, Monophysites, Manicheans, Sabellians, and, among others, hundreds of different kinds of Protestants.
In more recent times, those who reject one or other aspect of what was handed down or of what was reasonable did not leave the Church. Nor were they excommunicated. They often remained within the Church to work to change it to their position. The old notion of “excommunication”, though still on the books, became for all intents and purposes obsolete.
The first obvious thing that is claimed for this revelation is that it is consistent with its past. That is, it does not change any essential teaching handed on to it from the beginning. It was intended to be something valid and known in all places and times basically in its original form. The content of revelation was said to be of divine origin. It was to be preserved as it was given. It already was based on the highest authority. If content of this revelation were changed into its opposite, that mere fact alone would be enough to prove the revelation itself had no real claim to any abiding truth or to any rational assent on the part of the one who understood what a contradiction meant. It would not, in other words, be a credible institution since it contradicted itself. Thus, if what was held or done in one era or place were forbidden and rejected in another time or place, something was wrong not only with the issue at hand but also with the structure of the institution designed to preserve its integrity.
Essential things differed from non-essential ones. Non-essential things could and did vary—languages, art forms, music, ritual signs, or architecture. This teaching claimed that it not only did not contradict reason but that it was itself obliged to give adequate reasons for what it held to be true. It maintained, as essential to what it was, that the Trinity or Incarnation were mysteries. At the same time, arguments were presented for their plausibility. This plausibility arises out of the very nature of human communication itself. In fundamental things, human beings are to deal with each other primarily not by power or authority alone but by explaining why they do what they do, and why they think what they think.
This approach, however, did not mean the reasons given to account for mysteries were complete in every way. It takes a divine mind fully to grasp a divine mystery. But it also takes a divine mind to reveal to other finite minds what it wanted them to know about itself. Thus, valid points of reason could be cited for what was presented as true from revelation. If no valid reasons could be provided for the plausibility of divine revelation, in all likelihood something was wrong with the statement at issue. Basically, Thomas Aquinas’ position was followed: grace built on nature; it did not contradict it. If it did, it could not be revelation. In effect, revelation, as it were, made reason more, not less, reasonable. This principle became fundamental in understanding revelation. Those who upheld the fact of revelation were not free to refuse to give any reasons for what was revealed.
What came to be known as historicism held that what was true in one time was not true in another time. In other words, nothing could be consistent over time and place. There are no universal truths. The Socratic, as well as the revelational, idea of an abiding truth over time and place was rejected. Revelation, for its part, did present itself as basically unchangeable. What the Father taught the Son; He taught others. In this light, the history of mankind is but a drama of accepting or rejecting this persistence of truth over time and place.
Revelation could make this claim of consistency because its own internal structure affirmed that what it had to teach found its origin not in human experience or human reason alone but in the logos or reason of God. What was implied, and this is what is meant by the word “revelation”, was that this divine logos as revealed was intended to correct and make flourish the reason that mankind shared with all reasonable and spiritual beings, including God. Finite beings were, in other words, to understand the truth of things. They were to know why what they did or did not do made sense. Faith was an intellectual virtue; it wanted to know what to hold because it was true based on the testimony of someone who did know. Human beings were not asked to be irrational, especially when they were asked to believe.
Essentially, revelation asked (rather than forced) us to understand and believe that the world was created by an intelligent Being who did not have to create a world to entertain or complete itself. What was in fact created did reveal a certain order that could be investigated. Truth meant finding this order. God was personal in His inner Trinitarian life; He was already everything He could be, hence unchangeable. In the order of finality, the cosmos came after God had decided to create man as a finite, intelligent being in time. Man was not created primarily that his species become something glorious down the ages in time. Rather, he was created, with “dominion” over the earth, so that each member of the species, in the course of his relatively brief life, in whatever time or place, could choose to save his soul. That is, each created person chose, by how he believed and lived, to accept or reject the divine invitation given to him to live the inner life of the Godhead. It was contrary to the nature of God that anyone invited to participate in His inner life be forced to do so. Hence, it was always possible for individual members of this race of finite beings to reject the purpose of his coming to be. Redemption meant God’s effort to save this purpose even after it was rejected, once or many times, by individual human persons.
What is called divine revelation was given to men some time after the initial creation during which early time it became clear what men, by themselves, would probably become, which did not seem particularly promising. Revelation was given “in the fullness of time” in order that men might achieve the final transcendent end for which each was initially created. This revelation, in context, was not given to replace or contradict the reason with which each person was initially endowed. It was given as an aid, both to reason and to living properly. In effect, revelation was addressed to our intelligence. Men were expected to use their brains and to use them properly. This is why, as Benedict XVI said so clearly in the Regensburg Lecture, the encounter of revelation with Greek philosophy was so important. Because of this encounter, it became clear that, in divine revelation, what was being proposed to us in fact provided what we needed to know to explain to ourselves what our ultimate existence is about in the light of our own reflection on ourselves.