29May Catholic teaching is constantly changing and developing, writes Jo O’Sullivan

In response to my article of 20 May on this site (JO O’SULLIVAN WRITES ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF HER FAITH), Saoirse wrote:
“As Catholics now, we have to defend the faith in the setting of people like you who want to exploit the hierarchy’s compromised credibility in order to change Church doctrine.”
I actually don’t believe I’m a cold, calculating exploiter of opportunity, Saoirse, one who has been waiting for the chance to go for the jugular of Church doctrine. On the contrary, I believe myself to be a very flawed (substitute the word ‘sinful’ there if you wish) human being who spent a lot of my adult life refusing to follow the niggling questions my conscience kept pricking me with. Like a lot of humanity, I don’t grow in meaningful ways until I’m faced with crisis – until I can no longer rely on the answers that have sustained me up until now, but I have to find new answers. The way my spirit ached in response to the publication of the Murphy Report was just such a crisis. And this is where it has led me.
I believe, to the best of my limited human ability, in the inalienable dogma of the Catholic faith. I believe in God, the Parent (Father), Son and Holy Spirit. I believe in the Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
I hope I have never intimated in any way that I believe that “Christ and all the saints of the Church, have always been in error”. How can you have read in anything that I’ve said that I believe St. Patrick, St. Augustine et all were blind and ignorant? If I have done so, it has been a total mis-communication on my part. I would never have such arrogance!
I agree with you that the dogma of the faith has not changed but I can’t agree that the teachings haven’t changed down through the years. You know, Saoirse that Catholic teaching is constantly changing and developing. And don’t you agree that it has to continue to develop as it has always done? Otherwise it will stagnate. I’m sure there’s some fundamental principle which states that if an organism isn’t in a state of growth, if it isn’t developing, it decays and dies.
So all I’m suggesting is that we need to be in a constant ‘dialogue’ with the teachings of Christ and the saints. And I think it’s a form of laziness to leave it to the experts to have that dialogue.  Do you truly wish to hand over your own powers of discernment, by leaving it to “the Church fathers” to interpret scripture for us “to help us understand its true meaning,” Do we not all have a responsibility to acknowledge the Holy Spirit within ourselves?
Having said that, I have no intention of entering into an academic exploration of all the teachings of every saint who ever lived – life’s too short! I’m happy enough to do my own exploration as and whenever my conscience throws up a new question. I see my ‘job’ as living my life in a way that my loving God can work through me. If I constantly seek to do that, I trust that the Holy Spirit within me will prompt me to ‘refine’ my understanding of Christ’s teachings anytime I wander off course (that niggling conscience of mine again!).
As of right now, this is my understanding. Living as Christ has taught us to live is all to do with relationship. My early understanding was very narrow in that relationship with God was ‘just’ me and God – just the two of us – me protecting that relationship by concentrating on all the rules I had to follow. Yes it involved ‘doing good deeds’ and ‘loving my neighbour’, but everything was done to assist MY relationship with God, not THEIRS! I could feel sorry for people who were ‘sinners’ – people who disobeyed God and I could pray for their conversion to the true path, but I worried that they were  ‘lost souls’. The story of the Pharisee and the Publican eventually got through to me on that one! And it was that story that flashed into my mind again as I read your last couple of sentences, Saoirse.
“the types of reform you seem to be interested in are heresy to a true Catholic, and as a fellow Catholic, in all conscience I have to point that out to you. I do not want the Church in Ireland to split; I do not want a single soul to be lost.”

I now know that God never wanted the two of us to have an exclusive relationship – in fact, it was glaringly obvious (once I saw it!) that relationship with God actually involves relationship with everybody and everything around me. Is that not what poor Jesus had to plug again and again? God is in and around EVERYTHING and finding our path to that Love that is our Creator, involves our growing in love with the world around us. And that love HAS to be non-judgemental or it cannot be meaningful. If getting bogged down in rules which pertain to show us how to develop that love actually has the effect of curtailing that love, then the rules need to be re-examined. If our ‘rules’ claim that we are the only ones on the right path to our God, we are actually guilty of the sin of arrogance.
That certainly does not indicate in any way that interpretations of Christ’s teachings in the past were ‘wrong’, it just shows that we, as humans, recognize that we are not perfect (we are not God), our capacity to understand is in a state of constant development. As our understanding of the human condition develops in the areas of psychology, sociology and all those other ‘ologies’, so too does our understanding of what Christ taught. It never ceases to amaze me that, as we come to a ‘new’ discovery of the human condition, we find that Christ had actually been trying to point that out to us 2000 years ago!
When I first read your response, Saoirse, I had a bit of a wobbly moment. How could I possibly answer this? Saoirse is obviously so much more learned than I am! She has studied the lives of the saints and has a very deep knowledge of church teaching. I was back to “Who am I to speak out? I don’t know enough.”
But I truly believe in the loving Creator whose dearest wish is for all His/Her (oh, the limitations of language!) children to have a voice and to trust in the Holy Spirit to use it.
I do not know the intricacies of all the ‘rules’ of Catholicism, but I DO know love – and especially the adult love for my adult children. If that is a pale reflection of the infinite love our God has for each one of us (and I believe it to be so), then God is quite happy we are having this exchange of views!
God bless you, Saoirse.

7 Responses

  1. Martin Murray

    I used to be so proud, I hope in a healthy way, of the fact that our Catholic Church was the church that taught people to live with the great “mystery of faith”. We helped people ask the right questions. We urged them to stay with their questions, because that was where God was to be found. Sadly, we now seem to be encouraging people to go straight to the answers at the back of the book. We are succumbing to the fundamentalist temptation to give absolute, often easy and ultimately inadequate answers. The magisterium /the Cathechism / the Bible (delete as appropriate) says it, so it must be true. Questions are not encouraged and those who ask them, or who do not accept the given answers, are dismissed as troublemakers, or dissidents, or people who hate and are out to destroy the church. Worrying though this is, we shouldn’t be surprised if we begin to see an increase in numbers, as people are drawn to those who robustly claim certitude. Its an antidote to fear, especially in times of uncertainty. But unfortunately (or fortunately) only in the short-term. Ultimately the questions remain. In God’s wisdom , it’s the way we are made. Our questions will lead us home.

  2. Gene Carr

    It seems to me that the confusion here lies in the separate meanings of the words “change” and “development”. The “changability of doctrine” has at least some conotation that something that was true on Monday could cease to be true on Friday simply with the passing of time and the assimilation of new ‘experiences’. On the other hand the “development of doctrine” does not conote change in this sense. Rather as understood by Newman it was a process whereby what was always present and implicit is rendered more explicit. Is there perhaps a tendency on the part of ‘liberals’ (alas for labels!) to propose ‘changes’ under the cover of ‘development’?

  3. David Manly

    Sorry, Jo. God the Father is not a parent, but, as his name tells us, a father. That’s the message of old and new testaments.

  4. Kevin Walters

    Martin your quote
    We are succumbing to the fundamentalist temptation to give absolute, often easy and ultimately inadequate answers. The magisterium /the Catechism / the Bible (delete as appropriate) says it, so it must be true.

    Matthew 5:17-1
    The Fulfilment of the Law

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

    God’s Word (Will) is INVIOLATE

    We cannot steal the heart Christ and make it in our own image.
    But we can venerate the image of broken man as we reflect his heart, in Trust, the best we can.
    God in the incarnation gave of himself out of love to save that which had been lost. All of us, clergy, laity, married, divorced, gay, the crippled,(in mind and body) the lame, the bad, the good, we (the lost) are all flawed and sinful. But we have ALL been called (invited) to partake in the Wedding feast but when the Master comes will he find our hearts ( which are broken, sinful, and lost,) now contrite, blest, and wearing the wedding garment of humility. (Holiness)
    We look to our Sheppard’s to lead us ALL home in humility.(Holiness)

    In Christ

  5. Joe O'Leary

    True, the image of Father is given prominence in the Bible and the Creed. But God is also compared with a mother in Scripture, and John Paul I memorably said that God is not only our Father, but also our Mother. And there is other language to name or describe God that is equally important — notably in the Johannine language of God as Spirit, Light, Love.

    There are said to be nine chief Names of God in the Old Testament that underline his majesty and that do not include Father as far as I know (El, Elohim, Yhwh, El-Shaddai, El-Elyon, Ha Shem et al.). The more condescensional title, God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, does not call God father directly. The New Testament, in contrast, makes Father the primary name of God (alongside or in conjunction with ho Theos).

    Christian tradition has also struggled to think of the biblical God with the aid of philosophy, associating him with the pure simplicity of the Plotinian One or the idea of “subsistent being itself”, and approaching him along other paths in German Idealism and modern French phenomenology. The effect of all this on the language of divine fatherhood is to subvert any simplistic handling of it.

    The Bible and tradition are constantly rethinking what God means and constantly refashioning their language to keep it is touch with some living and liberating sense of the divine. The feminist critique is part of this.

  6. Suzanne

    Thank you Jo.

  7. Steve Edward

    So when Jesus said ‘Our Father…’, he simply got it wrong? Oh dear, this is worse than I thought.

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