“That old-fashioned, dusty, out-of-it, stuck-in-the-mud Church just has to get with it! She’s got to keep up with the times or she is going to lose folks!”
How often have you heard that? I hear it at almost every reception, dinner, or meeting I go to, or read some version of it every time I peruse magazines, newspapers, and blog-sites, or listen to radio or TV.
A subset of this chant is that Good Pope John and the Second Vatican Council were well on their way to making those radical changes in the Church, making it more “relevant and up-to-date,” until that “indecisive” Pope Paul VI, that “closed-minded Pole,” John Paul II, and that “authoritative Panzerkardinal,” Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) ruined it all with their oppressive conservatism!
Of course, as is clear from Blessed Pope John XXIII’s moving address solemnly opening the Second Vatican Council — an event we will celebrate on October 11 this year, now the Feast day of Blessed John XXIII, as we open the Year of Faith,– the council was actually called to determine how the timeless deposit of faith could be more effectively transmitted, without compromising or diluting its integrity. And, according to the teaching of the council itself, it is the pope, united with the bishops of the Church, who are to give and provide the genuine interpretation and implementation of the council’s meaning.
To be sure, Pope John XXIII did distinguish between the content of the Faith — which cannot change — and the way it’s presented, which, indeed, did have to “keep up with the times.” The genuine renewal in liturgy, catechetics, and theology regarding the laity, marriage, religious life, priesthood, and the Church itself, were all efforts to do that, and is still going on, thank God.
What is clear is that the Church’s divine mission is not to alter her teaching to “keep up with the times,” but to deepen its conformity to what God has revealed in the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, Natural Law, and the Magisterium of the Church.
Our challenge is hardly to change God’s revelation to conform to our whims, or the “changing times,” but to change our lives to conform to His designs.
Here’s the refreshing surprise: the Church’s so-called “old fashioned ideas” are actually more timely, urgent, and “ahead of the curve” than ever! Let me give a few illustrations:
– The Church teaches that couples should save “living together” and sexual intimacy until marriage. Such a moral approach, as you know, is scoffed at as silly, impractical, and repressive. In fact, “up-to date” thinking posits that it’s good for a couple to cohabitate before marriage. Not only does it save money, but the couple gets to know each other better, and grows more compatible, leading to a happier, more permanent marriage! Right?
Wrong! Turns out, the Church is wise. It was no Catholic journal, but — just the opposite — the New York Times (April 15, 2012, BW SR, 4) that reported the somber statistics that living together before marriage leads to high rates of marital unhappiness and divorce! So much for the “wisdom of keeping up with the times.”
– A woman in her late thirties went to her parish priest for help and encouragement. She and her husband, married five happy years, desperately wanted children, and had tried everything. She honestly admitted that she had lived a very promiscuous life from high school until she met her husband-to-be, and had avoided pregnancy with daily use, for fifteen years, of every contraceptive pill and device available. Now, her most recent reproductive clinician tells her somberly that such prolonged use had probably damaged her body to such an extent that she cannot conceive. And she readily admits to her parish priest that she mocked the Church’s teaching on chemical/mechanical contraception! She has concluded that the Church’s respect for the natural integrity of the body is hardly “old fashioned” at all.
– A man in hospice tells me his deep regrets. He had left his wife and kids a decade ago. His drive was money, prestige, property, and a younger, prettier wife. An old priest friend he had gone to high school with had tried to talk him out of his “jet-set-life-style” years ago, warning him that his life without faith and morals, his worship of money and pleasure, would destroy him. The dying man tells me he dismissed his old priest-friend as “out-of-it,” chanting that “times have changed,” and that the “old traditional ways” were discredited, that the Church had to “get with it.” And now he is dying alone, recalling the words of Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of his soul.” He admits it: the Church was right after all.
The Church is not “out-of-it,” but actually right smack in the middle of it, and really way ahead of us, since she has her eyes on the eternal. She is a seasoned, wise, loving mother, founded by the One who claimed to be “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” She — the Church — hardly has to change her wisdom; we need to change our lives. Forget “keeping up with the times” in faith and morals. Rather, “keep up with the timeless!”