Preserving Our Faith

The headline was so familiar: Yet another group was “challenging the Vatican” on something, this time, on upholding the timeless teaching of the Church that only men are called to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

One can’t really find too much fault with the content of the article, namely that some small groups in North America, Austria, and Australia, the usual lineup, are protesting this particular teaching of the Church.

What one does find frustrating is the tenor of the headline and the article that “the Vatican” has these bizarre, outmoded, oppressive “policies” that need to be “revised” so that such “guidelines of Rome” are brought more in line with enlightened thinking of today.

One would think that leaders in “the Vatican” occasionally meet to decide what “rules” they should issue or reinforce today, or what changes in procedure they should introduce to guarantee that the Church is more relevant.

While this seems to be the presumption of most people who attempt to report on the Church, it is, indeed, a presumption that is invalid.

“The Vatican” is a plot of ground the size of an eighteen-hole golf course on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome.  It happens also to be the home of the successor to the man buried on this acreage under the splendid basilica which bears his name, St. Peter’s.

These 108 acres, “the Vatican” have absolutely no authority at all to alter the teaching of the Church.  Its sacred duty, rather, is to preserve and hand on the deposit of faith we have received from revelation, from the Bible, from Jesus, from His apostles.

So, to imply that the Successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, and his closest aides regularly meet as some political entity to read the latest poll and “change Church policy,” like that of ordaining only men, is silly.

Call it whatever you went — “the Vatican,” “Rome,” “the Pope,” “the Holy See,” “the Magisterium” — whatever you call it, it does not “make up,” “change,” or “issue” new doctrines.  It inherits them, receives them, “handed on” (from the Latin word tradiitio,) by Tradition.

Yes, it may rethink how the truth entrusted to it might be better explained, or more credibly presented, or expressed in a more contemporary way.

Yes, it might become concerned when it’s clear that a good chunk of people no longer follow a particular teaching or moral precept.

But it does not then call a meeting and vote whether or not to change the teaching.

At times it – “the Vatican,” “Rome,” “the Pope,” “the Holy See,” “the Magisterium” — might even wish it could change certain teachings.  For instance, I would wager most bishops, priests, deacons, pastoral leaders, and maybe even the Holy Father himself has, at one time or another wished the Church could alter the teaching of Jesus that marriage is forever, and that one cannot break that sacred bond asunder.

But it can’t, because it didn’t make up the teaching to begin with.

So, plug in whatever word you want in the boilerplate headline: “Group Challenges Vatican on its Policy of __________________” — abortion, marriage, euthanasia, lying, stealing, artificial contraception, sexual acts outside of marriage, ordination of women — fill in the “flavor of the day,” but the headline is still inaccurate: these are not “policies” decided by some person in the Vatican; these are not “bans” put out by some committee.  These are doctrines, timeless teachings not ours to alter.

It sometimes seems as if many view the Church as a political institution, with a new pope or new bishop able to set out his own positions and priorities the way an incoming president or governor would.  Back in 2009, for instance, when I was appointed Archbishop of New York, I was asked by a reporter how my “policy” on gay “marriage” would differ from the “policy” of Cardinal Egan.  I tried to explain, as gently as I could, that the responsibility of any bishop is to clearly and charitably articulate the teaching of the Church, not to establish “policy” on which teaching he will follow and which teaching he will change.

To be clear, yes, the Church does have some “policies” that can be changed, for instance, abstinence of meat on Friday, fasting from food before Holy Communion, or even priestly celibacy.  These indeed are part of the Church’s discipline — still not to be dismissed lightly — and can be modified, and there are so many other areas of pastoral strategy where we need vigorous discussion and fresh ideas.

But, sorry, not in the area of doctrine, not part of the Church’s received Tradition.  Some might protest, take out ads, have yet another meeting.  Go ahead.  But, they should at least be accurate: don’t blame “the Vatican” for doctrines you don’t like.  Blame Revelation, the Bible, Jesus, and Sacred Tradition.  “The Vatican” does not “make-up” teaching, but only passes it on.

In the end, of course, our challenge is not to change the teachings of Jesus and His Church to conform to our whims, but to change our lives to conform to His teaching.

That’s a headline you won’t see.

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20 Responses to “Preserving Our Faith”

  1. Irene says:

    I have always greatly admired Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, and the first person to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

  2. LeAnn Rogan says:

    Thank you, Archbishop Dolan, for a new way to teach my children an old truth. We miss you here in Wisconsin, but I am happy to have discovered you’re tech-savvy these days. God bless your service to our Church.

  3. Matthew Luvera says:

    Outstanding witness and response by Archbishop Dolan to our brothers and sisters that look to fault the Catholic Church in today’s society! May the Holy Spirit stay with the Archbishop in his service to the Church.

  4. Loce ordonez says:

    happy and proud to be a Catholic!!!!God Bless you Bishop Dolan for continuing to defend our catholic faith..

  5. Irwin says:


  6. bruce lull says:

    Thank you Archbishop Dolan for your clear articulation of the nature of church doctrine, hopefully, some in the media will “get It”.

  7. Maria says:

    In the end, of course, our challenge is not to change the teachings of Jesus and His Church to conform to our whims, but to change our lives to conform to His teaching.

    BRAVO, Your Excellency!

    If someone objects that the ordination of men by Christ and the early Church was simply a contingent fact; that it could have been otherwise, I grant the observation. But since when are Christians to stand in judgment on why God did what He did, like become man, when the world could have (absolutely speaking) been redeemed without the Incarnation; or why God does what He does, like nourish us with His own Body and Blood when our spiritual life could (absolutely speaking) be sustained by other means if He had so chosen?

    One of the great blessings I see coming from the present discussion about the ordination of women is our deeper realization of God’s wisdom in providing for a variety of ways He can be loved, and a bewildering diversity of ministries by which He can be served.

    It is for us to stand in awe, and not in judgment, on the ways of God who chose a woman and not a man by whom to enter the world. If this was selectivity, and it was, it was not discrimination. God never does things without good reasons, even when these reasons escape or elude us who—would you believe—sometimes want to instruct God.

    –John Hardon SJ

  8. Sara says:

    Great column, Your Excellency! I wish I could get these truths through the heads of several of my (lapsed Catholic) friends. Hopefully with prayer, it will come in time!

  9. Charles says:

    St. Mary Magdalene is indeed a saint, a holy woman who served Christ in complete abandonment. However, a priest she never was. Serving as priest in a rich liturgy that invokes spousal unity she never did. The 12th apostle she was not. A speaker and baptismal priest, prophet and king of Truth she was. We all are as long as we do separate ourselves from the authority that bestows such Truth and the responsibilities of that mission.

  10. Sr. Kasandra says:

    Bless you and thank you for hitting the nail on the head. I am tired, really tired of Catholics and especially clergy not understanding that the Church’s job is to call all of us to holiness and to transform the world, not be transformed by it!

  11. Charles says:

    obvious correction to earlier comment: as long as we do NOT seperate

  12. Raphael says:

    be still my fleeting heart!!!! Your excellency reminds my of the Archbishop of Sydney, Bishop Anthony Fisher. Good to see more Bishops boldly proclaiming the truth

  13. Tony Adams says:

    Dear Archbishop,
    You said:
    “One would think that leaders in “the Vatican” occasionally meet to decide what “rules” they should issue or reinforce today, or what changes in procedure they should introduce to guarantee that the Church is more relevant.”

    Isn’t that exactly what happens? Wasn’t that the “aggiornamento” of the Second Vatican Council?

    Can you really expect the American Catholic to differentiate between what the Church can and can’t change? Many of these Catholics were taught that they could go to hell by eating meat on Friday. That change was a change of “discipline” but the lesson learned was that the pronouncements of bishops are seriously mutable.

    I think that those who favor the ordination of women or who favor gay rights assume that someday a pope will say “The Holy Spirit has spoken to me and told me why these things are in line with the tradition and teaching of the Church.” No change in doctrine, just an unfolding of the truth of Jesus Christ in the fullness of time.

  14. GFFM says:

    The larger reason why the press especially sees Church teaching as mere policy has to do with their profound ignorance concerning what religion, any religion, actually is. There are half a hand full of journalists at secular newspapers who know how to approach an issue within the Church concerning doctrine, authority, whatever, with any kind of knowledgeable approach. Finally, with all due respect the Archbishop needs to speak out more forcefully on the following issues: the meaning of marriage, and latest policy statement by the Obama administration on making all healthcare providers, Catholic or otherwise, provide artificial birth control under the new health care plan. Secondly, he should speak both as the ordinary of New York as well as the president of he USCCB.

  15. Joe says:

    Archbishop Dolan,

    I believe your column causes great reason to pause and reflect on the rich tradition of the Catholic Church and its doctrines. Yet the column fails to acknowledge the theological developments and changes that took place at Vatican II. The changes issued by the ecumenical council were not only associated with “discipline,” but also dealt with deeply theological elements such as ecclesiology, ecumenism, and interreligous relations. To presume that these changes were merely of a “disciplinary” nature is to deny the truly fruitful debates that took place during that momentous period of Catholic history.

  16. Bob says:

    \I believe your column causes great reason to pause and reflect on the rich tradition of the Catholic Church and its doctrines.\

    So when is Rome going to start mandating these \rich traditions\. Seems like the only traditions that are mandated are the ones that started after the Second Vatican Council. Like Altar girls, EMHC, folk music, priest facing people instead of God. Sex seems to be the big topic in the Roman Catholic Church, instead of the teachings of the Church Fathers. Funny how in Russia the Church is growing, and tradition is not debated. But in the West tradition is all but extinguished. Sorry +Dolan, like most of your fellow western Bishops, and Cardinals, it’s all talk and NO action!!!.

  17. Dan says:

    I join the others in expressing my happiness at the Archbichop’s words. May he prosper and go from strength to strength.

    If I could only offer this additional thought to His Excellency, it would be that his calling on the reality of authentic tradition to bolster his argument is an excellent and a needed thing, but it might have more resonance if those who are now in Rome would stop breaking with the very traditions they are now calling upon to help them. The Archbishop – and Rome – have to be honest and face up to the fact that it was their total trashing of tradition that began in the late ’60s that has brought the Church to the rather miserable state it is in now. Don’t perceive this as sour grapes, or an attempt to rain on Archbishop Dolan’s parade. Perceive it, instead, as facing up to the facts.

    When the Church starts to bring back the devotions it so heartlessly threw out, when it rescinds some of the more idiotic liturgical abuses it has allowed and encouraged, if it starts to seriously – and I mean SERIOUSLY – discipline wayward clerics, when it begins to govern strongly again, when it faces up to the horrors of Communion in the hand and the truly awful “Ordinary Form” of Mass then and only then will the fine words of Bishops calling upon tradition have some meaning.

    But all this is not meant to diminish the value of the Archbishop’s words. It is only meant to bring back realism to the discussions.

    And I thank His Excellency once again for standing up to the live jackals circling the wounded lion.

  18. ltravis says:

    Amen, Archbishop! To me, the profession the baptized make before being received into full communion cuts to the heart of the matter: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims as revealed by God”. This will always be my conviction and I almost think it would be worthwhile if all the faithful had to profess it when they renew their baptismal promises.

  19. Great blog post here. Very well said, Bishop. thank you very much for speaking the truth

  20. Larry says:

    Tony Adams writes: “Can you really expect the American Catholic to differentiate between what the Church can and can’t change?” That depends on how old he or she is, Tony. If they were “educated” after the 1960’s, then no, I certainly don’t expect them to be able to differentiate, because a vital part of that “differentiation” process is knowing what the Church teaches in the first place. They don’t have a clue. As for myself, I was taught my catechism starting in 1st grade in 1961. I can “differentiate” very well, thank God.