Two Anniversaries: A Church That Changes & Doesn't Change

As we prepare for the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation on the family, we are going to hear a lot about how the Church can’t change this and it can’t change that. Indeed, the idea of the Church as essentially unchangeable is one of the most commonly held myths, especially outside the Church, about us. So, it is instructive to think about two anniversaries that happened this past weekend: Yesterday was the anniversary of Pope Francis’s election three years ago and Saturday was the anniversary of the coronation of Pope Pius XII as pope in 1939.

Seventy-five years is not a terribly long period of time, especially in an institution as old as the Catholic Church, but a lot has changed in those years. Pope Pius XII’s reign was the high water mark for papal monarchy: His assistants were notified before he called them on the phone, so that they could receive the call kneeling. You can bet no cardinals ever thought of sending him a group letter protesting one of his decisions! Ecclesiology was still dominated by the image of the Church as a “perfect society,” an image that conveyed the idea of immutability very clearly. The Mass was everywhere still in Latin. The papacy was still a very Italian institution and half of the cardinals who gathered in conclave in 1939 were Italian. Indeed, Pius himself was the first Roman elected in centuries and, for all his experience as a papal diplomat, his parochialism was pronounced: In World War II, he vocally protested the bombing of Rome, but had nothing to say about the bombing of London or Berlin, Coventry or Hamburg.

Yet, beneath the surface, change was stirring and, in some ways, was even encouraged by Pope Pius, albeit unevenly. He left unsigned the encyclical defending the Jews that his predecessor had prepared, and he frowned on ecumenism, but he gave his blessing to advances in biblical studies and, specifically, the use of the historical-critical method in studying scripture. He also encouraged, in a minor key, the liturgical renewal that had begun in monasteries but was, through study of the Church’s liturgy, setting the stage for a new ecclesiology. For example, by retrieving the Easter Vigil liturgy, with its emphasis on baptism, Pius reminded the Church of the priesthood of all believers that would become a key motif at Vatican II.  

Still, the Church of Pius was vastly different and I do not think there is any denying it. Great theologians, who would later play a key role at the Council, men like Henri de Lubac and John Courtney Murray, were silenced. Giovanni Battista Montini was exiled to Milan for his “liberalism”, and not given a red hat, but he would go on to become the greatest pontiff of the twentieth century. Pius’ obsession with communism muted his voice in denouncing the fascism of Italy and Germany and he was one of the few modern pontiffs not to issue an encyclical on social teaching. Even the visuals were vastly different: Compare this video of Pius' coronation with a typical Pope Francis Mass.

Perhaps most importantly for the forthcoming discussion, there were obvious doctrinal developments, even changes, in the 74 years between 1939 and 2013. In 1939, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was a theological opinion, not an officially proclaimed dogma of the Church. There were no “Fortnights for Freedom” because the Church still officially condemned religious liberty. And, while the Church taught that marriage must be open to procreation, she did not yet teach that every conjugal act must be open to procreation.

If you were to count back 74 years from 1939, you would see a vastly different Church. In 1865, the papal states, though considerably shrunken in 1860, were still in existence and the pope was the sovereign of all Rome, living in the Quirinal, not the Vatican. The Syllabus of Errors, condemning all things modern, was only one year old. On May 16th of 1865, Pope Pius IX appointed the convert Henry Edward Manning as the Archbishop of Westminster, and Manning would play a key role in the development of Catholic social teaching. He also kept a fellow Anglican convert, John Henry Newman, under a cloud of suspicion. The Kulturkampf, with its persecution of the Church in Germany, and the First Vatican Council, with its definition of papal infallibility,were still a few years in the future. In France, the Church flourished with spiritual energy and Marian visitations. Six years prior, Charles Darwin had published his book Origin of the Species which was the challenge all religions in profound ways yet, drawing on her intellectual resources, it was the Catholic Church that fared better than most at integrating his seminal work on evolution with the biblical account of creation. That intellectual work had to wait until Pius IX went to his eternal reward.

In the United States, of course, the Civil War came to an end that year. The war had broken the nation’s three largest Protestant churches – the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians - into northern and southern branches, but the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church remained united. Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina, had conducted a diplomatic mission to Rome on behalf of the confederacy the year before and, in 1865, he was refused permission to return until his northern confreres secured a presidential pardon. Planning was underway for the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. Canon law was still undeveloped in the United States and, so, there were no pastors with canonical rights, and the selection of bishops was still a complicated process beginning with the priests of a diocese and the suffragans of the ecclesiastical province both drawing up ternas of candidates for submission to Propaganda Fide. Yes, the Church in the U.S. was still governed through that congregation because we were considered mission territory.

Jump back another 74 years, to 1791, and we see a Church that was virtually prostrate. The popes had been forced to suppress the Society of Jesus, which had been the most stalwart support for papal authority, seventeen years prior. Pope Pius VI had gone to Vienna nine years earlier to cope with the spread of enlightenment ideas, sponsored by the Emperor Joseph II, but the trip had been a failure. And, of course, in France, the Assembly in 1791 mandated that all clergy take an oath to the Civil Constitution on the Clergy, adopted the previous year, provoking a schism that would last more than ten years and which laid the groundwork for the violence against the clergy that would commence in earnest in 1792 and last through the “Terror,” culminating with the suppression of the peasants in the Vendee. In the United States, on the other hand, our new, first bishop, John Carroll, was undertaking his first full year in office and, already, moving to help the Church engage the culture and avoid a sectarianism that he rightly feared would harm the Church in the U.S.

Of course, in 1791, it had been more than two hundred years since the Council of Trent and, though beset by ideological challenges, the Church possessed an intellectual foundation in that great reforming Council from which it could engage much of the ferment in the ambient culture. It was not a time of great theological advance, yet priests like the great Jacques-Andre Emery not only helped keep the Church in France afloat during the revolution, he made significant advances in the training of clergy at the Sulpician seminary in Paris. The Sulpicians would play a significant role in the life of the Church in the United States when they founded the first seminary in Baltimore.

I am sure if you go back an additional 74 years, you will find further examples of profound change in the practice, teaching and governance of the Catholic Church. How could it be otherwise? So, while no one knows what changes Pope Francis might invite or make when he releases his apostolic exhortation, we know already that those who say the Church can never change are people who know little about the history of the Church. And, we know too, that at each of these 74 year intervals we have looked at, at each time we found the Church of Jesus Christ doing her best to remain faithful to the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, to the teachings that empty tomb confirmed, to the doctrines worked out by the Fathers of the Church, and to the Scriptures we believe were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Change and continuity are constant in the life of the Church and any hermeneutic that fails to grasp this is a faulty hermeneutic, and not the hermeneutic proper to the Church which is, as Pope Benedict said, a hermeneutic of reform, containing elements of both continuity and discontinuity. Those who hyperventilate that the pope has gone too far, or that he has not gone far enough, should all be sent to the library to collect some tomes on the history of the Church.

Yesterday, at Mass, we heard God say through Isaiah, “Behold, I am doing something new.” Blessed John Henry Newman wrote, “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” If Pope Francis changes things a lot or a little, those changes will be introduced in pursuit of the same fidelity to the Gospel and the care of souls that motivated his predecessors in their times and in the situations they faced. It is the same Church of Jesus Christ, vouchsafed the presence of the Holy Spirit, that has changed with the times in order to be faithful to that empty tomb.





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