A Church That Can and Cannot Change / Edition 1

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"By concrete examples, dated and put in context, John T. Noonan, Jr., demonstrates how the moral teaching of the Catholic Church has changed and is changing without abandoning its foundational commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From St. Paul's return of a runaway slave to his master, to John Henry Newman's startle at the idea that slavery is intrinsically evil, the Church resisted condemning slavery. Today, John Paul II has made clear that slavery in itself, everywhere and always, is sinful. Similar revolutions have occurred in the Church's teaching on making money out of lending and on respect for the beliefs of heretics. And another, little-known change is taking place as modern popes grant divorces." "In these changes Noonan perceives the Catholic Church to be a vigorous, living organism answering new questions with new answers and enlarging the capacity of believers to learn through experience and empathy what love demands. He contends that the impetus to change comes from a variety of sources, including prayer, meditation on Scripture, new theological insights and analyses, the evolution of human institutions, and the examples and instruction given by persons of good will." "Noonan also states that the Church cannot change its commitment to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Given this absolute, how can the moral teaching of the Church change? Noonan finds this question unanswerable when asked in the abstract. But in the context of the specific facts and events he discusses in this book, an answer becomes clear. As our capacity to grasp the Gospel grows, so do our understanding and compassion, which give life to the Gospel commandments of love." Noonan's book, based on the Erasmus Lectures he delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2003, will challenge anyone interested in the history and future of the Catholic Church.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"What Noonan brings . . . to this invaluable book is unblinking honesty about the record of the church to which he is deeply devoted. That is a standard for anyone wishing to pursue the conversation." —The New York Times Book Review

". . . Immensely valuable and scrupulously researched. . . . [a] trenchant historical account." —Commonweal

"John T. Noonan's writing is tight, the examples are striking, the one-liners abundant, and the treasure-trove of amazing (and egregious) ecclesial statements is eye-popping . . . Excellent book...." —Catholic Library World

“Anyone looking for a comprehensive and insightful read on church history need look no further than John T. Noonan Jr.'s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. In short, to-the-point chapters Noonan, an accomplished historian and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, leads the reader by the nose through his argument that the church's moral teaching can and does change-and probably will again. The heart of his case is his unflinching account of the church's relationship with slavery. Meticulously presenting the evidence, Noonan demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt the church's move from acceptance of human slavery to eventual condemnation.” --U.S. Catholic,  November 2005

"[A] magisterial work.... This book should be high on the list of must reads for anyone interested in Catholic moral theology but also for any educated Catholic who wants to understand how you can teach one thing in the past and another thing today." —Theology Today, October 2005

"Highly recommended." —Choice, July/August, 2005

“Noonan's works on usury, contraception, religious freedom, abortion, divorce, and bribery have set the gold standard for research in theological ethics. His research is especially compelling for Roman Catholic ethics shaped to some degree by magisterial teachings that often make the claim of inerrancy precisely through another claim: that its utterances are continuously the same and resist change, despite evidence to the contrary. . . . This brilliant book teaches us that, if we appreciate history, inevitably we are called to understand more than we presently know.” —The Journal of Religion, vol. 87, no. 4, October 2007

Peter Steinfels
Murray declared 40 years ago that development of doctrine ''is the underlying issue'' of Vatican II. It remains fundamental for Catholicism, Islam and other faiths too. What Noonan brings to it in this invaluable book is unblinking honesty about the record of the church to which he is deeply devoted. That is a standard for anyone wishing to pursue the conversation.
— The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780268036034
  • Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2004
  • Series: Erasmus Institute Bks.
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

JOHN T. NOONAN, JR., is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California. He is a historian of ideas, distinguished lecturer, and author of thirteen books.

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Read an Excerpt


The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching

University of Notre Dame Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Notre Dame
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-268-03603-9

Chapter One

Father Newman Startles

* * *

The inventor of the idea that Christian doctrine develops is John Henry Newman. Ignoring the boast of Bossuet that doctrine is unchanging, escaping the thin theorizing that would restrict development to a movement from the implicit to the explicit, Newman pointed to transformations of doctrine as tangible and as organic, as many-sided and complex and real, as the passage from childhood to adulthood. An Anglican arguing his way into the Catholic Church, Newman saw that the anomalies and novelties of his new spiritual home were the marks of vigor, of maturity, of being alive. What Newman noticed and defended were changes in the ways that piety was expressed, in the rules guiding the governance of the Church, in the understanding of the nature of Christ. What he spent no time in either enumerating or explaining were changes in the rules of moral conduct.

On October 26, 1863, Thomas William Allies, a lecturer on history at Oxford University and a convert to the Catholic Church, sent Newman the draft of a lecture in which he pronounced slavery to be intrinsically evil. He wanted his friend's opinion. Newman replied cautiously: "I do not materially differ from you, though I do still startle at some of the sentences of your Lecture." The source of his startle was St. Paul. Newman wrote:

That which is intrinsically and per se evil, we cannot give way to for an hour. That which is only accidentally evil, we can meet according to what is expedient, giving different rules, according to the particular case. St. Paul would have got rid of despotism if he could. He could not, he left the desirable object to the slow working of Christian principles. So he would have got rid of slavery, if he could. He did not, because he could not, but had it been intrinsically evil, had it been in se a sin, it must have been said to Philemon, liberate all your slaves at once.

Succinctly raising his central difficulty, Newman elaborated with examples of other institutions that he saw to be bad but not to be intrinsically evil. Any army and any government offered occasions of sin and provided temptations to sin and were instruments of sin. Neither an army nor a government was to be condemned as intrinsically evil. "Which did most harm to the soul the Jewish slavedom or the Jewish army?" Slavery, he surprisingly added, was not even as bad as polygamy.

Newman then appears to let his imagination wander from the slaveowner to the slave, declaring: "I had rather have been a slave in the Holy Land, than a courtier of Xerxes or a solider of Zingis Khan." This fantasy is not a digression. In putting himself in the place of a slave, Newman is following a classic pattern. He supposes his soul to be unaffected by the body's servile state. Imagined in this way, slavery does not destroy or even impair the essential self. Newman's vision of slavery is the antithesis of an account of slavery that sees it as an assault upon the person. The dualism implicit in this view is a prime reason why slavery was so long seen as acceptable.

Newman ends as he began: "left to myself, I might be disposed to speak as strongly as you do, but that the tone of the inspired writers held me back." The possibility that what was intrinsic was subject to development was not expressed. Imperatively, the intrinsic froze his moral judgment. Convinced that slavery was evil, he was constrained to affirm that it was not always and everywhere evil. Else, how could Paul have accepted it? That question, so fairly expressed by Newman, could not be exorcised but it could, for a long time, be ignored as the Catholic Church entered the modern world.

In 1993, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, published a small treatise on the fundamentals of moral theology, the encyclical Veritatis splendor, "Truth's Splendor." In it the pope emphasized and elaborated the notion of the intrinsically evil, very much along the lines indicated by Newman in his refusal to find slavery to be intrinsically evil. As John Paul II expressed it:

Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which by their nature are "incapable of being ordered to God," because they radically contradict the good of the person created in His image. These are the acts which by the moral tradition of the Church have been termed intrinsically evil: they are such always and per se, apart from the person's reason for acting and apart from other circumstances.

A little later in the encyclical, the pope declared: "the norms which prohibit such acts oblige always and forever, that is, they oblige without any exception." Emphatically, he repeated: "the universality and immutability of the moral norms make manifest, and at the same time serve, the absolute personal dignity-that is, the inviolability-of the human being, on whose face shines the splendor of God." Universal, immutable, per se, everywhere and always, the intrinsic governed the empire of actions.

Formulating the same idea another way, the pope spoke of "the negative commandments"-the commandments "expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments," such as "You shall not commit adultery." These commandments he declared to be indistinguishable from "the negative commandments of the natural law." These commandments set the standard that was minimal. They ruled out any reason for actions that "never, under any conditions, can be held to be a response congruent with the dignity of the person."

The attraction of the intrinsic to a moralist is that, beyond its apparent self-evidence, the intrinsic removes contingency. The act that is intrinsically of a particular character is so regardless of circumstances and motive. Judgment of the act can be certain and unchanging. With this intellectual satisfaction the act of lending was once pronounced to be intrinsically gratuitous and marriage was described as intrinsically indissoluble, and John Paul II discovered slavery to be intrinsically evil.

John Paul II and John Henry Newman agreed that the intrinsically evil could never be done without sin. But Newman thought that to hold a human being in slavery was not intrinsically evil. For John Paul II, slavery was a prime example of what could never be lawfully committed, of what was indeed an instance of intrinsic evil. Their agreement on the nature of the intrinsically evil and their disagreement on slavery generates questions. Is it possible that what is intrinsically evil in one era is not so in another? How then can the intrinsically evil be universal, immutable, always and forever? Or, if the pope was right on slavery, was Newman wrong? Between Newman and John Paul II, there was a change in the theological judgment on slavery. How account for it?

Where the development of moral doctrine is concerned, the development on the subject of slavery is the prime case. At issue is not the mitigation of slavery for Hebrews that the Hebrew Bible called for, nor the fairness supposed to mark the Christian master's treatment of slaves, nor the doubts as to particular titles to slave ownership developed by Christian casuists, but the intrinsic character of a relationship in which one person bought, sold, mortgaged, and transferred another person without regard to that person's will or education or vocation, in which the one owned was a chattel of the owner. Slavery is, if you like, the elephant in the room, so large, so awkward, so threatening that everyone would prefer not to notice it or speak of it. But I will speak of it, for its own sake and for the light it sheds on what constitutes the intrinsically evil, a theme that cannot be avoided in considering the development of moral doctrine. The imperative to avoid the intrinsically evil must be confronted by the changes that have occurred in teachings on conduct, most notable of which is the teaching on slavery.

The focus of this book is on the teaching of morals within the Catholic Church. It is not, except incidentally, a sociological account of Catholic practice. In setting out the teaching on slavery, for example, I do not ask whether slavery was more or less pleasant under Christian masters or note that some slaves led more comfortable lives than others or emphasize that Christian owners sometimes gave freedom to those they owned. I focus on what appears to be true of slaveholding in every context: the right of the owner to determine the identity; education, and vocation of the slave and to possess the fruit of the slave's body. Acts exercising these kinds of domination were once accepted by the teaching Church as without sin. They are no longer.

Slavery is the first and largest subject of development that I address. Usury; religious freedom, divorce follow. Each development has had its own course-its own initiators, its own influencing events and formative forces, its own problems, compromises, and solutions. I have looked for the rules guiding development, and I have found only one, set out in the final chapter. I have discovered in the instances examined that neither the form in which a moral rule is cast, nor the analytic label attached to the acts regulated, nor the kind of human activity at issue can block development or make the teaching on it impervious to change.

The Church cannot change. In the Church's care is what is the deposit of faith-a core of revealed truth that no extrinsic force has power to enlarge or diminish. The deposit is secure in the Church's treasury. The Church proclaims what is necessary for salvation. God's requirements are stable. The revelation that was made in the person of Jesus Christ was complete and final. No subsequent revelation was needed nor has been made.

A Church without change and with change-is one a mirage, a distortion of the facts, a lie; or is reconciliation possible even if, like John Henry Newman, we may startle? To answer the question I do not start a priori. I determine and date the changes that have occurred, then see what reconciliation is possible.

Slavery, religious liberty, usury-on these topics, the teaching of the Catholic Church has changed definitively. On divorce a change is in progress, All change, the cynics say, is glacial. So it must seem to those struggling to foster it. Mutations are small, sometimes sudden. The major mutations that have occurred exhibit what the Church is capable of.

Change is not a thing to be ashamed of, to be whispered about, to be disguised or held from the light of day; as grave guardians sometimes think. Change, in continuity with roots, is the rule of human life. It has been the way of life of the Church. It is a way of teaching celebrated in the Gospel itself in the image of the scribe learned in the law of Moses who is "like a householder who produces from his treasury what is new and what is old" (Mt 13:52). The new and the old cannot in life be neatly distinguished as the old slowly comes to fruition in the new.

Chapter Two

Concubines, Castrati, Concordats-Is There Teaching There?

* * *

The magisterium of the Church is expressed in words-by definitions, conciliar pronouncements, catechisms. But is there not another kind of teaching by deeds? In the controversies prior to 1870 over the infallibility of the pope, the focus was on what was "defined" as doctrine by the pope. Evidently definition is done only by words. Analogously, when the teaching of the ordinary magisterium is referred to, what is meant is a doctrine that has been expressed verbally. But should teaching be so confined? Do not teachers teach by example? Do not the deeds of teachers convey doctrine too?

That teaching is, in fact, by example as well as by word is the experience of every teacher. That truth is embedded in the Rule of St. Benedict as it describes the key man in the monastery, the abbot:

Therefore when anyone takes up the name of Abbot, he ought to govern his disciples by a teaching [doctrina] that is twofold; that is, to show all that is good and holy more by his deeds than by his words. To apt disciples let him propose the commandments of the Lord by words; but to the hard of heart and the more simple, let him demonstrate the divine commandments by his deeds.

That truth is equally embedded in Catholic devotional tradition, as, for example, in The Imitation of Christ, whose very title proclaims that it is a person who is to be followed. As in the Gospel of John 14:6, Jesus declares that he is "the way," so The Imitation of Christ repeats the declaration adding, "Without the way there is no going." The disciple adds that "your excellent examples" are what sustain us. The examples furnished by the Lord are complemented as instruction by "the lively examples of the holy fathers."

The central place of conduct is at the heart of the exposition of moral theology by John Paul II in Veritatis splendor: "Therefore to follow Christ is the essential and proper foundation of Christian moral teaching." The pope focuses not on the words as much as on the reality of Jesus as an acting person: "It is not only a matter here of hearing the teaching and accepting it by obedience to the commandment, but, more deeply, of adhering to the very person of Christ." Quoting the words of Jesus after washing the feet of his disciples, "I have given you an example so that as I have done to you, you will do" (Jn 13:15), the pope continues: "His actions and his commandments are the moral rule of Christian life."

If Jesus's actions are part of his teaching, why should that not be true of the Church which is the body of Christ? If Jesus taught by example, has not the Church?

Let us, in true scholastic fashion, distinguish. Teachers do perform acts which they do not intend to be exemplary, which they themselves would characterize as bad. In this category, for instance, fall the acts of the members of the Roman curia, of whom St. Antoninus speaks in his Summa theologiae moralis, who kept concubines. As he observes, their practice did not prove that fornication is permissible. He takes it for granted that no one could conclude that the curialists considered their conduct to be legitimate.

Consider a second case: that of castrating willing boys, so that as castrati they might "sing the divine praises in churches more sweetly." This practice was in force in Rome until castrati were banned from the Sistine Chapel by Leo XIII. It was sharply criticized by some theologians, but was also cited by other theologians as an instance of acceptable self-mutilation. Until it was finally prohibited, an argument existed that what was "in practice today and tolerated by the Church" could not be wrong.


Excerpted from A CHURCH THAT Can AND Cannot CHANGE by JOHN T. NOONAN, JR. Copyright © 2005 by University of Notre Dame. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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