Since the recent naming of Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as the new prefect for the ‘Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’ – a body once known as ‘the Holy Inquisition’ – there has been chatter from some quarters that he will quickly change the doctrine of the Church; not surprisingly, this nonsense has come from those who already separate themselves from the ordinary magisterium of Pope Francis, so it really comes as no surprise at all.
Thankfully, in response, the Archbishop has reminded us all of some important facts about precisely what the Church believes, what we call her doctrine. Above all else, he notes that doctrine does not change – this has always been the position of the Church and it remains so. However, there is one qualification to this seemingly simple statement of fact – although the doctrine itself does not change, our ability to understand it and to give voice to it, does change. In a interview, the Archbishop said –
“All of the Church’s teachings have an enormous richness. To me, it sounds a bit vain to believe that one has everything clear on these issues. In them, the exciting mystery of human lives is in play, where not everything is mathematics. Did not St Thomas say that ‘the more one descends into the particulars, the more confused God’s will becomes?’ .. We have a lot to learn about so many things, and let’s say it very clearly: the doctrine of the Gospel does not change, but our understanding of it does change, and changes a lot.”
And this is, I think, the real heart of the matter.
The Church is very much in a moment of kairos – it is a moment in which the Church seems very keen to listen to the people and to their experience of the faith as they live it out. I do not think such moments come along too often – the last such moment was, I would suggest, in the 1960s, around the time of the Council. Them however, the Church was paying attention to the hierarchy – today, it is listening to the people.
As a result of that present listening, I expect the Church has then to ask itself some fairly existential questions – what is our understanding of what we believe, and how is this being lived out in the daily lives of the faithful? How does the Church engage and support those seeking to live out what they believe, whether they achieve this well or otherwise? And what do we understand about what it is that we believe – does our understanding reflect the lessons of this moment in time? Has our understanding changed or deepened in any way? What influences it? And how well is the Church expressing all of this, the answers – as best we can verbalise them – to all these questions?
Undoubtedly, there are some within the Church who fear what they perceive to be ‘change’ – even when that which they believe might be changed, will in fact not be. There is comfort, certainty, in knowing the answers to questions – but sometimes our knowledge of those answers is wrong, or incomplete, or no longer in a language or expression which offers the best reflection, which no longer speaks with efficacy or authenticity to those being addressed. In those moments, perhaps we need to ask ourselves the same questions once again; if it were a building, you might suggest that the foundations would remain untouched, even if the walls needed to be re-painted. The house needs to be fit for people to live within it.
Fearing change is not ‘wrong’ – it is simply a part of our human condition; we generally prefer that which we know and are familiar with (in most things, not just faith), even when we know it is speaking less well to us than it once did. And so we need to be open to the possibility of change at some level being necessary. And again, when it comes to the Church, it is not about changing what we believe but how we understand and express what we believe. Those are two very different things, even if we often muddle them up.
As the Archbishop notes well, to do otherwise is a form of arrogance, believing that our understanding is already complete and perfect – that is rarely the case. And if it were, then the Church would have perfect certainty and would not require to have any further theological questioning, debate or clarification – we would already know all the answers. The reality is that in life, we will never know all the answers perfectly, because this is not Heaven and the Beatific Vision, and our understanding is at the human level, not the divine. It is, consequently, both incomplete and imperfect. And so we do need to go further with theology and our questioning, constantly trying to find a clearer, better way to express what we believe.
A deeper understanding is very much the history of the Church. Since the Apostolic era, the Church has looked at exactly what it is she believes, and has tried to find effective ways of expressing that belief to the generations who have passed through the moments of human history since then. It is precisely because of this questioning, this debate, this expression, that the Church has a clearer sense of what she believes. otherwise, we would simply have the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes and not much else; while these two act as the essential foundation, our fuller moral and dogmatic sense grows from this but is not confined to it alone.
Developing a deeper understanding does not, then, weaken the Church – on the contrary, it strengthens our belief and gives it a more powerful and resounding voice in our own day.