Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Why the Church Should not Necessarily (or at all) “Change with the Times.”

~ "This talk about the Church modernizing is silly. The Church's role is to guide society, not be led by it." Iain Benson, (quoted on the BBC News Website, April 13, 2005) ~


These words were posted recently by the BBC on its website. Of course they were in response to a whole lot of comments from people themselves responding to the rather vague question “Should the Catholic Church change with the times?”

Many said that it “must modernize” or “move with the times.” There is rather more to say on the subject than my brief comment, above, however, so in what follows I would like to expand a little upon the brief point made to explain why it is correct.

It was Chesterton who said “only dead things go with the stream…live things swim against it” and with respect to the role of religions and the times this can be absolutely true but it is not the whole story.

The role of the Christian faith (or any religious faith in some respects) and certainly of the Catholic Church as it conceives itself, is to guide the world around it on matters relating to faith and morals. More generally, Christians of all sorts believe that they are inheritors of a great tradition of truth expressed in the Word and its interpretations over time. Neither Catholics nor Protestants believe that the times lead necessary to a requirement to adapt to what “the world” is doing just because what “the world” is doing is, in a sense, “newer.”

I’d like to consider this use of “the world” or “the times” later but, first, I’d like to consider what we mean when we imply that new things are necessarily better than old things.

C.S. Lewis, following a similar observation by Chesterton, called this stance “chronological snobbery” in which people think that what is more recent is necessarily better. Air pollution is more recent; it is not, as a result, better. The Bic pens of my youth could be fired through wooden planks (as an advertisement of the day showed) the new and cheaper plastic ones cannot. Of course, firing pens through boards is not, perhaps, the best example of why newer is not necessarily better but you get the point (so to speak).

It is the same with ideas. Bad ideas can be recently concocted and good ideas can be very old ones - - such as the inherent dignity of the human person - - a very good and a rather old idea. Some contemporaries are calling for the abolition of that idea, by the way, saying that it is nonsense.

Professor Ruth Macklin, of the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, for example, writing an editorial in the December 2003 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ 2003; 327:1419-1420 (20 December), doi: 10.1136/bmj.327.7429.1419) wrote, “dignity is a useless concept” and said that it meant simply “autonomy.” She says it is “vague” and an “empty slogan.” In fact, she sees that it has roots in religious conceptions and ponders the roots of the concept. What she writes is intriguing:

"Why, then, do so many articles and reports appeal to human dignity, as if it means something over and above respect for persons or for their autonomy? A possible explanation is the many religious sources that refer to human dignity, especially but not exclusively in Roman Catholic writings. However, this religious source cannot explain how and why dignity has crept into the secular literature in medical ethics. Nor can the prominence of the concept in human rights documents, since only a small portion of the literature in medical ethics addresses the links between health and human rights.

Although the aetiology may remain a mystery, the diagnosis is clear. Dignity is a useless concept in medical ethics and can be eliminated without any loss of content."

Well, no. When we eliminate “dignity” and “inherency” we end up with such things as the very “modernly dignified”, medicalized and supposedly “ethical” ending of Terry Schiavo who was recently starved and dehydrated to death in Florida rather than (and it is an either/or) the genuinely dignified death of Pope John Paul II. Both deaths involved the removal of feeding tubes but the conception of inherent dignity guiding the ethics around the Pope produced genuine “dignity” of treatment; the so-called “ethics” operating around Mrs. Schiavo produced a grotesque public execution.

Dignity means rather more than “autonomy” and any good book on ethics framed within a Judeo-Christian understanding spells this out. The Professor, however, rejects the religious understanding of a dignity that is not simply founded on “autonomy.” That is her choice but she shouldn’t claim that this is a “secular” view so much as an anti-religious one.

Note well how her attempt to “modernize” the notion of “dignity”, in the passage cited above, claims ownership of what she calls the “secular.” In her thinking she has divided the world into a “secular” stripped of religions and the one that she and those who agree with her own – which is to say the one that she believes produces the “secular literature in medical ethics” and the world religious conceptions occupy.

This failure to view the “secular” as religiously inclusive is common (by both religious and non-religious people) but that does not make the error correct.

As we have spelled out in many articles before (and the Supreme Court in the Chamberlain decision made law in Canada in December 2002) the secular includes religion and religious conceptions so you don’t own such a thing as “the secular literature in medical ethics.” What people like the Professor really mean when they use the word “secular” is “the non-religious literature in medical ethics.” Fine, but this is how they should speak rather than try and force their secularistic (i.e. anti-religious) biases on the rest of us through a misuse of how they use the term “secular.”

With Horatio, in Hamlet (I, v, 166) however, it may be said to the good Professor, that: “there are more things in heaven and earth [and medical ethics and the secular]…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

To have the Church dictated to by “the times”, or by one set of preconceptions in the times, is a very bad idea. This is not to say, of course, that there can be no “dialogue” between the Church and those who disbelieve what the Church (or religions generally) propose. On the contrary, there should always be dialogue.

Note, however, another issue packed within our usage of terms such as “the modern age” or “the times.” These phrases, like the term “secular” are abstractions or ambiguities that can hide the anti-religious conceptions within them. The Church is, necessarily, in the times just as much as “non-religion” or “anti-religion” are in the times.

To say, then, as many fellow commentators in the BBC did, that “the Church should change with the times” is just sloppy since it doesn’t mean anything particular at all. If the times we speak of is Germany under the Third Reich, for example, should the Church change with those times? Hardly. Moreover the Church is in the times. She cannot help it. Like a fish in the ocean, we are all in the times. It is a question of what we believe in the times we are in not a question of some implied content attaching to mere chronology that is at issue.

Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote a marvelous book called The Development of Christian Doctrine (10th ed. 1897) about just this relationship between continuity and change. It shows that doctrine develops, in fact, in response to changes in the times. So doctrine has nothing to fear from the times or from change. It does have to fear those who embrace change for changes sake alone.

Change for changes sake is a really silly idea when it comes to matters of truth and if you don’t believe, as some modernists and post-modernists do, that there is any truth, well then, you cannot believe in progress or have any meaningful standard for judgment itself that makes ethics nonsensical. It also makes nonsense of dignity.

These, however, are subjects for another day.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 74
Iain T. Benson ©