‘The same yesterday, today and forever’
“Stay retired and shut the hell up.” That’s the angriest reaction I have ever received (for my Dec. 20, 2011 commentary on reproductive health), in fiery defense of the “teaching of the Church” and “magisterial authority.” No matter; the gentleman led me to a topic that has been brewing in my mind.
This topic reaps the same but milder answer that automatically rises when Church teaching is doubted: “The teachings of the Church are ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’.” Priests pepper their homilies with the reminder and zealous laity exhort to “embrace all.”
Its defenders are right. In God, the “teachings” are complete, correct, perfect and final. He alone knows the paradigms in their entirety and totality. God is.
Not so in man, and that includes priest and prelate. We are far from being omniscient and above error. Limited and subjective, we learn piecemeal and gradually. We see through the glass, darkly. Our perceptions, knowledge, understanding grow or shrink, develop and change through time, history. Learning is continually unfolding. So should our judgments be guarded and humble, i.e., open to modification and expansion.
In fact, so has the Church been. From important teachings to rules and practices, the Church has actually “changed”—even if glacially.
For example, once upon a time, slavery was accepted by both the Church and secular society. Down the centuries we started learning about this notion called “human dignity” which grew so luminous, the light lit our blindness. Slavery became unthinkable, immoral to the bone.
Once upon a time, too, we wondered why blameless babies went to limbo. The Church said so. A few years ago, limbo was recalled—a move that was reasonable, but fraught with doctrinal repercussions on Baptism, original sin, grace, salvation outside the Church, the last now conceded (but still reluctantly by some quarters). Theologians must still be grappling over the repercussions, but so must it be.
As for some practices with the “pain of mortal sin” pegged to some of them: days of obligation, of fasting and abstinence, midnight fast for Communion, touching the host, cremation, ballet (a cardinal walked out on it) mixed marriages, etc.—these have changed too. We never committed “mortal sin” even if “they” said we did!
That process through which the foregoing have gone through is the “development of doctrine” known to priest and prelate. Theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles uses two words to encapsulate the continuing process: “reconceptualization” and “reformulation,” which simply put are re-thinking and re-expressing a given teaching.
Moreover, the teachings are not of the same gravity and this may surprise; they do not call for the same degree of assent. There are levels or gradations of beliefs.
The most binding is “dogma” which we must believe or cease to be Catholic. These include the central mysteries like the Trinity, Assumption, etc., familiar to Catholics. This may again surprise but theologians Dulles and Richard McBrien write, respectively: “There is no infallible list of what the infallible teachings are,” and “There is no agreed-upon list of dogmas in the Church.” Dogmas are but a precious few.
Next is the larger body of “doctrines,” like the Bible canon, limbo (but no longer), saints, morality of war, of reproduction, etc. To these we are to give “firm acceptance” with a “religious docility of will and intellect,” even if in certain cases we can withhold internal assent.
Last is the never-ending train of rules of “discipline and admonitions,” like tithes, indulgences, ban on women priests and death penalty, celibacy etc.; which we are enjoined to follow but for which we can disagree in good conscience.
Food for thought: How did this mindset of “the same yesterday, today and forever” become so iron-clad? Why do many Catholics, like Filipinos, take everything as dogma from the way they receive Communion by the hand or the mouth (“by the hand is Satan’s work,” I heard somebody say) to everything “na sabi ng pari”? Do some clerics enjoy the power?
Look back into the Christianizing in our youth and that of our parents and grandparents which leaned on plain indoctrination or proselytizing, sometimes painful, sometimes “natural.” So happily obedient were we that for the Church to err or change never crossed our minds.
Look also at the mixed modes of evangelization we are in now. Marks of indoctrination still remain but the “pastoring” and “prophetic” modes are slowly emerging. We still struggle between being enlightened and being kept in the dark. It’s not that the Church “denies, but if no one asks, they don’t have to tell.”
Docility and credulity are still prized. “Just do it.” Between 8.5 million non-questioning Catholics in one shot in Quiapo and 85,000 or 850,000 who ask before they leap, there’s no contest. Which tack will the Church take: tend the millions of loyal deferential devotees far easier to hold; or listen to the few thousands of “adult,” educated believers and discriminating, upcoming youth whose obedience fluctuates? There is diversity in the constituency of the Church. All are of value.
Asuncion David Maramba is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist. Comments to marda_ph @yahoo.com, fax 8284454.
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