“When Will the Catholic Church Come into the 21st Century?”

“When will the Catholic Church come into the twenty-first century?” As a Catholic theologian, I often hear this question posed by non-Catholics and Catholics alike. One of the most important questions facing the Church today, it implies a set of issues that are known to all: same-sex “marriage,” contraception, and divorce (to name only a few), which Pope Benedict XVI has called “the canon of issues.” Because the teachings of the Church on these issues are at odds with our modern secular culture, non-Catholics—and even many Catholics—are left scratching their heads and wonder why the Church doesn’t finally come to the same conclusions that are so obvious to the secular worldview. This confusion deserves serious attention. Although we could address each of the issues individually, I think it is much more helpful to discuss the underlying principles that determine why the secular society and the Church disagree.

Assumptions of the Modern Secular Worldview
Before we look at the Catholic Church’s theological principles that dictate why the Church does not change its teachings on the “canon of issues,” I think we first must review certain key assumptions of the secular worldview. Since the Enlightenment, western secular culture has assumed that we are progressing slowly toward a perfected humanity. With enough time, willpower, money, technological advancements, and scientific breakthroughs, humanity will be able to claw its way out of its barbaric past that is pockmarked by wars, poverty, disease, and social injustice. Over time, this narrative says, we will arrive at a just society. Despite criticisms from many Postmodernists who look at the twentieth century as proof of the failure of the idea of progress, most Americans still agree with this view. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, the Columbia University economist and author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, believes extreme poverty can end by 2025, and this has been echoed by Bill Gates in his 2014 Gates Annual Letter where he said that “by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.”

The second assumption has to do with our modern culture’s understanding of secular laws. The idea that our secular laws are dictated by natural law (which had been the standard belief for centuries) is largely dismissed today. Natural law, according to The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, is the “intelligible and consistent order which exists independently of human opinion or construction, and that this order is a source of moral constraint and command for human beings.” In recent decades, the dependence of secular law on natural law has been replaced by the idea that there is no independent, objective moral order; moral and immoral are categories that are individually and culturally constructed.

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Putting these two assumptions together, the secular worldview believes that the progress of the human person over the centuries has led to changing cultural norms that then become codified in law. As cultural norms change, so, too, our laws do and must change. For example, our society has progressed over the centuries to come to understand that relationships between people of the same gender are acceptable and, therefore, our laws have been changed to allow homosexual marriage.

Assumptions of the Catholic Worldview
With this understanding of the secular assumptions about the world, we may turn to the Catholic Church. Long before the Enlightenment, Christianity had to address a similar claim to the one we saw above about the perfectibility of humanity. In the early fifth century, men like St. Augustine and St. Jerome fought a theological battle that has come to be known as the Pelagian Controversy. This fight addressed many important issues about the human person. Most importantly, because the Pelagians rejected the notion of the sinfulness of humanity, and embraced the notion that we have an unimpeded free will (because they rejected the idea of original sin just as Enlightenment thinkers would do centuries later), the Pelagians concluded that—if you really wanted it badly enough—you could arrive at a perfected state of sinlessness. This position was ultimately condemned by the Church because both the Pelagians and, later, the Enlightenment have an overly optimistic understanding of the human person.

If the Church rejects the idea of inevitable progress towards perfection, what, then, can be said about the human condition? Are we just terrible sinners who cannot make any progress in this life at all? Are we left at the mercy of a capricious God who may, or may not, choose to save us from our misery? The Catholic Church makes two claims simultaneously that may, at first, seem contradictory: yes, we can change, and no, we cannot change.

The Church believes that we, as individuals, can change. When many people in our age question the need to go to Mass on Sunday, the Church holds that all sacraments, but most importantly the Eucharist, can and do change our lives. Augustine’s Confessions recounts God’s response to his prayers, saying “’I [God] am the food [the Eucharist] of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on Me. And you will not change Me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into Me.” This belief in the power of the Eucharist continues into our own time. Thomas Merton, the great twentieth-century Catholic mystic, said in his book The Living Bread that “the grace of the Eucharist is not confined to the moments of thanksgiving after Mass and communion, but reaches out into our whole day and into all the affairs of our life, in order to sanctify and transform them in Christ.” The Eucharist is not hocus pocus, and change does not happen overnight. But the Church believes at her core that the sacramental life, over time, leads us towards holiness.

At the same time, the Church rejects the idea that societally we will ever arrive at a utopia. Jesus himself said that human ills will never be eradicated when he anticipated Sachs and Gates, saying that “you always will have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7). Pope Paul VI, in his 1971 encyclical Octogesima Adveniens, said that “the appeal to a utopia is often a convenient excuse for those who wish to escape from concrete tasks in order to take refuge in an imaginary world.” Although societally we may progress technologically, medically, and scientifically, and, individually, we may make progress through the sacraments, this progress will never translate into heaven on earth.

The second assumption of the Catholic Church, in contrast to the secular position discussed above about secular law, is that Church doctrines are tied to God’s revelation of God’s self, not cultural norms. Although the Tradition of the Church has always been cautious about making too many official statements about God (because the Church is aware of the impossibility of saying anything final about He-Who-Transcends-Our-Finite-Intellectual-Capacities), the Church has declared that God is: eternal (Psalm 90:2), omnipotent (Matthew 19:26), omniscient (I John 3:20), omnipresent (Psalm 139:7), and, most importantly for our purposes, immutable (Malachi 3:6). Although beyond our intellectual capacities, this God, Christians believe, has not remained far distant from his creation as the Enlightenment Deists claimed. Rather, God has revealed himself to his creation. Dei Verbum, one of the most important documents from Vatican II, has enumerated the many ways that God has revealed himself to humanity and how that revelation has been transmitted down through the centuries: through the created world, the prophets, the Apostles, bishops, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture, the magisterium, and, most importantly, Christ himself.

But, God hasn’t revealed only himself to humanity; through the Church’s teachings, he also has revealed his vision of how humanity can live the Good life. The doctrinal revelations that come through the Church come out of God’s very Self, and are not tied to culturally constructed norms. Dei Verbum made this point when it said that “by divine revelation God wished to manifest and communicate both himself and the eternal decrees of his will concerning the salvation of humankind.” Avery Cardinal Dulles, arguably the most important twentieth- century American Catholic theologian, expanded on this idea in his Models of the Church when he said that

the great western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are based on the conviction that the existence of the world and the final meaning and value of all that it contains ultimately depend on a personal God who, while distinct from the world and everything in it, is absolute in terms of reality, goodness, and power. These religions profess to derive their fundamental vision not from mere human speculation, which would be tentative and uncertain, but from God’s own testimony—that is to say, from a historically given divine revelation.

Catholics believe, therefore, that just as God himself is immutable, so, too, are God’s teachings as revealed through the Church because they come from him.

Vincent of Lérins, in the fifth century, recognized the immutability of these eternal decrees when he said that “it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties.”

Although the Church does not change its central teachings, we see in Vincent’s quote the theological principle of “development” that Blessed John Henry Newman, arguably the most important Catholic thinker in the past 500 years, discussed in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman uses the example of the development of the human body to convey his point: “the bodily structure of a grown man is not merely that of a magnified boy; he differs from what he was in his make and proportions; still manhood is the perfection of boyhood, adding something of its own, yet keeping what it finds.” But, to say the Church “develops,” is not to say the Church “changes.” What is true about God 2,000 years ago is true about God in the twenty-first century. What is true about God’s teachings revealed through the Church 2,000 years ago is true in the twenty-first century.

We can now see why modern secularists are so baffled by the Catholic Church. These two different ways of seeing the world, unfortunately, too often lead to a breakdown in communication. Proponents of each side talk past each other, not to each other, because they do not understand their interlocutor’s fundamental assumptions. This leads to what I call “dueling monologues.” In other words, constructive, healthy, and helpful exchanges of ideas often do not happen, and cannot happen, until both sides have an understanding of how the other side fundamentally sees the world.

Returning to our original question—when will the Catholic Church come into the twenty-first century?—we now can see that the question itself is infused with an assumption about human progress toward perfection that does not make sense to the Catholic worldview. The more appropriate questions to ask, from a Catholic perspective, would be: what has God revealed to us about what it means to live a flourishing life, and how do we best live that life? The answer, according to Catholicism, is that we should conform our lives to those timeless Truths revealed through the Church in order to enter into a rightly ordered relationship with God, so that, as Augustine famously said, “our restless heart may find rest in Him.”

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Manifest Destiny” was painted by John Gast in 1872 to illustrate the progress of westward expansion in the US.


  • Stuart Squires

    Stuart Squires teaches theology at Brescia University in Kentucky. He earned his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America and his Masters from The University of Chicago. Several of his published articles have appeared in scholarly journals, including Augustiniana, The Scottish Journal of Theology and Cistercian Studies Quarterly.

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