Today I ran across a claim on the internet that the Church could change Church teachings on moral issues, because she had made changes in the past. When pressed on the question, one individual pointed to the Church changing the rules on eating meat on Friday and the “extermination” of those who refused to convert to Catholicism as proof of changed teachings. The person went so far as to claim Papal bulls sanctioned this extermination—though when pressed was unwilling or unable to name any.
That wasn’t unexpected of course. When one does not understand how the teaching of the Church works or does not know of the doctrines and history of the Church, it’s easy to believe all sorts of claims about the Church without actually looking for evidence for the claim. Thus, there’s a lot of cases going around where there is common knowledge—where the response is “everybody knows THAT,” but when one tries to find evidence for what “everybody knows,” it turns out that nobody actually knows of any...
I find that people tend to make one or more of four errors when it comes to the Catholic Church and what she teaches. These are:
- Confusing a discipline or other decree with the official teaching of the Church.
- Missing the Point about the actual Church teaching.
- Misunderstanding a term used in a Church document, thinking it means something more than it actually does.
- Wrongly believing that an abuse which is done by a Catholic is the intended teaching of the Catholic Church.
I’ll take a look at these things, and see where they go wrong.
Confusing Discipline/Decree With a Church Teaching
Church teaching is not everything a member of the Church says—even if the person speaking is a bishop or the Pope. The Teaching of the Church is what the Church formally intends to teach as being binding on all the faithful as a matter of the faith or morals of the Church. So when the Church says that same sex marriage, contraception and abortion are intrinsically (that is, always wrong regardless of motives or circumstances) evil, this is a Church teaching. This is not something that is optional, or that the changing circumstances of the times will let the Church decide to do things differently.
However, when the Church decides that members of the Church need to practice a discipline for their spiritual good—for example, Friday abstinence from meat, permitting or withholding the chalice for the laity, whether the Mass be said in Latin or the Vernacular, or even whether or not the clergy must be celibate—these things can be changed if the Church deems it to be for a greater good. So now, we can choose another Friday sacrifice instead of giving up meat. The Church has at different times decreed that the laity may or may not receive the chalice. And, if the Church truly sees a need for it, she can change the discipline of whether the Church ordains married men (as she does in the Eastern Rites) or only ordains celibate men (as she does in the Latin rite). Making a change in these matters is not a case of “the Church was wrong then but right now” (or vice versa for traditionalists). These are situations where the Church makes a decree based on certain conditions.
Missing the Point About the Church Teaching
This brings us to the next issue, which is keeping in mind what Church teaching is actually under consideration. Consider the common canard that the Church changed her teaching on “eating meat on Friday means you will go to Hell.” This is to miss the point. In this case, the Church teaching is not that eating meat on Fridays is evil. The Catholic belief is that the Church has Christ’s authority and that what the Church binds or looses on Earth will be bound or loosed in Heaven. If a person willfully rejects a discipline mandated by the Church for the good of the people that person is rejecting something bound in Heaven.
Another common accusation made about Church teaching being changed is the issue of loans. The argument is that formerly the Church forbade lending at interest, but is now OK with it. Therefore, the Church can change her other teachings. But it wasn’t interest that was the problem. It was the problem of usury (the practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest). In different economic systems during the Roman era, the Dark Ages, the Medieval period and the Enlightenment, what was an unreasonably high rate of interest was different from one period to the next. So the Catechism of the Council of Trent could condemn any interest on a loan while over 200 years later, Pope Pius VII could say some returns on investments were acceptable, but profits that were made based on harmful methods of lending were not. (I imagine the modern practice of Payday loans would meet the criteria for condemnation).
When the only means of exchange were coins and barter, and when every person was paid a fixed amount a day, then charging interest on a loan could mean extreme hardship for the person in debt. But when money could be exchanged with notes, deposited in banks and used to bring in profits, it became possible for people to pay off certain loans. In the first instance any charging of interest would be usury. In the second, some charging of interest would not be usury. So, we can see that the Church did not go from saying “usury is wrong” to “usury is OK.” She merely updated the understanding of what was and was not allowed.
But we have to avoid the fallacy of irrelevant comparisons. One cannot argue that the change in economic conditions changing what met the definition of usury means that the Church can change her teaching on sexual morality. Economic systems can change. The genders and the nature of the sexual act do not change.
Misunderstanding a Term Used In Church Teaching
So, where does the idea come that the Church permitted the extermination of people who would not convert? It comes from applying a limited meaning of a word in modern English which actually has a much broader meaning in different times. The modern meaning of exterminate is "destroy completely; eradicate.” But, when you look at the Latin word, exterminare, we find that it has a different meaning: lesser banish, expel; dismiss. So, while some people may point to the Lateran IV Council (AD 1215) and quote the following from canon 3:
Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the faithful, so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church; so that whenever anyone shall have assumed authority, whether spiritual or temporal, let him be bound to confirm this decree by oath. But if a temporal ruler, after having been requested and admonished by the Church, should neglect to cleanse his territory of this heretical foulness, let him be excommunicated by the metropolitan and the other bishops of the province. If he refuses to make satisfaction within a year, let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff, that he may declare the ruler’s vassals absolved from their allegiance and may offer the territory to be ruled by Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance and preserve it in the purity of faith; the right, however, of the chief ruler is to be respected so long as he offers no obstacle in this matter and permits freedom of action. The same law is to be observed in regard to those who have no chief rulers (that is, are independent). Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land.
[Schroeder, H. J. (1937). Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation, and Commentary (pp. 242–243). St. Louis, MO; London: B. Herder Book Co.]
I imagine people might be shocked on reading this. Isn’t it genocide? Well, no. If you look a couple of paragraphs down, you’ll see an admonishment for the people who interact with the exterminated heretics...
If any refuse to avoid such after they have been ostracized by the Church, let them be excommunicated till they have made suitable satisfaction. Clerics shall not give the sacraments of the Church to such pestilential people, nor shall they presume to give them Christian burial, or to receive their alms or offerings; otherwise they shall be deprived of their office, to which they may not be restored without a special indult of the Apostolic See. Similarly, all regulars, on whom also this punishment may be imposed, let their privileges be nullified in that diocese in which they have presumed to perpetrate such excesses.
We can see that the heretics are not exterminated in the sense of “The Final Solution.” They’re exterminated in the sense of being ostracized. We see in other documents the calling for bishops to use the penalty of interdict to exterminate heresy. Interdict was the refusal of Mass, Sacraments and Christian Burial. In modern times, interdict is applied only to a person, but in the past, the Church did apply it to regions. The point was to bring heretics to their senses by denying them the ministry of the Church until they repented (and see 1 Corinthians 5:5 if you think this is an unbiblical behavior), showing them how serious this was.
Wrongly Believing That an Abuse is the Actual Teaching of the Church
There’s no sense in denying that some people in history who professed to be Christian did behave in a way which was wrong. Not just wrong by the 21st century standards and sensitivities. I mean things that even back then, should have been obvious to people. So the mess that was the Spanish Inquisition, the wrongdoing by some in the Crusades—these things were wrong. The problem for the accusers is the fact that the Church condemned the evils done at the time. They didn’t always speak out effectively, and they weren’t always heeded. But they spoke out.
Here’s something to think about. Consider the Catholics who present themselves as being pro-abortion. They act publicly and ignore the teaching of the Church. is their disobedience the fault of the Church? No, because the Church does have a clear teaching that is being ignored. Sure, a person may wish that the Church was more forceful in certain times, but one can’t say that the Church supported these things.
The fact is, many of the events people point to as proof of the wickedness of the Church (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders and the cruelties of the Spanish against the Native Americans are popular accusations) were actually denounced by the Church. But, like today, there were many Catholics who chose to ignore the teaching of the Church, and like today, many got away with it. There is only so much the Church can do against the willfully defiant. That doesn’t mean the men who led the Church always did enough or responded perfectly. Sometimes they even used their office to do wrong. However, these failings were not a part of the binding teaching of the Church.
So What is a Teaching of the Church?
So, now that I have said what the teaching of the Church is not, one might ask what a teaching of the Church is. The first step is to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church #888-892. The teaching of the Church is based in preserving the teachings of Christ as passed on through the Apostles. It is "to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (CCC #890). When the Church intends to teach in a way which "they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals" (CCC #892) or when the Pope “when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (CCC #891).
So, many things which people point at, in an attempt to deny that the Church is protected from error, were never considered teachings of the Church in the sense she intends to be understood as teaching. Many others were not teaching what her enemies accused her of teaching.
When one wants to critique the Church, the first step is to determine whether the Church was teaching something as doctrine, and if so, what the Church intended to teach when binding the faithful. The Church can certainly make certain disciplines binding that are not teachings of the Church, but disciplines can be changed if the need requires it without contradicting Church teaching. Criticisms which fail to take into account what the Church intended to teach are doing nothing more than creating a Straw Man fallacy, condemning us for something which is either false or taken out of context.