April 12, 2024

Q. I have both family members and friends (both Catholics and others) who often ask something along the lines of, “When will the Catholic Church get with the times and update its teachings?” How do I respond to challenges like this?

This is a common occurrence in our time. Many people—including Catholics, as with this questioner’s friends and family—wonder why the Church doesn’t change its stance on any number of teachings. While this is often understandable at a certain level, it also indicates a lack of understanding about the nature of Catholic teachings and doctrine.

Specifically, it sees Catholic doctrine as, in essence, arbitrary. Like political policy views or like personal preferences about, say, the best pizza toppings, this question presumes that Catholic doctrine can be changed, just as a political party might change its policies or a person might change their preferences for pizza.

But that’s not the nature of Catholic doctrine. Our teachings as Catholics are not just the personal opinions of the pope, or of our bishops, or of our priests, etc. Rather, they are about the nature of reality, about the way things are.

For example, when we say God exists, we are making a claim about reality. When we say Jesus is the Son of God, we are making a claim about the way things really are. When we say certain actions—abortion, torture, marital infidelity—are always wrong, we are saying that these are truths that are objective and universal: they are always true, everywhere, for all people.

Our doctrines, our teachings, are not merely matters of opinion; we are saying that this is the way it is, this is the nature of reality, this is how things are. It’s important to note that demonstrating that reality is this way is another matter … we’d need to make that case for each doctrine. But before we do so, we can make the general statement that everything we believe is a matter of truth or falsity, not of personal preference or opinion.

Take any doctrine we hold, including the ones given as examples here. When we posit God’s existence, the very nature of the claim is not one of preference or opinion. To state that God exists is a proposition of a different kind than to state that I think pepperoni and black olives are the best pizza topping; it is a proposition that belongs in the category of 2+2=4 or of 2+2=1. Either God exists or he doesn’t; it’s not a matter of personal preference anymore than is my own existence! If someone says your religious beliefs are a matter of opinion, ask them if they think that the existence of Australia is a matter of opinion, and go from there.

So, the Church cannot change its teachings to “get with the times” because her teachings are truth claims, not opinions. And what was true 500 or 5,000 years ago is just as true today.

Dr. Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

Now, it is the case that we can grow in our understanding of the truth; just as we gain greater insight into the nature of reality in disciplines like biology and physics, so, too, can we grow in our understanding of the truths taught to us by the Church (coming from God himself). In the case of theology, this is what’s called the “development of doctrine”: as we prayerfully ponder what God has revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, we understand those truths more deeply, and we might change the language we use to express those truths.

But that change or development is never a “reversal” of a teaching, because, again, if something was actually true yesterday, it’s still true today.

One final note: it’s important to note that when we talk about “Catholic teachings” and “Catholic doctrine,” we’re talking about things that are formally taught by the Church. Members of the Church—including her leaders—may have all sorts of personal, private views on theological matters, but “doctrine” refers to what is formally taught. And it is those teachings which, as Jesus says in John 8:32, set us free, because they are true.