Ringing the Changes on Change

This now-passing spring we have heard and seen changes in the religious spheres, which get described as “stunning,” “startling,” and more

By Martin E. Marty|June 1, 2015

This now-passing spring we have heard and seen changes in the religious spheres, which get described as “stunning,” “startling,” and more. We’ll reach into our internet deposit for just two which have shaken the world of Catholics and millions of their neighbors.

First, the drastic change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage in, of all places, Catholic-Ireland, and in many other places.

Second, the turn Catholic leadership is being asked to take (by Pope Francis and his spiritual kin) to put less accent on alienating energies in “the culture wars” and more on what the pope finds to be urgent and Christ-like such as caring for the poor and the powerless and working for justice.

Critics regularly point out that many of the Pope’s accents and policy proposals contradict things he said and did years ago. That’s the point, says the pontiff: it’s called “repentance” and “new life.”

This is not the day to detail the plentiful stories in the news or in expressions by many Catholics “down the block.” They deserve and get media treatment; one could add little new in a short columns like Sightings’.

Instead we’ll focus for a moment on what “change” itself means in the current life of the Catholic Church, which, we are regularly reminded, is the globe’s oldest and largest organization. And, we are also reminded, it is often advertised as resistant to change, lest its hold on truth seem shaky or its leadership fickle. You know e.g., the mass in Latin, “everywhere” and “always,” was a sign of guaranteed truth and offered the experience of comfort in a world of flux everywhere else.

Reading the debates about changes in Catholicism, religion, and culture, prompts me to reach into my mental grab bag about change, perhaps offered in my commencement-addresses past.

Three samples:

If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Many of us misattributed this saying to Edmund Burke, who would have said it if he knew how we needed it, but most now trace it to one Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland. It characterizes the attitude and proclaimed policy of Catholic conservatives. They might protest the drastic change in Catholic-Ireland’s rejection of inherited positions. But the majorities of Catholic faithful, and more and more of their leaders, see that on many fronts it is necessary to change. So, as the Pope counsels on diverse subjects, it is important to read the signs of the times and respond, perhaps, sometimes, to change.

While some glory and triumph in these recent changes, one should not be lofty, snide, or unthinking about those who are having trouble dealing with these changes. So, saying number two: “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” Richard Hooker observed this, to the comfort of those who resist specific changes. Perhaps some of the changes are for the better, as the Pope reminds them, while giving signs that he himself is not going to turn fickle and go along with everything.

Finally, from the high-minded John Cardinal Newman, who spoke with more ease about the possibilities of perfection than this Protestant is allowed to do, even as we bask in the light of its promise: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” We may not go along with all this implies, but we get enough glimmers of hope for such change from the Pope at least to entertain some possibilities of change in our “below” time.

We’ll keep sighting the signs, and reporting in the seasons ahead.

Hakim, Danny and Douglas Dalby. “Ireland Votes to Approve Gay Marriage, Putting Country in Vanguard.” New York Times, May 23, 2015, Europe. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/world/europe/ireland-gay-marriage-referendum.html.

O’Connor, Joseph. “Ireland is a kinder, fairer place after voting for same-sex marriage.” The Guardian, May 23, 2015, Opinion. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/24/same-sex-vote-makes-ireland-a-kinder-fairer-place.

Gardels, Nathan. "Weekend Roundup: Pope Francis Resurrects Liberation Theology -- Without Marx." WorldPost, May 29, 2015. http://www.theworldpost.com.

Wooden, Cindy. “Pope Francis: God will judge people on care for the poor, for the planet.” National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2015, Catholic News Service. http://ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/pope-francis-god-will-judge-people-care-poor-planet.

O’Connell, Gerard. “Pope Francis: To Care for the Poor is Not Communism, It is the Gospel.” American: The National Catholic Review, January 11, 2015, Dispatches. http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/pope-francis-care-poor-not-communism-it-gospel.

Moloney, Liam. “Pope Francis Says Church Has Cared for Poor Since Beginning: Pope Says Attention to Poor ‘Isn’t an Invention of Communism.’” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2015, Europe. http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-francis-says-church-has-cared-for-poor-since-beginning-1420985288.

Image: Carmelite sisters cast their vote at a polling station in Malahide, County Dublin, Ireland, May 22, 2015. Ireland voted on a referendum on Gay marriage which will require an amendment to the Irish Constitution. (Peter Morrison / AP Photo).

Martin E. Marty headshotAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.


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