Resistance to change in the Roman Catholic Church

In intellectually sophisticated pieces like editorials in First Things or in Douthat’s book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, or in far less informed diatribes directed at Francis, cardinals or bishops like those regularly propagated by websites like LifeSiteNews and Church Militant, Francis’ actions and teaching are met with unease, disagreement and sometimes active dissent. The Aug. 2 announcement of the modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” further raised a howl of anti-Francis noise, especially among U.S. Catholics whose political support for the death penalty seems increasingly in contradiction to authoritative teaching.

So how can this be described as ultramontanism? Isn’t anti-papal ultramontanism a contradiction in terms?

The missing link that connects the two movements is not support for a particular papacy, but opposition to change. Reading O’Malley’s book and re-reading some of the primary sources, on one hand, while keeping Twitter open on my computer on the other, has underlined more clearly for me that, both in the 19th century and today, the possibility of the church changing is the monster hiding under the bed, or the pew, for many of these thinkers.

Infallibility Wellcome c.jpg

An 1869 English illustration satirizes the debate over papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council. (Wellcome Library, London)

That the church changes — the “dirty little secret” as Garry Wills named it in the 1970s and as Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa revived it in his study of 1960s Catholicism — would be a contradiction in terms for both Veuillot and his contemporary equivalents. This may explain some of the parallels.

Any theologian or church historian knows just how often and radically the church has changed in the past, knowledge that some further reading in theology might benefit the average rad-trad on Facebook.

John Noonan’s magisterial A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching is just the most thorough treatment of how in relation to slavery, usury and marriage church teaching on morals has changed, sometimes radically, in the past. And for those converts to Catholicism for whom the conservatism and stability of the era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was the refuge to which they fled from the upheavals and relativism of the past forty years, this new experience of development, however minor or gradual in the wider horizons of church history, will be a profound test of faith.

But if I’m correct, and the real heart of ultramontanism, new and old, is not simply the papacy, but how to understand the historical reality of the church, then we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Those of us who may have thought that the issue of the historical nature of the church was settled at the Second Vatican Council should be alerted out of our complacency to speak and teach about the phenomenon of ecclesial change. And we ought to remember that it was Veuillot and Ward who won the day through their skillful use of media, not the Archbishop of Paris or the theological elites who argued with them in theological journals.

The youthful populism of earlier ultramontanism warns us against dismissing similar movements today, particularly in relation to the world of upheaval and uncertainty threatening many educated, indebted and economically vulnerable young Catholics.

And yet, as John Henry Newman famously wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Continuing to share the good news of the life of the church, a life that involves change, is one additional task for theologians and church leaders for this time in our history.

[Brian Flanagan is associate professor of theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church, to be published this September by Liturgical Press, and a contributor to the blog]


This is just a snippet from the latest N.C.R. article entitled ‘New Ultramontanists’: Why do some Catholics fear change? You can click on this link to read to article.

I wanted, this morning, to draw attention to the fact that, not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but in all Christian communities – not least the Provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion – there has always been a group of people who are terrified of any changes in doctrinal certitude.

In his excellent piece on the ‘Ultra-Montanism’ and the ‘New Ultra-Montanism’ present in the Roman Catholic Church; the author, Brian Flanagan, points to the fact that there have always been outspoken critics amongst the membership of the Church of any tendency on the part of the Magisterium (Papal authority) to alter the basic tenets of what they see as the initial ‘Deposit of Faith’ as originally determined by Early Church Councils.

This very same reluctance on the part of ‘Sola Scriptura’ Anglican communities to recognise that, with the progress of humanity and the emergence of scientific and social evidence of the need for attitudinal change, gives evidence that the Church needs to move with the times – in order to retain its influence and credibility as a spiritual force for the good in the society it seeks to minister to.

The natural human desire to remain with what has always been, and to close one’s eyes to the reality of life as it now is lived out in society, should never prevent the overhaul of dogma and doctrines that militate against the ongoing needs of justice in a world ever more open to the experience of institutionalised injustice and inequality that prevents the prospect of common human thriving for all people – not just the socially or religiously adept. With the Incarnation of Jesus, a new paradigm was bought into being which challenged the status quo of received religion and spirituality – to the extent that He intentionally ministered to the disenfranchised, the poor and the outcast of society.

The Church throughout its history has had to deal with the need for change – in order to meet the practical and spiritual needs of society. Its basic doctrines as stated in the Catholic Creeds have been agreed to as immutable, but subsequent dogmatic pronouncements – on the impact of the spirituality on the ways in which human behaviour is to be governed – have had to be reviewed in the light of new  revelations of how humanity can best be served in the light of a radical and new understanding of the mission of Christ in the Scriptures.

If our faith in God as Trinity; where Father, Son and Spirit are One and still involved in the ongoing work of creation (a belief that is perfectly consonant with the articles of the Catholic Creeds) is to remain relevant; we must always be open to new revelation from God on matters pertaining to our spiritual and material progression. As our understanding of God’s plan for us is progressively revealed, the Church must keep abreast of attitudinal changes that have to take place – in order for humanity to approach more nearly the ‘perfection’ that God has in mind for us. Any resistance to the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, whose light has been shed on matters of slavery, male-dominance, racism, intellectual elitism, sexism and homophobia – and other socially destructive elements of our common life – could be seen as counter-productive to the ‘Coming of God’s Kingdom’ for which purpose the Church initially was bought into being.

Pope John XXIII’s call for ‘Semper  Reformanda’ –  at his institution of the Second Vatican Council – began a revolution in Roman Catholic theology, which still resonates today among many faithful RomanCatholics. However, there is a remnant in that Church which is critical of the reforming zeal of the reforming zeal of Pope Francis, whose intention is to carry through, and perhaps even improve upon, the movement made by the Church at the time of Vatican II to bring the influence of the Church into the world of the Third Millenium.

Similarly, in our very own Anglican Communion, there are those who resist, with all their energy and reason, the more pragmatic movement of some of our local Provincial Churches to include LGBTI people in their ministry and mission in and to the world of today. As with the nay-sayers in the Sanhedrin, who questioned the Christian activities of the Early Church, they were advised that, if their activities were of the Holy Spirit they would survive. So we shall see!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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