Bernard Doering has written an excellent article. The article uses contemporaneous letters which listen like a fly on the wall to a private conversation about a public topic. Second, it preserves the nuances of the different directions in which these first rate Catholic thinkers were being pulled. Third, it leaves the reader -- at least this reader -- with a fresh perspective from which to ponder the relationship between Church teaching and change.
It has been decades since Vatican II, the turmoil of the 60s, and Humanae Vitae. The article nicely places in historical perspective the current controversy over contraception, and suggests -- at least to this reader -- that the unsettled issue of Church teaching and change has been fermenting beneath the surface.
How are we to be faithful to a loving God? By loving one another, of course, but Church teaching has provided a more detailed framework of principles and more particular and concrete guidance to assist the faithful conscience. On the one hand, Church teaching is acknowledged to be a work in progress: tradition and the sensus fidelium play a role. On the other hand, Church teaching should reflect and maintain the continuity and identity of the Church. As the article suggests, tension remains.
My own view is that at least one path forward is provided by what St. Augustine called God's "book of nature," although St. Augustine would never have dreamed what creative guidance the book of nature is now providing us. It is probably only coincidence, but just as Vatican II was concluding science was discovering the cosmic background radiation. This evidence tells us that nature itself is evolving, putting to rest the idea that change is simply about uncovering what we do not yet know.
Even Einstein once thought that the universe was eternal, and that the task of science was to disclose the mind of "the old one." His General Theory of Relativity is elegantly based upon a single assumption: the laws of physics are the same everywhere and everywhen. It is -- as Einstein himself preferred to call it -- a theory of invariants (his field equations were "invariant" under transformations across time and space), a far cry from relativism. But to preserve a universe that was eternal Einstein had to add a "cosmological constant" to his equations, an ad hoc addition which he later regarded as the biggest blunder of his life.
There is a parallel, I think, between conceiving the universe as an eternal reality about which we gradually learn more and conceiving of Church teaching as being developed gradually through tradition. Both conceptions grasp at continuity but miss something that is important about the one reality that a loving and utterly awesome God is unfolding before us and, thereby, sharing with us. What is missing is this: continuity does not require certitude in how we look at our past understandings. Instead, continuity requires trust.
Trust in what? In science understandings change, but past understandings can still be trusted to explain the evidence they once explained. Newtonian mechanics is still trusted with mundane tasks of constructing buildings and bridges, even though Einstein's equations are needed to make our GPS devices work. Newtonian mechanics is still trusted for calculating how galaxies move, even though Einstein's equations are needed to explain how the orbit of Mercury changes. So the understandings of Einstein and Newton are about being useful, rather than true. Einstein did not depose Newton; they continue to live together, in continuity and in trust.
Vatican I spoke explicitly about the infallibility of the Pope. Vatican II spoke explicitly about the "sense of the faithful" as a crucible for discerning whether Church teachings are "received." The People of God continue to struggle with these understandings, but they can work together, can they not?
What ties these understandings together in a bond of trust is St. Augustine's "book of nature." Granted, St. Augustine would be surprised by the novelty of this approach but, upon reflection, might well find comfort in a God of surprises. It is remarkable how recent are our current understandings of the cosmos. The cosmic background radiation and a coherent picture of how the universe has evolved (what some who teach about such matters call "big history" from the Big Bang forward) has all come to light in the last fifty years. We have been graced with an unfolding reality, one that unfolds not simply with new knowledge -- as if (to use Bernard Lonergan's expression) the real were a subdivision of the "already out there now" -- but a reality that unfolds with further surprises.
My faith tells me -- or, better, suggests to me, subject ultimately to a "sense of the faithful" -- that Jesus the Christ is one of these surprises and that what is understood "but through a glass, darkly," as the parousia will be another surprise. But what about the tension that Doering's article summarized by the question: "How can a proposition that is not infallible -- such as the conclusions of Humanae Vitae -- be nonetheless irreformable?" We need a different way of looking at the problem, a different way of understanding how continuity is maintained in a progression from Papal infallibility to the sensus fidelium, a progression that proceeds in trust from an ancient heritage that is open to surprises.
The mechanism for such an understanding is remarkably simple. Suppose that each conscience resonates with the word of God, "written on their hearts." The word is perceived "but through a glass, darkly," so that the choice made by conscience is typically between one alternative that may have resonated at an earlier time and another alternative that now is more resonant. Common experience with progress toward maturity recognizes, of course, the role of concupiscence, whose cautionary tales are a mark of wisdom.
Apply this model to the People of God as a whole. Are we not the body of Christ, with a collective conscience that has found resonance in the teaching authority of the magisterium, even though the people struggle with varying degrees of allegiance and submission to the teachings of the magisterium? Is it not a sign of the times that many people are looking for a way of understanding the unity of the Church that yields continuity with the past and yet resonates more? Those who are satisfied with reliance upon the infallibility of the Pope may see some form of concupiscence operating among those for whom the concept of "definitive teaching" does not resonate, but is that an accurate reading of the conscience of others?
Thus the People of God as a whole struggles with what is written on their collective heart. Vatican I provided a doctrine that codified the practice of authoritative teaching by the magisterium. The doctrine was formally limited to seldom used ex cathedra statements, and Vatican II articulated a "sense of the faithful" methodology for testing whether teachings were in accordance with the Spirit. But Vatican II also validated the teaching authority of the magisterium, and as Doering's article points out the concept of "definitive teaching" implements that validation.
But all of this is understandable as the working out of the collective conscience toward ever more resonant formulations of what is "written on their hearts." Viewed in this light there emerges a bridge across any lingering separation between lay and cleric, the bridge of dialogue. A style of dialogue becomes a prominent component of an ongoing process involving the whole People of God rather than a dilution of magisterial teaching authority. Vatican II highlighted the importance of parish and diocesan councils, but little has been done with these institutions. The Church continues to grow, slowly. General acceptance within the Church of an understanding of continuity that trusts change and nourishes dialogue remains ahead of us, as does greater use of parish and diocesan councils.
These are exciting times. God's surprises in the cosmos are a sign.