The Evolving Church

Does the Catholic Church Ever Change?

Yes, it does. While some people think it never changes, others think that it has changed too much and aren’t ablereconcile ancient Christianity with modern Catholicism.

In fact,they are one and the same. However it is true that Christianity’s beliefs have evolved or developed through the centuries. This does not mean the Church has come to believe something different from what she originally believed, but simply that her understanding of her beliefs has matured with time.

Doctrinal progression is a sign of the Church’s vitality, as well as its spirit of inquiry and the love (and use) of knowledge, much of it gained through Catholic investments in universities and research.

Jesus described the Church as being “like a grain of mustard seed … [which] is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown … is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (see Matthew 13:31, 32).

Looking at a fully-grown tree, one may have difficulty believing such a great and complex thing could have come from a tiny seed, for the seed and the tree outwardly appear very different. However, a more in-depth examination would prove the seed and the tree are identical in substance, the same object at different stages of growth. Those who reject the Catholic Church because they fail to see in her present grandeur in the simple faith community from the Acts of the Apostles seem to forget that nearly 2,000 years have passed between the two.

To expect today’s Church to look the same as it did in Acts is as irrational as expecting the tree to look like the seed, or a twenty-year-old woman to appear as she did when she was an infant.

The Catholic Church’s critics regularly accuse her of inventing doctrine because they fail to differentiate between the inception of a new idea and the progression of an old one. The development of doctrine does not mean the corruption of doctrine. To the contrary, Catholic teaching has developed in purity under the protection of the Holy Spirit.

In the nearly 20 centuries the Church has spent contemplating Jesus’ teachings, we has come to understand those teachings more profoundly.

It is similar to a person reading the same book again and again over a long period of time. The reader’s comprehension of the book will increase even though the words of the book do not change. Like text printed on a page, the teachings encased within the Deposit of Faith given to the Apostles cannot be altered. However, as heresies have risen through the centuries to challenge apostolic truths and mislead Christians, the Church has needed to clarify what she believes in a definitive way. In the process, her understanding of the truth has, by God’s grace, deepened. Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) put it this way, “While the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction” (City of God 16:2).

Nothing the Church holds today to be true regarding faith and morals contradicts what she earlier held to be true. Some beliefs were implicitly taught by the early Church and have since been more clearly defined. There are many instances in which the Church applied a new term to an old teaching for the sake of clarification. Some may be surprised to learn, for instance, that the word Trinity does not appear in Scripture. Its first recorded use occurs late in the second century.

In the face of widespread heresy, the Church’s teaching on the Holy Trinity needed to be defined by various ecumenical councils, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and ending with the Council of Constantinople in 681. It was at Nicaea that the term consubstantial, meaning “of the same substance,” was officially adopted to define the relationship between Jesus and the Father. This does not mean the Church believed Jesus was less divine than the Father before the term consubstantial was used. It is simply the case that the Church needed to clarify what had always been believed because questions regarding teachings were jeopardizing the cohesiveness of the faithful.

In the New Testament account of the Council of Jerusalem, Saints Paul, Barnabas, and others are sent to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to seek a ruling on the question of circumcision (see Acts of the Apostles 15:2). It can hardly make sense to a Bible-alone Christian that first-century believers (including Saint Paul no less) depended upon a central authority to decide a theological question. Had they recognized Scripture as Christianity’s sole authority, would Paul and his companions not have turned to Scripture alone to settle the issue?

The absence of an authoritative hierarchy leaves Scripture vulnerable to limitless interpretation and outright abuse.

Foreseeing this, the Lord established His Church to be His living voice in the world, assuring her, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Because Christ gave the Church the authority to speak for Him, Christians are obligated to follow her commands as they would the commands of Christ; or, to put it more succinctly, the commands of the Church are the commands of Christ for it is He Who is speaking through her.

Though the period of divine revelation ended with the of the last apostle and no new revelation shall be given, the need to clarify Christian truth in the face of dissent remains.1 It was necessary, therefore, that the hierarchy’s authority to speak in Christ’s name be handed down. Why would Jesus give this authority only to the first generation of Church leaders after all knowing disputes threatening the integrity of His Body would occur through the centuries?

Every question of Christian doctrine ultimately comes down to a matter of authority. When one reaches a theological fork in the road, whom shall he trust to tell him the correct way to go? Who has the authority to proclaim the truth? Regardless of which ecclesiastical tradition he belongs, these questions, above all others, must be answered in the most reassuring way.

  1. The Second Vatican Council (1965) clearly stated, “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 6:14 and Titus 2:13)” (Dei Verbum 4; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 66).

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