“Ask a Priest: Why Does It Seem As If Church Teaching Has Changed?”

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Q: I have been in a state of involuntary doubt for years. My main problem revolves around the question of the inspiration of the Church, whether the Holy Spirit does, indeed, offer it guidance when formulating teachings. It is not so much present-day teachings that bother me — rather, teachings from the past become large stumbling blocks. For example, my understanding is that the Church used to teach that people who committed suicide simply went to hell. My understanding is also that the Church used to have a negative valuation of sex (following partially from Augustine) incorporated into its teaching. Neither of these teachings is taught today — in fact, the exact opposite is taught. This being the case, it doesn’t seem to me that the Holy Spirit could have been operating at both points in history. In fact, it simply seems that many people simply followed the Church into error. At the end of the day, I cannot at present go out into public in good conscience and state that I am Catholic, because to say so would be to give explicit assent to the notion that the Church receives such eternal guidance in faith and morals. The historical evidence does not seem to support that viewpoint. I would appreciate any thoughts you can provide on this issue. –M.L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to make a few distinctions here.

First, I don’t think the Church ever taught that this person or that person ended up lost. It doesn’t even teach anything definitive about the fate of Judas.

The Church did, however, hold in early times (and still holds) that suicide is objectively a grave fault against the Fifth Commandment. To underline that teaching, in earlier times it even denied funeral Masses for such unfortunate people.

I emphasize that word “objectively.” In recent times, with the advance of psychology, we understand that people who commit suicide are often not totally in control mentally. Hence, subjectively their culpability might be lessened, if not eliminated. That is why the Church now allows funeral Masses in the case of suicides. It is not that the Church’s core teaching has changed — suicide remains objectively a grave error — but rather its pastoral application and the way it understands how suicides can stem from severe emotional or mental problems.

As far as the “negative valuation” of sex is concerned, you would need to cite something specific in a papal or conciliar document. It is one thing for the Church to be perceived as being negative about sex; it is another to point out a specific text that says the Church disdains sex.

There might have been a general downplaying of sex — it can, after all, be an extremely destruction of power if misused — which is understandable in cultures where the stability and dignity of family life was highly valued. The Church has always understood that procreation is a big part of the intent of marriage — and you can’t have babies without sex, obviously. And the Church, unlike any other group, has always revered marriage as a sacrament, an objective window of supernatural grace in the natural world. That seems to me to be a very positive view.

Early ages were probably more sensitive to the many deviations and misuses of sex that could trouble mankind. Many people in the Church reflected such thinking. Even prominent theologians sometimes emphasized marital intimacy as a “cure for concupiscence.” Their view, however, was not synonymous with Church doctrine. Theologians, even great theologians, espouse ideas that later are rejected. Augustine, for instance, believed that unbaptized babies were lost, yet the Church never officially accepted that view.

But even a possibly negative emphasis on sex in ages past doesn’t undercut the Church’s core teachings about marriage and sex. In recent times, of course, the theology of the body has gone deeper into the theological meaning of marital intimacy. But this doesn’t alter the core truths perennially taught by the Church.

So it might be good to distinguish between what is held by some theologians or groups within the Church, and what the Church officially teaches as doctrine.

Contrary to popular myth, the Church has a long history of encouraging debate and allowing theologians and philosophers and others to float a wide variety of ideas. Some of those ideas stand the test of time and eventually are incorporated into official teaching. Other ideas might take hold at a popular level, yet never be officially accepted by the Church.

I could only encourage you to study more deeply the teachings of the Church, beginning with the Catechism and the documents of Vatican II. I think you will see the underlying continuity of official doctrine.

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