As one who is in the process of leaving the Southern Baptist church for Roman Catholicism, I say without hesitation and full of love and concern that the Church I fell in love with, the Church in which I found, finally, the full embodiment and expression of truth, goodness, and beauty, is becoming harder to recognize almost by the day. What I see is a Church struggling to maintain a healthy distance from a fallen world that seeks her undoing. It is become harder to see the lifeboat as it takes on more of the water from which we are in need of rescue.
In recent months there have been myriad stories and scandals, some old and disgracefully persistent, others newer, and all ephemeral. Perhaps the most interesting is also the least sensationalized (at least at the root), namely the talk of “paradigm shifts” within the Church. This view was first voiced by the Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Parolin, who began to pull at this particular thread not too long ago when he suggested that Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia signals a paradigm shift in the Church. These sentiments were affirmed soon after by Cardinal Cupich of Chicago. There has been a predictable slew of commentary since, most notably by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, demoted prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On matters of doctrine, wrote Müller, paradigm shifts are not possible.
The view of an outsider eager to come in from the cold is this: the Church needs no paradigm shifts because the Church is the paradigm shift.
The modern world is characterized by nothing if it is not characterized by a fundamental lack of rootedness, and this, it would seem, is by design. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia recently delivered an address, in which he said,
Our country is built on change because we’re a nation of immigrants. Change is natural. It’s also healthy, as long as a nation remains linked in some key organic ways with its past. A nation’s identity fractures when it changes so rapidly, so deeply and in so many ways, that the fabric of the culture ruptures into pieces that no longer fit together. We’re close to that point as a society right now—if not past it.
As it is on our own shores, so the same is true in most places on earth. And yet, there are some who would see this pseudo-virtue be adopted by and adapted to the Church, hence the talk of paradigm shifts. It seems that this same sort of split experienced so vividly in American culture is perhaps beginning to occur within the Church itself. The word “schism” has been employed increasingly, if sensationally, albeit not always by those in fellowship with the Church universal. Nonetheless, one need not be on a ship to point out that there are cracks and dents in her hull.
Coming back to the matter of paradigm shifts, it is true—absolutely and beautifully true—that the Church is the paradigm shift. It is the Rock, built upon the rock, which remains unchanged in a world so zealous and eager to change. The modern world revels in its constant drive to reinvent itself. Society has figured out what the greatest physicists and engineers have not, namely how to perpetually sustain forward movement into infinite and unimaginable reaches.
They call it “progress,” because today is different from yesterday, and tomorrow different from today. The destination, however, has yet to be clearly determined, and movement without a destination is nothing but aimless wandering. Man once had a set and decided destination—God. But God was abandoned when man began to wonder if he knew better. Man thus became an existential exile, lost and alone in the cosmos.
For all of its truly great progressions—modern medicine and the once-promising “Space Race” stand out in one’s mind—in what ways has humanity itself improved as a result? All one ever hears is the gospel of progress. Life has become a catechesis of the material, being told that all of reality is one way and that only in believing the officially approved orthodoxy will man experience happiness. And what is this desired happiness? It is to be freed from the shackles of “irrational” superstitions, i.e., religious belief and all the attendant pompous piety (which, interestingly, is nothing but a reframing of man’s existential exile). Freedom is happiness, one is told and sold, and one cannot be free if under the thumb of some divine puppet master. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who reasoned falsely, “If God exists, I cannot be free; but I am free, therefore God cannot exist.” Thus it is that man, fool that he is, who celebrates his being lost. Is it any wonder, then, that strange and horrible events and “developments” are occurring with such regularity today?
The fact remains that perpetual motion is a physical impossibility. Even our ever-expanding universe, so it is theorized, will one day begin to retract into the infinitesimally minute speck of cosmic primordial matter from whence it came. The modern spirit is wedded to progression, and constant progression is quite literally exhausting. One may say, not unreasonably, that the myriad dysfunctions seen in the world and in the Church are the symptoms of our spiritual exhaustion. It is a time for rest, not for further action.
This, then, is the role of the Church: to remain constant in her faith and in her teaching; to continue offering refuge to the wanderers and the exiles; to show that much of what happens outside of her walls is not real, but superficiality and vanity. She is, in other words, the definitive paradigm shift. The ways and whims of the world may change, but the Church stands at the ready, sentinel like, prepared to offer her counterpoint and, if necessary, her defense.
There is a popular view of history as a pendulum, whereby the events of history swing back and forth from one extreme to the other. One may also think of a tide, rolling in and going back out. Both the pendulum and the tide, however, are confined to a very strict range of motion: right and left, in and out. The Church is above it all. She is the gear that keeps the pendulum moving, and the box that houses both pendulum and gears. She is the boat resting peacefully atop the waters as they roll, however turbulently, in and out. Houses are built and houses crumble, but the rock remains a rock unless intentionally destroyed.
Whether a net good or not, this debate over paradigm shifts is an important conversation not so much for its merits at face value, but rather for the glimpse it offers into the soul of the Church itself. Theological developments as Newman described are not relevant to this discussion. The Church cannot change in any fundamental way but only build upon pre-existing Tradition. Yes, individual prelates have made certain mistakes in the past that have resulted in unfortunate changes. Those changes are to be expected since the Church is made up of imperfect men, which is to say, of perfect sinners. But that is not the sort of change being suggested here either. Rather, what some Church officials are proposing is an arbitrary and fundamental change that accommodates the shifting sand of worldly sentimentality from which the Church exists to offer refuge.
In the midst of a storm, a wanderer needs shelter. That is the Church. When the roof begins to leak, it must be patched. It would be foolish, however, to replace the entire roof, and all the more to replace it with much more dubious and rickety material.
As one seeking shelter from the storm, it is disheartening to find such senseless and capricious quarrels erupting in the last refuge.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” painted by Ludolf Backhuysen in 1695.