Q: In a conversation about changes in the Church during the past 50 years, someone remarked that many of these changes involved teachings that some pope, or maybe more than one, had said were "irreformable." We're confused. How can something one pope says is permanent be changed by another pope? (New York)
A: One must understand what the word "irreformable" means in Church documents. Its wide use developed in relatively modern times in response to something that was happening in the secular world. During approximately nine centuries, particularly in what is often called the Christian Europe of the second millennium, popes were commonly considered, even by themselves, as supreme over all other countries and governments.
Anyone who knows history is aware that this claim of supremacy rarely matched what was really happening, but it was there at least in theory.
Later on, this perception of who had what power changed dramatically, especially under the influence of such movements as the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the late 1700s. Political decisions of states and nations began to be seen as actions of the people of that region, which could not be changed even by the pope. Such actions were called "irreformable."
For these and other reasons the influence of the Church, the papacy, even in religious matters, weakened enormously. In their desire for greater religious "security" and independence similar to that in civil society, Christian, particularly Catholic, people and leaders looked for ways to assure something similar to this civil authority for the Church.
It was in this light that popes characterized their decisions and statements as irreformable. This meant only that no other authority outside the Church was competent to change them. It did not mean that future popes or councils or other responsible authorities in the Church could not change policies and practices and even adapt and reformulate statements of faith in light of later circumstances and cultures.
This very concept explains, incidentally, much of the movement for the definition of papal infallibility during Vatican Council I in 1870. It also clarifies what that council meant by describing the Church as a "perfect society."
They dd not mean to claim that the Church is perfectly holy or, for that matter, perfect in any other way. It simply intended to proclaim that the Church was competent and autonomous in its own area of religious matters and in appropriate ways in other concerns connected with religion in civil society.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
QUESTION CORNER, Fr. John Dietzen