“When will the Catholic Church come into the twenty-first century?” is a sentiment often expressed in the media these days, suggestive of a set of issues that are known to Christians: same-sex “marriage,” contraception, and divorce (to name only a few). Because the teachings of the Church on these subjects are at odds with the increasingly secular culture, non-Catholics—and even many Catholics—are left frustrated, even angry as to why the Church doesn’t finally come to the same conclusions as does the secular worldview.
Historically, since the Enlightenment western secular culture has presumed (erroneously) that we are progressing slowly toward a perfected humanity. They believe that, given enough time, willpower, money, technological advancements, and scientific breakthroughs, it is believed that we will be able to dig our way out of our brutal past pockmarked by wars, poverty, disease, and social injustice to arrive at a just society.
Another presumption has to do with modernity’s understanding of secular laws. The idea that stature laws are dictated by natural law (which had been the standard belief for centuries) is mostly dismissed today. Natural law is the truth that an intelligible and consistent order exists independently of human opinion or construction, and that this order is a source of moral restriction and command for human beings. Since the 1960s, the dependence of secular law on natural law has increasingly been replaced by the idea that there is no independent, objective moral order; in other words, moral and immoral are categories that are subjectively and culturally constructed.
In sum, a secular worldview believes that the progress of the human person over the centuries has led to changing cultural norms that must become codified in statute law. As cultural norms change, so, too, our laws do and must change. To cite the most media-obsessed example, it is argued that our society has progressed over the centuries to come to understand that relationships between people of the same gender are morally acceptable, and therefore our laws should be changed to allow homosexual marriage.
In the fifth century the Church addressed similar claims concerning the perfectibility of man. Sts. Augustine and Jerome fought a theological battle with Pelagianism. Pelagians rejected the notion of the sinfulness of humanity, embracing the view that we have an unconstrained free will. Because they rejected the idea of original sin (as would the Enlightenment philosopes), the Pelagians concluded that one could arrive at a perfected state of sinlessness. This position was ultimately condemned by the Church because of its erroneous, overly optimistic understanding of the human person.
Thus far, the reader must be wondering: if the Church rejects the idea of inevitable progress towards perfection, are we just terrible sinners who cannot make any progress in this life at all? Catholic docrine makes two claims simultaneously: yes, we can change, and no, we cannot change. (To be continued....)