A Church that Can and Cannot Change

Notre Dame Law School is moving, lock, stock, and bookcase to a brand-new building in a few days. It's hard not to feel nostalgic--or to find layers of meaning here. As I was packing up my books, I came across John Noonan's A Church that Can and Cannot Change, which he delivered as the Erasmus Lectures at Notre Dame. Judge Noonan, for whom I clerked, started his career as a law professor at Notre Dame Law School. In fact, he wrote his classic book Contraception while working in this building.A Church that Can and Cannot Change talks about development of Catholic moral doctrine on issues ranging from marriage to religious liberty; it's a good, and very readable, account based on years of research. It would make a good Christmas present. Here's a good review by James Keenan, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College, in the Journal of Religion.

John T. Noonan's works on usury, contraception, religious freedom, abortion, divorce, and bribery have set the gold standard for research in theological ethics. While sensitive to the hermeneutical context of any particular teaching, he has traced and articulated the evolution of normative teachings across cultures and history.

His research is especially compelling for Roman Catholic ethics shaped to some degree by magisterial teachings that often make the claim of inerrancy precisely through another claim: that its utterances are continuously the same and resist change, despite evidence to the contrary. Noonan's present project addresses this issue head-on: is there historical change in these teachings, and, if so, is history edifying? Does history build up the church and bring us to wisdom?

Noonan presents his investigations in six parts. In the first, he sets up his argument. The next four parts treat the evolution of four particular teachings: slavery, usury, religious freedom, and divorce. The final one is framed by maxims relevant to understanding the effects of history on moral teaching.

Noonan prefaces his treatment of slavery with a theologically troubling concept, an unknown sin. Such a sin is an act that is not recognized for centuries as a sin but at some point becomes regarded with horror as the blackest kind of affront to the human person and among the most serious derelictions of duty to God (14). Slavery is the unknown sin and is treated in the second part, comprising more than half the book. The narrative is absolutely riveting.

Noonan describes a church unable to recognize slavery's sinfulness and a long-standing theological community at home with the institution, even when it is innovating the moral law. From Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and Antoninus of Florence to John Mair and Francisco de Vitoria, the slave receives no recognition. As masters of morality taught, the masters of slaves were moral owners of property (61).

As incipient recognitions of the horror of slavery are reported, popes speak out while theologians and local religious leaders seem remarkably blind. For instance, in 1839, Pope Gregory XVI decries the inhuman trade of slavery (107), but the leading prelate in the United States, Bishop John England, asserts the lawful title to slaves, the moral theologian Francis Kenrick defends the practice of slavery, and the Jesuits of the Maryland Province actually own more than two hundred slaves. Later Pope Leo XIII issues two other denunciations against slavery, and, in a devastating diatribe against theological obtuseness, Noonan notes how Karl Rahner, in editing the teachings of pontiffs and councils for the past twenty centuries, failed to recognize any papal teaching of slavery as worthy of mention (117). Indeed, the first categorical condemnation by the church of an institution that the church had lived with for over nineteen hundred years is finally made in 1965 in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes.

Noonan then turns to changes in the opposite direction, actions that are, in a way of speaking, no longer sinful: usury, religious freedom, and divorce. But like the issue of slavery they witness to how faith leads us, over time, to understand moral matters differently.

Noonan closes his work by offering wisdom on how history teaches us that no one ever has a full purchase on any moral insight, that humility is an effective epistemological virtue, that development should neither be exaggerated nor denied, and, above all, that love should lead us. But Noonan leaves this moralist a bit unsettled. Declaring moral teachers from previous generations innocent for the positions they held, he explains the acquittal with an overarching assertion: We must be judged by the moral criterion we know (200). Did no one have a responsibility to learn what he did not yet know? Is there not any culpability for ignorance? Do not the prophets rightly condemn when we do not bother to understand? This brilliant book teaches us that, if we appreciate history, inevitably we are called to understand more than we presently know.

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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