T’oros Roslin, Joseph’s Dream, 1262 (Wikimedia Commons)

At the direction of the pope, the name of St. Joseph was added to the canon of the Mass in the Roman rite. The year was 1962. In discussions of liturgical reform up to then, the canon tended to be regarded as the Holy of Holies: do not touch. Its text was assumed to be ancient and unchanged since the pontificate of Gregory the Great in the sixth century.

The emendation that John XXIII made in the twentieth century consisted of six words, to make room for Joseph in an exclusive honor roll of saints: Mary, the twelve apostles, and twelve martyrs of the early church. The insertion of the new name was a small, discreet gesture. It was pious. The precedent thereby established had greater implications, however, than most observers at the time appreciated. “We can’t touch the canon? Of course we can. We just did. So no part of Mass is too holy for us to try to improve.”

Eight years later, after a period of incremental revisions that came at the faithful with shock-and-awe rapidity, the 1970 missal went into effect. To its critics, the new Mass was nothing like the judicious refurbishment originally promised. They lamented this radical “wreckovation,” as they saw it, a functional but jerry-built construction in place of a gorgeous cathedral that had grown up almost organically and stood for centuries, like a redwood. The catastrophe began with Pope John’s presumption in tinkering, though just a little, with the heart of the Mass: that, at any rate, is the history told by some Catholics who love the Latin Mass and protest against its marginalization.

Many of the same Catholics see in the recent change to the Catechism a replay of the St. Joseph episode. In answer to a request from Pope Francis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has altered teaching on the death penalty by tweaking a few lines, approximately the length of this paragraph, in a vast document of encyclopedic scope. The church shifted its position on only a single question, and then only by an inch. That Rome moved at all, though, when it could have chosen to stand still—that was the problem. What might this incident forebode, in light of the sequence of events that led to the sweeping liturgical reforms of the 1960s?

Not all doctrinal conservatives are liturgical traditionalists, but the two camps merge in their reaction to the news that the Vatican has amended the Catechism. They’re alarmed at the possibility that Rome has laid the groundwork for changes to teachings on marriage, divorce, contraception, the family, and other issues related to sexual morality. And in their understanding of what the church’s adjustment to its teaching on the death penalty may portend for future developments of doctrine, traditionalists and conservatives are joined by some progressives who do want Catholic teaching to change, to conform more closely to mainstream mores in present-day Western societies, and who take encouragement from this news that the Catechism now reflects a little more clearly an international secular consensus against capital punishment.

Appeals to the purported unanimity of church authorities on questions such as those concerning the death penalty are not grounded in solid earth but rather soar through the air that we as Catholics breathe.

More fundamental than any of the arguments against Pope Francis’s modification of the teaching on the death penalty are conservative beliefs about what kind of doctrines the magisterium may change and what kind it must safeguard and honor as immutable. Those who stress the church’s duty to preserve the magisterium from innovators speak of doctrines marked by “the unanimous consent of the Fathers,” but the Vatican has no formal roster of Catholic teachers, preachers, and thinkers whose votes the faithful must tally as if determining the outcome of a referendum. If we ruled that membership in the society of the Fathers was restricted to, say, those who are included in the Patrologia Latina (whose youngest entrant, Innocent III, died in the thirteenth century) and those included in the Patrologia Graeca up to the schism in 1054, then we would have to exclude Thomas Aquinas and everyone else who has come after him.

Appeals to the purported unanimity of church authorities on questions such as those concerning the death penalty are not grounded in solid earth but rather soar through the air that we as Catholics breathe. Knowing the magisterium well enough to be faithful to it despite its ambiguous qualities is an art more than a science. Official codifications and clarifications are helpful as far as they go, but the range of ideas, policies, and behaviors treated in the magisterium, and the fuzziness of its definition at the edges (How do you reconcile this pronouncement from Augustine or Ambrose with what looks like a contradictory statement from your bishop in a letter he sent last week?) defeat any effort to reduce the faith to a comprehensive, airtight body of laws.

A non-Catholic colleague curious about the procedure whereby some church teachings are determined to be immutable and others to be matters of prudential judgment asked me to explain. In his assumptions about the church, he flattered it, attributing to it a degree of legal, almost mathematical rigor that it aspires to, on principle, but does not—and should not—pretend that it can ever achieve in reality, in that vast ocean of topics addressed now and throughout long millennia by Moses, prophets, wisdom writers, evangelists, popes, bishops, priests, members of religious orders, lay theologians, and humble laypeople who lack credentials but have wisdom or valuable information to share. The project of assimilating the testimony of so many witnesses and assessing the relative value and authority of their uncountable utterances and expressions will never end, this side of the grave.

While the Catechism, the Code of Canon Law, the organization of the Roman curia, and the whole intellectual sweep of Catholic teaching redound to the brilliant reputation of the church’s strong left brain, the degree to which any institution can impose Apollonian order and clarity on the life of such a dynamic faith will always be limited. The image of the Catholic Church as a great rock that the storm-tossed sea of political strife and chaos crashes against but cannot budge is beautiful. Alas, Catholics of a conservative temperament are motivated to believe that the picture is truer to the reality than it is.

Our instruction in the faith often leads us to impute to the church an ontological privilege that corresponds to that for which we honor Mary, free of original sin. We are inclined to idealize the Catholic Church as a great definitive power that in its essence is infallible and imperturbable, blessed with the serene character that we discern in the Blessed Mother as we know her from Scripture and sacred tradition. She is an apt model for the church understood as the Mystical Body of Christ, but the institutional church, whose susceptibility to error and sin is all too conspicuous, demands a different personality to emulate.

For the church in its aspect as a global society subject to the vicissitudes of history and the world, wouldn’t St. Joseph be the more likely personification and figurehead? “In his relation to Christ,” Joseph “played the same role as the Church should exercise,” Karl Barth once explained. “The Roman Church, I know,” prefers to liken itself to Mary, “but the comparison is fallacious. The Church cannot give birth to the Redeemer.” Instead, it “can and must serve Him with discreet and humble zeal,” like “Joseph, who always remained in the background, leaving all the glory to Jesus.”

Note that Joseph was no rabbi. When the pope, a bishop, a curial official, or any one of us is called on to teach in the name of the church, let’s recall the example of Joseph. Stop expecting all the lessons to be magisterial, written on stone, as if on tablets from Mount Sinai. Church teaching is hard work, so accept that the bulk of it will be workmanlike, the product of human minds and subject to improvement, like us.

Nicholas Frankovich is an editor of National Review.

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Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: View Contents
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