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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Thursday, October 5, 2023: Things change.

Thursday, October 5, 2023: Things change.

The Synod in Rome provides us an opportunity to look back through the history of the Church and to identify times when the Church changed. Some of the changes were fundamental, some not so serious. But the Church has changed and adapted over the centuries. Today many people, clergy and bishops included, want to prevent the changes they fear will be the outcome of the Synod. They want to freeze the Church in the last century. They believe the Church cannot and should not change to reflect the culture of the time but rather hold onto the dogma and rituals of an earlier era.

But the history of the Church has always been a history of change and greater wisdom, openness and compassion.

Some examples of dramatic change:

Early on, it was believed that the message of Jesus was reserved to Jews. Then gentiles were allowed only if they observed Jewish laws about circumcision and diet. Then the early leaders determined those rules did not apply.

Women were imagined as malformed males, even though God found fit to have them be the first to discover and declare the Easter miracle.

The church later regularly applied the adjective "perfidious" to Jews and prayed for their conversion. Then a council deemed that was wrong, and popes began visiting synagogues and describing Jews as brothers in Abraham.

The church and the culture change.

There was no salvation outside the church, until there was, and a pope invited other denominations and faiths to join him in prayer in Assisi, a practice that continued for decades.

LGBTQ people were described as "intrinsically disordered," a term that has quickly gone out of use. Now a pope says, when asked about homosexuality: "Who am I to judge?"

Slavery was once justified.

Earning interest on loans was once forbidden.

The Earth, the church once insisted, was the center of the universe.

"The church and the world do not stand still." Nor do they stand in isolation from one another.

Change is threatening. It unravels the certainties that bring comfort. It calls into question aspects of culture that some see as immutable. It brings differences into sharp relief. It is unsettling.

Would the community, in lieu of change, remain convinced, for instance, that women are inferior to men? Would it remain convinced that slavery is justified? Would it continue to see Jews and others as enemies, or continue to insist that the Earth is the center of the universe? Would it allow the understanding of human behavior, sexuality, psychology, medicine, to remain stuck in some imagined time from which nothing can change?

Certainty does not require immutability. The certainty is assured, it is contained in its most compact form in the kerygma, the ancient statement of faith. As the late theologian Richard McBrien put it in his massive work Catholicism: "The message of the New Testament was always the message of the resurrection."

That's where the immutable certainty lies. And what of all those pesky issues causing anxiety and division? Perhaps Francis believes the church has reached a level of maturity where the questions can flow without retribution, where the messiness of the complex human family can be reflected in our deliberations. Where the awkward mouthful of syllables — synod on synodality — will come to model a new manner of life within the church.

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