The National Catholic Review

I raised the issue of institutional change in the Church in a recent post. The major problem with respect to change is the tensions it raises at the level of Church teaching - is this an issue where change can be envisioned or is this a part of the sacred deposit of faith, a revealed truth, a doctrine of the Church in which no change can be considered? Even when it is not a doctrine of the Church, such as in the case of the teaching on limbo, any sort of proposed change in the theological teaching of the Church raises tensions. Does this indicate that the Church has been wrong on a certain theological question? Does that mean that every theological truth and doctrine is up in the air? Some people desire change with respect to much Church teaching and others say no change at any level is possible. Related to this is the fact that change occurs at a human level, not just at a theological level, which I feel deeply since my proclivities run to the traditional and the stable and so proposals for change concern me. Yet, change, a deepening of the understanding of revelation and its interpretation within the Church, has been with the Church from the beginning.

The first reading for the Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter deals with the Jerusalem Council and the question of whether Christians have to follow the Mosaic Law in order to gain salvation. The traditionalist position was clear and seems to have scripture and tradition on its side:

"Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (15:1)

and

"Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses."(15:5)

I suspect that one of the passages on the minds of the Christians who wanted to maintain the Mosaic Law was this passage from Genesis: "God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (17:1-4)

One must recognize the weight of the tradition of practice amongst the Jews, but we cannot forget that scripture seems to speak unequivocally on behalf of circumcision. The individuals from Judea, the believers who were Pharisees, have a powerful argument. Many of my students, as we read Acts 15, begin to understand the momentous shift that was taking place through the teaching of Jesus and the understanding of the Church at the Jerusalem Council. But this was a movement to interpreting and understanding Jesus’ teaching and the scripture which had not been apparent to the early Church as a whole. The Pharisaic Christians often garner a high degree of sympathy in my classroom as my students grasp the struggle the Church had to go through to implement this change. There were powerful strands of the teaching by Jesus and the scriptures in support of the Mosaic Law, but there were powerful impulses which spoke of the salvation for the whole world in the scriptures, in Jesus’ teaching and in the experiences and evangelization of Peter, Paul and other apostles. This is why the Church had to meet to discuss the issue and to determine the way of the Spirit. We will consider the remainder of Acts 15, and the Church’s decision, in the next post, but it is worth for today to reflect with empathy on the position of those who wanted to maintain the Mosaic Law as it always had been. Change is difficult, then and today.

John W. Martens

Comments

Brandon Kemp | 5/12/2010 - 12:42am
It's no secret that the early church changed its mind on certain issues, deepened its understanding of others, etc. It baffles me, then, why the Catholic church today continues to oppose necessary changes. Jesus and the Apostles opposed "unnecessary burdens," and yet the church still refuses to admit contraception as permissible to the faithful, 93% or more of whom already find no problem with its usage (what happened to the "sensus fidelium," the experience of the faithful forming and critiquing the church's doctrine?). Likewise, doesn't it seem that it would be preferable, considering the priest shortage, NOT to discriminate against women and gays in the priesthood? Concerning the former group, it's no secret that Jesus, while probably influenced by his culture's thinking, was still something of a progressive as regards women. The argument that "Jesus chose only male apostles" is laughable. Jesus also chose only Jewish apostles. But as the early church reflected, they found it to be in line with his message to admit Gentiles as presbyters and elders. Concerning lesbians and gays, this is yet another example of the church maintaining its antiquated, cruel stance against the experience of the faithful, namely, those faithful who actually EXPERIENCE same-sex attraction and who have increasingly been cut out of the theological "dialogue," now dominated by Rome and the Curia. "Love is its own end," as St. Bernard said. Its transformative power is present in same-sex relationships just as it is in cross-sex ones. The scriptures speak against them? I dare someone to find a single passage which posits anything even remotely similar to our modern notion of monogamous same-sex unions. It's a silly anachronism people read into the text (which also speaks against women, for geocentrism, etc.). What's more, I thought that the church, just like it did in Acts, can draw fresh conclusions in the course of its dialogue and reflections? Can raise its standards...?
Though I may have left for many of these reasons, I still have a deep concern for the well-being of Catholicism and its adherents, in part because of my past and experiences with it but also because it affects us all via legislation, its influence, etc. Methinks it's time for a Vatican III.
John Raymer | 5/5/2010 - 6:10pm
Circumcision and the Sabbath are the two cornerstones of Judaism. They are are as central to them as baptism and the eucharist are to Catholics. Christians broke circumcision in this story and Jesus broke the Sabbath when he healed on it. This leads me to only one conclusion: nothing shall be placed in the way of a person coming into union with God through Jesus Christ.

But we place such impediments all the time, whenever we refuse people the saving Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. If Peter would agree not to refuse the uncircumcised, how can we refuse politicians who are soft on abortion? If Jesus would heal on the sabbath, how can we refuse people who have divorced and remarried? If we believe what we say about the Eucharist, then how can we deny it to anyone for any reason? Likewise, how could Peter deny Christ to someone just because he did not meet all the requirements?

And lest we get hung up on the four prohibitions that were left - meat sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, things strangled, and blood - we must remember that those were based on the sensibilities of the day and not on them being any worse than not being circumcised or not keeping the Sabbath. This means that even irregular sexual relationships not sufficient justification to keep someone away from the Body and Blood of Christ. Did not Christ interact at length with the woman at the well?
David Nickol | 5/5/2010 - 11:41am
The decision is summed up in Acts as follows: "It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right."
 
As I understand it, Gentile converts to Christianity were required to eat only kosher meat. When did that fall by the wayside?