The Vox Nova thread on alleged "changes" to "Church teaching" continues, and I made some more comments there which I though were worth sharing:
As far as I can tell, all the areas commonly pointed out as areas of “change” or “reversal of teaching”…are in the realm of politics/economics. This alone is something to consider very carefully when it comes to discussing these issues.
Slavery, usury, religious liberty vs burning heretics, the divine right of kings, etc etc…none of them are, in essence, questions of personal individual morals.
Oh, you could argue they are inasmuch as an individual participating is sinning by doing so. But are you really willing to condemn absolutely the benign slave-holder in an age where social immobility and inherited (mutual) obligations was simply the political/economic order of the day?
No, it seems to me, all of these “changes in teaching” are about political/economic system or structure. About the rights or obligations of the State or the State’s bastard-child Money, and about the relation of these to the community/society and the Church or religion.
As such, I would first of all say this makes it simply invalid to imagine the same idea of change being extended to personal individual morality, such as sexual morality, let alone dogmatic questions like women’s ordination or the necessity of auricular confession. It really isn’t comparable at all.
No all these questions of alleged change, as far as I can tell, would have fallen under the realm of “social teaching” and not personal morals. (Which raises interesting questions for those who treat specific concrete applications of Social Teaching as absolute or infallible today).
That also raises my second point, which is that the fact that all these things are political/economic questions…really should make one question how much they are really absolute moral questions at all, or how much they are just a reflection of the political/economic order of a given age. And what it means (for one’s philosophy) to promote them (whether then or now) as absolutes when His Kingdom is not of This World.
A progressive value judgment regarding the change in economic/political order is something foreign to the Church’s system, which has no notion of historical progress or ascendency in the political/economic order. Then again, the Church also has no official notion of "Golden Age" or of historical degeneracy either. Things are different in different eras, but they're not absolutely better or worse from a moral/spiritual perspective.
Which is what I question, though: is this really a matter of “either we were right then, or we’re right now?” On these political/economic questions…the Church has seemed to just basically endorse a certain docility to whatever the political/economic values of the current age are, yet always tempering them with a warning (something along the lines of Paul’s advise to Onesimus and Philemon: “Onesimus go back and submit, but Philemon welcome him as a brother.”)
So is it really a question of one being wrong and one being right? I doubt it. The Church endorsed feudal values during feudalism, and liberal democratic values during liberal democracy, and if we ever find ourselves in feudalism again, I bet you’ll see a “resourcing” of the old feudalist literature/”teachings” in order to deal with that situation. (I find it unlikely the Church would, after a couple centuries, keep insisting on liberal democratic stuff as absolute values in a world that simply didn’t work that way anymore, just like they no longer insist on Christendom in a world that isn’t.)
I (with Cardinal Dulles) tend to think this is a question of, as it were, “balancing” values that are in some sense “competing.” This is why the social sphere is different than private morality. In private morality, we can always (in some sense) expect perfection of ourselves, we can always hold ourselves to the true Ideal.
When it comes to social questions, however, because of the Fall…we often have to emphasize one value over another, because we are always going to be dealing, demographically at least, with human sinfulness as a social reality.
For example, when it comes to religion, we might imagine a spectrum between two values. There is the value of freedom, yes, but there is also the value of religious hegemony in society (or whatever you want to call that other “pole.”)
In the eschaton, we can have both in perfect harmony. Everyone will be Christian and everyone will be perfectly free without any sort of pressure. Both values are “right” or the ideal, and the Church upholds both.
However, in a Fallen world, you can’t really have both. If you emphasize freedom more, you will lose religious hegemony because some people will invent heresies and follow them. And if you emphasize religious hegemony…you won’t be able to have full freedom, because it takes active intervention or pressure of some sort to sustain hegemony.
So it’s a question, in a given social situation, which to emphasize. In Christendom, with a hegemony already in place…the maintenance of that hegemony was considered simply less costly and more realistic. One of the two value “poles” was always going to be limited, and in that case limiting liberty was the lesser evil. That doesn’t mean liberty wasn’t always good or really a value, but it was something like an eschatological one. Trying to maximize liberty would have caused hegemony to collapse and been chaos (and, indeed, we saw the horrors of the Revolutions, etc).
The reverse situation is true today. The revolutions being an accomplished fact, in a pluralist society, the value we can now maximize socially vis a vis religion is freedom or liberty. That doesn’t mean we’ve given up the ideal of religious hegemony (indeed Vatican II “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ”) but it is now the “sacrificed” or eschatological value of the two, because it is unrealistic to try to reimpose hegemony by force, and would probably “cost more than it was worth” (just like the shift over to freedom did in the first place.)
I guess my point is, it’s not a matter of one value being right and one being wrong. Religious liberty and religious social hegemony are both real values. Furthermore, it’s not a matter of one taking absolute priority, as if it is always correct for hegemony to bow to freedom (or freedom to bow to hegemony.) Rather, which value takes priority will be based on maximizing the common good in a given social context.
But that also implies: given that we can’t ever maximize both values at the same time this side of heaven, we can’t condemn absolutely either World Order for having to sacrifice one or the other.
So we should look with a certain tragedy upon the burning of heretics. That such a thing happened was not positively good, anymore than any execution (or, indeed, imprisonment, fine, etc). But, likewise, the Medievals would be correct to look with an at least equal degree of tragedy upon our loss of a hegemonic Christendom. Both, however, would (or should) recognize in each other the real value each model does represent too, even if along with something along the lines of “necessary evil,” unideal but not to be absolutely condemned, exactly because the ideal is impossible prior to the eschaton where both are in harmony, which is the ideal Christians should "live towards" and keep alive in our hearts, even if it can never be perfectly implemented politically in this life.