What Laws can the Church Change?

(written in 1955)

Every Catholic knows (and practically all non-Catholics have heard about it) that one of the major proofs given for the truth of his religion is the fact that it does not change, that it has been the same for over nineteen hundred years. This unity and sameness of teaching is set forth as evident especially in the laws that Catholics are expected to obey. Catholics are taught that there has been no change in the teaching of their Church as to the essential laws that must be observed for their salvation since Christ Himself left the world. At the same time no one is so blind as not to notice that in some matters there are changes from time to time in the practice and the laws set forth by the Catholic Church. This fact is sometimes a source of great disturbance to Catholics, who, without looking very deeply into the matter, see it as a contradiction of the unity and sameness, that they have always been taught to boast about in their religion. It is also, it need hardly be stated, a source of great ridicule of the Catholic Church for non-Catholics.

Thus we have known some Catholics to be very much disturbed by the fact that recently Pope Pius XII changed the law regarding the necessary fast before the reception of Communion. He permitted the drinking of water to all before Communion, which had formerly been seriously forbidden, and he even allowed the taking of liquid foods and medicines before Communion under certain conditions and with the permission of a confessor. Others have been troubled by the fact that the present Pope has introduced occasional evening Masses, which they had never heard of in the Church before. But non-Catholics especially are wont to raise arguments against the unity and sameness of the laws of the Church through the years. We once knew, for example, a Protestant minister who regularly answered the claim of Catholics to unbroken unity of doctrine and laws by referring to the difference in practice of different ages, and even different regions of the Catholic Church, on the use of incense. For such persons, any introduction of new rites or ceremonies, of new forms of fast and abstinence, even of new prayers, represents change that nullifies the Church’s claim to unity and sameness through the years.

Now every Catholic (and we hope, every non-Catholic who reads these lines) should know the difference between essential doctrines and laws of the Catholic Church that have never been changed and never can be changed, and those that are accidental or disciplinary and that can and must be changed according to circumstances or need.

Indeed, all the laws and regulations that are in any way stated or issued by the Catholic Church may be divided into three kinds: 1) Those that she has no power to change, never has changed and never will change; 2) Those that she has the authority to change, but most probably never will change; 3) Those that she can change, has changed, and may change again according to the circumstances of a given period of time.

There are two kinds of laws that the Catholic Church has no authority to change or tamper with in any way, that she never has changed and never will change. They are natural moral laws and positive divine laws.

This is the field of law in which the Catholic Church can rightly boast of being unchanging and unchangeable. Indeed, intelligent Catholics take the position that if the Church ever did change in regard to any one of these two kinds of laws, she would thereby have proved that she was not the true religion of Jesus Christ.

1. The natural moral law is the law that God inscribed upon the very nature of human beings when He created them. It is obvious that every maker of an object, even a human manufacturer, incorporates certain laws in the thing he makes that become evident to anyone who examines the thing. The study of a watch reveals the law that it must be wound up at regular intervals, if it is to achieve its purpose of keeping time. Examination of an automobile reveals the laws that gas must be put into the tank, oil into its moving parts, water into its radiator, if it is to do what it was made to do, viz., continue to run for its owner. The natural moral law for human beings is much like the essential mechanical laws that one can learn about machines by studying them carefully.

There are two things that mark it out as a natural law as opposed to a positive law. The first is the fact that it can be recognized as a law by reason and intelligence and usually the conscience; the second is the fact that reason and intelligence can see that the will of the Creator established this law for all mankind in order that the necessary purpose of man’s being or a part of his nature be fulfilled. Thus, simply stated, a natural moral law is one that is evident in the nature of man, and evident to his own reason and understanding. Examples of such natural moral laws are the basic commands: adore God only; honor thy father and thy mother; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not misuse sex; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not lie. All these laws, and the primary conclusions that can be drawn from them, (e.g., that birth-prevention is sinful) are written into man’s nature in such a way that so long as he possesses human nature he is bound by these laws.

Of course God did more than write these laws into man’s nature. He also put them into words and into positive teaching, as through the ten commandments He gave to Moses for the chosen people, and through the frequent repetitions of natural laws that came from the lips of Christ. God thus spoke about natural moral laws, besides inscribing them in human nature, because men were inclined, as a result of the effects of original sin, to dispute them, to doubt them, to deny them. But they always remain universal, unchangeable, inescapable, natural laws on obedience to which the salvation of human beings depends.

Over such laws the Catholic Church has no authority other than that of manifesting how clearly they stand out in human nature and reiterating them to the end of time. She has never changed her stand on any matter pertaining to the natural law. She does not consider such matters open to dispute or subject to the votes of a majority of the people, because God has decided these things once and for all in the act of creation. Thus, when intelligent Catholics speak about the unchangeable moral code of the Catholic Church throughout nineteen centuries, they refer first of all to the natural moral law, which she is bound to restate again and again, but which she has no power or authority to change.

2. The positive divine law , on the other hand, is made up of the commands that Christ gave to all men when He appeared on earth, that could not have been known by the mind of man except through the words of Christ. A positive law is always one that you have to be told about to know, while a natural law is one that you could learn about by using your reason. Christ told us many things that we must do for our salvation that we could never have learned except through His words. He did so through the inspired writings of the Bible, and through His teaching of the apostles.

Thus, for example, Christ made it clear that baptism is necessary for salvation by the words, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” (John: 3: 3-5) and the words, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark: 16: 16) No man would know by his own reason that baptism would be necessary for his salvation; he could be made aware of that only by the words of Christ. Because Christ is divine, it is a divine law; because it could not be known except through His words, it is a positive law.

Again Christ laid down the law that “except you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.” This is also a positive divine law, because no man could ever suspect, by his own reason, the truth that Christ would give him His flesh to eat and His blood to drink in Holy Communion. Therefore only the words and the authority of Christ behind them make Holy Communion obligatory on all who reach the age of understanding.

In such matters as these the Catholic Church is just as unchangeable as she is in respect to natural moral laws. In one of His statements that founded the Church, Christ said to His apostles”Going therefore teach all nations; whatsoever I have commanded you.” Furthermore, He promised to be with the Church all days, in order to preserve her from garbling or changing His commands. Therefore the second thing that the intelligent Catholic means when he refers to the unchangeability and sameness of the laws of the Catholic Church throughout nineteen hundred years is the fact that she has never even attempted to modify or alter or abrogate any necessary command laid down by Christ for the salvation of His people.

This fact takes on startling significance when one notices how many changes in regard to baptism and Holy Communion and other positive precepts of Christ have been made by religious sects of the past three hundred years that have rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. The sameness and unity of the Catholic Church in these matters becomes an overpowering argument for her rightful authority in the face of the multiple interpretations of Christ’s clear commands offered by those who have broken away from her. One thing is certain: the Catholic Church never has changed, does not assume that she can change, and never will change the positive divine laws laid on mankind by Jesus Christ.

There are some laws in effect in the Catholic Church that she has the authority to change, but most probably never will change, because they represent not a clear, positive command of Christ, but a spirit and direction that He entrusted to His Church.

Two things, it is now clear, the Catholic Church cannot and never will change: universal natural moral laws, and positive divine commands. But Christ did not attempt to make all the laws that would be needed by His followers. He left some things for His Church to do, and He gave her the power to obligate her members by the words: “Whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matt. 16: 19) Laws that are made by the Catholic Church for her subjects are called positive ecclesiastical laws. No Catholic should be in the least disturbed or scandalized by the fact that the Catholic Church sometimes changes the laws she is competent to make. It must be remembered that the law-making authority of the Church never embraces the two matters explained above: natural moral laws and positive divine laws. Her authority, therefore, is confined to such things as protecting her children from danger of sin according to the circumstances of a given age and place (dangers of sin may be different in different ages, and so accordingly may be the laws concerning them); seeing to it that Catholics use sufficient means of grace to overcome evil; providing for the proper administration of the sacraments, celebration of Mass, etc.

Sometimes a law by the Church substantially reaffirms a divine positive law, as for example, when she commands her members to receive Holy Communion during the Paschal time. It was Christ who commanded that all receive Holy Communion; it is the Church that designates the Paschal season as the time for fulfilling this obligation. The Church could not change or destroy the law of Christ commanding Catholics to receive Holy Communion; she could change the designated time for fulfilling this law.

However, there are some laws which the Church has made, and which she has the authority to change, but which she will most probably never change except under circumstances that are almost impossible to foresee at the present time. For example, the Church has made the law that all Catholics, not impeded by a great obstacle or reason, must fulfill the natural moral law of rightly hon oring and adoring God by attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Christ Himself did not command this special way of fulfilling one’s obligations to God except in a very general way when He said, after celebrating the first Mass Himself, “Do this in commemoration of Me.” It is a positive ecclesiastical law binding on all Catholics under pain of mortal sin that they must attend Mass on Sundays and holy days unless they have a valid excuse. Actually, the Church has the authority to change this law, or to change the degree of sin committed by one who misses Mass on a day of obligation without a reason. But it is most probable that she never will change it for the simple reason that the Mass is the renewal or unbloody reenactment of Christ’s death on the cross, and that every redeemed Christian must begin his honor and adoration of God by joining in the offering up of Christ’s sacrifice for his sins. Another example of a law that the Catholic Church could change but most probably never will is that whereby she insists that all who aspire to and are accepted for the priesthood in the western rite take a vow of celibacy before their ordination. That this is a Church law and not a direct command of Christ is clear from the fact that in the first two centuries of Christianity the clergy were not required to be celibate and nowhere in the Bible is it stated that they are. Yet celibacy was so highly praised both by Christ and St. Paul in the Bible, and made to appear (what it turned out to be) so great a help to the holiness and spiritual fruitfulness of priests, that it is very doubtful that this law will ever be changed. The important thing, however, for both Catholics and interested non-Catholics to remember is the distinction between laws made by God or by Christ, which the Church cannot change, and laws made by the Church, which she had the authority to make and always retains the authority to change. Catholics can be shocked and non-Catholics scandalized by changes in the legislation of the Catholic Church, only if they are ignorant of this important distinction.

There are many laws, rules and regulations in the Catholic Church that were made, not by God or by Christ, but by the authority of the Church herself for the protection of the faithful, for the right observance of religious ceremonies, and for the right discipline and order in Church matters. These laws the Church can change, has changed in the past, and probably will change again, according to varying circumstances and needs.

When Christ gave authority to His Church, (“He that heareth you heareth Me” Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”) He certainly gave her the right to make whatever laws would be necessary at any given time to fulfill her mission of glorifying God and leading men to salvation. All such laws, based on special circumstances and needs, are, as has been noted, positive ecclesiastical laws. Though they may bind the faithful under pain of excommunication or of mortal or venial sin, they can be lifted, altered or abrogated by the same authority that made them. There are many examples of purely positive ecclesiastical laws that have undergone changes throughout the years of the existence of the Church. In the Code of Canon Law, which contains the laws which the Church has made for the proper administration of the sacraments, the pastoral care of dioceses and parishes, the direction of religious orders and congregations, the canonization of saints and the punishment of sinners, etc., there are 2414 canons. Many of these canons or “laws” have undergone extensive changes in the course of history before they reached the form in which they are promulgated today.

Again, this should be no surprise to anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic. Outside the realm of divine commands and the natural moral law, the Church is bound to use her authority to meet given situations by different laws.

Thus it is that there have been many changes in the laws made by the Church concerning fast and abstinence, and those pertaining to the kind of fast that is necessary before the reception of Holy Communion. In neither case did Christ Himself leave any direct commands, other than the very general one: Do penance. The Church has full authority to decide what form the penance of the faithful should take, and to change her decisions from age to age according to circumstances. Thus, too, in regard to the rubrics and ceremonial connected with tile celebration of Mass and the administration of the sacraments, there have been changes. Christ commanded that the Mass be offered, and the seven sacraments be made available to the people at all times; but He left it to the Church to determine the kind of rubrics to be observed and the extra prayers to be recited in connection with the placing of the exact matter and form that are essential to the sacraments and the Mass. But while the Church has changed some of the positive laws she imposed upon her children from age to age, it must always be remembered that she does have the power to bind them under pain of sin. It is the duty of all Catholics to find out what her laws are and how seriously she makes them binding at a given time. Some of her laws bind under pain of venial sin, some under pain of mortal sin, some under pain of excommunication. For anyone to say that he is not bound by a specific law of the Church because that law has changed during the course of history, would be to renounce the Church and all right to be called a Catholic.

A few examples of practical conclusions to be drawn from the above may now be given.

1. The Church has never changed and never will change her position on the sinfulness of birth-control, because this is decreed by the eternal, natural, moral law, which she has no authority to change.

2. Sometimes the natural moral law imposes a general command, which the Church makes specific for her members. For example, the natural moral law commands all parents to give a Catholic upbringing to their children. The Church makes this specific by commanding them, whenever it is possible, to send their children to Catholic schools. No Catholic parent can say that all he has to do is to fulfill the general precept and that he may by-pass the specific command of the Church. To do so would be to by-pass Christ Himself, Who gave to His Church the command “to bind and to loose.”

3. An elderly Catholic who for his whole lifetime has been taught that it is forbidden to drink water after midnight on the day he is to receive Holy Communion should in no way be shocked that the present Pope has decreed that Catholics may drink all the water they want before receiving Holy Communion. The Church made the law in the first place, even though it stood for centuries; and the Church, through the Pope, may change it as has already been done.