The application of strict principles in an evolving society presents many problems, both temporal and spiritual. Supreme Court justices are split between those who see the constitution as fixed and immutable and those who see it as a set of fundamental principles that are adaptable, capable, that is, of being interpreted and applied in an evolving society to problems never envisioned by the authors. They see the essence of the document preserved by a broader analysis of its application.
The same conflict exists within the Roman Catholic Church. Historically, the church has had great difficulty in accepting scientific discoveries that conflicted with its teachings. Efforts at reform were viewed as heresy, a threat to eternal verities of which the hierarchy was the guardian. Strict constructionists within the church are reluctant to admit error and resist accommodating evolution. They are suspicious of those who seek to interpret Christianity in light of new discoveries, scientific and theological.
If evolution is viewed as God’s plan, it follows that Christianity, too, must evolve. Christian doctrine will need to be adjusted and modified in light of changing circumstance while preserving what is essential to the faith. Since God wills evolution, why is the church so reluctant to accept women and married priests or acknowledge the need for artificial birth control?
Evolution is a mixed blessing, as Pope Francis pointed out in his recent encyclical on the environment. With progress comes new and complex problems with overlapping moral, economic, and political consequences. The church’s moral authority is undermined by its unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and set aside resistance to sensible reform.
The fear that confessing doctrinal error or exposing institutional problems would cause scandal that could erode the church’s authority blocks change. The faithful today understand that while the church has a divine component, it is composed of human beings, with all the weaknesses and flaws that status implies. That the church has survived for so long despite its many lapses is often cited as evidence of divine guidance.
I am more comfortable in today’s church than I was in the church of my youth. Then fear of hell and damnation and the wrath of a juridical God were stressed to enforce religious discipline. It was a religious variation of “scared straight.” Today the emphasis is on a God of love, merciful and understanding, embracing sinners. God has not evolved, but our understanding of Him and what is expected of us, has. The God of evolution is a God of love.
Pope Francis, like Pope John XXIII, is trying to draw a reluctant church into a fuller understanding, based on what we now know of the cosmos, human development, and a new theology, that seeks to reconcile the Bible, church history, science, and evolution with the fundamental truths of Christianity. The search will require some modification of what we were taught, but that can be accomplished within the context of a better understanding and appreciation of our religious obligations.
For me it’s simple: If you truly love God, you love your neighbor – all of them – and vice versa. By the very act of loving your neighbor you are loving God, even if you are an agnostic or an atheist. If you love my children, you love me and I love you, even if we have never met.
The historical church has tolerated, even condoned, practices that today we acknowledge as evil. Slavery, torture, war, and persecution have at one time or another been seen as permissible. Times change. What was once viewed as acceptable behavior is now considered sinful. The revelations inherent in evolution require us to reassess what is right and good within a developing enlightenment that is God’s creative process.
Christianity must be open to views that challenge preconceived beliefs, seeing the challenges not as heresy but as insights on how to better understand God’s will and to apply that wisely to the mystery of this great unfolding. Part of evolution is God’s expectation that we will learn to better understand the cosmos and our role within it. The love that is fundamental to our faith will remain as we seek to apply it to a world in transition.
The fear is that as we accept change, we risk losing our faith. The reality, I hope, is that by acknowledging and accommodating those changes, which are inevitable, we deepen our understanding and strengthen our faith. We really have no choice. Evolution is occurring whether we like it or not. Let’s try to make the best of it.