The Truth About What Can Be Changed about Church Teaching & Papal Infallibility

This past Wednesday, a documentary came out in Rome from the Vatican that contained a remark that called for civil laws allowing for same-sex unions. This has caused much confusion about Church teaching and whether or not it could be changing. The short answer is no and that no matter what anyone says, Her teaching on this matter cannot be changed.

So, what parts of Church teaching can and cannot be changed? Why? Simply put, aspects of Church teaching that are revealed in the natural law and/or in Scripture are set in stone and no one inside the Church has the right or authority to change Her teaching on the matter. Other aspects that are secondary and come from societal demands can be changed or tweaked.

So, what exactly constitutes natural law? Natural law is the law that participates in the eternal law, which is God’s plan for creation. It can be known by reason. Natural moral law applies to moral acts, which are acts committed by human beings that use the person’s will. For example, we can know by reason that murder is wrong because it is the taking of another person’s life. No one inside the Church can change Her teaching on this. And because it is part of natural moral law, it could not be accepted by the Church even if civil law permitted it.

Given this information, there are two other main issues that are against the natural moral law and can therefore never be endorsed by anyone in the Church and no one inside of Her can change Her teachings on them: abortion and same-sex marriage or unions. The one we will focus on is same-sex marriage.

The reason that same-sex marriage is against the natural order and natural law is because it goes against God’s plan for creation, which is part of the definition we laid out earlier. We can know this because we can see in nature that procreation is only possible between a man and a woman and we see in Scripture that procreation is a command that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden: “Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). And so here, we see the two criteria for teachings of the Church that cannot be changed: revealed in the natural law and/or in Scripture. Same-sex couples can find ways to procreate, but they are unnatural and erase the necessity and sacredness of the marital act (e.g. artificial insemination). Unnatural things cannot logically fit into God’s plan for natural order.

And so we come back to an earlier point, that no one inside the Church can change those teachings that are based on natural law and Scripture. And this includes those are in the highest positions, particularly the pope. The simple reason is that a thing’s very nature cannot be changed. You can’t say that something unnatural is natural. Having said that, papal infallibility is one of the most misunderstood things about the Church by those outside of Her. By saying that the pope is infallible, the Church does not teach that he is never wrong and never sins. The pope is only considered to be speaking infallibly when solemnly declaring a doctrine on faith and morals that has its basis in Church teaching and in Scripture. He even uses a special formula and says “I am speaking infallibly.” Off the cuff remarks and opinions, like the one that came out on Wednesday, are not infallible and can be wrong. And remarks that seem to endorse something that is against the natural law and Church teaching are especially dangerous.

It may seem to be less harmful if remarks do not pertain directly to the Church but rather just to civil law, but the Church and society are not mutually exclusive. If you permit something in society, it can easily become a slippery slope. Who’s to say that future members of the Church won’t say, it’s in society so what’s the harm of allowing it here? And indeeed, homosexual influences are sadly already in the Church. If we hear people in the Church calling for civil law allowing for same-sex unions, it won’t be long until that influence infiltrates even deeper in the Church Herself.

So what can we do? Pray and fast for our Church and Her leaders. We also need to educate ourselves on how to deal with conflicting messages from Church leaders and how to educate others. Yes, we should love and respect them and applaud them for their good and holy intentions and efforts. But we cannot stand beside them when they speak up for something that is inherently evil (i.e. cannot be changed) and against Church teaching.

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