Our “Evolving” Thought

A number of prominent politicians have recently suggested that their thought has been “evolving” on various moral subjects.  Some, like Tim Kaine, assure us that our progressive Church will soon permit same-sex marriages. We are encouraged to prize “progress” above everything. The only thing we can be sure of, after all, is change, and nothing is forever. The newer something is, the better; nobody, after all, wants to appear old-fashioned.

The idea that everything is in flux goes back quite far, at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. But is everything change?  Is it true that the only thing that doesn’t change is, well, change?  Is there anything permanent?

Philosopher J. Budziszewski has written that there are some things we cannot not know, much as St. Paul wrote about what is eternally written on our hearts. (Rom 2:14).  Chesterton told us that “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” In fact, the Catholic faith tells us to fix our eyes on the most solid matter of all: Jesus the Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb 13:8)

Human nature doesn’t change, either. I have debated with anthropologists and sociologists about this truth, but they never respond to a key argument. If human nature is continually evolving, how is it that we understand and value the philosophical writing of Plato, the poetry of Virgil, the sayings of a Confucius, or the accounts of salvation history in the Old Testament?

C.S. Lewis wrote about “chronological snobbery,” meaning that some hold, mistakenly, that whatever is new in philosophy, religion, art, or science is automatically better than what preceded it, merely because it is newer.  Pope Gregory XVI, already sensing a growing enchantment early in the 19th century with everything that presented itself as “progressive,” condemned the “unrestrained desire for innovation [which] does not seek truth where it stands in the received and holy apostolic inheritance.”

St. Paul Ordains Timothy as Bishop of Ephesus by Ludwig Glötzle, 1891 [Salzburg Cathedral, Austria]
St. Paul Ordains Timothy as Bishop of Ephesus by Ludwig Glötzle, 1891 [Salzburg Cathedral, Austria]

We are wise in holding on to that what has come down to us – paradosis, “tradition” – should be preferred until the innovation can be demonstrated to be an improvement. This is true even in earthly affairs. As the Declaration of Independence warns us:  “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”  Edmund Burke similarly believed that, “People will not look forward to posterity who never looked backward to their ancestors.”

The deposit of faith – the settled teaching of the Church – does not change. What is good and true and beautiful does not change. If it did, that would mean that morality is a function of the clock: what was critically wrong at one time may be right at another; or what was seen as right at one time may be viewed as critically wrong at another.  “But,” some will object, “isn’t that an accurate understanding of, say, slavery, which was socially acceptable at one time? Isn’t morality dictated by time and geography?” That’s a common view, and it’s wrong.

We do not make truth, like architects; we discover truth, like scientists. Our perception of truth, our understanding of it, and our commitment to it may vary according to the state of art or science or philosophy. But truth doesn’t change.

Our understanding of the tenets of the Catholic faith should be much more mature at fifty than at fifteen. But the faith itself hasn’t changed, only our grasp of it. Blessed John Henry Newman pointed out, in discussing the “development of doctrine,” that there is a gradual growth in our understanding of the meaning of what God has revealed, but the substantial truth of a revealed mystery remains unchanged.

“That a good many Christians today kneel before the world is a fact perfectly clear,” argued Jacques Maritain in The Peasant of the Garonne.  Although many may worship the world – that is, deify time and circumstances – Catholics believe and, better, know that the universe is shaped by and around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is the true direction and destination of “evolving thinking.”

When someone says that his thinking about a moral issue has “evolved,” we must inquire whether his thinking evolved in line with what is perfect and permanent (in line, that is, with the Gospel) or whether the evolution in his thinking is inspired, rather, by rank ambition, political opportunism, or financial gain.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul explains that we must not be “carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of the teaching of deceitful men who lead others into error by the tricks they invent.  Instead, by speaking the truth in a spirit of love, we must grow up in every way to Christ.” (4:14)

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College and author of Morals Under the Gun. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.