If the new paradigm trumps the old paradigm, what is to stop some future paradigm shift trumping the current one?

Earlier this week, I pointed to some problems with Cardinal Cupich’s Cambridge lecture. I want to return to the topic because, given the cardinal’s language of a “new paradigm”, we should remember that certain elements in Catholic moral theology cannot change. For instance, the cardinal tells us:

“It goes without saying that this will also mean rejecting an authoritarian or paternalistic way of dealing with people that lays down the law, that pretends to have all the answers, or easy answers to complex problems, that suggests that general rules will seamlessly bring immediate clarity or that the teachings of our tradition can preemptively be applied to the particular challenges confronting couples and families. In its place a new direction will be required, one that envisions ministry as accompaniment, an accompaniment, which we will see, is marked by a deep respect for the conscience of the faithful.”

Who would dare disagree that we should show “respect” and not be “authoritarian”? But the dismissive tone with which the cardinal speaks of “general rules” reminds me, I am afraid, of the Anglican approach that underpinned the Lambeth Conference of 1930. They thought general rules could not cover every case of divorce or contraception – and we know how that turned out. It would avoid misunderstanding to re-emphasise that the Catholic Church’s moral laws are indeed always applicable; that they do bring a certain “clarity”; and that they are not at all incompatible with showing respect for conscience.

It is an open secret that moral questions are currently causing much debate. Cardinal Cupich warns that we may “end up with opposing magisterial directives even within regions that share a similar culture and realities in family life”. So, because we do not want rival mini-magisteria throughout the Catholic world, with Poland going one way, for example, and Malta the other, we all need to get with the programme – or as the cardinal says, we must take the “pathway forward”, though doubtless this injunction is not to be taken as authoritarian or paternalistic.

But what exactly is the programme? Cardinal Cupich refers us to the teaching of the Buenos Aires bishops, but the trouble with this is that their teaching is ambiguous and can be interpreted several ways. So we are no better off than when we started.

The cardinal seems to favour an abandonment of the Church’s traditional teaching on Communion for the remarried. But if so, then in telling us to fall into line and obey (particularly hard to do when it is not clear what such obedience entails), Cardinal Cupich would be telling us to disobey previous popes and their magisterial teachings. Does the new paradigm trump the old paradigm, and if so, what is to stop some future paradigm shift trumping the current one? It seems to me that the only logical way forward is to remind ourselves that, when it comes to doctrine, the Catholic Church does not do paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifters tend to end badly, as the excellent Fr George Rutler reminds us:

“There have indeed been paradigm shifters in Christology, but there have been no Doctors of the Church among them, and none has been salubrious in the annals of grace. To skim the surface, they have included Arius, Nestorius, Priscillian, Montanus, Mohammed, Waldo, Luther, Calvin, Jansen, Joseph Smith and Phineas Quimby who coached Mrs Eddy.”

Quite so. To all the worried souls who may be concerned that they are not keeping up with the paradigm shift, or who, like me, simply like the paradigm the way it is and has been for some time, my advice is simple. Stick to what you know. Stick to Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor and Familiaris Consortio. Then wait a few hundred years, and ask yourself then whether the paradigm has in fact shifted. For it seems to me that paradigms may well develop, but they do not shift, even when powerful cardinals put their shoulders to the wheel and push with all their might.