The modern age glamorizes constant change. It romanticizes variety, development, progress, newness. It exalts evolution as a paradigm of knowledge and of all reality. Those who hold tightly to perennial wisdom and permanent truths, traditional morals, inherited culture, artistic monuments, time-honored rites and customs, are criticized as backward, stunted, regressive, old-fashioned, stuck in their ways. They are not “going with the flow” and “moving with the times.” They are “on the wrong side of history.”
If, however, we look at the history of modern philosophy, modern science, and modern religion, we will see where the cult of change has led: to the very rejection of the principle of non-contradiction, according to which a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time; in the same respect the rejection of the unchanging essences of creatures, which are rooted in the eternal Logos of God; the rejection of purpose, so that, in spite of lip service to progress, nothing really has a direction toward fulfillment and therefore nothing can have meaning or significance; the rejection of the creaturely and therefore dependent and receptive status of the human being; and the rejection of definitive divine revelation addressed, through Christ, to human nature and to every individual man, for his salvation.
In all these ways, the movement of modernity has ended in a deep chasm, a pit from which it cannot extract itself: a despairing, meaningless rat race for power, possessions, and pleasures, until people die with the empty comfort of painkillers. Modernity is like a cosmic reductio ad absurdum, a demonstration of what happens when God is forgotten – God, who gives meaning to all things, including suffering and death. We are seeing, firsthand, what happens when people try to live without reference to an eternal horizon, a truth not of our own making, a goodness we were made to love and a beauty we were made to seek.
It is not surprising that “the world” – the world of separation from God, about which our Lord and His apostles speak in such stark terms as if it were the very opposite of God – should think and behave in this manner. The world follows the prince of this world, who uttered the non serviam that first introduced egoism, discord, ugliness, hatred, and anarchy into the orderly universe God had made. But it is surprising, a scandal in the fullest sense of the word, when the Church’s own rulers – men sacramentally entrusted with the office of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying the rational sheep of Christ – begin to think and behave in this way, imperceptibly slinking into Lucifer’s non serviam.
The descent into the demonic is taking place today in the non serviam of those who reject the unequivocal teaching of our Lord in the Gospels on the indissolubility of marriage and the necessity of not throwing the pearl of the Eucharist before the swine of the unrepentant. It is taking place in the non serviam of those who dare to invite non-Catholics to the sacrificial banquet that represents the very unity of the Mystical Body. It is taking place in the non serviam of those who would abolish clerical celibacy and extend clerical ministries to women. It is taking place in the non serviam of those who treat the liturgy as their own possession, to change and modify at whim, rather than treasuring it as the holy inheritance of the saints, freely passed down to us for the sanctifying of our souls.
Then again, we know that the devil never sleeps. Never being at rest in God, he restlessly seeks to induce restlessness in each of us, pulling us away from the immutable God who is our fortress, our stronghold, our rock of refuge, our savior, our protector, our invincible strength. The battle of the spiritual life takes place not “out there” in the world, but right here in my heart, in your heart. Will we lose our peace as the world goes up in flames? Will we drift from the only harbor in which safety lies, lured out to the open sea where we are bound to lose? Will we become so preoccupied with the fight that we forget the immortal victory already achieved and shared with us in the heavenly banquet of Holy Communion? Will we fall for the most subtle error of all – namely, that if the Church appears to be faltering and failing, then it must be that Christ is no longer able to save us – as if our finite and fallible gaze at the world can truly measure what is taking place in the vast invisible realm of angels and souls?
“The mystery of lawlessness is already at work,” writes St. Paul to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 2:7), to which St. John adds: “the dragon was angry against the woman, and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). The dragon of the non serviam makes war against her who said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Thy Word” – Thy immortal, immutable, irrefutable, invincible Word.
The Christian Faith sees change in a fundamentally different way from how modernity sees it. For the believer, the primary category is not change, but changelessness. For us, progress is measured not by access to running water, electricity, or wireless internet, but by the “three stages of the spiritual life”: purgative, illuminative, unitive. The only newness that counts is the newness of Christ, the new Adam, into whom we have been baptized, and unto whose “full stature” we are called to grow up by continual conversion (cf. Eph. 4:13). Change is good only when it serves the end of changing our vices into virtues, our alienation from God into friendship with Him. Any other change is incidental at best and distracting or destructive at worst.
The Christian faith, which is the continuation and completion of the Hebrew faith, is premised on three unchanging realities: the one, simple, ever blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ, an ontological covenant that can never be broken; the apostolic deposit of the faith given by the same Christ to His apostles, and from them to their successors until the end of time. The deposit of faith never changes and never can change.
St. Vincent of Lerins, in his great Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, written in the 430s, introduces two contrasting terms and explains their precise difference. The first word, profectus, refers to an advancement in our formulation of what we believe, an articulation of something already known to be true but not yet expressed with as much fullness as the human mind under the guidance of faith and the prompting of the Holy Ghost is capable of. The other word, permutatio, means a mutation, a distortion or deviation, from the original. St. Vincent insisted that the one true faith of the Church admits of profectus but never of permutatio. One may plumb deeper into the nexus mysteriorum, the tight network of mysteries, and see the glint of new facets of beauty, but one may never pull a rabbit out of a hat – or, one might say, a dove out of a mitre.
Michael Pakaluk, a professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America, expresses this point well:
Theories of development are meant to establish identity of doctrine, not difference. … Newman, when he put his argument into deductive form in Latin, for theologians in Rome after his conversion, stated that, objectively, doctrine is given all at once in the revelation of Christ and never changes. Our subjective reception of the doctrine may change, but it must never do so in a way that makes the objective content appear to have changed. … Of course no contradiction is properly described as a development, any more than an axe to the root of a tree can “develop” the tree. [i]
What St. Vincent of Lerins states about doctrine also includes the principles of Christian morality, above all the reality of intrinsically evil actions – actions that can never be good, no matter what intention lies behind them, no matter what the circumstances may be. The Church has made her mind absolutely clear on these actions, faithfully following her divine Master. There has been profectus, as we see in the teaching of modern popes like Pius XII and John Paul II, but no permutatio, by which the commandments are turned upside-down and inside-out. The rule of charity, of good and God-pleasing action, like the rule of faith that governs our assent to the truth, is unchanging and unchangeable.
The crisis in the Church, as the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor so clearly laid out, is a crisis of faith and charity – a crisis of adherence to revealed truth and of the willingness to live the truth, suffer for it, die for it. This, in one form or another, is always the struggle between Satan’s non serviam and Christ’s “not my will but Thine be done,” between the self-destructive freedom of sin and the self-perfecting freedom of obedience, between the boring titillation of perpetual change and the fulfilling romance of divine love. The struggle has entered a new phase with a new intensity, but Christ our Lord is the same, His truth abides, and His victory is assured.
[i] “Four Ideas About Development,” First Things, November 17, 2017, accessed at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/11/four-ideas-about-development.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America. He has taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. He writes regularly for Catholic blogs and has published seven books, the most recent being Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). For more information, visit www.peterkwasniewski.com.