The Catholic Church doesn’t do ‘paradigm shifts’

George Weigel

Ever since Thomas Kuhn popularized it with his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the notion of a “paradigm shift” has led to fascinating arguments about whether this or that break with previous scientific understanding counted as one. But that a “paradigm shift” – like the “shift” from Sir Isaac Newton’s cosmology to Albert Einstein’s, or the shift from the miasma theory of disease to the germ theory of disease – is a rupture in continuity is not in much dispute. A “paradigm shift” signals a dramatic, sudden, and unexpected break in human understanding – and thus something of a new beginning.

So are there “paradigm shifts” in the Church?

We seem to have biblical evidence for one in the first chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, where St. Paul describes, very telegraphically, how he came to grasp an astonishing truth: that the salvation promised to the People of Israel in the covenants with Abraham and Moses had been extended to the Gentiles. Some might find another “paradigm shift” in the first chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus of Nazareth is identified as the “Word” who “was in the beginning with God.”

These are matters of divine revelation, however, and as the Church has long believed and taught, revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. So the evolution of the Church’s understanding of the Gospel over the centuries is not a matter of “paradigm shifts,” or ruptures, or radical breaks and new beginnings; it’s a question of what theologians call the development of doctrine. And as Blessed John Henry Newman taught us, authentic doctrinal development is organic and in continuity with “the faith once… delivered to the saints” (Jude 1.3). The Catholic Church doesn’t do rupture: that was tried 500 years ago, with catastrophic results for Christian unity and the cause of Christ.

So it was unfortunate that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, recently described Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, as a “paradigm shift.”

Perhaps Cardinal Parolin meant “paradigm shift” in some other sense than Thomas Kuhn’s (although Kuhn’s notion of paradigm-shift-as-rupture is the common understanding of the term). Perhaps the cardinal was suggesting that Amoris Laetitia asked all the people of the Church to treat those who have not been married in the Church but who wish to be part of the Catholic community with greater sensitivity and charity (a worthy proposal, although compassion is the norm in the situations with which I’m most familiar). But whatever he may have intended, the cardinal cannot have meant that Amoris Laetitia is a “paradigm shift” in the sense of a radical break with previous Catholic understandings. For the Catholic Church doesn’t do “paradigm shifts” in that sense of the term, and the Pope himself has insisted that Amoris Laetitia does not propose a rupture with the Church’s settled doctrines on the indissolubility of marriage and worthiness to receive Holy Communion.

Where something similar to a Kuhn-type “paradigm shift” is underway, however, is in the reception of Amoris Laetitia in various local churches – and this is ominous. The pastoral implementation of Amoris Laetitia mandated in Malta, Germany, and San Diego is quite different than what has been mandated in Poland, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, England, and Edmonton, Alberta. Because of that, the Catholic Church is beginning to resemble the Anglican Communion (itself the product of a traumatic “paradigm shift” that cost John Fisher and Thomas More their heads). For in the Anglican Communion, what is believed and celebrated and practiced in England is quite different from what is believed, celebrated, and practiced in Nigeria or Uganda.

This fragmentation is not Catholic. Catholicism means one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and unity is one of the four distinctive marks of the Church. That unity means that the Church embodies the principle of non-contradiction, such that a grave sin on the Polish side of the Oder River can’t be a source of grace on the German side of the border.

Something is broken in Catholicism today and it isn’t going to be healed by appeals to paradigm shifts. In the first Christian centuries, bishops frankly confronted and, when necessary, fraternally corrected each other. That practice is as essential today as it was in the days of Cyprian and Augustine – not to mention Peter and Paul.

COMING UP: Homage to Don Briel

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In the history of U.S. Catholic higher education since World War II, three seminal moments stand out: Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s 1955 article, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life;” the 1967 Land o’ Lakes statement, “The Idea of a Catholic University;” and the day Don J. Briel began the Catholic Studies Program – and the Catholic Studies movement – at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities.

I’ve long had the sense that Msgr. Ellis’s article was retrospectively misinterpreted as a relentless polemic against Catholic colleges and universities mired in the tar-pits of Neo-Scholasticism and intellectually anorexic as a result; on the contrary, it’s possible to read Ellis as calling for Catholic institutions of higher learning to play to their putative strengths – the liberal arts, including most especially philosophy and theology – rather than aping the emerging American multiversity, of which the University of California at Berkeley was then considered the paradigm. But that’s not how Ellis was understood by most, and there is a direct line to be drawn between the Ellis article and the self-conscious if tacit defensiveness of the Land o’ Lakes statement, which seemed to say, yes, we’re second-rate, maybe even third-rate, and the way to be first-rate is to be like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the rest of what would be called, in 21st-century Catholic academic jargon, “aspirational peers.”

The problem, of course, is that by 1967, those “aspirational peers” were beginning to lose their minds, literally, en route to the postmodern sandbox of authoritarian self-absorption they occupy today.

So there is another direct line to be drawn: this time, from Ellis and Land o’ Lakes to Don Briel’s catalyzing the Catholic Studies movement, which, among other things, works to repair the damage that was done to institutions of Catholic higher learning in the aftermath of Land o‘ Lakes.

But there was, and is, far more to Don Briel’s vision, and achievement, that damage-repair. Nourished intellectually by John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson, Briel’s work has aimed at nothing less than creating, in 21st-century circumstances, the “idea of a university” that animated his two English intellectual and spiritual heroes. And, one might say, just in the nick of time.

For the deterioration of higher education throughout the United States in the past several generations has contributed mightily to our contemporary cultural crisis, and the cultural crisis, by depleting the nation’s reserves of republican virtue, has in turn produced a political crisis in which constitutional democracy itself is now at risk. The answer to that cultural crisis cannot be a retreat into auto-constructed bunkers. The answer must be the conversion of culture by well-educated men and women who know what the West owes to Catholicism as a civilizing force, and who are prepared to bring the Catholic imagination to bear on reconstructing a culture capable of sustaining genuine freedom – freedom for excellence – in social, political, and economic life.

Conversion, then, is what “Catholic Studies” and Don Briel’s life-project are all about: the conversion of young minds, hearts, and souls to the truth of Christ and the love of Christ as manifest in the Catholic Church, to be sure; but also the conversion of culture through those converted minds, hearts, and souls. According to the common wisdom, Land o’ Lakes and its call for Catholic universities to “Be like the Ivies!” was “revolutionary.” But the true revolutionary in American Catholic higher education over the past decades has been Don Briel, who has enlivened an approach to higher education that embodies the New Evangelization as no one else has done.

Those of us who love and esteem him pray for a miracle that will cure the rare forms of acute leukemia that now afflict him. But, like Don Briel himself, we commend our prayers, as we commend him, to the mysterious and inscrutable ways of divine Providence. We also know that the truths with which he ignited an academic revolution will win out, because this quintessential Christian gentleman and educator taught us by his witness and his work to trust the Lord’s guarantee in John 8:32: “…the truth will make you free.”

Thank you, Don, and Godspeed on your journey. The work, thanks to your inspiration and example, will continue – and it will flourish.