At Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller has an interesting take on Ross Douthat's recent temper tantrum regarding the synod on the family's willingness (initially) to entertain discussion of welcoming gay folks and permitting divorced and remarried folks to receive communion. As she notes, Douthat argues that church teaching on these matters is locked in, unchangeable, quasi-infallible (if not outright infallible). And to change a jot or tittle of any of the teachings about marital matters would be to cause the whole Catholic edifice to fall to the ground.
Contra Douthat, Miller writes,
But the Catholic Church has in the recent past evolved its teaching to meet changes in the real world—especially on "family" issues. Pope Pius XII approved the use of family planning (albeit of the natural variety) for Catholics in the 1950s as birth control become more acceptable. Vatican II changed the church’s doctrine on marriage from emphasizing procreation as the primary purpose of marriage to recognizing that the union of the couple was equally important, which acknowledged the rise of companionate marriage in the twentieth century.
If the church had been evolving doctrine in a more gradual, holistic manner over the past several decades, the changes being proposed now wouldn’t seem so dramatic. But a pair of popes—John Paul and his long-time doctrinal henchman Benedict—conspired to freeze the natural development of Catholic teaching. They took uber-conservative readings of key issues, like the ordination of women and the "intrinsically disordered" nature of gay Catholics, and then declared them virtually infallible, so that any future evolution was by its very nature heretical.
To conservatives, Catholic doctrine has become like a game of capture the flag—if you can hold onto the flag long enough, you win, regardless of the advisability of the original teaching.
Patricia Miller is absolutely correct. Official Catholic teaching on both doctrinal and moral issues has always evolved, and has always changed and corrected itself. The last two popes have created a horrific problem for the entire church by pretending that historically developed and mutable moral teachings have been infallibly declared (when they haven't) and are unchangeable.
And a majority of lay Catholics know this in our bones, and have, for very sound theological reasons deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition, stopped listening when the magisterium issues statements about issues of sexual morality and family life.
The graphic: a quotation from Cardinal John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Eugenio Hansen, OSF.