There are many people who are quite ready to admit that religion is indispensable, who even declare it to be of the utmost importance to man, and who are willing to accept the Christian revelation, at least in as far as it contains exalted moral teaching, but they maintain that Christianity and the Church ought to move with the times and adapt themselves to the spirit of the age. They say that everything is in a constant state of evolution and progress, and that consequently our religious principles need to be refined and perfected; that what is accepted by a child, is unsuitable for a full-grown man, and so on. It is of course true that in no age has so much been done as in the present to add to the comfort, charm and refinement of life and to develop trade and industry; great and beneficial discoveries are continually being made, and never before have men penetrated so deeply into the secrets of nature; never have the arts and sciences reached a higher pitch of perfection; never has education been more universal or civil liberty more complete. It is not therefore at first sight unreasonable to demand that religion should keep pace with this general progress. There are many who share this opinion, and they tell us frankly what they want. They say that the Church ought to conform to the feelings of the age, and abandon doctrines that are not universally acceptable, such as those of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the One infallible Church, the Sacrament of Penance, and the real
presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Moreover, she ought not to insist so much upon morality, and would do well to give up ordering men to be chaste, humble, obedient and just, since each individual ought to be free to act as he thinks best or in accordance with the customs of the age. This is one of the many demands made by the children of this world, and, in making it, they believe themselves to be demanding only what is just. What should we, as Christians, think on the subject? Is it the duty of the Church to advance like everything else, and adapt herself to the spirit of the times? This is the question that I intend to discuss to-day.
The answer may be given at once—it is simply "No;
(1) the Church can not and must not participate in the general advance, but
(2) it is our duty to increase in our knowledge of Christian truth and in the practice of Christian virtues."
1. Before proving the truth of my assertion that the Church can not advance with the times, I must, in order to avert misunderstandings, point out that we have here to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. As non-essentials we may regard variations in the outward forms of worship, in prayers, hymns, external customs and arrangements, and in Church discipline as a whole. These things can of course be modified and ordered in accordance with the circumstances of time, place and individuals; for what once tended to edification may now have a contrary effect, and what once was unnecessary may now be of great importance. The external discipline of the Church has therefore always been liable to modification. For instance, the last day of the week used to be observed as the Lord's day, but now we observe the first day; formerly Holy Communion was celebrated in connection with so called love feasts, at which the poor were entertained by the rich, but in course of time these feasts were abolished. These things are non-essentials, and as such are subject to change and modification, not of course effected arbitrarily at the caprice of individuals, but by the governing authorities in the Church.
It is quite otherwise with doctrines regarding faith and morals, which are essential and unalterable! The Church's teaching on faith and morals consists of truths that had their origin in God, who is truth itself, and who can neither err nor be deceived, and not in the brain of any frail human being, prone to error and deception! The opinions and devices of men are subject to change and amendment, but what comes from God, is, like God Himself, perfect and unchanging. An edifice, reared today by one man, may tomorrow be overthrown by another, but the building that God erects Is founded upon a rock, and is able to defy all the storms and changes of time. ~~
The Church derives her teaching from the everlasting source, and it is the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was sent to preach the Gospel to the poor, and to make known the perfect law of God. He said: "My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me; if any man will do the will of Him (the Father), he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself (John vii, 16-17). Our Lord and His Apostles proclaimed this doctrine, not as a matter of opinion, but as Divine truth. "I give you to understand," says St. Paul, "that the Gospel which was preached by me is not according to man, for neither did I receive it of man, nor did I learn it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. i, 11-12). If, then, the Church's teaching on faith and morals is derived from God Himself, this Divine revelation can not possibly admit of any improvement. God is truth, and can not wish to deceive mankind, and the truth made known by Him is as unchanging as He is Himself. Supposing that the Catholic teaching or faith and morals were subject to change, would not God have given us a mere imperfect fragment, and have plunged us into an ocean of doubts and difficulties? And should we not in that case have to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, "yesterday and to-day and the same for ever," and also the Holy Ghost had taught us in an imperfect and fallible manner? Even to think of such a thing as possible is blasphemy.
God has at all times desired men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. It was for this reason that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, and for the same reason that Christ after His ascension sent the Holy Ghost to teach truth and establish an infallible Church, with which He and the Holy Ghost were to abide until the end of the world, to teach her all truth and to guard her from all error and corruption. This Church is empowered to preserve and proclaim the living word of God, and she is bound to hand it on in all its purity, integrity and truth, just as she received it from above; it is her mission faithfully to make known on earth what she has received from heaven, and therefore she labors incessantly to sow the Divine word of truth on the earth, which is God's field; this is the seed that she distributes with loving zeal to all generations of men.
Is it conceivable that any mere man could improve the utterances of God, and reduce religion to a matter of private judgment? Before a man could do this he would have to share God's counsels, and see what is hidden in God; he would have to fathom the depths of the Godhead, and possess an intellect more vast and penetrating than that of God Himself, for otherwise he could never improve what proceeds from God. It is only possible to improve a thing if we are cleverer than the person who made it. Now look, I beg you, at the people who say that religion ought to be adapted to the spirit of the age, and progress with it. Can you imagine them to be capable of improving and perfecting the works of God? Are they not all weak, powerless, shortsighted and prone to error and deception, like all other human beings? How could proud, sensual, fickle and deluded mortals be in a position to alter arbitrarily the truths of faith and adapt them to the spirit of the age? A man's religion is the dearest and most sacred of his possessions, and can it be at the mercy of the prevalent love of change and innovation? No, the Church can never adapt herself to the spirit of the age, for what is that spirit? It is a spirit of pride and falsehood, a spirit that denies and contradicts the truths revealed by God, a spirit of disobedience, license and frivolity; it is, in short, the spirit of the devil, the prince of this world and the enemy of God and holy Church. How could religion adapt itself to such a spirit as this? No, it is impossible, for religion is, like God, eternal and unchanging, and, as our Lord said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away;" "it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail." St. Paul, too, says: "God is faithful, for our preaching which was to you was not "It is" and "It is not." The Apostle means that he did not today proclaim as true what tomorrow he would have to deny, for such a proceeding could only give rise to fresh anxieties, since every one would fear that what had been asserted, might be retracted. St. Paul even goes so far as to curse any who dare to tamper with the truths of Christianity. "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema" (Gal, i, 8).
It seems as if men who have cut themselves off from Catholicism and fashioned for themselves a religion in accordance with the spirit of the age were destined never to prosper. Every religious sect that has abandoned the Catholic Church has lapsed into error and split up. What one man accepts as true, another rejects as false; what one believes, another condemns, until finally there is nothing left of the truths of Christianity. If the founders of the various sects could be restored to life, they would be astonished to see how little of their doctrine is still retained by those professing to be their followers. It is a lot common to all human institutions to be liable to continual change and alteration, whereas what is Divine is eternal and unchanging, like God Himself.
This truth was boldly proclaimed by Pope Gregory XVI, when the Emperor Nicholas of Russia came to Rome and demanded that he should sanction what had been done in Russia against the Catholics. The valiant old man replied: " In your country laws made by men can be altered, precisely because they were made by men, but the Divine laws of the Church are unalterable."
The teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals can not be altered like a garment, to suit the prevailing fashion. Men can neither add to nor take away from the truth of our faith, and even the Pope, the visible head of the Church, is powerless to effect any modification. What the Apostles taught is taught at the present day and will be taught to the end of the world, and we have the strongest possible proof of the truth and Divine origin of our religion in the fact that the Church has withstood so many attacks and still stands firm, although storms rage on all sides, and everything else seems tottering to ruins.
We may say fearlessly and with full confidence that, when the passion for change and progress has destroyed all permanence, the Catholic Church will still be strong and vigorous; it will be to her that anxious souls will have recourse amidst the disasters threatening them, and she will be the sole fountain of truth and salvation, whither they will hasten to quench their thirst.
Do not be misled, therefore, by the specious arguments used by the so-called progressives and especially by the socialists. They wish to deceive you and to throw dust in your eyes, so that you may not detect their evil designs. What they really aim at is to ruin all existing order, to turn everything upside down, and then, profiting by the downfall of others, to raise themselves to supremacy. This will be possible, however, only if men lose all hold upon religion, which is so great a stumbling block to their designs that they are doing their utmost to bring it into contempt or disrepute. With this end in view they clamor for the modification or rejection of the Church's teaching on faith and morals, and
for a religion suited to the age, so that finally there may be nothing left except what each man can accept or reject at will. But, as I have shown, there is and can be no progress possible in the teaching of the Catholic Church on faith and morals, because it proceeds from God, the everlasting Truth, and is therefore, like Him, perfect and unchanging.
The Church does not, however, fail to appreciate progress in art and science, but tries to avail herself of it, and in this sense it is possible to say that she moves with the times. She makes use of the achievements of art and science in defending and promulgating the truths of faith, in public worship and in every case where she sees that they can benefit the faithful. But she does not and can not surrender the ancient truth; she may, in accordance with the needs of society and individuals, clothe it in a new and more beautiful garment, to which art and science contribute their part, and she thus obeys the rule laid down by our Saviour for the preachers of the Gospel, who were to bring forth out of their treasure new things and old, and become all things to all men, in order to bring light and salvation to all.
You see, then, that the teaching of the Church on faith and morals can not make progress, but it behooves us to go forward and increase in the knowledge of the truths of Christianity and in the practice of virtue.
2. (a) It is our duty to increase in knowledge of the truths of Christianity. In my first sermon I showed you that no art or science could be compared in importance with the knowledge of Divine and heavenly things, and you can easily understand that a man can not strive after anything more worthy, more necessary and more profitable than after a more perfect knowledge of the truth. Truth is the greatest and noblest possession that we enjoy in this life. Solomon valued it far above wealth, and deemed it worthy of all his endeavors. " I wished," he writes, "and understanding was given me, and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me. And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her. Neither did I compare unto her any precious stone, for all gold and comparison of her is as a little sand, and silver in respect to her shall be counted as clay. I loved her above health and beauty and chose to have her instead of light, for her light can not be put out"
(Wisd. vii, 7-10).
You see how highly Solomon valued the truth, and how earnestly he strove to attain to it, setting us all an example that we should follow. As children you were trained in the truths of Christianity, but knowledge acquired in childhood is inevitably imperfect, and you have probably forgotten a good deal of what you then learned. You have good reason to exert yourselves and to make up for lost time by supplying deficiencies in your knowledge and increasing it. Our Saviour and the Apostles all insisted that this was needful. In almost every one of the epistles the faithful are urged to grow in the knowledge of Christ and of His doctrine, to search the Scriptures and try to understand them, so as to be able to give to every man a reason for their faith and hope. Are you exempt from this obligation? You advance day by day in your business or trade; as soon as any fresh discovery, bearing upon it, is made, you are eager to learn all about it. If, then, you are so anxious to advance in worldly matters, ought you not to show equal zeal in increasing in the knowledge of Divine truth? "What shall it profit a man," exclaimed our Saviour, "if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" (Mark viii, 36).
Many people at the present day are trying to falsify and misrepresent the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore we are more than ever bound to possess a thorough knowledge of the truths of Christianity, and every one who cares for religion and the salvation of his soul ought to aim at increasing this knowledge. Whoever does not thus advance is slipping back into indifference or unbelief. There is no lack of evidence proving this to be the case. We know that many make shipwreck of their faith, and become indifferent to it if not absolute infidels, ridiculing and despising religion; many, too, join the ranks of the socialists simply because they were satisfied with the meagre amount of religious knowledge that they learned as children, and not only failed to preserve it, but made no attempt to renew and increase it. Being insufficiently instructed in the truths of faith, they could not defend it, and were unable to solve difficulties when they arose, or to refute the arguments of unbelievers and to repel their attacks, and thus finally, for want of knowledge, many have fallen victims to unbelief or indifference.
It is most important for you to strive to increase your knowledge of the doctrines of Christianity, that you may be able to resist in the evil day . . . taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one, . . . and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. v i) . No one nowadays has any excuse for remaining ignorant. The word of God is preached every Sunday, everyone can read and there is no lack of good books.
It behooves you, as Christians, to avail yourselves of your opportunities, to listen to sermons and instructions, doing your best to impress what you hear upon your memory. You ought to read good books, if you have time, and you all have time on Sundays and holidays, letting prayer accompany your reading, and liking God to give you understanding and wisdom. "If any of you want wisdom,? says St. James, "let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James i , 5).
(b) Faith requires us to advance also in the practice of virtue. St. Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, says: "We pray and beseech you, brethren, in the Lord Jesus, that as you have received of , us, how you ought to walk, and to please God, so also you would walk, that you may abound the more. . . . For this is the will of God, your sanctification" ( I . Thess. i w , 1, 3). We have here indeed unlimited scope for advancement! It is our duty continually to become more perfect and more holy, in order that we may grow more like God, our great Example. This is the great aim of our existence, and no form of progress in the whole world can be more rich in blessings and rewards than progress in what is good. "He that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty, and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed" (James i , 35). But on the other hand, he who does not advance in keeping the Commandments, in virtue and in perfection, must inevitably fall back into sin and destruction. "No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." "Be ye therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the Commandments."
How few there are who advance in goodness! Many think that everything in the world is wrong, and are willing to criticize and improve everything except themselves. They always look at others, never at themselves, and expect happiness and salvation from without and not from within; they talk of reforms and improvements, but they never reform or improve themselves. For this reason they are on bad terms with themselves, with their own conscience and with God Himself, and transfer their inward discontent to the world around them, with which they never seem to cease to find fault. Let us be on our guard against becoming people of this sort. If we want to improve others, let us begin by improving ourselves. If we desire others to make progress, let us lead the way by keeping the Commandments and increasing in virtue and perfection; let us "follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see God" (Heb. xii, 14).
I have shown you wherein, true progress consists. Let the children of this world persist in their quest of vain and fleeting things, and if they try to ensnare you by their specious arguments and seek to make you follow their example and adapt your religious principles to their views, say, like St. Peter: "Lord, we will never forsake Thee" we will hold fast to Thine eternal, unchanging truth, "to whom should we go ? Thou hast the words of everlasting life."
Like Mary Magdalen sit at our Lord's feet, listening to His words, and, like our Lady, keeping them in your hearts, that they may be your guide, and that you may conform with ever greater perfection to His doctrine. The true sort of progress, which will make a man happy at the last, is to gain a thorough knowledge of one's religion, to make it a guide amidst the darkness of the world, to advance daily on the path of virtue, to win fresh victories daily over the world, the flesh and the devil, and to be able to say with St. Paul: "Now I live, yet not I , but Christ liveth in me." If you make it your aim to live thus, increasing in righteousness of life, I have no fear of your falling into the hands of the socialists, and you will be able to fulfil the law of charity, by instructing and warning others, so as to prevent their joining this party and so making shipwreck of their faith and of their temporal and eternal happiness.
Well for you, if you resolve during Lent that this shall be your aim! Well for you, if you grow in the knowledge of the truth, as you will do, if you avail yourselves of the opportunities offered you so abundantly in the Lenten sermons! Well for you, if you advance in self-denial and mortification, in prayer and penance, in virtue and holiness! You will be more and more convinced that the Catholic Church has no need to fear the light and to advance with the times, because she is already in full possession of the truth, and, if you search for them, you will daily discover fresh beauties in her. In the acceptance and practice of her doctrines you will find peace that the world can neither give nor destroy, and you will at last attain to that happiness which is promised to all who believe in and love our Lord, Amen.