The Answer: No.
In 1995, in an article entitled “Morality and Christian Morality”, Father Joseph de Torre made the point that the Church cannot change morality, the natural law, or the content of revelation. Father de Torre’s general conclusion is this:
“Christ never condones or ‘permits’ sin. What he does is always to forgive the sins of those who are repentant. The Church founded by Christ follows the same line: she cannot condone, permit or “legalize” sins; through her ordained ministers, however, she can always forgive sins confessed in the sacrament of penance with true repentance.”
He also makes the point that doctrine, law, morality, and teaching cannot be changed simply by employing a notion of “general charity” which would trump all other considerations. This is particularly relevant today in the face of those who would change the teachings of Christ and the revealed will of God based on an asserted domineering divine attribute of “mercy”.
Changing the Face of Sin
Father de Torre’s work on the change of morality in general is important today in the consideration of attempted changes related to two specific moral issues: whether the Church can, following alleged repentance, condone continuing adultery in the context of divorce and remarriage without annulment of a first marriage; and whether the Church can permit or legitimize voluntary homosexual acts of a person within the context of an ongoing homosexual relationship without repentance that includes a commitment to no longer engage in such acts.
The basis for the conclusion that the Church cannot change morality is simple, clear and straightforward: Christian morality is part of Divine Revelation. Its immutable principles are transmitted to successive generations by the Church (through its “Magisterium”), but these principles cannot be changed. The Church can interpret this revelation, but it cannot alter it.
As Father de Torre says, both faith and morality are gifts from God. They are not something that evolves or changes, not something that is made known through human nature or any creature of creation. Human beings cannot change morality and morality is not a product of human reasoning. It is this morality that Christ revealed to the Apostles and which he gave them to transmit to all of us, unchanged, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ never gave them any authority or power to change the moral teaching he entrusted to them. And the job of authentically interpreting this morality is the exclusive province of the Church’s Magisterium – no priest, no individual bishop, and no group of some bishops (such as two-thirds of the bishops at a synod) can definitively and authoritatively interpret, or change, this morality. This is for the Magisterium alone.
Synods, particularly, according to Canon Law, have no magisterial authority, can issue no decree, and cannot resolve any issue. Synods are merely agencies of a papacy rather than an authoritative microcosm of the college of bishops.
Deposit of Faith
The Dogmatic Constituion On Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, makes clear the exclusivity of the Magisterium’s role in handing on this unchangeable morality:
“But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Dei Verbum, 10). “Teaching only what has been handed on” means that the Magisterium is limited to teach only that which Christ gave.”
Can morality be changed to reflect “the signs of the times”? Do morality and the natural law change if a number of persons say that they think they are not acting immorally in engaging in certain acts which heretofore the Magisterium condemned as immoral, as sins? Again, Father de Torre says the answer is: No. He quotes the Declaration On Sexual Ethics (1975) of the Sacred Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith:
“Of course, in the history of civilization many of the concrete conditions and needs of human life have changed and will continue to change. But all evolution of morals and every type of life must be kept within the limits imposed by the immutable principles based on every human person’s constitutive elements and essential relations – elements and relations which transcend historical contingency”
The words “transcend historical contingency” mean when a group of people begin to do something contrary to morality, at some point in human history, the fact that they do it, even if they are many, does not change morality. Such a group does not in any way exercise the role of the Magisterium, no group can base a doctrinal change on their actions, and they in no way constitute or proclaim the “sensus fidelium” or the “sensus fidei”.
Father de Torre says there are two main reasons that people want morality to change: 1) the “weakness of man;” and 2) “the wealth of divine revelation.”
Because of the “weakness of man,” persons justify or rationalize immoral behavior by appealing to extrinsic factors other than their own free will and free choices they make – e.g. social, economic, cultural conditions – often making them scapegoats for one’s free actions. Again Father de Torre cites the Declaration On Sexual Ethics referred to above:
“Hence, those many people are in error who today assert that one can neither find in human nature nor in the revealed law any absolute and immutable norm to serve for particular actions other than the one that expresses itself in the general law of charity and respect for human dignity. As a proof of their assertions they put forward the view that so-called norms of the natural law or precepts of sacred scripture are to be regarded only as given expressions of a form or particular culture at a certain moment in history.”
Today the appeal by some to the alleged “general law” of mercy is precisely the type of appeal to “the general law of charity and respect for human dignity” for changing morality that the Sacred Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith rejects. Yes, God’s mercy can extend to any sinner and cover any sin; but that mercy is powerless to force the sinner to repent, impotent to compel the sinner to reject the sin with a “firm purpose of amendment”, and ineffective, alone, to make the sinner, in the future, choose to “sin no more.”
“The wealth of revelation” is appealed to in failed efforts to change morality. The contra-Magisterial reasoning goes like this: because God permitted divorce and polygamy for the Jews, therefore today the Church can permit ongoing adultery following attempted reconciliation and voluntarily engaging in homosexual actions after asserted repentance. But there are two reasons, according to Father de Torre, the Church cannot do this today. One, this type of concession by God, due to “the hardness of their hearts,” indeed was a moral step backwards, but God tolerated it. And second, no such ancient concession or lowering of moral standards is possible today since the total fullness of divine revelation has been achieved in and through Christ. And Christ himself made it clear that no such concession can be made. Father de Torre goes on to note that, although Christ forgives sinners, he never permits sin; and He forgives only those who are repentant, i.e. those who decide to sin no more.
Sin Is Not Sin?
No thinker, philosopher, or theologian is more matter-of-fact than St. Thomas Aquinas; but he does have some words, in his Catechetical Instructions, that are fairly harsh for those who would say something that is sin is not sin:
“Now, it must be known that, although some believe that adultery is a sin, yet they do not believe that simple fornication is a mortal sin. Against them stand the words of St. Paul: “For fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” And: “Do not err: neither fornicators, . . . nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind shall possess the kingdom of God.” But one is not excluded from the kingdom of God except by mortal sin; therefore, fornication is a mortal sin. But one might say that there is no reason why fornication should be a mortal sin, since the body of the wife is not given, as in adultery. I say, however, if the body of the wife is not given, nevertheless, there is given the body of Christ which was given to the husband when he was sanctified in Baptism. If, then, one must not betray his wife, with much more reason must he not be unfaithful to Christ: “Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them the members of a harlot? God forbid!” It is heretical to say that fornication is not a mortal sin.”
Not only is it wrong to say ongoing adultery and voluntarily engaging in homosexual acts, without true repentance, are not sins (and by fair implication are acts of virtue), but the person who says these things, in attempting to change morality and condone sin, is a heretic.
Whether efforts by liberals and dissenters to change doctrine, natural law and morality are based on an asserted overarching divine attribute such as justice, love, “social” justice, or, as is being done currently, mercy, there is no magisterial warrant, basis in tradition, or scriptural authority for such change. Those who attempt this have diminished or lost their hope for the Church and their faith in God.