Church History Is Full of 'Paradigm Shifts': Weigel Column Aims to Undermine Progress of 'Amoris Laetitia'

By Winters, Michael Sean | National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

Church History Is Full of 'Paradigm Shifts': Weigel Column Aims to Undermine Progress of 'Amoris Laetitia'


Winters, Michael Sean, National Catholic Reporter


George Weigel's latest offering at First Things, titled "The Catholic Church doesn't do 'paradigm shifts,'" may not be as morally offensive as Fr. Romanus Cessario's defense of Pope Pius IX's kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, but it is, in its way, just as ridiculous as an intellectual proposition, maybe even more so.

Weigel takes issue with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin's observation that Amoris Laetitia represents a paradigm shift in the way the church approaches the subject of family and marriage. Weigel notes that the Scriptures provide evidence of such shifts, as when St. Paul came to realize that salvation was, through Jesus Christ, available to the Gentiles, or the introduction of Greek philosophical referents in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

"These are matters of divine revelation, however," Weigel writes, "and, as the Church has long believed and taught, revelation ended with the death of the last apostle."

Since then, according to Weigel, there is development of doctrine but nothing that could be called a paradigm shift.

In the event, Weigel is not Noah Webster, and he does not get to decide what is, and is not, the proper definition of a phrase. He rightly notes that it was Thomas Kuhn who popularized the phrase and did so in the context of scientific revolutions, but the Merriam-Webster definition is not so restrictive: "an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way."

There is a purpose to Weigel's framing the meaning so narrowly, however. He writes of Parolin's choice of metaphor: "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."

This is nonsense on stilts. If you read Weigel's biography of St. Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, what does he describe" in the transition from Pope Paul VI to his hero except a paradigm shift? He portrays Paul as indecisive, unequal to the role, but then along comes Papa Wojtyla and shows what it means to be pope. He described the decision to move beyond the tradition of electing only Italians as a "breakthrough," which is a kind of paradigm shift, I suppose.

And the burden of Weigel's book Evangelical Catholicism was to argue for a paradigm shift of sorts in understanding the church's mission: Even if some of his proposed reforms were silly, like making English the working language of the Vatican, he certainly did not attempt to downplay the shift in perspective he was advocating.

There is also the matter of the Second Vatican Council. How else do you describe the teachings of Vatican II than as a shift of several paradigms? Gone was the idea of the church as a "perfect society" and in its place we have "the people of God." Gone was the idea that error has no rights, an idea that had silenced the greatest theologian America has ever produced, John Courtney Murray and in its place was Murray's commitment to religious freedom, albeit leavened with the theological anthropology of Yves Congar. Gone were the strictures of Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII's encyclical that led to the silencing of Henri de Lubac, and in its place we have Gaudium et Spes, chock-full of de Lubac's theology Gone was the stilted Neo-Scholasticism that preceded the council, and in its place was the rich, complex ressourcement theology and its multifarious theological flowerings.

Or why not consider the Council of Trent? Was that not a paradigm shift in, say the training of clerics? In the responsibilities of bishops? In the rights and duties of pastors?

What of the rise of the mendicant orders? A case can be made that the most important changes in the 2,000 years of our church's history were the direct result of St. …

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