It is very common for some people, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, to call on the Church to change its teachings in order to be better in tune with “the times.” These calls never make much sense to me.
In the first place, the Church’s message is supposed to be for all times, so it does not make sense for it to be changed in order to conform to the expectations of any particular time. The Church claims to teach in the name of God. I know many people think that is an embarrassing claim, but it is essential to the Church’s identity, so there it is. This is a big claim, and to claim it the Church has to accept what goes with it–namely, that if the present time is out of step with the Church’s teaching, then it is the culture that needs to change, and not the Church’s teaching. Of course, the culture is probably not going to change, but that does not mean that the Church should change. The Church is not charged with successfully transforming the culture, or with conforming itself to the culture, but with faithfully proclaiming the truth that has been entrusted to it.
Indeed, if the Church were to change its teaching to accommodate itself to the times, it would be hard for any serious-minded person to take the Church seriously. Again, the Church claims to teach in the name of God, to be presenting a revelation that is from God. On the standard understanding, God does not change, and his revelation does not change. In seeking a church that can with some credibility claim to speak in the name of a divine revelation,one helpful question is: “Does this church teach the same thing it taught one hundred years ago? One thousand years ago?” If not, then it would seem to have little to offer. After all, if the prevailing moral opinions of the times are more compelling than the teaching of the Church, you can get the former just by being a normal, compliant, conformist member of the prevailing culture. No need for any Church at all.
The other problem with calls for the Church to conform to “the times” is that they are really rather parochial and self-serving. Those who want the Church to update, say, its teaching on marriage and sexual morality to reflect the “times,” really mean that they want it to reflect what is thought by certain people in America and Europe. The sexual morality that prevails in those places at this time is not necessarily the same as prevails in other places in the world at this time. Yet the Church is supposed to have a universal moral message for mankind. In changing to fit the times here, it would be putting itself out of step with the times elsewhere. All the more reason to leave such considerations aside and remain faithful to what it has received.
This approach, moreover, seems to be what the Church’s founder had in mind. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” The point of salt is that it tastes different from the food to which it is added. Otherwise it is useless. Similarly, Jesus seems to be telling his followers, their morality and their conduct should be different from that of the world at large. This aim is defeated if the Church believes it should conform its teaching to the practice of the world.