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Is Religion Exempt from Change?

A few years ago, a friend bought me a six pack of a drink called, “Not Your Father’s Root Beer.” The brand had that name, presumably, because this root beer was spiked with alcohol and your father wouldn’t have dreamed of doctoring his root beer with alcohol.

But, of course, many fathers would have added alcohol to their root beer had they thought of it. Another presumption of the product name is that people would prefer an alcohol-spiked version to “good, old-fashioned root beer,” like the one with the brand name, “Dad’s.” I have no aversion to moderate alcohol use or to root beer but I prefer to keep them separate.

It’s a clever name and marketing ploy, however. That’s because when it comes to consumer products and much more, Americans are generally averse to what’s considered old-fashioned or out of style. Except when they’re not.

The Status of Homosexuals

And religion seems to be in the area where many are not. The United Methodist Church is experiencing a very painful time because of a major schism: over 6,000 American United Methodist congregations have left the church since 2019 over the status of homosexuals in the church.

A large portion of the members of the Catholic Church, to which I belong, oppose any opening to homosexuals and have publicly and loudly criticized the pope for attempting to do so.

To me, the pope is doing exactly what Jesus would want, even though there is no mention in the Gospels about Jesus’ view of homosexuality. It’s not a matter of judging whether homosexuality is sinful, because we simply don’t know enough about it to judge why some are gay and others not.

No, it’s a matter of respecting and loving others, no matter their situation, because that is Jesus’ principal message.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and that is the issue of change, specifically whether religion should change with the times. In my opinion, every religion should continually be trying to figure out what is at the essence of its teaching – in the case of Christianity, what is essential to Jesus’ teaching.

Protected, Practiced and Nourished

That should be protected, practiced and nourished. If we don’t, we wouldn’t actually be following Jesus but continually trying to make Christianity amenable to the “modernity” that each generation professes.

But apart from the essentials, everything else should be subject to change – not for the sake of change but to make it understandable to each generation. The obvious problem is making that distinction, but it’s something the church should always be engaged in. In the case of Catholicism, it was the reason for the church-changing Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s and for the recent Synod on Synodality held at the Vatican.

Opponents of change in the Catholic Church, in my view, don’t want to go back to the church’s roots but only back to about the Council of Trent in the 16th century, which had the greatest impact on the era many of us grew up with. In other words, they want a church that is comfortable, not one that challenges them as Jesus did his followers.

Regarding homosexuality, we shouldn’t have a double standard. We don’t single out heterosexuals who commit adultery, applying special rules to them. Why should we for homosexuals? I’m not saying the church should change its view of homosexuality. I’m saying it should discuss it with the view of deciding whether its teaching is an essential teaching of Jesus.

Disconnected from Roots

“When you go backward,” said Pope Francis in a conversation with Portuguese Jesuits in August, “you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the church and you lose the sap of revelation…and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change.”

A classic example of how church doctrine has changed is the matter of usury, the practice of lending money at interest. For Christians and Jews, it was historically a serious sin. Apart from predatory lending practices, the church does not consider it so today.

Change is inevitable, and we will always have to struggle with deciding when to change and when not to.

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