Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Challenging Tradition is Human

This piece was written by Notre Dame junior Stephen Hawn and originally published as an article in Common Sense on April 23, 2014

Perhaps one of the most unique human qualities is our capacity for change, and one undeniable pattern throughout human history is the rapid pace at which change occurs. Civilizations rise and fall. Cultures come into existence and are lost just as easily. Even the change in the United States in just the last 50 years is remarkable. We declared forced segregation illegal, had a sexual revolution, and are in the midst of a successful gay rights movement.

Now surely not all change throughout history has been positive, but I would argue that most has. Would you prefer the morals of the ancient Romans to the morals of today? Would anyone really argue that we are worse off today than we were in the distant past? No, I think not. Thus, when taken as a whole, change leads to progress.

Progress happens everywhere; even in the places we least expect it. At Notre Dame, the Catholic Church is often seen as an unchanging entity that transcends time. But in reality, the Church’s teachings change quite a bit. In fact, to believe that the church’s teachings are unchanging is to show a shocking ignorance of history.

The Church’s former belief that the earth lies at the center of the universe caused the embarrassing Galileo debacle. In 1950, Pope Pius XII taught that all humans are descended from a literal Adam and Eve, which even at the time was known to be biologically absurd. The church taught that all currently living Jews held collective responsibility for Jesus’s death until the second Vatican council in 1965. The church taught that only Christians could enter the kingdom of heaven until the second Vatican Council. The Catholic bishops in America used to insist that black people could not be priests. We can be polite and say that church positions have “evolved”, or we can be more precise and say that the Church changes.

The examples of change in the Catholic Church are important because they prove that even the Church is incredibly fallible, because the mere act of changing acknowledges that one’s beliefs were mistaken at some point in the past. If even the Catholic Church, an institution that ostensibly obtains it moral authority from divine inspiration, can be wrong, then truly anything can be wrong.

Thus, I would encourage each and every reader to throw off the intellectual shackles of his or her upbringing. Let us take nothing for granite. Challenge everything. Question everything. Every contemporary Church teaching could be wrong. What you learn in science class could be wrong. Everything is fallible. Knowledge is created and conveyed by humans who are no smarter than us, and thus it could be wrong.

And when we discover that some belief of the past is indeed flawed, we have an obligation to try to change it. Tradition has always and will always bow down in the face of progress. However, forcing tradition to surrender often requires an ugly, but extremely necessary fight, and thus it should be our undertaking. Historians tell us never to forget the past, and they are right. But I would argue that the most important lesson of the past is that the past is so often wrong.

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