Some of those outside of the Church and even some within might think that one of the marks of the Church is “Stubbornness.” They look upon the Church and wonder why she does not change to reflect the times. Why she holds on to currently unpopular ideas and does not give in to pressure. Why in the world throughout the centuries she has remained so stubborn to the winds of change sweeping all the other Churches.
No doubt they have many theories for the Fifth Mark of Stubbornness. Old men in a patriarchal structure seeming to being the leading theory for the lack of responsiveness to change. Clinging to tradition with some corporate nostalgia is another. Perhaps just pure mean-spiritedness in resistance to change.
The fact that the Catholic Church is the oldest continuous institution is a rather amazing fact. Though a fact not known or thought about by many ignorant of history as I was. They might admit that the Church is the oldest human institution with a emphasis on”human.” Yet that does not explain her stubbornness. Many other churches had male structures and a passed on tradition and yet would cave to the first gust of a wind of change currently being blown around by those ever shifting winds of culture and politically correct ideas.
The Anglican Church started with a male hierarchy headed by a king and at first accepted all sacred tradition except that fact that the Church is not headed by a king, but the King of King with the Pope as his servant and the servant to all.. Yet over time this all slipped into factions of low/high church and things hard to equate as a church at all. The Lambeth Councils stripped Anglicanism from sacred tradition and sacred tradition bit by bit until the three branch theory became so ridiculous as to not being able to be used anymore without drawing a laugh.
Protestantism of course has resulted in split upon split adapting both to the culture and to the individualism of each person being basically an infallible interpreter of scripture. They too started with men holding to their new traditions which were passed down with these traditions being the interpretations of their founders. Of course when you pass down an interpretation from a single person it is no surprise that those interpretations gets reinterpreted by others and then of course reinterpreted again.
Yet the Catholic Church once she has held out something to be definitively believed by all the faithful holds on to those teachings even when they become contrary to the culture. Often those truths taught become better understood \as the theology deepens, but they don’t take u-turns or head off in quite a different direction. Cardinal John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine certainly showed this development. A development is quite different than a mere change. A development grows out of a known truth into a better understood truth, while a mere change ignores or misunderstands a truth to go in a different direction.
Often forgotten is that some of the actual positive change based on truth that society finally adopted was often first taught by the Church. Slavery was condemned by the Church and slavers excommunicated long before the abolition movement became a movement. Canon law defined rights and responsibilities long before civil law came into being. The university and the hospital now such a common landmark was birthed by the Church. The full list of this is quite substantial as show in the excellent How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. People ask why the Church doesn’t change to reflect the culture. When really the culture should change to reflects Christ’s Church.
The real question so few reflect on is why is the Catholic Church so unique as a human institution? How does it hold on to it’s teaching and beliefs in the face of a changing culture? Whether you speak of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu’s, etc you can not find a similar institution whose beliefs have not significantly changed or experienced constant splitting. Only among the various Orthodox Churches do we find anything resembling the Catholic Church and the Orthodox have retained a valid episcopacy which is certainly part of the reason why. Though among the various Orthodox Churches you do not see a perfect agreement on theology and practice. It seems to me that the Orthodox have become somewhat stagnant in that while their theology with their valid emphases has deepened, since the split they don’t think they can call a council and have the ability to define a truth like the various councils they accepted from the past as the Church has done.
The only real satisfying answer is that the Catholic Church is not a human institution, but a Divine institution in that it was God who instituted her and continues to guide her as Jesus promised. Jesus both sent the Holy Spirit to guide her and promised that the Gates of Hell would never prevail against her. The fact that she is a Divine institution explains all of her distinctives while the fact that the Church is made up of humans explains the individual faults. Though are own faults as individual Catholics only show our defects in not following the Church and thus the will of God. Nobody ever really complains that someone is acting too much like Christ.
There is a story during the time of the bad Popes who which basically goes like this. A man is taking instruction from a priest to possibly become Catholic. The man is very interested in Rome and desires to go there. The priest knowing the corruption of the Church of the time tried to persuade him so that he would not become scandalized and not accept the Church. The man went anyway and after he came back told the priest he was now fully ready to enter the Church. The priest queried the man on his sudden decision and the man replied “If the Church can withstand such corruption surely she is Divine.”
Looking at the very rich history of the Church we see times of laxity and times of returning more fully to the faith. We see wars, political battles, and pressures of every kind. The Great Schism is not an oddity in history, the oddity is that the schism was healed and their was no branch of Catholics currently existing following an anti-Pope. Emperors and Kings seeking power attacked and imprisoned Popes, yet for the most part these empires and kingdoms no longer exist – while the Pope still sits as head of the Church. Joseph Stalin laughing at the Church asked “How Many Divisions Does the Pope Have?” Really he should have asked “How many divisions in our thoughts and ideas do we have?” Crushing political power has been placed against the Church and the Pope, yet they have never found a fulcrum big enough to move the Church from what she teaches.
St Jerome said that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, to which I add “Ignorance of history is ignorance of Christ’s Church” – a broadening of Cardinal Newman’s “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
So the perceived Fifth Mark of the Church of Stubbornness is really a reflection of the Four Marks of the Church of her being One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.