A lot of the commentary from liberals on the synod on the family–and in general on the Church’s teaching on sexual morality–is organized around the following thought: the Church should adapt its teaching to suit the times.
But why should it? It seems to me that from any legitimate point of view it would make no sense for the Church to do this. At least, it seems to me that there are two basic points of view on this question, and from the standpoint of either one of them there is no need for the Church to update its teachings.
On the one hand, one might believe that the Catholic Church is what it claims to be: the Church instituted by God to safeguard his revelation to humankind. If this is indeed what the Church is, then it would be more than pointless–it would in fact be a betrayal of its mission–for it to change its teaching to reflect the times. If the Church is God’s appointed communicator of his revelation, then its fidelity to that revelation would be far more important than trying to keep up with whatever the dominant human opinion is at a given point in human history.
On the other hand, if you really think that we should derive our guidance from what “the times” are telling us, then you obviously don’t believe that the Church is what it claims to be. This would be true both in the particular case at hand–I mean the question of sexual morality–but also in general. In terms of sexual morality, if you believe that the prevailing sexual morality of the present day is true, good, and wholesome, then it follows inescapably that the Church’s claims to teach a true morality in relation to these things is in fact false. For the Church has been perfectly constant on these questions for the last several generations, even as the dominant opinion has changed. And in general if you think we get the truth about basic moral questions from “the times”–that is, from the development of secular public opinion–then you obviously don’t think that the Church’s claims to a teaching authority in these matters is a valid one.
But if you don’t think that the Church is what it claims to be, then it is still hard to see why it is important for it to change its teachings to suit the times. It would make more sense to dismiss its views as erroneous–like the claims made by any number of other religious organizations–and go about your business. In other words, if you don’t accept the Church’s claim to a divine teaching authority, why do you even care what it says?
Of course, there is another, sort of in-between position on these questions–one that I suspect is held by some liberal Catholics. This would be the position that really believes, on some level, in the Church’s teaching authority, but does not want to hear what it is saying on a given question, and therefore wishes it would say something else. This is an understandable, although not a very reasonable, position.
It’s understandable because we are all weak and imperfect, and therefore we are all tempted to wish that the morality taught by the Church were an easier one. But it’s not a reasonable position because if we really believe that the Church is a divinely established teacher, then the sensible course is to try to live up to its teaching, and to seek forgiveness when we fail–not to keep asking the Church to change its teaching.