A Church That Can and Cannot Change

The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching

John T. Noonan, Jr.

Erasmus Institute Books

Using concrete examples, John T. Noonan, Jr., demonstrates that the moral teaching of the Catholic Church has changed and continues to change without abandoning its foundational commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Specifically, Noonan looks at the profound changes that have occurred over the centuries in Catholic moral teaching on freedom of conscience, lending for a profit, and slavery. He also offers a close examination of the change now in progress concerning divorce.

In these changes Noonan perceives the Catholic Church to be a vigorous, living organism answering new questions with new answers, and enlarging the capacity of believers to learn through experience and empathy what love demands. He contends that the impetus to change comes from a variety of sources, including prayer, meditation on Scripture, new theological insights and analyses, the evolution of human institutions, and the examples and instruction given by persons of good will.

Noonan also states that the Church cannot change its commitment to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Given this absolute, how can the moral teaching of the Church change? Noonan finds this question unanswerable when asked in the abstract. But in the context of the specific facts and events he discusses in this book, an answer becomes clear. As our capacity to grasp the Gospel grows, so too, our understanding and compassion, which give life to the Gospel commandments of love, grow.

JOHN T. NOONAN, JR., is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California. He is a historian of ideas, distinguished lecturer, and author of thirteen books.

“Having been an office neighbor of Judge John Noonan at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress while this book was developing, I am delighted to see it in print. It is a careful and yet bold application of the concept of ‘development of doctrine’ to morals rather than to dogma, and a brilliant taxonomy of Christian attitudes toward slavery. The result of Judge Noonan’s research is a deeper, if more complex, understanding of just what the continuity of the Orthodox-Catholic tradition implies. I look forward to discussing it with the author at greater length, and I cannot imagine any serious person who would not benefit from reading it.” —Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale University


“What Noonan brings . . . to this invaluable book is unblinking honesty about the record of the church to which he is deeply devoted. That is a standard for anyone wishing to pursue the conversation.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Immensely valuable and scrupulously researched. . . . [a] trenchant historical account.” —Dennis O’Brien in Commonweal

“Crisply written and immensely learned, [A Church That Can and Cannot Change] documents profound change in Catholic teaching on three topics—slavery, usury, religious liberty—and significant development with regard to a fourth, the desolation of marriage.” —Leslie Woodcock Tentler in Commonweal

“Well-written and well-documented. . . .” — America

“[T]his magisterial work. . . . This book should be high on the list of must reads for anyone interested in Catholic moral theology but also for any educated Catholic who wants to understand how you can teach one thing in the past and another thing today.” — Theology Today

“Vital reading for those involved in reforming the church.” — Conscience

“Highly recommended.” — Choice

“Anyone looking for a comprehensive and insightful read on church history need look no further than John T. Noonan Jr.’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. In short, to-the-point chapters Noonan, an accomplished historian and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, leads the reader by the nose through his argument that the church’s moral teaching can and does change-and probably will again. The heart of his case is his unflinching account of the church’s relationship with slavery. Meticulously presenting the evidence, Noonan demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt the church’s move from acceptance of human slavery to eventual condemnation.” — U.S. Catholic

“John T. Noonan’s writing is tight, the examples are striking, the one-liners abundant, and the treasure-trove of amazing (and egregious) ecclesial statements is eye-popping. . . . excellent book. . . . ” — Catholic Library World

“What might at first glance seem to be a problematic piling up of disparate answers . . . actually helps to seal Noonan’s case. The multiple interwoven issues lead one toward the realization that there has been a certain heterogeneous inconsistency, even not excluding the church’s determination of what is unnatural or intrinsically evil.” — American Catholic Studies

“Noonan’s thesis is that while the Catholic Church cannot change in holding to the deposit of faith, its moral doctrine has changed with regard to slavery, usury, and religious liberty, and it is in process of changing with regard to the dissolving of non-sacramental marriages. . . This is a thoughtful and scholarly work, which raises questions for both moral and systematic theologians.” — The Catholic Historical Review

“John Noonan wants to do for the commandments what John Newman did for the creed. Just as Newman showed there have been developments in the Church’s understanding of the creed, so Noonan wants to show there have been developments in the church’s understanding of morals. As Newman had his test cases, things like Nicea and devotion to the saints and the papacy, so Noonan has his test cases. He treats Church teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom, and divorce.” — The Thomist

“John T. Noonan, Jr., . . . applies the concept of the development of doctrine to morals and shows how the moral teaching of the church can and cannot change.” — Theology Digest

“Noonan’s audience is the thinking Catholic, but also all those who would excoriate the Church for being so rigid. In fact, the Church demonstrates an amazing adaptability, however slow and arcane its mechanisms.” — Religious Studies Review

”. . . The book is a remarkably welcome resource in an important theological matter.” — Horizons

“Noonan offers an intrepid analysis of unambiguous development in Catholic moral teaching that should cause the Church to celebrate rather than diminish the dynamic process of development . . . . This enlightening, challenging, and hopeful book should contribute substantively to an appreciation of the constructive role of the development of moral doctrine in Catholic theology.” — The Heythrop Journal

“Noonan’s works on usury, contraception, religious freedom, abortion, divorce, and bribery have set the gold standard for research in theological ethics. His research is especially compelling for Roman Catholic ethics shaped to some degree by magisterial teachings that often make the claim of inerrancy precisely through another claim: that its utterances are continuously the same and resist change, despite evidence to the contrary. . . . This brilliant book teaches us that, if we appreciate history, inevitably we are called to understand more than we presently know.” — The Journal of Religion

“Noonan aims to demonstrate that Catholic moral theology can and does develop, often enough in response to forces-including moral forces-external to the Church. That he does so masterful a job has obvious implications for on-going Catholic debates over birth control and a great deal else. It is readily accessible to a general audience, thanks to his admirably lucid prose.” — The Jurist