A Lighthouse Doesn’t Move


Like Steve Skojec (you can read his excellent post here), I want to follow up on Emily Stimson’s wonderful post bringing to light the late Paul Harvey’s very interesting reflections on the importance of the Catholic Church to non-Catholics.

Harvey’s remarks, made while the Second Vatican Council was underway, expressed fear that the Church might change in some fundamental way.  Although Harvey was not himself a Catholic, he said that he felt a certain solace from the fact that the Catholic Church remained essentially unchanged, especially during turbulent times.  He ended by comparing the Church to a lighthouse.

It struck me that the comparison is very apt for Harvey’s purpose: A lighthouse doesn’t move.  At least, it shouldn’t move if it is going to perform its function.  It is meant to provide a fixed point against which one can navigate safely, and it can only do that if you know that it remains in the same place.  Similarly, Harvey, although not a Catholic, grew up with the sense that the Church’s unmovable commitment to its basic teaching was a kind of beacon by which our civilization might continue to orient itself in relation to the Truth.

St Peters Basilica

At any rate, Paul Harvey’s meditations also reminded me that the argument that the Church should change to accommodate itself to the modern world is often rather one-sided.

Sometimes people suggest that the Church ought to change its fundamental moral teachings–say, regarding the proper purposes of sex– for the sake of those people who cannot or do not live up to them.  These teachings, we are told, are hurtful and exclusionary to those who follow another path.  But as Paul Harvey’s comments show, it will be equally hurtful to some people if the Church were to change its teachings.  The idea that there are no fixed standards of conduct is exhilarating to some (especially those who don’t think through its gruesome consequences), but it is dismaying to others.  Many people receive a kind of spiritual and moral solace from the Church’s unswerving fidelity to its ancient teachings, and I can see no reason why those people should be ignored if an argument is going to be made on the basis of how the Church’s teachings make people feel.

Proponents of change also sometimes suggest that the Church itself will be better off for changing.  What they usually mean is that it will attract more members, that its supposedly old-fashioned morality is an obstacle to multitudes who would like to become Catholic.  Once again, Harvey’s commentary shows us that this claim, too, is one-sided.  Even if we suppose that the Church would win some new supporters by changing its teaching, honesty would compel us to admit that it would at the same time alienate the respect of people who had all along admired its holy intransigence.

In view of the fact that these considerations cut in opposite ways, it is no doubt best that the Church simply proclaim the Truth as it has received it as clearly, as forcefully, and as charitably as possible–without venom, of course, but also without concealing or minimizing the hard teachings in the pursuit of a superficial popularity.




The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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