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A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (ND Erasmus Institute Books) Hardcover – January 15, 2005

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Editorial Reviews


"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." —Commonweal

"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

“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,  November 2005

"[A] 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, October 2005

"Highly recommended." —Choice, July/August, 2005

“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, vol. 87, no. 4, October 2007

From the Inside Flap

By concrete examples, dated and put in context, John T. Noonan, Jr., demonstrates how the moral teaching of the Catholic Church has changed and is changing without abandoning its foundational commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From St. Paul's return of a runaway slave to his master, to John Henry Newman's startle at the idea that slavery is intrinsically evil, the Church resisted condemning slavery. Today, John Paul II has made clear that slavery in itself, everywhere and always, is sinful. Similar revolutions have occurred in the Church's teaching on making money out of lending and on respect for the beliefs of heretics. And another, little-known change is taking place as modern popes grant divorces.

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 do our understanding and compassion, which give life to the Gospel commandments of love.

Noonan’s incisive book, based on the Erasmus Lectures he delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 2003, will challenge anyone interested in the history and future of the Catholic Church.

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Product Details

  • Series: ND Erasmus Institute Books
  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press; 1 edition (January 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0268036039
  • ISBN-13: 978-0268036034
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #602,446 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful By William C. Hunt on June 13, 2005
Format: Hardcover
After seminal books on the history of moral teaching (usury, contraception, abortion, bribes, divorce and religious liberty) John T. Noonan, Jr. has attempted to tie them all together by articulating a coherent approach to the problem of doctrinal development in the Roman Catholic Church. He applies his formidable erudition to three issues where church teaching has reversed itself definitively (slavery, usury, and religious liberty) and to one that is still in progress (divorce). Half of the book deals with the teaching and practice on slavery - from toleration to defense and finally to condemnation, almost as an after-thought, at the Second Vatican Council. Having already written books on the other three topics, Noonan deals with them more succinctly but with no less acumen.

Noonan has the rare capacity to look the historical record straight in the face. He neither hides from the facts nor tries to spin them. He weighs and evaluates facts like the judge that he is (US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) seeking whatever meaning they yield - no more, no less. He notes that none of the great minds of the past "were capable of rising above their circumstances in all areas of moral doctrine." Augustine approved the torture of heretics and Aquinas justified their execution if they relapsed; Erasmus failed to criticize the European slave trade; Bartolome de Las Casas did not object to the inquisition; and "St. Alfonso de'Ligouri owned a personal slave."

Embarrassing as the historical record is when viewed from our vantage point at the end of centuries of development, Noonan's dispassionate examination leads to many insights. In the last section of his book, "The Test of the Teaching," Noonan puts forth a synthesis.
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48 of 65 people found the following review helpful By PW, sort of on January 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Here are excerpts from Avery Cardinal Dulles' review in "First Things" (Oct 2005).


The overarching thesis seems to be that in all these areas social change makes it possible for Christians to overcome the blindness that had previously afflicted their moral vision. The doctrinal change, in Noonan's estimation, is in many cases an about-face, repudiating the erroneous past teaching of the magisterium itself.

More than half of the book deals with slavery...Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution. Nor did the writers of the New Testament. Peter and Paul exhort slaves to be obedient to their masters. Paul urges Philemon to treat his converted slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ. While discreetly suggesting that he manumit Onesimus, he does not say that Philemon is morally obliged to free Onesimus....

...[T]he popes were far from silent. As soon as the enslavement of native populations by European colonists started, they began to protest, although Noonan gives only a few isolated examples. Eugene IV in 1435 condemned the enslavement of the peoples of the newly colonized Canary Islands and, under pain of excommunication, ordered all such slaves to be immediately set free. Pius II and Sixtus IV emphatically repeated these prohibitions. In a bull addressed to all the faithful of the Christian world Paul III in 1537 condemned the enslavement of Indians in North and South America. Gregory XIV in 1591 ordered the freeing of all the Filipino slaves held by Spaniards. Urban VIII in 1639 issued a bull applying the principles of Paul III to Portuguese colonies in South America and requiring the liberation of all Indian slaves.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful By William H. DuBay on April 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The history of the church's positions on slavery, usury, and religious freedom are certainly revealing.

One thing that struck me is how many of these changes came to fruition in our own lifetimes and specifically in the Second Vatican Council. I agree with the author that few appreciate what a moral revolution that was.

I have a few criticisms of the book, however. The first has to do with Noonan's omission of the church's sustained persecution of pagan religions that went on for three centuries. According to some historians, it was a form of genocide. The church's use of homicide and torture as a standard mode of operation did not begin with the Inquisition in the 12th century.

Noonan also dismisses the ancient prescriptions of usury as "useless" and describes as "nostalgic" those who, like Peter Maurin and Jacques Maritain, state they are still of value. Karl Marx's definitive critique of how capitalism works can hardly be described as nostalgic. Half the people in the world today live in socialist countries with strong market controls This should give us pause before casually dismissing Aristotle's belief that interest unnaturally attributes to money a power it does not have. There are many today who question whether capitalism can provide a sustainable economy.

Noonan also fails even to mention the significance of the declaration of the infallibility of the Pope in 1870. He weasels around the issue of infallibility by claiming that most of the teachings of the church are not infallible. Whether one is speaking of the teaching authority of the Pope, the bishops, the council, or the whole church, the whole issue of infallibility is central to the ability of the church's ability to cope with change in the world.
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