Why are some Catholics so afraid of change?

The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America and author of the new novel "The Abbey." The views expressed in this column belong to Martin.

Author Father James Martin

(CNN)The Synod on the Family, the gathering of bishops from around the world that just concluded, changed no Catholic doctrine. None.

But you wouldn't know that from the fierce reactions the synod evoked. Even the possibility that the church might deal more openly with, for example, divorced and remarried Catholics or the LGBT community, sent some Catholics into a near frenzy.
It seemed out of proportion to the synod's discussions as well as the final document, a rather workaday overview of issues related to the family. The final report did not, for example, say that divorced and remarried could return to Communion. Instead it talked about possible avenues of reconciliation that already existed. Nor did it approve same-sex marriage. Instead it spoke of respecting LGBT Catholics.
    Overall, the document stressed two concepts: "accompaniment" and "discernment." The church must accompany families in the complexity of their lives and use discernment, a form of prayerful decision-making, to help people arrive at good decisions based on church teaching.
    The final document is not even the final word. Pope Francis will most likely issue his own document within a few months, summing up the synod's findings and perhaps moving the discussion farther.
    But even the hint of change prompted outrage -- which was directed not only at Pope Francis, but also the bishops at the synod, Catholic commentators, and from time to time, me. At times, the level of sheer spite was astounding.
    Why?
    First, let's give the benefit of the doubt to people upset by Pope Francis and some of the synod's discussions.
    Those disturbed by the possibility of change are usually devout Catholics who believe that the law is an important part of Catholic tradition. And it is. Make no mistake: Jesus himself said he came to "fulfill the law." Many of the church's rules flow directly from the Gospels. Just consider divorce, the synod topic that captured much of the attention in the West. It is unequivocally stated by Jesus to be wrong.
    Laws also are part of tradition, which Catholics believe is guided by the Holy Spirit. Even if certain rules do not come from the lips of Jesus, but rather from popes or other councils like Vatican II, they are considered to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus, another reason to oppose change: Why would we change something that either comes from Jesus or is safeguarded by the Holy Spirit?
    So some of the consternation is understandable.
    Some, however, is harder to understand.
    For if you're a devout Catholic who believes in the guidance of the Spirit, then you should also trust that the same Spirit is guiding Pope Francis and the synod. Sadly, in some corners that trust seems to have evaporated after the Pope's election, to be replaced with doubt, suspicion and anger.
    Again why?
    First, Catholics today often conflate dogma, doctrine and practice.
    In the most basic (and simplified) theological terms dogma refers to our core beliefs. For example, beliefs like the Resurrection: That's foundational.
    Doctrine encompasses the overall teachings of the church. For example, the teaching on birth control. Every doctrine is important, but not every doctrine is dogma. Finally, pastoral practice refers to how those doctrines are applied in real life. For example, how does a priest counsel a person who uses birth control?
    In the past few decades, we have seen these three categories collapsed together, at least in the popular Catholic imagination. It is as if every teaching is seen as dogma. And this has had disastrous effects. Because a change in one is seen as an attack on everything.
    In this view, changing the way that the church treats divorced and remarried Catholics is not simply an attack on pastoral practice, but on doctrine and perhaps even dogma. This is not to diminish important teachings, but rather to put them in their perspective.
    Traditionally, we believe in a "hierarchy of truths," in which some teachings are simply more important than others. Obviously, the Resurrection is more important than what your pastor says about a local political candidate. The collapse of these three categories, then, means that even the hint of change is a threat. Thus some of the anger.
    Second, change itself may be difficult for some Catholics because it threaten one's idea of a stable church. Yet the church has always changed. Not in its essentials, but in some important practices, as it responds to what Jesus called the "signs of the times."
    Think of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council: The church's relations with the Jewish people changed utterly. The translation of the Mass from the Latin into vernacular languages changed the way we worship. Both were immense changes -- and necessary changes.
    Third, a darker reason for the anger: a crushing sense of legalism of the kind that Jesus warned against. Sadly, I see this evident in our church, and it is ironic to find this in those who hew to the Gospels because this is one of the clearest things that Jesus opposed: "You load people with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them!" he said in the Gospel of Luke.
    As the Pope said in his closing remarks to the synod, the person who truly follows the doctrine is not the one who follows the letter of the law, but its spirit.
    Fourth, even darker reasons for the anger: a hatred of LGBT Catholics that masks itself as a concern for their souls, a desire to shut out divorced and remarried because they are "sinful" and should be excluded from the church's communion, and a self-righteousness and arrogance that closes one off to the need for mercy. Also, a mere dislike of change because it threatens the black-and-white worldview.
    But change began in the church almost as soon as the church began. St. Paul prevailed over St. Peter -- the "rock" upon which Jesus built his church -- over the question of whether the non-circumcised could be accepted into the faith. Without change early on, the church would have never moved beyond the Jewish community. St. Paul understood the need for change, even if it went against some cherished practices.
    So did Jesus. He did not hesitate to bend or even set aside the rules if it meant applying more mercy. When he healed an infirm woman, painfully stooped over from arthritis or scoliosis, in the Gospel of Luke, on the Sabbath, he was critiqued for not following the rules. In response, he excoriates those who sought to lock him into unchanging legalisms: "Hypocrites!"
    Fear of change holds the church back. And it does something worse. It removes love from the equation. In the past few weeks I have seen this fear lead to suspicion, mistrust and hate. And at the heart of this, I believe, is fear.
    As St. Paul said, perfect love drives out fear. But perfect fear drives out love.