Many people view the Catholic Church as dominated by unchanging tradition, but it is an institution willing to change, Judge John T. Noonan Jr. said.

Noonan, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, spoke about the possibility of change in Catholic moral doctrine at St. Thomas More Thursday. The Catholic Church has great capacity to change, he said, but it often takes a long time.

Noonan first became interested in the history of Catholic moral doctrine while studying at Cambridge, he said.

“I was somehow struck by the authors who discussed the church’s teaching on the sin of usury,” he said.

Deciding to investigate the matter for himself, Noonan soon developed it into his doctoral dissertation, he said. Through his research, he learned that the Catholic Church’s attitude towards usury had changed significantly over time.

“I saw over a long period that the rule [on usury] had developed,” he said.

The church, Noonan said, has similarly changed its stance on many other moral parameters. Slavery was once considered normal, but the church slowly adapted to accommodate changing moral tenets.

Noonan said slavery declined markedly in many Christian countries before any change to the church doctrine. Christians developed the idea that they should not enslave other Christians, he said.

“This is a decision of lay people without any church teaching,” he said.

Eventually, the church followed suit, labeling slavery a sin, Noonan said.

“So we have moved in a course of 2,000 years from [slavery as] an unknown sin to [slavery as] a sin everywhere without qualification,” he said.

The church will modify its positions on other moral doctrines as world views change, Noonan said. One such modification happening right now is in the realm of marriage. The church now permits divorce for people who are not baptized, around two-thirds of the world’s population, Noonan said.

These examples show that the church is open to change, he said, albeit often through a slow process. There is no rule of development beyond the fact that basic moral doctrine must express a love of God and of one’s neighbor, he said.

Andrea Albertson ’04 said she appreciated Noonan’s stance on the Catholic Church’s moral doctrine. She said she thinks people often mistakenly believe that the church simply adheres to old doctrine.

“I think people just bypass the whole concept and kind of focus on just the traditional Catholic teaching,” she said. “People hold the view that there isn’t room for change.”

Roseann Titcombe ’04 said she thinks many religious people are often hesitant about changes in their faith.

“People are afraid of breaking away from tradition because they think it’s against their religion,” she said. “It’s nice to hear someone reconcile that.”

Christopher Lange ’06 said Noonan’s in-depth account of the scriptural and doctrinal traditions behind many of the church’s moral doctrines was intelligent.

“It was interesting to see a legal mind talk about the history of the church,” he said.

The talk was the annual Judge Guido Calabresi Fellowship in Religion and Law at St. Thomas More.