Church Reform and a New Pope

One wonders what the Cardinals in the conclave will be looking for in the man they will select to be the next pope. A March 2 editorial in the Tablet entitled "Reform Dominates the Agenda" suggests that structural reform is urgently needed to address an inner breakdown in the Church. Here are some excerpts:

...[T]he most significant crisis in the Church is the breakdown in koinonia love, trust and fellowship between the hierarchy on one hand, and priests and people on the other. ...The major question facing the forthcoming conclave is how to turn round this collapse of confidence before it is too late. And that demands a far-reaching reform of structures, including giving the laity the right to participate in church decision-making. ...The profound crisis of church governance is far more serious than a few personality clashes among members of the Vatican Curia which could be sorted out by some job reshuffles and early retirements. The root of the problem is structural, not personal. An institution with 1.2 billion members all over the globe cannot be run by what is essentially an unreformed Renaissance monarchy and its elderly cosseted courtiers.Doing nothing is too dangerous. The Versailles of Louis XVI led eventually to the anarchy of 1789 and beyond. But it is not beyond reform: the necessary theological resources already exist. The Second Vatican Council wanted the Church to be governed collegially, a formula that has been expressed as never Peter without the Apostles, never the Apostles without Peter. The International Synod of Bishops never came near to doing justice to that. The Vatican Curia must be made answerable to a church government which is genuinely collegial, instead of being the instrument by which the Pope or appointees acting in his name control the bishops.

The whole thing is well worth a read. You can find it here.I wish I were more sanguine about the prospects of the Cardinals actually seeing that such reform needs to happen. Many of them appear to live in an echo chamber. Their own views are repeated back to them by like-minded assistants, and the blame for the breakdown is assigned to outside forces: the media, secularism, a lack of faith. Pope Benedict reinforced this kind of reasoning.The logical outcome of blaming an inner breakdown on corrupting forces from outside is to raise the fortress walls higher, and go into battle mode to defend the Church from enemies (as well as to purge them from within). We've seen it again and again in the sexual abuse crisis, and in any number of other situations. It also means returning, to some degree at least, to the mentality that characterized the church's attitude toward the world during the long nineteenth century.Vatican II was the council that marked the end of that mentality, or at least it was supposed to, replacing it with a more nuanced view of our relations with the outside world. There has been genuine development, but it is incomplete.Thus, to my mind at least, the current crisis that the Tablet editorial describes so well is a test of how deeplywe really understand and are formed by the Council. But will the next pope even see that reform is needed? 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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