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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? 

About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).



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In a letter to yesterday's NYT, theologian David Tracy agrees with Rita, calling for reform. He concludes:"None of these desired changes are likely to occur unless the stranglehold by the Roman Curia on the institutional church is finally broken. But a new reforming pope allied with so many Catholic lay people, religious, clergy, bishops, cardinals and perhaps even some Curia members can together dismantle the Curia and institutionalize the collegiality demanded by Vatican II.""Dismantle" the Curia? Lotsa luck :-(

Does the collegiality called for by Vatican II include lower clergy and laity, as Tracy's last sentence might imply? I thought collegiality was only a matter only of the bishops and the pope..

The Pony Express has yet to bring my Tablet, but I look forward to it. However, I now bring you some glad tidings of great joy. Just to prove that the Age of Miracles is not over, get a load of this from George Weigel (I pick it up from my diocesan magazine, such as it is). It's on Benedict's legacy:". . . Benedict XVI was determined to rid the Church of what he called. . . the 'filth' that marred the image of the Bride of Christ and impeded her evangelical mission. He was successful to a degree, but the work of reconstruction, in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal, remains to be completed. This is most urgently obvious in Ireland, where the resistance of an intransigeant hierarchical establishment [!!!] is a severe impediment to the re-evangelization of that once Catholic country. And the next pope must, in my judgement, be more severe than his predecessors in dealing with bishops whom the evidence demonstrates were complicit in abuse cover-up -- even if such an approach was considered appropriate at the time [by experts, legal and counseling]. . . The Church has higher standards. "Joseph Ratzinger had extensive experience int he Roman Curia, and it was widely expected [by whom, I wonder?] that he would undertake its wholesale reform. Not only did that not happen, things got worse, and the Curia today is, in candor, an impediment to the evangelization mission of the pope and the Church [that lower-case "pope" is Weigel's, not mine]. A massive housecleaning and redesign is imperative if the Church's central administrative machinery is to support the New Evangelization: which, for the Curia, is not a matter of creating a new bureaucratic office but a new cast of mind. . ." Weigel, unfortunately, does not mention that when Cardinal Schnborn suggested much the same thing to Rome, he was told to go home to Vienna and get lost. Nor does he mention the obvious fact that nothing like this is remotely likely to happen unless ordained leaders -- bishops, cardinals, and men of that ilk -- work up the courage to say the same thing directly to the Vatican. No sign of that so far, and I'm flabbergasted that Weigel got away with it in a diocesan magazine. If you or I had written it, it would long since have gone down the memory hole (as Orwell called it).It's been clear, I think, for many years that despite all the steps taken (or not taken) to guarantee the safety of children in the US or any other country, ecclesiastical leaders from the pope on down through the scarlet ranks of cardinal after cardinal, bishop after bishop, have been terrified of asking the obvious question: is there a link between the Church's machinery of governance, and the sexual abuse scandal? That is what we need, and the examiners must leave no stone unturned -- even if they fear the slimy and unattractive ("filthy," to use Benedict's word) creatures they may find there. We should the Holy Spirit to give our leaders the courage they so often seem to lack; and we must hope that those leaders listen to the Spirit.

"Im flabbergasted that Weigel got away with it in a diocesan magazine."Nicholas C. --I'm not really. Liberals and conservatives have always agreed that the abuse of children must not be tolerated. We disagreed as to how things could be changed. They, I think, were generally more willing to trust the bishops to change. But it has become evident, I think, even to the staunchest conservatives that things have NOT changed enough even though the scandal came to light 28 (!) years ago. They no longer trust the hierarchy to change themselves, so they rightly see that change must come in the Vatican.I respect Weigel for being willing to speak out. It is difficult to admit publicly that one has changed one's mind.

What has Weigel changed his mind about?

It does seem unrealistic to expect the cardinal chosen to be a reformer, since the cardinals voting were probably chosen in the first place because they were loyal in thought to the pope who appointed them. So many on the outside can see how necessary change is but we're all powerless to effect it.

Sunday after Sunday I hear homily after homily about a sick secular culture, but never even once a word about the plank in the eye of the Roman Curia, or the USCCB, or the chanceries around the United States that abetted abusers for decades, that produced an internal culture that says it is more important to avoid scandal and hide assets from civil settlements than to come to a just or honest reconciliation with the victims of abuse. The problem, therefore, drills down to the level of the priest or the deacon in your home parish who won't honestly examine the sickness in our Church amidst his eagerness to condemn the sickness he sees elsewhere. That is a willful blindness encouraged by Church leaders at every level, all the way to the top. All to agree with what Rita suggests: the Council has not been accepted in this most fundamental way, and these electors all have been named by two pontiffs closely associated with re-centralization and with the raising (not razing, pace HuvB) of the bastions. Old world or new world, young or old, developed or developing--they're all Romans. It will take a lightning bolt from the Spirit on the order of Pope John's January 25 announcement to shake things up. I live in hope. I hope for the best. (But, I plan for the worst.)

The Tablet article as a whole lays more emphasis than this excerpt does on the need to give lay people a voice that Church leaders will actually listen to. I don't know how that might best happen. But I believe that ordinary Catholics are better informed and better educated than they used to be; they are fully conscious of the dignity that comes from being participants in the decision-making that affects their lives; and in recent years, they have been given grave reason to question the wisdom, competence, and Spirit-guided authority of popes and bishops.The most worrisome sign is that those leaders seem incapable of admitting mistakes, or even of acknowledging the possibility of making them. With any other men, in any other context, we would know what to think about that.

Nicholas: if you are a print subscriber to The Tablet (or, as they say, the The Tablet) you can access each week's issue online in its entirety as of Thursday. Just register with your subscription number and it's there for your enjoyment well in advance of what the USPS and the Royal Mail can deliverMy favorite phrase that Rita highlighted above is: "elderly cosseted courtiers."Only the English could pen something like that! When I first read it, I thought: "corseted ... really?" But attention to detail has not been my paramount skill.

Crystal @ 4:58 ... are you thinking that the Holy Spirit won't intervene and change some minds and hearts ... after they can be safely changed without fear of a loss of votes, that is? Do you despair of Her influence? Or are you just being a realist?

Stephen Millies: you need to find a new parish, or diocese.

@Jim McCrea.... In a spirit of charity toward my local church: No comment.

"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"Sure, why wouldn't that be the case? In their world, all authority flows from above, and there is no accountability to those below. The fact that there seems to be no concern in the hierarchy about bishops who covered up pedophile priests is merely one example of how the echo chamber, in fact, works for them. If they keep saying the same things over and over, and then (literally, in the conclave,) lock out any voices that might speak differently, where would impetus for change come from? Breakdown in Church structures can then be simply defined as the result of sin on the part of anyone who would speak against the echoes in the echo chamber. Then those voices are silenced if they speak, (if they're not already de facto silenced in the institution by reason of not being ordained,) and excommunicated if they act.

John Prior: You wrote: "But I believe that ordinary Catholics are better informed and better educated than they used to be." We've had a few discussions about this before on this blog. For myself, I think that the evidence is decidedly mixed, at least if you mean "better educated" in their faith. I think there has been a colossal failure of our Catholic schools, colleges, and universities over the last forty years in this regard. When it comes to their education, most U.S. Catholics have a severe limp: they're well educated in other areas, but very poorly when it comes to the faith. What percentage of U.S. Catholics had any course, of any kind, in the faith after their Confirmation? Twenty per cent? Ten per cent? Five? ...Which is not to take away from what may be your main point. I've often urged that theologians and bishops and priests and deacons keep in mind that lay people constitute 99.999 per cent of the Church. But you'd never know that, often enough even on this blog, from the way people commonly use the word "Church" to mean the hierarchy. To quote Ann Olivier: Sigh!

Who knows what will happen. But "reform", I believe, would consist of removing some people from posts in the Holy See and, perhaps, replacing them with "outsiders". That's something. Conceivably, it may not be something better. But it might be.On the other hand, that may not be something that the new Holy Father will be particularly interested in. Of course, each pope's personality is different from the others. The new pope may have a personality that brings a fresh approach to how he faces the world. We saw that with John Paul II.There will be no fundamental change in the structures of church governance. That's my expectation.

Jim,I just don't know what to think about the action of the Holy Spirit. When things turn out well we attribute that to the Holy Spirit, but things often turn out badly too. I wonder about this a lot - does everything that happens happen because God wants it to?

Agree, Joseph, that non-ordained Catholics are better educated than they used to be. (Just a century ago, only 10% of Americans went to high school. It was only after WWII that college education became common.)And ordained Catholics are less well-educated than they used to be. (Comparing the curricula of seminaries of 1960 and earlier with those of 1980 and after is shocking/sad. The results of the lowered standards show up in many places. One place I notice it is in the blogs by editors and contributors at America.)Non-ordained Catholics are aware of the differences. I don't know if ordained Catholic are. Perhaps they think what they don't know is not worth knowing or is too worldly to matter. Perhaps they think the dumbed-down survey courses in history at the seminaries are enough. Who needs Latin, Greek, and Hebrew? English as a Second Language will do. Literature? Non-ordained Catholics are aware that ordained Catholics know more about theology and scripture than they do, but they also know that ordained Catholics are reluctant to share what they know for fear of being tattled on. "What percentage of U.S. Catholics" (ordained) "had any course, of any kind," in mythology, ethnology, women's studies, etc.? Or any substantive history? How many will read Peter Brown's new book? Wills, in the NYT this morning, said it was the best book he read last year. agree: #2 in Books > History > Ancient > Rome#3 in Books > Christian Books & Bibles > Church History#4 in Books > History > World > Religious > Christianity

"Doing nothing is too dangerous" - what does that mean? Recently, when asked about their desires for the next pope, a large percentage (although still minority) of the French said that they don't care: it seems that the papacy, the curia, etc., have already faded into irrelevance. Humanae vitae educated us by teaching us to ignore what comes from Rome, and the lesson has been well learned.

Jim P. ==I agree that that the Church hierarchical structure is unlikely to change any time soon. But I think that the recent move towards transparency (the new press office with a professional layman head) shows that the Vatican realizes that it has to start sharing some facts. Not that it is likely to become very transparent soon, but at least there has been some change there. Someday the Vatican will discover that the little old ladies in the pews they are so afraid of scandalizing hardly exist in any numbers any more, and stone-walling results only in scorn for the stonewallers. Also, some of the hierarchs are starting to realize that the internet is a great tool for communication. Because the internet has a way of bringing out what people really think, it will be easier for them to find other hierarchs who agree with them about reforms. True, some will never change, but as the problems in the Church fester most bishops will eventually realize that a movement towards collegiality is essential. Until then, more of the same. Unless the Holy Spirit gives us a miracle.

Fr. K.: I meant that Catholics are more informed and better educated in general, not necessarily that they know more about their faith. But what they have learned affects their faith.In my lifetime, Catholics among many others have learned that women are capable of taking on a wide range of roles and performing them at least as well as men. They no longer give much credit to the assertion that celibacy is an inherently superior state of life. They approve a prudent use of contraception, at least within marriage. Along with the rest of the West, they are coming quite rapidly now to an understanding that gay people are full human beings and deserve to be treated as such. They take seriously the idea that protecting the most vulnerable among us, especially children, is a higher priority than preserving institutional cachet. And their idea of social justice may start with caring for the poor but it extends to all who have been neglected, stunted, and despised by the traditional masters of this world.Today's world, I believe, is more live-and-let-live than the one I was born into. And if lay Catholics know less about their faith, they have learned at least that they are not qualified to cast the first stone. I call that a gain. I hope it will bubble up, if that's the right direction, to the other Catholics.

Today's world seems extraordinarily different from the world my parents grew up in, and requires a different approach from the traditional answers that the Catholic church has developed on how to live a good life according to Scripture. For example, thanks to contraception, sex no longer carries with it the risk of the weighty long-term consequences of pregnancy. Students on college campuses understand that very well. It is no longer obvious what the essential difference is between sex and an intimate conversation. Thanks to antibiotics, people are no longer as vulnerable to epidemics, and there is reasonable confidence that the person you leave today will still be alive next time you see them next year. We have more control over our lives, and death is a much more remote threat. Thanks to the increased lifespan, people typically live well beyond the time it takes to raise children, and it is no longer obvious why marriage should be forever. On the other hand, because of the increase in world population, the earth is becoming rather full, with limited resources, and because of fast transportation and travels, we are more aware of its limited size. Time has expanded and space has shrunk! The traditional concrete answers to how to live a good life no longer make rational sense. I wonder if there is not a need for people to read Scripture with a new eye, to renew their understanding of it in the modern world. By sticking to old, increasingly irrelevant and newly irrational answers, the catechism is sending the message that our faith is outdated and does not make sense. My students care deeply about right and wrong, but they are trying to work out their own answers from basic principles. On questions on ethics and morality, they respect Scripture but not the interpretation of it asserted by the catechism. Are they the ones who are wrong, to be looking at today's world as it is and refusing to use yesterday's answers for today's questions?

Mark Proska @ 3.46:I certainly didn't mean that Weigel had changed his mind in the sense that he used to see sexual abuse as OK, but now condemns it, or anything like that. But he certainly now seems to understand at last that there may be a link between the "filth" condemned by Benedict, and the Church's institutions of governance. Is that a change of mind? I'll leave that up to you. All I know about GW is the column he writes for my diocesan paper and many others, and quite frankly, these columns haven't made me anxious to read more of his works. Nor has his signature appended to the Project for a New American Century (1997), along with the likes of Elliot Abrams, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others. Ancient history, perhaps, since PNAC no longer exists (I think), but in between then and now lies the shadow of the Iraq war.

Claire notes that "The traditional concrete answers to how to live a good life no longer make rational sense. I wonder if there is not a need for people to read Scripture with a new eye, to renew their understanding of it in the modern world."Amen. To me it seems the entire deposit of faith needs to be re-understood and re-articulated in ways that make sense today. While I completely agree that governance needs to be reformed and the priesthood opened to married people and women, etc. etc., that's only half the challenge. The whole of faith needs to be understood anew, both by the faithful and the clergy. The Incarnation. The Trinity. The Eucharist. Morals. Happiness. What do those things actually mean? Can we explain these mysteries in words that make sense? I don't think we do. This also gets to Fr. K's point of U.S. Catholics' severe limp and the "colossal failure of our Catholic schools, colleges, and universities over the last forty years." I think if we actually knew what we were talking about, faithful and clergy alike, it would be a lot easier to educate. But we don't. It's not a failure of education, but a challenge of understanding. A coherent framework for faith has to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Good thread/good points. With all of it in mind, it is important to pray that the Holy Spirit guide the cardinals:

" ... even on this blog, from the way people commonly use the word Church to mean the hierarchy. To quote Ann Olivier: Sigh!"Maybe that is because most Catholics, out where the rubber hits the road (no, I'm not going to deal with contraception again), know that what they think and believe has little to no consequence in the life of the church as they live it ... their parish. Their Finance Council (required by canon law) is only advisory and, short of resignation, the members have no actual say over what the pastor agrees to do or not to do. Ditto for Parish Councils (not required by canon law). These council members usually serve at the will and whim of the pastror, who may elect to not even has a Parish Council. Good pastors take into consideration what their parish thinks and believes is needed and good for their parish. Bad pastors do as they wish. The only recourse the parishioners have is to put up, shut up or get out. That doesn't exactly tend to cause one to feel like being church, no matter what canned statements are uttered or read from time to time.

To Gerelyn's recommended reading, may I add Philip Jenkins' "The Lost History of Christianity"?

Mr.McCrea: You wrote: " in the life of the church as they live it their parish." That's precisely my point: the word "Church" properly refers to the communities of faith where people live their Christian lives.

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