Francis’s Plans for Church Reform (Part I)

From the pontificate of Benedict XVI, through the conclave, and well into the papacy of Francis, Curial reform and Church governance were the subjects of much discussion. Then 2015 passed without a hoped-for new document to replace John Paul’s apostolic constitution of 1988, Pastor Bonus. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is done: Pope Francis continues to meet with the Council of Cardinal Advisors (C9) every two months—itself a substantial change in the modus operandi of the papacy—even as he also solicits advice from experts on the Curia while using the Bishops’ Synod and national bishops’ conferences to govern the Church in a manner different from his predecessors.

There are signs now that things are moving in an even more interesting direction, beyond the scaling back in activity of existing Curial dicasteries (such as the CDF) and the creation of new ones (such as those for integral human development and for the laity, family, and life, both announced in August). A first signal of comprehensive overhaul came with the publication on September 15 of a 600-plus page volume in Italian titled La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (roughly translated as “reform of the Church and reforms in the Church”). Published by Queriniana, one of the most important publishers of theological studies in Europe, the volume is edited by two of Francis’s closest advisers: Argentine theologian Carlo Maria Galli and the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, SJ.

It collects thirty papers presented and discussed at the special weeklong seminar organized by Civiltà Cattolica and held in the historic headquarters of the Jesuit magazine in Villa Malta in Rome in September 2015. The authors come from all continents and include both ordained and laypeople; four are women, and three are from North America: John O’Malley from Georgetown University, Gilles Routhier from Universitè Laval in Quebec, and—full disclosure—myself.

The book, slated for English-language release by Paulist Press next year, is divided into seven parts: renewal of the Church in light of Vatican II; what Church history has to teach us about Church reform; synodal communion and renewal of the people of God; Church reform in the local churches and in the universal Church; ecumenism and Church reform; for a Church of the poor, of fraternity, and inculturated; and spirituality and reform of the Church according to the Gospel. Overall, the book proposes a rediscovery of Vatican II for the path of reform of Roman Catholicism: a more decentralized Church, ready to change the role and structure of the Roman Curia in order to be more missionary; a Church open to a serious debate on the role of women in the Church; and a Church in which the magisterium interacts with theology and the lived experience of Christians, where synodality and collegiality are not used to legitimate Church procedures but to change Church procedures, and where inculturation of the faith is an agent of Church change beyond the symbolic level.

The authors come mostly from the field of research on the history of Vatican II, its ecclesiology, and the ecumenical turn of Catholicism at and after Vatican II. In a sense, the volume is just one of the many examples of a new role for the Second Vatican Council in the Vatican of Pope Francis. But it’s important for other reasons as well, beginning with the authors included, who are representative of the theological work done to support Francis’s pontificate: Galli, Spadaro, and Fernandez, for example, are among the closest to Francis in his day-by-day activity. This is significant, given that in some ways Francis is still working in the shadow of Benedict when it comes to reaching out to theologians and Catholic academics. Additionally, the reception of Francis is still mostly evaluated at the journalistic level, with the amount of deeper theological analysis not even comparable to that expended on his predecessor. One of the unwritten laws of Catholic theology in the northern hemisphere—even if untrue—is that “German theology is Catholic theology, but Latin American theology is Latin American theology.” The same goes for African and Asian Catholic theologies: they tend to be regarded as regional Catholic theologies, not really universal. This volume is a theological rendition of and contribution to the pontificate of Francis, partly by offering practical proposals for reforms, partly by providing support for the ecclesiological consequences of the theological reorientation embodied by Francis.

What makes it a necessary read for analysts of the Vatican and for those who want to understand Francis is the fact that its contents circulated in the Vatican and within Francis’s privy council before publication. We know because Bishop Marcello Semeraro, secretary of the C9 and its only Curia insider, quotes key passages at length in a recent essay on Church reform as envisioned by Francis. An analysis of the detailed plan of reform outlined by Semeraro, which appeared in the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno one week after the book’s publication, will be the focus of my next post here at Commonweal.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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