The reform of the papacy, here advocated by Archbishop John R. Quinn, is a good idea for several reasons. Aware of the "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" principle, Quinn finds enough broken to merit a call for fixing. Such reform is of intrinsic value in respect to an institution integral to the life of the world’s largest religious communion. Reform is of evangelical and strategic importance, because it can further the positive work of all Catholicism. And, as Quinn, former San Francisco archbishop, makes amply clear, there are ecumenical implications that cannot be denied, especially if Catholicism is serious about one of the four marks of the church, that it express itself as "one." The reform for which Quinn appeals would have looked modest to critics of the historic papacy in its worst hours. In the time of medieval papal schisms, of open conflict between popes and councils, and before the Protestant Reformation, the papacy and some of the popes were often corrupt. Their ways and workings cried out for reform. By contrast, it is also possible to say that the adjustments Quinn calls for might look like mere rearranging of the chairs a third of a century after the aggiornamento of Vatican II (1962-65). This gentle but searching critic takes off from a strong appreciation of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint, a bold reaffirmation of the papacy’s interest in furthering unity. Throughout he is predictably and responsibly respectful of the pope, but he cannot avoid comment on occasions when papal action circumvents councils of bishops or expressions such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Quinn once headed. Are there predictable villains in Quinn’s reform drama? No one quite fills the bill. The curia, the bureaucratic web that buffers the pope and often oversteps its bounds, needs reform not because its staff is full of miscreants. Rather, they are victims and perpetrators of the kind of complexifying to which bureaucracies are prone. Quinn’s suggested reforms are clear, direct, and consistent with the kind one would propose to secular institutions as well, but quickened by awareness that more is at stake in the church. The College of Cardinals receives scrutiny because it has acquired importance far beyond its historic and chartered definitions. Elevating cardinals has meant downgrading the other bishops in ways contrary to earlier Christian usage. Again, Quinn offers pointed and positive proposals. At times his impatience in the face of peculiar actions and particular persons is evident. Although careful not to heap criticism on powerful people such as Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger or the late Jerome Hamer, O.P., Quinn cannot resist showing irritation at their flip-flops. Ratzinger completely reversed his view of bishops’ conferences between 1964 and 1984, without adducing good theological justifications. And Hamer did the same when he publicly changed his teaching about "episcopal collegialities." They both altered their views on the basis of a selective (mis)reading of a few lines by theologian Willy Onclin, and without regard to history. The Reform of the Papacy is a radical book, in that its proposals could have far-reaching effect. It is also radical because it goes to the root, the radix. The Reform of the Papacy is also a conservative, traditional book. Quinn grounds virtually every argument in older, longer traditions than those relied upon by self-protective members of the curia, counselors to the pope who downgrade bishops and frustrate expressions of collegiality, or those who would restore some pre-Vatican II concepts that isolate and elevate the pope. What business does a Lutheran have coming on the scene and commenting on this intramural Catholic affair? How can he make judgments that find Quinn on target? Answer: The business was set forth by the pope himself in Ut unum sint. He says we Christians are all in this together. But on what basis can this reviewer comment? I’m happy to say that the crucial evidence is in this carefully documented, all too brief book itself. (Applause also for Quinn the pedagogue, who explains every possibly obscure term and does so without condescension.) The documentation confirms suspicions many of us have after observing conflicts in bodies as disparate as Catholicism and Baptist churches: The reformers get criticized as modernizers, if not modernists, by traditionalists. But the same reformers can show, as Quinn does here, that the tradition to which the defensive refer is confined to hardline interpretations derived from the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries’ codifications at the Council of Trent or the First Vatican Council. Those resisting change overlook most developments in the early and medieval church and many orthodox reforms through the past century. Having that pointed out will lead the criticized to get their backs up. One wishes-one hopes-that it could also lead them to have eyes and minds opened. I hope that sentence does not sound condescending. It comes as a fervent prayer-are reviewers allowed to pray in midreview?-prompted by the invitations of Ut unum sint. Quinn quotes the encyclical: "How could [believers] refuse to do everything possible, with God’s help, to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus...?" And "This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his church, and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather it belongs to the very essence of this community." That claim gets forgotten in many intrachurch quarrels. Our Lutheran hearts were quickened by the October 1999 statement of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation affirming so much in each other’s central witness. And on the more domestic level, many of us feel that the probably imminent "full communion" between Lutherans and Episcopalians, alongside Lutheran full communion with three Reformed bodies, are at least small signs that "the very essence of this community" and the "proclamation of the gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus" are worth the inconvenience and adjustments experienced at this turn of the millennium. Quinn’s book certainly furthers the cause. One hopes that the arguments it inspires will be waged in modes as evangelical and thoughtful as those he manifests.

Published in the 2000-01-28 issue: View Contents
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Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

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