The history of the church is a history of saints and sinners. Lately the sinful part is certainly more visible than the saintly. In the run-up to the great jubilee year 2000, John Paul II officially apologized for the church’s sins, and this seem to have had an impact on public opinion. But all that seems like a long time ago now. (So does the spate of beatifications and canonizations under JPII.) This is a time of desolation for the church, as pope Francis acknowledged last January when he was in Santiago, Chile. And that was before he knew that his trip to Chile would turn out to be the beginning of the most difficult year in his pontificate.
In its long history, the Catholic Church has endured many periods when its sinfulness became much more conspicuous than its holiness. Sins committed by men in positions of power in the church—especially simony, nepotism, and various forms of corruption—led to scandals and to reform. It is now clear to many that the scandal of clerical sexual abuse is the most serious crisis the church has faced since the Reformation. Among Catholics the reputation of Rome, of the bishops, and of the church system of governance is at its lowest level in centuries. The magnitude of this crisis must be understood in terms of how it has disrupted not only the operations of the institutional church, but the way ordinary Catholics think about the church.
The last century’s most important book on church reform, Yves Congar’s False and True Reform, can help give us some perspective, not least because Pope Francis himself seems to have a very Congarian ecclesiology. Congar assumed, like most Catholic theologians in the twentieth century, that a lack of personal holiness on the part of the higher clergy was no longer as serious a problem as it had been in previous centuries. The real problem church reform had to address, according to Congar, was what he called the area of “social-historical mistakes”—ideas and attitudes left over from Christendom that the church had to let go of. In 1950 Congar wrote: “It’s not a question of reforming abuses—there are hardly any to reform. It is rather a question of renewing structures.”
The revelations of clerical sexual abuse have revealed a different situation, one that calls into question both the personal holiness of the clergy and the inadequacy of the church’s current structures. As a result, the conversation about church reform is no longer just about institutional inertia. It’s also about moral corruption.