Pope Francis in a 2017 file photo (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

Most Catholics, including those who write about the church, are now experiencing something like spiritual burnout in the wake of the revelations about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The filth is demoralizing.

Catholics suspicious of Vatican II believe the moral corruption was caused by the theological aggiornamento of the past few decades: the church opened itself to the world only to be infected with its ills. This shows that any interpretation of the current crisis and any proposal for reform will be rooted in a particular understanding of the conciliar reforms—that is, in whether one believes they went too far or not far enough. It is ironic that Vatican II theologians are often blamed for being too optimistic about the possibilities for church reform; the real optimists, it turns out, were those who marginalized these theologians in favor of an ecclesiastical status quo that protected abusers.

A second gap between Congar and today’s discussions of church reform has to do with what we might call functionalism or technocracy—the idea that there is one-size-fits-all set of “best practices” that apply to all organizations, including the church. In the twentieth century, Catholic ecclesiology recovered the mystical, sacramental, and invisible dimension of the church that had been diminished after the Council of Trent. But Vatican II also imported from secular culture some elements of technocracy when it came to the governance of the church (e.g., the age limit for bishops). This was not a liberal vs. conservative issue at Vatican II, nor is it today. But Francis is much more skeptical of ecclesiological functionalism than many lay people, both liberal and conservative, seem to be. This is why his Congarian ecclesiology—and the episcopalist ecclesiology of Vatican II more generally—are put to a very hard test by sex-abuse scandal. His conception of reform is not primarily procedural, but it is precisely new procedures that many lay reformers are now demanding.

Radical reforms are certainly urgent and necessary. We may be heading toward a revolution in Catholic ecclesiology: a new post–Vatican II period. It is striking that the abuse crisis seems to be leading American conservative Catholics toward advocating “discontinuity and rupture” rather than “continuity and reform.” Despite Francis’s own disposition, this wave of scandal may bring about more technocratic reforms in order to make church governance more transparent and accountable. There are a few risks worth mentioning here. If the crisis delegitimizes the episcopate, will whatever power the bishops lose be gained by powers less accountable than they are—for example, those who have given the church a lot of money? Do we really want a donor class to do to the church what is has done to American politics? Even if one assumes that the sex-abuse crisis demonstrates the need for more democracy in the church, one cannot assume that whatever makes the bishops less powerful will make the church more democratic.

The solution is certainly not in maintaining the status quo. The problem is that the “ecclesiological iconoclasm” produced by the sex-abuse scandal, together with other abuses of power and financial scandals, could end up making the church function more like a corporation. This is a particularly powerful temptation for the church in the developed countries, where the corporation has become the model for every other kind of institution, including the state. It is one of the risks of the “transparency society” that Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has written about. Such a society, he writes, “abolishes all rituals and ceremonies because they do not admit operationalization.” More fundamentally, in this urgent effort of reform, Catholics must develop a new sense of trust to go with new systems of control. In the absence of trust, control becomes oppressive, even totalitarian. Moreover, the logic of total transparency is at odds with the mystery and interiority of authentic religious experience.

Most Catholics, including those who write about the church, are now experiencing something like spiritual burnout in the wake of the revelations about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The filth is demoralizing. Obviously, the church still needs to be reformed, and clerical power needs to be checked. Still, I worry that the more iconoclastic demands for transparency and accountability could lead to a new “stripping of the altars.” As Pope Francis has frequently reminded us, the church is not just an NGO.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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