Renewal and Reform

The news services are buzzing today with Pope Francis’ schedule this week. Everyone smells real reform in the air, but what “reform” means to some is not what “reform” means to others.

Sandro Magister predicts nine days of fireworks here.

The second half of this month of February is characterized by a startling series of appointments, for the ecclesiastical Rome of Pope Francis.

To begin, from Monday the 17th to Wednesday the 19th there will be a meeting of the council of cardinals appointed ten months ago by Jorge Mario Bergoglio to help him in the governance of the universal Church and in the reform of the curia.

This is the third collegial meeting of the eight cardinals coordinated by the Honduran Salesian Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga. They will attend to the reform of the curia, which however does not seem to be near at hand and will come to a decisive turning point when the commission is finally set up that will draft the apostolic constitution that will put down in black and white the new configuration of the central government of the Church.

Magister reports that a new commission to deal with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy has already been announced, but has not yet been established. The “Gang of Eight” will also receive reports on the finances of the Vatican with rumors that a Vatican Ministry of Finance will be established.

On Feb 20 and 21 there will be a consistory of all the cardinals including the new ones to be created on Saturday 22. They will discuss the pastoral care of the family. This is code for discussing the issues of whether the divorced and remarried are able to be admitted to communion. The Associated Press, reporting here on the upcoming weeks here have, predictably, loaded this discussion not only with the divorced-remarried question, but also the matter of contraception and same sex marriage.

Magister points out that there is some irritation that Cardinal Walter Kaspar has been selected to speak at this consistory when he has already made it clear that he is in favor of a relaxation of the rules that forbid Catholics who have been re-married after divorce to be admitted to communion. Magister writes,

The selection of Kasper as speaker has provoked some irritation among those who maintain that the current discipline of the Catholic Church is doctrinally indispensable. Already when he was bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and also recently in an interview with the magazine “Die Zeit,” the German theologian and cardinal has said that he is ready to admit that divorced and remarried persons could have access to sacramental communion.

Meanwhile, John Allen at the Boston Globe comments on the balancing act between Pope Francis’ somewhat freewheeling style and open-ness with his doctrinal watchdog Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Müller at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Archbishop Müller has already spoken out against a change in discipline to the dismay of the other German bishops who, like Kaspar, are in favor of a more open policy. Allen observes that Pope Francis has not only confirmed Müller’s place at the CDF, but is making him a cardinal. Allen’s astute observation is that just as Pope John Paul II was happy to have a more open style in public, he made sure that the doctrinal watchdog was in place to help him define and defend the historic Catholic faith.

This balance is also to be considered when the secular press are trumpeting the survey on family matters that was undertaken some months ago. The European bishops, especially the Germans, have been spilling the beans on the survey which shows how large numbers of Catholics reject the church’s teaching on human sexuality. Nicole Winfield at the Associate Press reports,

Francis called the synod late last year and took the unusual step of commissioning surveys from bishops conferences around the world to ask ordinary Catholics about how they understand and practice church teaching on marriage, sex and other issues related to the family. The results, at least those reported by bishops in Europe and the United States, have been an eye-opener: The church’s core teachings on sexual morals, birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce were rejected as unrealistic and outdated by the vast majority of Catholics, who nevertheless said they were active in parish life and considered their faith vitally important.

Archbishop Müller’s doesn’t seem much impressed with breathless media reports, popular opinion polls and internet surveys. John Allen reports on a recent speech by Archbishop Müller:

Müller touched on many of Ratzinger’s favorite themes, particularly the danger of Catholic theology being skewed by “media pressure” and “mentalities incompatible with the authentic content of the faith.”

Müller urged “critical rigor” in Catholic theology, as opposed to the “carelessness” that arises from taking one’s cues from the media and public pressure over issues such as “women in the priesthood . . . and access to the sacraments for those who are not in full communion with the church.”

Müller also seemed to question the value of a recent survey of Catholics around the world in advance of October’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, the results of which have been released by some bishops’ conferences and which show substantial numbers of Catholics breaking with official teaching on matters such as contraception and premarital cohabitation.

“There’s no one who can’t see the mistake and the myopia of using e-mail to indiscriminately sound out everyone’s opinions on the Internet,” he said.

For anyone who really wants to understand the Catholic Church, it is important to understand this crucial tension. Allen reminds us of Bl.Pope John XXIII’s observation, “I have to be pope for both those who have their foot on the gas and those who have their foot on the brake.” In other words, there is always a creative tension within the Catholic church between those who want reform and relevance and those who want consistency and conservation. Progressives want to break down the barriers. Conservatives believe good fences make good neighbors. Progressives want to say to the sinner with the Lord, “Neither do I condemn you” Conservatives want to say with the Lord, “Go and sin no more.”

This is why secularists who think the Catholic Church will change her teaching on artificial contraception, same sex marriage and sex outside marriage will be disappointed. There are some things the Church can change. There are some things she cannot and it is Archbishop Müller’s job to remind us what these things are. Pope Francis knows this and realizes the need therefore, for a strong conservative in the head job at the CDF.

As Pope Francis steers the church toward reform we should really choose a different word. It is not so much reform as renewal. When secularists speak of reform their language is usually colored by the context of revolution and rebellion. Reform for them almost always includes iconoclasm–breaking what is old (and therefore bad) to establish something new and better. If ‘reform’ is rebellion and revolution then they will be disappointed. That is now how the Catholic Church works. Instead we seek not reform but renewal.

The Catholic faith develops, it does not change. It grows organically and is constantly renewed. Part of the renewal includes the reform of certain structures and methods within the church governing body, but this is only part of renewal. It is tinkering with the infrastructure, and although that may be necessary at times, this is not the essential part of reform. Instead the real ‘reform’ in the church is renewal from the ground up.

This is why Pope Francis emphasizes evangelization, renewal of the spirit and a new encounter with Christ. The Church is not simply a multinational charitable organization. It is the Body of Christ on earth, and as a body needs renewal from within in order to be healthy and strong, so the Church needs not just bureaucratic re-organization, but a real renewal in the Holy Spirit.

If this kind of renewal takes place along with the bureaucratic and disciplinary changes which are envisioned, then the church will enter a real Springtime. If this renewal falters and fails, then no matter how major the bureaucratic tinkerings–they will fail.

 


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