Wednesday, June 8, 2011

History in the Making: Today's Need for Reformation II

The Council of Trent
painting in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
note the lady pope in the foreground
After yesterday’s blog on the question of what happens today when (and if) the Church needs Reformation and who has the authority to reform it when (and if) the papacy doesn’t see the need for reform? I was emailed with the question whether I think that the Church today does indeed need a Reformation.  My answer is yes.  That is why I am tracing the history of Reformations.  We are facing many of the exact same questions and issues that we have had to face in the past—internal power-struggles, fiscal irregularities, personal sinfulness and sexual immorality at all levels of hierarchy and laity, doctrinal confusion, authority issues—the list goes on.  It is a key axiom of the history of the Church—ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda—the Church, always reforming and always in need of reform. 
I think that the Second Vatican Council was a superb opportunity for Reform in the Church and it held great promise.  I believe that it began to make some significant headway in Reform, but I also believe that its agenda has been abandoned or subject to a sort of ecclesiastical “bait and switch” scam where many of its chief advances have been “reinterpreted” to very different ends than the Council Fathers envisioned.  By the way, this is not a new problem.  Several times in the history of the Church, Councils have had be followed up by subsequent councils to put them back on track.  The best example of this was the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) which met and passed key legislation that probably could have avoided Luther’s Reformation had the Council been taken seriously.  But its reform legislation was never implemented and it took a subsequent Council, the Council of Trent (1545-1562) to clean up the mess that Lateran V had tried to address and failed. 
It would be easy to say that the problem is the Sex Abuse Crisis, or homosexuals in the clergy, or celibacy, or an all-male priesthood, or lack of doctrinal orthodoxy, or the new liturgy, or the revival of the old liturgy, or whatever one’s favorite bugaboo is and say all that we need for reform is some tough legislation that will whip everyone back to shape or to force everyone out of the Church who doesn’t see things the way that we see them.  But the problem is sex-abuse or orthodoxy or secularism or liturgy or whatever.  Certainly the sex abuse crisis is a problem, but it is symptomatic of a far more fundamental problem.  Liturgical aberrations on either the “left”  or the “right” can be problematic, but they are telling us something of a deeper problem to which we must pay attention.  The lack of fiscal transparency in the Church and the lack of accountability of many clergy and hierarchy in financial as well as other matters is a problem, but more important it is another symptom of more basic things going wrong.  No matter what issue is surfaced, we must face the fact that simple legislation—however strict—will not solve the problem of human nature and original sin. 
We can back up a step from the concrete problems and identify the fact that we have some very different theologies operating today in our Catholic Church.  There is a conflict between those who, to use Avery Dulles’ models of Church, are invested in an Institutional view of the Church as opposed to those who embrace a Servant model of Church.  They see issues of authority and mission from vastly different perspectives, so vastly different that it is difficult (if not pointless) for them to even discuss their differences.  There are different moral theologies operating today and this does not just represent a magisterium and a counter-magisterium view as the fuss over condoms as a method to combat aids suggests.  There are different understandings of the Mass and the sacraments which is witnessed by the official sanction of two vastly different rites expressing two vastly different (though not necessarily contradictory) understandings of the Eucharist, of the Church, and of the relationship of humankind to God.  There are times when being Catholic is somewhat like the “crazy-cars” ride that one finds in amusement parks with the little cars all going around in every direction, bumping into one another and bouncing off with no common order or rules.  But this lack of uniformity in practice and even in doctrine is not the fundamental or foundational problem in need of Reform.
What is needed, I believe, to Reform the Church today, is a head-and-members (or the classic term is “root and branch”) renewal in which we examine our personal and communal life as Church with all its structures and rites in the light of the Gospel and the mission of the Church as it is outlined in the Gospel.  We must come to see the Catholic Church as an Evangelical Church—that is a Church, indeed THE CHURCH, of the Gospel.  We need leadership and we need membership who find themselves personally and institutionally renewed and energized by the Gospel. 
It would be relatively easy to legislate “reform.”  People are not to have sex outside of marriage.  Priests and deacons are not to have sex, period!  No abortions.  No birth-control.  Mass is “by the book.”  Everyone has to ante up their share and the clergy have to be honest in dealing with Church funds.  But good luck.  Laws don’t take into account human nature and the effects of Original Sin.  That is why Saint Paul didn’t have a lot of use for “The Law”  (read the commandments of the Old Testament).  The only thing that works is conversion—that arduous process of admitting (and ultimately we have to do this one by one, each for ourselves but with each other’s support and encouragement) of admitting that our way of doing things isn’t working and surrendering to God’s way for us.  I know it sounds naïve.  I know it sounds idealistic.  I know it is terribly abstract.  But conversion is the only model the Gospel gives us and I believe, (to bend Chesterton’s words but not his intent) that it is not that the Gospel has been tried and found wanting; but that it has been found difficult and left untried.
I think as we look at the history of Reformations, we will see that the most successful ones—the Reform of Gregory VII and the Reform of Innocent III, along with the Reform of Trent (or the so called “counter-Reformation)—have all been successful because and to the degree that they fostered conversion in the great and the small alike.  They fostered spiritual renewals in which clergy and laity (and even some bishops) began taking the Gospel to heart.   When Bishop Emil deSmedt stood up at the opening session of Vatican II and called for an end to “triumphalism, juridicism, and clericalism” I think this is what he had in mind.  You cannot legislate Grace. But you can open yourself to it.  We need voices in the Church today that will open our hearts to this sort of conversion—as Saint Francis did in his day or Francis de Sales did in his.  We don’t need bishops or clergy who see the world through the prism of Canon Law (which is not to say that we don’t need Canon Law, only that it is not the foundation of our Christian life).  We don’t need bishops or clergy who are fascinated by their own prerogatives or pomps (which is not to say that a little pomp now and then can’t be a fun thing as long as we don’t take it seriously).  We don’t need dogmatic strict constructionists who strangle Grace before it can emerge from the womb of spiritual experience (which is not to say that we don’t need genuine orthodoxy, operative word being “genuine”).    We don’t need ecclesiastical Nazis who would have a place for everyone and keep everyone in their place (which is not to say that we don’t need some good order in the Church.)  We need in the Church men and women; hierarchy, lay and clergy; that take Jesus—and Jesus alone—at his word and encourage each other to do so too.  We need Christians who get enthused when the read the scriptures and see the possibilities for that Word to incarnate again today in the world as we, the Church, focus on the mission that Jesus has left us.  I am sure that such Reform and Renewal will need guidelines, will even need some parameters, perhaps even a law or two—but it is primarily a question of conversion, personal and communal. 
This will not eliminate sexual misconduct, abortion, dishonesty, pomposity, twenty-foot long trains of scarlet silk trailing behind overweight prelates, priests who don’t know a quid from a quod saying mass in an unintelligible language, aging nuns in capri pants, greed, bad doctrine, nobody going to confession anymore or any other problem.  Human nature is human nature.  No reformation yet has eliminated original sin and its effects—or, for that matter, what the old catechism called “actual sin.”  What it can do is eradicate the “establishment culture” that makes the Church a comfortable home for so much covering up of sin and scandal and help us call one another to ongoing conversion and greater  discipleship.  And we don’t have to wait for Pope Benedict or someone in Rome to lead the way.  Conversion, again, is a one by one process.   None of us can do it alone—we need the support of one another to be faithful—but if we keep the eye of our heart on Christ the Good Shepherd we don’t have to wait for those huffing and puffing guys with shepherds’ crooks to lead us.  They can catch up when they are ready.       

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