Saturday, June 30, 2012

Semper Reformanda

Sorry for the hiatus –I have been travelling a bit and on retreat a bit and have had deadlines to meet and—well, excuses are just that, excuses—but I am sorry.  I realize every time I don’t do an entry for more than two days, the readership begins to drop off and I have to get back to work.  And while my readership is relatively small (a couple thousand hits a month) I know from your responses that it is helping a number of you think more clearly not so much about the past as what we can learn from the past for the crisis the Church is in today.  And it is in a crisis.          One of the themes I explore when I teach—and I have been exploring in this blog as well—is the  periodic  need of the Church for Reform.  There is a precept Ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda (the Church, always reforming and always in need of reform).  The current mess in Rome with butlers and bankers out of jobs and into court is only one sign of needed reform.  The clear signs that there is a power struggle going on behind the scenes—indeed that Pope Benedict is more a pawn of warring factions than able to give direction himself—is very troublesome.  Even more troubling is the lack of authority the faithful are willing to invest in the hierarchy.  This is clear from the immense support being given the LCWR by the average Catholic-in-the-streets whether it is comic commentator Stephen Colbert or my 92 year old grand-aunt.  The staged and trumped-up charges against the American nuns by prelates whose own integrity has been shown to be not even questionable but voided (Cardinal Law),  prelates who are known for being supercilious rather than  judicious (Cardinal Burke), prelates whose reputation has shown them to be ruthlessly ambitious climbers (Archbishop Lori) and prominent laity who are base influence peddlers with  ties to the extreme right wing of American politics (Carl Anderson) is a clear indication that there is an every-opening chasm between the hierarchy and the faithful and this is a dangerous situation.
       When we look at the history of Church Reform we see several models.  At times, such as in the Reforms of the Emperor Charlemagne and again in the Reforms of his heirs—the Ottonian Emperors of the 10th century, the reforms were imposed on the Church by political force.  In the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century and Innocentian Reform of the 13th, reform was initiated by the papacy itself under the leadership of convinced and evangelical  popes who threw the traditions of patronage and favoritism to the winds and did not hesitate to clean up the rats’ nests into which much of the hierarchical Church had devolved.  Tragically, in the 16th century when the political power was impotent to reform the Church and the vested interests in the hierarchy were too strong for effective renewal, reform came from within but ended up splitting the Church and, to be honest, throwing out too many babies and not enough bathwater.  I have to say that in my judgment the Protestant Reformations of the 16th and 17th centuries were not only tragedies, they were ineffectual.
       Well, not entirely ineffectual.  Human nature is human nature.  Time has shown that while liturgy and catechesis changed in the reformed Churches, human nature most often did not.  Issues of ambition, abuse of power, intellectual rigidity, greed, jealousy all carried over into the new religious groups.  Granted some of the changes were good and should have happened sooner and with sponsorship of the Catholic hierarchy—scriptures and worship in the common tongue, restoration of the Chalice in communion, etc.  (I use etc. when I can’t think of anything else but know there must be something.)
        The Reformers also triggered the papacy finally into action and led to the Council of Trent which is the most successful reform Council in the history of the Church.  Much good came from Trent, but that is not where I want to go in this entry.
       As a historian I have come to see that as much a failure as the papacy so often has been—and I believe currently is—it is it gives a continuity to the Church with which we cannot dispense.  I am terrified of a new reformation that will cause people to walk away in disgust from the papacy.  On the one hand I see the Roman Curia and many of our bishops being the very force that is undermining the papacy by creating this injurious gulf between the institutional church and the faithful.  We need leadership with credibility not with arrogant self-importance.
       It is said that once a priest becomes a bishop “he has had his last bad meal and will never hear the truth again.”  Much of the leadership of the Church is out of touch with the Catholic in the pews.  When you are out of touch you cannot effectively preach the gospel—you become a buffoon like Chaucer’s pardoner.  This is not a time for blind obedience—only God merits blind obedience and I am not sure that he desires it—it is a time for wise and strong leadership that calls us by credible example to put our faith in Christ and in his Gospel.     

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