John Henry, Cardinal Newman,
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In the past many of the Church’s reformations such as the Carolingian Reform or the Tridentine Reform (sometimes called the Catholic Reformation to distinguish it from the Protestant Reformations which it followed and attempted to staunch) have been internal reforms. Other times, unhappily, attempts to Reform the Church have ended up splitting the unity of the Church. Luther’s Reformation and the English Reformation are two examples of this. Sometimes Catholics lump Luther and Henry VIII and John Calvin and others all together into a single “Protestant Reformation but the history is far more complex and Luther, Calvin, the English Church, and other Protestant movements of the sixteenth century are as different from one another as they are from the Papal Catholicism from which they split. If one is to consider the new religious groupings of the sixteenth century in general it is better to pluralize it and refer to the “Protestant Reformations.” But that isn’t where I want to go today.
I think that “liberals” and “conservatives” alike can agree that there is an urgent need for Church Reform today. We may disagree on how that reform be implemented, but we all can agree that there are serious problems facing our Church. The sex-abuse scandals and the financial irregularities, both of which stretch from the highest authorities in Rome down to the level of local parishes, are only two such indications. The emerging stories of nuns being sexually abused by priests in Africa is a third. The loss of huge numbers of Catholics to secularism in Europe and to Evangelicalism in Latin America is yet another. The vocation crisis facing the Church in Europe and North America is one more.
At the same time that we speak of these problems, however, we can also see that in some ways the Church is healthier than it has been in centuries. We have a much better educated membership. We have a laity that is stepping up to bat and assuming vocations and ministries in the Church proper to their status as baptized and confirmed members of Christ’s Body. The Church is growing rapidly in Asia, the Pacific, and Africa—and Latin America, where once the Catholic faith had fallen into gross inactivity through the lack of priests, is now alive and vibrant with small faith communities who are evangelizing and animating the faith of their neighbors. While the Church in the Northeast and urban centers of the upper Midwest sees parishes closing, South of the Mason Dixon (once staunch Baptist land) and west of the Mississippi, new churches are being built to hold large congregations.
Well what about the Arlington Oath? How does that give us any indication of what is needed in Church reform? Any reform of the Church today needs to respect the laity and take seriously their vocation as full members of the Body of Christ. When I speak with people who have left the Church for other religious groups, and especially the evangelical communities, it seems that the most common response I hear is that they were frustrated in the Church because they were not being listened to and their gifts were not being taken seriously.
According to Blessed John Henry Newman, in the early days of the Church, when the Church was in its first flower and at its strongest, it spoke with three voices: the Magisterium—the bishops; the theologians, those who studied and knew the tradition and prepared the work of the magisterium; and the consensus fidelium—the articulated faith experience of the laity. Over the centuries first the laity and then the theologians have been pushed to the margins. The faithful were told to be quiet and think as they were told to think and act as they were told to act. (Some would call this “assent of the intellect and will.) Then from the end of the Council of Trent up to the present, the theologians have not been allowed to think for themselves but relegated to providing a rationale for what the magisterium was proclaiming. And then, after Vatican I, the bishops—an essential component of the magisterium—were told that the Pope (and his Curia) would do the thinking for them and they simply had to utter to those below what they had heard from those above. Although Vatican II and the decree Christus Dominus was an attempt to restore at least the bishops to their proper authority, the effort has been reversed in this and the previous pontificates. This is not a healthy situation. As Newman also said: when the laity stop questioning the bishops, the bishops fall into heresy. (He was referring to the Arian heresy of the fourth century into which the majority of bishops fell and from which only the faithful adherence to orthodoxy of the laity preserved the Church.)
We need a laity today who are educated (which we have), informed (which they must be) and are allowed to ask the significant questions and articulate the faith as their experience provides. It doesn’t mean that they will always be right or that the Church is a democracy. But they have been baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit and their voice is an essential part of the confession of the Church’s faith. And theologians must be allowed the freedom inquiry without which their work—formulating the faith of the Church with intellectual credibility—will be dismissed as insubstantial by those who use the intellects God has given them.