We have looked at the issue of Church reform from a historical perspective and although I have yet to cover the reformations of the 16th century—Protestant and Catholic—I would like to draw on earlier entries to suggest some current principles for reform of the Church today.
Pope John XXIII in
the papal tiara--John
loved the pomp of the
I had mentioned the Carolingian and Ottonian reforms initiated under the authority of the various Holy Roman Emperors at a time when the Church seems incapable of reforming itself. I had also dealt with the Gregorian and Innocentian Reforms of the 11th and 13th centuries which were successful attempts by the papacy to bring about reform. This is the challenge—who can reform the Church? Ideally reform comes from the leadership as it did with Gregory VII, Innocent III, and in the sixteenth century the Council of Trent and Popes such as Paul III or Pius V who were responsible for convening the Council and implementing its decrees. Earlier in the sixteenth century when the Emperor proved not to have the resolve to reform the Church and reform was the last thing that popes such as Alexander VI or Julius II or Clement VII wanted, an effort for reform initiated from within the Church led to a series of reformations led by such figures as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others that shattered the unity of the Church and has left us today with a divided Christianity. We need to take a closer look at the various Protestant Reformations to understand them better but we do know that we don’t want to further split the Church. On the other hand, we do want reform and it doesn’t seem to be coming today from the leadership.
When John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council it was his aim to bring the Church into step with the contemporary world—not to accommodate the Church to the culture but to renew and revitalize the Church by divorcing it from the world of the ancien regime to which it was still tied in so many ways. (The ancien regime refers to the world of absolute monarchy and hierarchical dominance that characterized Europe before the French Revolution.) Good Pope John was a man of the times—willing to look at old things in new ways but he did rather enjoy the pomp of the ancien regime and did not plan to change the trappings of the Church as much as to relieve it of its fear of the world outside the basilica doors. His reign was short, however, and his successor Paul VI was far more radical. Paul abolished the Papal Court and its ceremonial, doing away with most of the imperial trappings of the papacy—the scarlet silk trains and fur capes of the cardinals were abolished from Roman ceremonies, the various ranks of papal nobility and ceremonial guards were done away with, and the heavy gilt furniture and red damask wall coverings of the papal apartments were replaced with more elegantly simple décor. He began to convoke synods of bishops to seek their advice. On the local level, he radically simplified the worship and ritual of the Church, expanding the role of the laity and putting the role of the priest within the community of believers rather than over it.
It was during the reign of Paul VI that Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, a convert to the Church and son of an American Secretary of State (and nephew of the director of the CIA) wrote a very important book called Models of the Church. Professor Dulles suggested that the time had come to move beyond the institutional and hierarchical understanding of the Church and to understand the Church more in terms of its mission and its identity as a community—or actually as a communio which is something slightly different and much more profound than our normal understanding of “community.”
Building on the patristic Tradition that underlays Catholicism and drawing on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dulles gave us new possibilities of how to understand what it means to be Church. The centuries old emphasis on hierarchy and governance going back to Jesuit theologian Saint Robert Bellarmine in the sixteenth century was pushed to the side in favor of seeing the Church’s mission as being a herald of the Gospel in the world, as the sacred bond of Christ’s own Body, as a servant for humankind, and as the new People of God who were to be the leaven for God’s Kingdom. Dulles did not mean that there was to be no institutionalism or hierarchy but only that the narrow view of Church in terms of structure had to be widened to draw on the ancient insights of the great Fathers of the Church.
We will continue to look at Dulles insights over several entries, but one central point of Church reform today must be to break the monopoly of institutional structure that has such a stranglehold on Catholic life today. Yes there is hierarchy. Yes there is structure. But what must define us and give us energy is something less about us and more about God’s Kingdom. The current hierarchical fascination with power and pomp that has returned like a resurgent virus in the Body of Christ is weakening the Church and sapping it strength.At the opening session of the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Emile deSmedt of Bruges decried the Church for its “triumphalism, clericalism, and juridicism.” His cry became the guide for the reforms of the Council as the Bishops made a sincere and honest attempt to fashion a Church that could be an effective witness to the Gospel in the modern world. But that vision seems to be lost today as so many of the hierarchy and clergy want to refashion a Church of pomp and power, of law and pecking order. Reform—genuine reform—must come with a recovery of the Spirituality of Servanthood not the piety of power.