There can be no doubt that a topic that is on the minds of many Catholics today is that of ‘renewal and reform’. For this reason, it finds its place on this website.
The first thing to acknowledge is the connection and the distinction between those two ideas. How is reform connected to, yet different from, renewal?
It is a matter of intent and degree. That is to say, renewal is the ongoing change that any organism, individual, grouping or institution undergoes as it progresses through life. It is part of being alive. So much so that when it ceases to renew, it dies. In the Church context, this involves attending to those aspects of Catholic life that are no longer serving the purposes for which they arose in the first place. While not always easy, it involves identifying those aspects of faith and practice that may have grown up for legitimate reasons, but which no longer speak to Catholics in the way they used to, or (more importantly) prove an obstacle to the very people whom the Church exists to serve.
Renewal can be difficult, as Catholics can have a fond attachment to particular practices and ways of doing things. Tensions can run high as Catholics from one specific cultural, ethnic, or spirituality background experience the practices, devotions etc. of Catholics from another background. Peace and harmony can be maintained if all concerned acknowledge that there are only a few things that matter: that God is loved and honoured, our neighbour is loved and served, and the mission with which we have been entrusted is attended to. Everything else is secondary and, on occasion at least, in need of renewal. To use an image provided to us by Jesus: regularly the vine requires pruning (John 15). The vine is sound; it is the branches that need attention.
But sometimes things are more serious. Again, to use an image from Jesus: there are times when the tree must be attended to at the level of its roots (Luke 13:6 – 9). Radical attention to the Church itself (i.e. not just its practices and ways of doing things) is what we mean by reform. It begins with acknowledging the possibility that the Church may have lost its way, at least in some important respects. Here we are not speaking of the heart of the Church in its teachings and its doctrines. For one of the wonders of the Catholic Church is that, even in its darkest times down through the centuries, the teachings of Christ have always remained central. Even the most morally inadequate popes still taught that Jesus is the Son of God, for example. While teachings and doctrines do require ongoing clarification, that is not what is meant by reform here. The issue is and has always been, one of priority and application. That is to say, there are times where the Church must re-evaluate its direction, the nature of its presence in the world, and the effectiveness of its ability to attend to its mission. The message remains pure. The messenger needs work.
In Australia, and increasingly elsewhere internationally, a prime example has been highlighted by the inadequacy of the Church’s response to incidents of sexual abuse. The reasons for that inadequacy are without doubt complex, but one thing is sure: it reveals a predisposition within some in leadership in the Church to prioritise the protection of the reputation of the Church over the needs of those who had been hurt by the actions of some members of the Church. Reputation is a reasonable thing to be concerned about, within certain parameters. However, reputation is never more important than the need to respond to those who require justice and assistance with compassion and with the firm intention to make restitution. The wrong priority was, at times, attended to and, as a result, the reputation of the Church is in tatters. The Church culture that allowed this to occur, which some lay at the feet of unacknowledged and insidious clericalism, is indicative of the need for reform. Each of us is called to radical conversion. Why? Because the Church exists to reveal Jesus Christ to the world. The degree to which we fail to reveal Christ is the degree to which we fail in our purpose and mission.
Reform is a difficult concept for an institution that values continuity. Yet, the Pope’s ongoing call to Church reform cannot be ignored. As just one example we read:
“I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion, which cannot leave things as they presently are”. (Evangelii Gaudium 25)
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo by ACBC
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019