The Catholic Church: who needs reform?

There are many aspects to reform in the church. Different people and different reform groups, have their own take on what, or who, needs reform the most urgently. I must admit the recent article by Antonio Spadaro on Pope Francis has prompted me to think more about it.[1] I would like to share some of those thoughts with you.

On the personal level, reform in the church touches both the mind and the heart. On the institutional level it concerns a very wide range of aspects like doctrinal, moral, spiritual, liturgical, structural and attitudinal.

Much of the effort of reform groups worldwide in recent times has been directed at the pope, bishops, and “the Vatican” since they are the decision-makers. That is the politics of the issue. And we can now, after the sexual abuse scandals, include priests in that list.

Let us stand back for a moment, and take a look at the demographics underlying the whole question of church and reform.  I have to speak to my own experience, conscious that others from different age groups, different cultures and different countries will have their own specific take on it. The percentage of those involved in reform groups in Australia (and NZ?) is, at a guess, about 5% or less. In the church the hierarchy is less than 1%. That leaves about 90% of the church to think about. An unspecified percentage of these are older pre-Vatican thinking and acting people who have no interest in changing themselves and no interest in the topic of changes in the church.  And in their case, change might be impossible, so they will probably go to their graves with their current beliefs and practices.

The rest, perhaps 40-45% might change how they think and what they do, if they were given good reasons to do so.  There are many influences that have brought this about. One obvious one is that they have been neglected since Vatican II, because of the lacuna of adult “growth in faith” programs, and perhaps too, neglected in our current focus of reform.

Antonio Spadaro’s  illuminating essay on the pontificate of Pope Francis is helpful in many ways. It is a great help in understanding Francis’ approach to change or conversion. Francis sees conversion applying to everyone in the church. He is reluctant to move forward in synodality until there has been time for discernment. This explains why when he became pope he did not call for the resignation of those who opposed him but wanted to give all a time to discern.

The analogy that Francis used referring to his method, which caught my eye, was that of litmus paper in a liquid. When the liquid is acid/alkaline throughout, the colour of the litmus paper will change either red or blue depending on its acidity or alkalinity. To artificially change the litmus paper is pointless. One has to wait for the whole liquid to change. To change to married pastors, to ordain women, to welcome LGBTIQ persons into the church, will of  itself will not bring reform to the church. Change has to permeate the whole church.

So it is with the Church. Francis wants the church to change. He rejects cutting off heads and making dictatorial changes because this will be superficial. Simply ordaining married men and women or making other structural changes will not, of itself, bring conversion. So with synodality we have to be patient. But as the church is a human organization it will always fall short of the ideal. History shows that sometimes those who cannot change or who disagree with authority, will form their own church. Two classic historical examples are: The Old Catholic Church, formed after Vatican I and the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) founded by Marcel Lebebvre in 1970, after Vatican II.  Yet the ideal that we wait until all are aboard remains attractive, even if humanly unattainable.

My point is that any reform group should turn some significant attention to the 40-45% of parishioners who might change if things were explained to them. Perhaps reform groups have focused too narrowly on the hierarchy and neglected the laity. I have always felt that changing the hierarchy is going to be a huge challenge, but an even greater challenge might well be changing the passivity of the laity. The image of trying to quickly turn an aircraft carrier around comes to mind. The laity, after all have been told for centuries that their job is to “pray, pay and obey”.  Or, as someone else has expressed it: the laity have been “parked” for centuries.

My gut feeling is that we have neglected them. By our words and actions we could try to re-orient the parish to what is essential. This would be conversion from the ground up. There is little to stop us doing this now, not waiting for the Plenary Council or other events.

Francis has given us all the information on that score: Return to the gospels and modify structures that block a return to the gospels (Evangelii Gaudium).  Take time to prepare liturgies, introduce bible studies, form book clubs on spiritual reading, form meditation groups, form groups that visit the sick, and imprisoned, invite people to discussion groups on burning issues and current church issues, take action regarding refugees and other social justice issues. Let qualified lay people look after the financial aspect of a parish. Reject clericalism in what we say and do, and call no one “Father”. These are all things that could be done locally with or without the pastor. This will turn the litmus paper.

The problem is that today we tend to sit back and wait for others (bishops) to take actions because that is the clerical way we have been brought up.  While certainly not giving up on approaching our bishops we must become proactive in things we can do at parish or diocesan levels.

Having said that, we are impatient beings. We live in a world where change is happening more quickly than in other eras. We are reluctant to wait endlessly  for bishops to act. There is an episcopal inertia that infuriates all. We all know examples of this.

We can appreciate that a synod is not a political parliament and that discernment is necessary. For each person to make a speech promoting his/her point of view can mean that neither side is listening to the other. I think this is what Francis meant when he said there was no discernment at the synod on the Amazon regarding the ordination of married men.

In short, we must keep pressure on the hierarchy but simultaneously attend to our own conversion and that of the laity around us.  Reform is more than politics, it is inclusive conversion.

[1] Antonio Spadaro,S.J., “. Francis’ Government: What is the driving force of his pontificate?”,  La Civilta Cattolica, laciviltacattolica.com   September 2020. accessed 16.9.2020

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Gideon Goosen is a Sydney-based theologian and author. His latest book is Clericalism: Stories  from the Pew, (Melbourne: Coventry Press, 2020)

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