Despite Appearances, “Reform” Has Not Come

How blessedly instructive it has been, following the installation of the first pope from the Americas, Pope Francis, to witness the world’s sheer unaffected delight in this man.  His warmth and simplicity have endeared him everywhere.  Indeed, he has disarmed us all by the spontaneity of his style.

Of course—it needs straightaway to be said—none of this augurs any great or seismic shift in the life of the Church.  It is one thing to shorten a papal Mass or two during Holy Week, something else again to supplant the Sacred Mysteries altogether.  To tweak is one thing, to travesty quite another.  If, in the interest of time, and to the evident relief of the faithful, the length of a liturgy gets reduced, one shouldn’t rush to judgment regarding a long-term secret strategy aimed at rewriting the Creed.

Thus, says Hilaire Belloc, “The moral is, it is indeed, thou shalt not monkey with the Creed.”

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Putting a Jesuit in charge may, as some chuckleheaded conservatives warn, leave a crack or two in the cloister, but such cracks are not likely to cause whole structures to implode.  Not if the Holy Ghost has anything to say about it.  So don’t look for radical revisions of the doctrine of the Real Presence.  Don’t read into the papal tea leaves, I’m saying, looming and transmogrifying alterations of the Catholic Thing.  Not on this, or any pope’s watch.

And certainly the Catholic priesthood is not about to be refashioned according to new paradigms of empowerment.  Its solemn mandate to protect and preside over the Mysteries of the Altar will remain entirely undisturbed by the new regime.  These are matters, after all, about which no Catholic, not even His Holiness the Pope, has any business adjudicating in a way that would distort or deny or diminish the Church’s indefectible faith.  I say that because when the Pope on Holy Thursday chose to wash the feet of a couple of women, concededly a pretty startling departure from the immemorial practice of washing only the feet of those who, like the Apostles at the Last Supper, were men, it was seized upon by some, particularly in the secular press, as a signal to the world announcing the Pope’s openness to the idea of inviting women to become priests.  Longtime Vatican watcher Silvia Poggioli, for example, reporting Easter Sunday for NPR on the Pope’s performance to date, positively purred with pleasure at the prospect.  Let us rejoice, she seemed to be saying, at these hints and intimations of  “needed and substantial reform.”  It is not enough, she opined, for changes “in tone and symbolism” alone to take place.  Mere cosmetic adjustments, she warned, will not, and should not, placate the “so-called Vatican II Catholics, left on the sidelines during the last two popes.” Surely we owe them something for having survived the recent rigidities.  Indeed, to assuage the appetites of the disaffected left, we had better be ready to place a great many new items on the menu.

And while one hates to have a food fight with so formidable a gourmand as Signora Poggioli, it is simply not going to happen.   Not certainly in a Church that has never understood herself to be a cafeteria.  Let the crazy people pick and choose their pastries if they please.  We’ll just try and avert our gaze amid the myriad and painful depletions they are forced to endure as a result of so mindless an evacuation of the historic faith.  Besides, to recall a witty rejoinder from Chesterton, it is hardly the case that in a violent storm Windsor Castle (read: Anglican Christianity) was suddenly blown away from one of its roof tiles.  Why should anyone be surprised, then, when wayward children, having wrenched themselves free of their Mother, find that the center no longer holds?  Isn’t dissipation the order of the day among all the so-called reformed churches anyway?

But Rome is not about to join the lemmings as they race toward the sea.  The Church is not going to jettison the Apostolic Deposit just because the Holy Father, preferring protocols less formal than those of his predecessors, begins his papacy with the words Buena Sera.  Or that having surveyed the vastness of the papal apartments, he chooses, for the time being anyway, something rather less resplendent.  Why should Christ’s Vicar have to occupy living quarters as sprawling and sumptuous as those chosen by Vice President Biden when, following the conclave that elected Francis, he and his entourage travelled to Paris to live it up on the taxpayer’s dime?

Not even to please the NPR set, I am saying, will the Church consent to reconfigure her life and mission.  Which is why I think Raymond Arroyo over at EWTN was a whole lot closer to the mark when, comparing Popes Benedict and Francis to operatic stars like Pavarotti and Domingo, he noted how “the style is different, but the songs are the same.”

That goes for the other hot button issue, by the way, which the folks over at NPR were equally exercised about on the morning of Christ’s Resurrection.  I mean the Bible.  It seems there aren’t enough books in it and that numbers will have to be greatly increased so as to accommodate the latest findings of post-modern scripture scholarship.  In an interview with Bob Edwards, whose early Easter Sunday broadcast managed to enrage me more than usual, a fellow by the name of Hal Taussig, a founding member of the notorious “Jesus Seminar,” who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, launched a full frontal assault upon the New Testament, urging us to augment it with an additional twenty or so newly discovered texts.   Never mind of course that from the beginning these texts had been rejected as bogus and that their inclusion in the canon would have left everything in ruins. However, Professor Taussig was so blithe and off-hand about it all, telling us in a chirpy sort of way how Christianity would find itself all the more relevant to the 21st century were the Church only to imbibe the spirit of inclusivity.  “Oh, come on now, just drink the damn kool aid!”

In fact, one of his colleagues, John Dominic Crossman, writing the foreword to this brand spanking new compilation, argued that everything in the existing canonical New Testament will have to be recast in the light of these new and liberating discoveries.  Beginning, one suspects, with the details of the Resurrection itself.  (So deliciously timed, too, to coincide with the Easter celebration.)  Surely the myth of a dead man climbing out of a grave could only have traction in a pre-modern world, not the one constructed by robust little rationalists who know so much more than the authors of Holy Scripture.  Or the Mind of the Church which sat in judgment upon these upstart texts a very long time ago, wisely refusing to countenance their claim to belong to a sacred canon inspired by God.  What must He think of all this impacted idiocy?   As the inimitable Kierkegaard once put it, “God presumably waits in the lobby while the scholars upstairs debate his existence.”

Isn’t it wonderful how these people, if only we’d give them half a chance, will happily undertake the improvements we all require, so many renovations of belief and behavior that the rest of us are either too timid or unimaginative to entertain?  Where would we be without the wisdom of NPR?   Or the Jesus Seminar?  How utterly lost and forlorn we would all then be.  How on earth, I wonder, did Christianity ever get along without them?  Maybe I should ask Bob Edwards that one next time around.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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