The Reform We Need

Amidst of all the joys of a new pope and my continuing wonder at the smooth transition effected by cardinals who pray deeply and follow a centuries-old tradition, there was one deep sorrow about the papal transition: being forced to read the repeated slanders in the press about my beloved Pope Benedict XVI.  Media outlets such as The New York Times used the occasion of Benedict’s humble resignation to open up their pages to literally dozens of the worst anti-Catholic bigots in the country, most of them ostensibly “Catholic,” to spew their hate-filled bile.  And beyond the editorials, there were the ostensibly “neutral” news articles, with their odious, unsupported accusations of a “failed” papacy.

Consider, if you will, this small example from a New York Times article that appeared on the morning after Pope Francis’s election: “By choosing the first pope from the New World, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church sent a strong message of change.”  This reporter had no evidence to back-up that assertion of course, because by the time she filed this piece with her editors, none of the cardinals had yet had time to make any comments about the process.  Indeed, she quotes not one single Church official to back up her little meta-narrative.  But the tall tale she has decided to tell only gets more inventive as she proceeds.

“It was not yet clear,” she suggests, “whether Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio … will display the mettle to tackle the organizational dysfunction and corruption that plagued the eight-year papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.”  Organizational dysfunction and corruption that plagued his papacy?  What was her source or evidence for that assertion?  There was none.  It’s clear that, like the theater critic who writes his review on the way to the theater, our reporter made her story-line up in advance, and she was going to stick to it no matter what she found.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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All of us who have been interviewed by the press know how this goes: they come to you with their story looking for quotes to fill in the narrative they’ve already crafted, and nothing you can say will dislodge it.  I’ve done a number of interviews during the past several weeks, for both print and television, related to the papal election, and in every one, the meta-narrative was always the same: “Will the new pope make the Church more open?”  My students experienced the same problem.  The press interviewed our students a dozen times, asking them each time about “change” and “up-dating the Church” for “the younger generation.”  And each time, our students spoke passionately and articulately about their love for Benedict and their desire for the Church to be faithful to the Gospel and its own traditions.  Never once did any of this ever make it into print or on the evening news. It didn’t fit the grand narrative.

But all of our New York Times reporter’s comments up to this point were just the usual media “boilerplate.”  The sentence where she really went for the jugular was this: “In many ways, Cardinal Bergoglio … seems to be the anti-Benedict. He is a warm, pastoral figure known as a good communicator, one who might have more success reversing the church’s sagging fortunes than did Benedict ….” Francis is the “anti-Benedict” because he is a “warm, pastoral figure”?  I’ve never met Pope Benedict, but I’ve talked to many people who have, and all of them were immensely impressed by his warmth and gentleness. It is a warmth and wisdom that I have felt in every one of his written works.

But to our Times reporter, in electing Francis: “It seemed almost as if the cardinals were trying again.”  Seemed to whom?  To any of the cardinals?  No.  It “seemed” that way to, well, one man, as it turns out: Alberto Melloni, notorious critic of the Vatican, who said this:

“The reign of the doctors is over, and this is the kingdom of pastors, a move away from theologian pope,” said Alberto Melloni, the author of many books on the Vatican and the Second Vatican Council. “The fact is that he was a minority candidate in the 2005 election, and it was like saying, ‘Last time we went wrong, so let’s pick it up before it’s too late.’”

First of all, to say that with Cardinal Bergoglio “the reign of the doctors is over” is just offensive, since Bergoglio is a Jesuit with very extensive educational credentials and a doctorate from—of all places—a German university. (A bit like Pope Benedict.)  And second, although this Mr. Melloni thinks that the “last time,” the cardinals “went wrong”—a personal opinion he’s entitled to, I suppose, for what it’s worth—there’s absolutely no evidence that the cardinals felt that way.  The lack of any evidence to support the narrative she was creating didn’t stop our intrepid Times reporter, though; she went ahead and found a puppet willing to repeat back to her the words she wanted to hear.  If the issue is reform, how about starting with The New York Times, its high school-level reporters, and their sophomoric sourcing.

As for Pope Benedict: What a mensch!:  a truly amazing, humble man with profound depths of scholarly understanding and pastoral wisdom.  He served the Church selflessly in taking on the papacy when he clearly wished to retire, always living in the shadow of his rock-star predecessor and close, personal friend.  And what a papacy it was!  Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) and Spes Salvi (“Saved in Hope”): two intellectually profound encyclicals, both of which draw us back to the source of the Christian mystery—not to mention Caritas in Veritate, his remarkable addition to the modern social justice tradition.  And then, there is his masterful three volumes on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he attempted to teach the Church once again how to engage in a theological reading of the Scriptures as the authentic word of God, one that while not avoiding the insights of the modern historical-critical methods, would not entirely adopt their philosophical presuppositions either.

Like his predecessor before him, Benedict effectively carried on the authentic reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as opposed to the false “reforms” that so often led the Church astray in the post-conciliar period.  A cardinal archbishop told an audience recently that the liturgy was so abused in the early seventies when he was in seminary that the faithful seminarians would say about the ersatz masses being done by their elders: “Everything in them changes but the bread and wine.” Benedict, by contrast, did a great deal to help realize the original intentions of the liturgical reformers.  Given that the lex orandi (the law of praying) is intimately intertwined with the lex credendi (the law of believing)—which is another way of saying that what we pray is what we believe—reforming the liturgy has always been an absolutely essential way of helping re-form the Church (in the sense of renewing its essence) and helping to re-inform the faithful who are its “living stones.”

Benedict did other things as well, largely unnoticed.  People in the media talk a lot about “reforming the curia,” although most of them have no idea who “the curia” are or what they do. I’m not opposed to reforming the curia, but the truth is that most lay Catholics don’t suffer much from the arcane difficulties in “the curia.” What every Catholic does need, however, is a solid, faithful bishop in his or her diocese, and Benedict has done a remarkably consistent job of elevating good men to these positions.  The “reform” of the Church has begun: we’re rid of a whole slew of ineffective and sometimes scandalous bishops in whose places we have many men of real faith.

What about the priest-pedophile scandals?  Am I missing something, or has no one else noticed that nearly all these cases happened during the “false reform” period after the Second Vatican Council?   Current bishops are simply trying to deal as best they can with horrors that occurred decades ago, before some of them were even priests. As for “reform” in this area, it began when the Vatican started replacing the previous crop of irresponsible, unfaithful bishops who did so much to destroy the credibility of the Church by eschewing the centuries-old spiritual wisdom of their Church about sin (not to mention some very explicit canon laws about disciplining priests) in favor of an O-so-cutting-edge-but-disastrously-wrongheaded model of psychological “therapy.”  These crimes weren’t caused by living faithfully in accord with the Church’s teachings, but by acting in ways totally contrary to them—indeed, at a time when unfaithfulness to the hierarchy was often taken to be a badge of honor and during an age of so-called “sexual liberation” when breaking previously-established “boundaries” was taken to be an act of heroic un-discipline.

As for the reform we need now, Cardinal Dolan got it just about right when he told an interviewer: “I have no doubt the Holy Father will call each and every Catholic to reform his or her life.”  The Church is certainly in need of reform.  And as “progressives” never tire of saying: “We are the Church.”  If so, then reform of the Church means reform of ourselves.

The Church is always in need of reform because she is made up of sinners who are all—every last one of them—in need of Christ’s redeeming love and forgiveness.  There will be no “perfect” Church until Christ returns.  As for popes, none has been quite as bad as the first one, Peter, who when Christ was at his lowest point and in deepest need, denies three times that he even knew the Lord.  Could there be any more grievous sin?  Whatever crimes some later popes have committed, they will never quite measure up to that one.  Indeed none of the Twelve remained faithful in Christ’s hour of need.  Who among them was at the trial to defend him?  Not one.  And yet, oddly enough, in spite of that, the Church has continued to grow for over two thousand years.  A very faithful Dominican friar once suggested to me that the quality of the Church’s leadership over the centuries was evidence for the divine guidance of the Church:  given the sort of people who were often in charge, the Church certainly wouldn’t have survived if God hadn’t been protecting it.

The authentic reform movements in Church history have always had at least these two distinctive characteristics:  The first is that they always involved a call to renewed fidelity to Christ, while rejecting the illusions offered by “the world.”  The second was that “reform” couldn’t just be just about my will and my desires.  Indeed, one finds constant warnings within each major reform movement—whether it was Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan, or indeed Jesuit—against “willfulness,” along with frequent exhortations to “humility” and “obedience.”  Why?  Because the “reform” of the Church isn’t primarily about what I want or what I’d like to see done.  Nor is it about what every Tom, Dick, and Harry the press gets ahold of thinks should be done.  We all know how that will turn out:  the reforms I and my friends zealously support are not necessarily the ones you and your friends support.  And when the new pope doesn’t obey the Gospel According to Us, we’ll turn on him, and he’ll become just another hated “obstructionist.”  True reform can’t be achieved that way; it’s merely an extension of the current strife.

Reform is about each of us living the Gospel more faithfully.   And the place for that sort of reform to begin is within me, within my heart; and within you and your heart. Because here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of no matter who is pope or what name he takes or what policies he sets: there can be no “reform” of the Church without the reform of human hearts.  Fortunately, that can begin right here, right now.  Unfortunately, it’s hard.  If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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