Yesterday, I began an entry on why the Church stands in need of Reformation today just as it has in other periods of history. I began with the axiom Ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda—the Church, always reforming and always in need of reform but promised that I would look at some more concrete examples of why we need to have a modern Reformation—and my list is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I am sure there are other reasons beyond the one’s I am going to enumerate.
The first and most obvious is the sex-abuse crisis that has rocked the Church not only in the United States but throughout the Western world. Even more indicative of the need for Reform than the sex-abuse itself, was the almost universal behavior of bishops attempting to “cover-up” the scandal rather than address its root causes. And why this cannot be effectively reformed from within the ranks of the papal administration is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the bishops’ policies of cover-up were directed from Rome. After the recent reports (The Cloyne and Murphy Reports) regarding clergy sex abuse in several diocese of Ireland, the Taoiseach, Enda Kerry, issued a stinging condemnation in the Daìl (the Taoiseach is the Prime Minister; the Daìl is the Irish Parliament) of the Vatican for its role in orchestrating a policy of cover-up. This problematic policy is not unique to Ireland. The papacy of John Paul II was particularly unable to understand the crisis and deal with it openly and effectively and while Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, pressed for more effective policies to get to the roots of the problem, the obstructionist prelates in the Roman Curia who neither understand the seriousness of the problem nor are willing to effect the radical structural change that is needed to heal it are still in place. Probably the single most critical area for Reform in the Catholic Church today is the Roman Curia which has moved far from being an extension of papal power into an organization with immense power of its own, a power that transcends and even supersedes the authority of the pope himself. (Sometimes when we do a series of entries on the Second Vatican Council we will look at how the Curia survived the Conciliar attempts of Reform and has emerged even more powerful than it was before the Council.)
A second reason indicating the need for a Reformation is the loss of prestige which the Church has suffered in the world over the last forty years. This loss is due not to the Second Vatican Council. Indeed those of us who remember the Council recall the immense boost of credibility and energy the Church enjoyed from that fateful January day in 1959 when Pope John XXIII announced he was convoking a Council. The Catholic Church moved from being perceived as an arcane and cultic relic of the bygone days of monarchic absolutism with its millions of enthralled and docile adherents to being a vital and engaged participant in the world community. The remote and other-worldly visage of Pius XII was replaced by the kindly and humane “Good Pope John.” Part of the loss of prestige, and I believe a great part of it, has been the deliberate policy of a secular society and its advocates to push to the margins of public life any and all religion, but especially any religion whose influence could undermine the post-religious agenda of secular liberalism. Again, those of us who remember the times of the Second Vatican Council remember that magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Life covered not only the Catholic Church but religious topics of all sorts with great regularity and a respectful tone. One can search modern newspapers and journals, including the aforementioned Time and Newsweek, and will rarely find religious topics covered except for such topics as the ubiquitous sex-abuse scandal or some other story which can be viewed only from the critical perspective. This does not betray an anti-Catholic bias as some bishops have claimed, but an anti-religious slant. Even non-Catholic churchmen of considerable repute such as Anglican Archbishops Rowan Williams or Desmond Tutu, or evangelical Jim Wallis are almost never in the pages of the press, though the more erratic such as Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, or John Hagee occasionally show up because they reinforce Christianity as something eccentric or even hateful. And of course, speaking of hateful, one sees with some regularity the “God hates Fags” placards of the so-called Westboro Baptist “Church.” Nevertheless, I don’t want to blame secularism for pushing religion in general and Catholicism in particular from its once privileged position in the public eye. The Church itself has contributed to its position of ridicule and contempt not only by its gross handling of the sexual abuse crisis, but by its increasing return to the authoritarianism of past epochs and the revival of so much archaic pomp as Cardinals Burke and Pell strut around swathed in yards of watered silk and Benedict himself seems to raid the Vatican attic for the most curious accoutrements from ages past. I am not suggesting that Catholics should convert to Presbyterian drab, but rather we need to pay attention to the world in which we live and not attempt to inhabit a parallel universe of red queens, mad hatters, and protonotaries apostolic. A Reformed Catholicism that focused on the Church’s mission of making the Gospel a force in the modern world, a Church that continued the Mission of its Founder ”to bring glad tidings to the poor….to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” would recover the prestige that has been squandered with the lack of transparency and the return to an arrogant and pretentious authoritarianism that is leaving the church “naked unto her enemies.” well, more reasons in the next entry.