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Hope and Change in the Church

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Batman the fundamentalist giving Robin the chance to turn the other cheek

A recent conversation highlights the challenge of talking about “hope” and “change” in the Church.

A few weeks ago I had a quick lunch with an old friend and a new colleague. Eventually my friend (a Notre Dame alumna, “new evangelist” and educator) and I got into a lively discussion about “change” in the Church, given all the hope that has been expressed lately about what changes Pope Francis might bring.

My position is basically this: it is naïve to think that the Church does not change, and it is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst to suggest that the Church cannot change. The Batman meme above vividly demonstrates a misguided and wrong-headed understanding of the Church.

“The Church should change” does not mean “the truth must/can change”. It is Church discipline – and often really just Church culture – not dogma, which should change in the minds of most. Though there are always exceptions, I suspect most Catholics are not agitating for moral relativism, an end to Trinitarian theology, a return to Arianism, denial of the Resurrection or the Real Presence, promoting abortion or war, that we do away with ordained ministry or that we change the Sunday Eucharist into an hour long drum circle featuring Kumbaya in a dozen different languages.

What most Catholics mean when they say that they hope for change in the Church is ecclesiological, ecumenical, pastoral, and practical. They want a positive gospel message (“God is love” or “Love God and thy neighbor”, and all that radical wishy-washy stuff, you know); they want better preaching, better music, better liturgy; they want transparency and accountability in church decisions, participation in governance, and maybe even more married clergy and less clericalism. They want bishops (and pastors, deacons, DRE’s et al.) to be servant-leaders, not lords of their own fiefdoms. They want ecumenism and interreligious dialogue to work, and to have real effect. They want more effort spent on social justice than on ecclesiastical protocol, more money spent on education and pastoral care than on neo-Baroque bling.

But my experience of most Catholics, admittedly, is based on my experience in parish pastoral ministry and Catholic higher education. My friend has spent several years on the front lines of pre-evangelization, new evangelization, and even good old-fashioned evangelization and catechesis, often in the context of guiding groups of pilgrims and students around Rome’s most sacred sites.

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Her position was that “the church should change” is basically code for “the church’s teaching about morals should change to match the social norms of the western world.” When people say change, they mean that the church should get out of its old-fashioned rut, and embrace a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, equal rights (and rites) for women in the ecclesiastical workforce, and so forth.

That it may be, in some cases, just as in others, “the church should change” means “the church should eliminate the novus ordo, go back to the Tridentine rite, and embrace traditional Catholic culture (circa 1940).”

The problem, though, in assuming that “the church can/must change” is code for a particular agenda is that it stymies the possibility of real conversation and dialogue. The Church is in fact always changing. All we have to do is look at the papacy of Benedict XVI to see a number of examples of change in the church. And no one can accuse Ratzinger of being radical, wishy-washy, or unorthodox.

He changed the liturgy, both in terms of the translations and in terms of the mark his own personal preferences have had. Even just during my four years in Rome, you could see lots of changes to the liturgy at St. Peter’s – longer, less participatory music; rosaries before mass begins; communion no longer offered in the hand; a crucifix and candles dominating the altar; cardinal-deacons vesting in mitre and dalmatic; etc., etc. He changed canon law to exclude deacons from acting “in persona Christi capitis,” making this phrase more about Eucharistic presidency and less about holy orders or leadership in the Church. He innovated in creating ordinariates for disenchanted Anglicans. He pushed forward reforms relating to the sex abuse crisis (at least for priests, if not bishops). He created a personnel office for the Vatican. He called in an outside audit of Vatican finances.

In short, the Church changed a lot under Pope Benedict; why would we not expect it to change with Pope Francis? The Church changes, and survives. Change simply means that things are different than they were before. It is a sign of life, and of fidelity to the principle ecclesia semper purificanda (the church must always be purified). Rather than dismissing the idea of the church changing, embrace it – critically, intelligently, and faithfully.

Remember Dante’s Divine Comedy – God is pure dynamism. The only creature which cannot change is Satan, eternally frozen in the deepest pit of hell.

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1 Comment

  1. Buddy Noe says:

    Well said, my friend! Keep up the good work.

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