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Church Reform Wishlist: Open Letter of Introduction

Oscar Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa;
Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, governor of Vatican City;
Francisco Javier Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago;
Oswald Cardinal Gracias of Mumbai;
Reinhard Cardinal Marx of Munich;
Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa;
Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston;
George Cardinal Pell of Sydney.G8Cardinals

Your Eminences,

Know that the Church is with you in prayer during these first days of dialogue, discussion and deliberation on how the people of God can be best served by the college of Bishops and its structures of universal governance, including those particular to the bishop of Rome.

[Know also that the Beards for Bishops Campaign applauds Pope Francis for including two of our most beloved members, Cardinals Marx and O’Malley, in your number. Clearly, His Holiness knows bearded men are wise men!]

It seems that you have consulted broadly among your episcopal peers in your respective regions. It is not clear to what extent, if any, consultation was extended to deacons, presbyters, lay ecclesial ministers, theologians, religious and the lay faithful. Perhaps you devoted a day to reading Catholic blogs from around the world – and if you did, you simultaneously have my gratitude and my pity.

It seems as if everyone is working on their reform wishlist! Some that I found interesting including John Allen, and the interview with Cardinal Maradiaga on Salt and Light was encouraging. I found Tom Reese to be a little skeptical when he warns that

if the press release says that [you] had a wonderful discussion with the pope and [you] agreed that collegiality and subsidiarity should be the guiding principles for curial reform, you can be assured no one has a plan and they wasted six months.

Personally, I expect your work to take some time. However, after a generation of waiting on some questions, it would be reassuring to see some indication of movement. I trust in the Holy Spirit and in your good will, but as a theologian, a minister, and a member of Christ’s church, have the duty to share my hopes and concerns (cf. CIC 212).

I admit, it does seem a little like sending a Christmas wish list to Santa Claus. I would need a book to spell out the rationale behind each of these suggestions. In many cases there are incompatible alternatives, but either choice would be an improvement. Most of these are small things, tinkering with structures even, that need only to reflect the more important principles and ought to serve the conversion of heart and change of mind. Some are obvious to me based on my study, that i forget they are not so obvious to the public, or even to theologians not studied in ecclesiology or ecumenism. These are, in fact, some of the effects of change, the signs that reform in the more important areas is trickling down to the practical, nitty-gritty. It is also just a list! But before i get to it, I can assert that this list intends to adhere to the following ideals and principles, and is not exhaustive:

Each change is rooted in the tradition of the church – historically, and/or ecumenically (or, apostolic and catholic tradition). We do not really need brand new structures, so much as looking to our past and to the current practice of other apostolic and catholic churches, and adapting those practices for our current needs.

Neither I nor most people I know are much interested in reforms of dogma and doctrine, though the development of doctrine, of the articulation and understanding of unchangeable truth, is always welcome; the focus is on discipline, custom, culture, and administrative practice.

Ecumenically, we should formally commit to the Lund Principle: “churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.” In other words, that which can be done together should be done together. Too often we only seem to do the minimum, not all that is allowed or encouraged, but only what is required.

Let him be anathema who says, “Tinkering with structures is not sufficient, all we need is prayer, or holier priests.” Whatever virtue there may have once been present in such pietism is usually overshadowed by this being used as a cop out by people afraid of change, transparency, and the light of day. I agree it is not enough to merely tinker with some structures; they must be overhauled from the ground up. However, prayer without action is merely words, like the letter without the spirit, or the dead kind of faith James warns us about. Pray and Act, rather than Pray not Act, should be your watchword.

Any changes which have been approved in principle, or recommended by various authorities in the church, including official ecumenical dialogues, should be enacted – most have been delayed too long already (e.g., Paul VI and married Eastern presbyters in the US; or the Synod of Bishops on women as instituted readers).

Likewise, some policies already on the books should be more clearly enforced (e.g., only clerics should wear clerical clothing – not seminarians; or the requirement that everyone engaged in formation for pastoral work take a required course in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue).

A healing of memories should take place, perhaps the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission at various levels. There have been many wrongs, some lesser and some greater, committed because of the wrong attitudes of clericalism, careerism, triumphalism. this has happened at the parish level and at the highest levels of the curia. I know pastoral associates and former presidents of pontifical councils treated poorly or fired just for being ‘too pastoral’ and not buying in to the system of clericalism.

Finally, take to heart Pope Francis’ admonishment that all of these are secondary to the need for a conversion of heart, a change of attitude – always the first step in both ecclesial reform and ecumenical reconciliation, two goals which are inseparable from the Gospel.

His Holiness is right, of course, “the people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” Presbyters especially have a vocation to parish ministry and to advising the bishop in the care of the diocese; it is deacons who have a particular vocation to assisting the bishop in his ministry of governance and administration at the deanery, diocesan, and supra-diocesan levels.

Thank you for your prayer, your humility, your leadership, and your dedication to the Church. Accept these suggestions from a loyal son of the Church in the spirit in which they are given, out of love for the Church and frustration in its failings and imperfections. And of course, out of humility: this is a work in progress, and the work of many is better than that of one, so I hope friends and colleagues will add their voices to mine, even in disagreement.

I am, as ever, your servant…

FrancisCards

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