The Evangelical Reform of the Church

First Things | Published on February 27, 2013

By George Weigel

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Hans Kung, out there on the far left fringes of Catholicism, has ideas about the reform of the Catholic Church; so does Bernard Fellay, the schismatic bishop and leader of the hard-right Lefebvrists. The National Catholic Reporter has its notions of Catholic reform; so does the National Catholic Register; neither is likely to agree with the other about the proper reform agenda. Calls for Catholic reform are ubiquitous, across the landscape of Catholic opinion. But how often do we stop and think about what distinguishes authentic Catholic reform from ersatz Catholic reform? Are there criteria that help us understand what’s true and false, in this matter of Catholic reform?

All serious thinking about Catholic reform begins with the fact that Christ the Lord gave a “form” to his Church. The Church didn’t just happen; the Church has a constitution (in the British sense of the term) and that constitution is of the will of Christ, manifest through the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the Church throughout history. So all truly Catholic reform is in reference to that “form.” All truly Catholic reform is re-form: a recovery of an element of the Church’s “form” that has been lost, or an extension of that “form” into new terrain (although always in essential continuity with the originating “form”).

Sometimes the reform process in the Church works in both directions. At the Second Vatican Council, for example, the Church recovered an element of its constituting “form” that had gotten a bit lost over the centuries-the idea of a clear distinction between religious and political authority, which goes back to the Lord Jesus’s own distinction between the things that are God’s and the things that are Caesar’s. At the same time, Catholicism stretched its thinking about Church-and-state in response to the dynamics of modern history. The result of this two-fold process-recovery (the move back) and extension (the move ahead)-was Vatican II’s teaching that religious freedom is a fundamental human right that a just society should recognize in law as a civil right.

In Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books), I suggest two criteria by which to distinguish true from false reform in the Church: the criterion of truth and the criterion of mission.

The criterion of truth tells us that authentic Catholic reform is always reform based on the truths the Church knows through Scripture and tradition, as those truths have been expounded by the Church’s authoritative teachers, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If a proposed “reform” contradicts a truth of Catholic faith, it can’t be an authentically Catholic reform.

Indeed, the criterion of truth is Christ himself, for the One who declared himself the way, the truth, and the life is always the measure of authentic Catholic reform.

Then there is the criterion of mission. All true Catholic reform is mission-driven and mission-driving. All authentically Catholic reform contributes to the Church’s mission, which is the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of the world. The mission, in other words, is nothing less than the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What can be changed in the Church must be changed, if mission-effectiveness demands it. What cannot be changed in the Church, because it is of the constitutional “form” of the Church (like the episcopate and the priesthood), must be purified and reformed so that it may make its proper contribution to the mission. Because every territory is mission territory in the Evangelical Catholicism of the future, mission-effectiveness measures everyone and everything in the Church.

Catholic reform is not deconstruction; proposed reforms that discard truths of the faith because they make the neighbors nervous are not authentically Catholic reforms. But neither is authentic Catholic reform a return to some imaginary, perfect past. The Church, the Bride of Christ, always strives to be joined more perfectly to her divine spouse. That is the essential dynamic of all true Catholic reform.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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