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Pope for a new Reformation

  • 14 March 2013

In the media hugger-mugger before the papal conclave began, most cardinals spoke of the need for reform.

But they had in mind different kinds of reform: an evangelical reform that would focus on renewing the faith of all Catholics; a disciplinary reform that would tightly define Catholic identity, act against dissent and unify the Church against the 'secularist threat'; a structural reform that would address those aspects of governance and culture that contributed to the sexual abuse crisis and to alienation among Catholics.

Pope Francis will address these proposals not simply as sociological challenges, but within a Catholic framework that developed in the face of the late medieval pressure for reform of the Church in its head and its members, culminating in the Reformation.

In this understanding the Church has divine and human aspects. In its faith and essential structures the Church is simply a gift that is held in trust. It is unchangeable and holy, so that Catholics' access to God through its sacraments and teaching is guaranteed.

But the Church is also a sociological reality composed of human beings and their structured and unstructured ways of relating. Human beings are sinful, and so the church needs constant reform.

In weighing how Pope Francis may set reform within this understanding of the Church as both holy and sinful, Augustine's complex treatment of the holiness of the Church may be helpful. He argued that the Church would be holy in an unqualified sense only at the end of time.

He said the Church is holy in the sense that Christ, who is the active power in its teaching, sacraments, governance and mission to the poor, is holy. But as a human reality, the Church is mixed: it comprises those who choose God above all things and those who choose other things before God. In that sense it is not holy. And finally he described the Church as a school for holiness. Through it Christ forms us to choose God above all things.

From this perspective the priority in any reform will be to strengthen the hope of Catholics in the future transformation of the Church at the end of time, and their awareness of Christ's presence and activity of Christ within the teaching, sacraments and outreach of the Church. That is the context within which Pope Francis  will situate structural and disciplinary reform.

In the Catholic Churches of the Western world, at least, this hope and faith run