For a true reform of the Church

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

Vatican II, more Vatican II. Yet the reforming remedy hasn’t worked for a long time. What is to be reformed actually? Francis’ great design symbolized by Prædicate Evangelium, the constitution that is to reform the Curia, is as much a reform of the Church according to the spirit of Vatican II  than it is a reform of the Curia. Certainly, there is an entertained ambiguity on the object, Curia, Church, prolonged and intensified by the media, but both reforms are intrinsically connected: the reorganization of the Roman government carries necessarily consequences for the government of the whole Church. This we saw in the discussions which took place on the occasion of the Consistory that place at the end of August, where a sort of second and more solemn promulgation of the Constitution Prædicate Evangelium of 19 March 2022 was orchestrated. It was presented to the College of cardinals, with the opportunity for them – within a strict frame – to have an open discussion and to, most of all, manifest their approbation. Yet, there were some critics[1] which pointed out the ecclesiastical issues of any reform of the central administration. Some cardinals raised the difficulty lying in the possibility to appoint simple lay persons as head of Dicasteries. Their petition which invoked Lumen gentium and the sacramentality of the episcopate, was rather vague. To resume the real issue: a few of the prefects of the Curia truly have true jurisdiction, especially to judge bishops and clerics, and also to produce texts, responses, sentences carrying any doctrinal significance. They do receive this jurisdiction by delegation of the pope, but they must have an intrinsic capacity to receive it for this type of acts (judging, teaching), which comes from their quality as clerics. Furthermore, the excessive use of the term synodality was pointed out, a sort of slogan which is to express an extension of the episcopal collegiality so treasured by Vatican II to the whole of the people of God. But, historically, noted an Asian cardinal, the word synodality is almost equivalent to episcopal collegiality, for it refers as a matter of fact to a certain exercise of the episcopal power in the Eastern Churches. Therefore it cannot signify a sort of democratization, which should rather be called “communiality”.

Successive reforms in the line of Vatican II in an exhausted and divided Church

One should keep in mind that Vatican II, in four years, from 1962 to 1965, had knocked over a monument not only a Tridentine one, as it is said incompletely too often, but also a gregorian  one (from the Gregorian reform of the XI century). Despite all the crisis of the Great Schism, the Protestant Reform, and the Revolution, the Church has continued to fully claim, though more recently in a pathetic way, the principle of her freedom as she did in a strong way during the “Gregorian momentum”: Spouse of Christ, she has always been conscious of being the supernatural totality of his Mystical body on Earth. And that is when Vatican II broke up this total plenitude affirmed by the Church: by expressing a certain number of “intuitions” (religious freedom, ecumenism, principles of religious dialogue), this Council has recognized out of the Church the existence of supernatural entities, admittedly incomplete, of ways of salvation, though deficient, of a communion to Christ, as imperfect as it may be. As a result magisterial documents in the line of the Encyclical Quas Primas, on the institutional kingdom of Christ, have become obsolete. This “openness to the modern world” on the part of the ecclesiastical society, in concrete terms openness to the liberal democracy, took place concomitantly with an a certain enthusiasm for the secularization of this world. Unless, it is actually the ecclesiological overthrow which has strongly contributed to the increase of this secularization and has taken churchmen by surprise. They had moved forward a hundred steps when the world in the meantime had moved ten thousand. Plus, the renovation appeared to have been like a suicide: of all the political, spiritual and disciplinary consequences, the most surprising is the exhaustion of the mission, the raison d’être of the Church of Christ, which could be seen in the rarefaction of the main workers for the Harvest, clerics and religious, and in the number of converts and churchgoers.

But, worst of all, not only the Body was falling into anemia, also, it was breaking apart. It quickly became patent that the Council had not succeeded in making the unity around its project: the opposition of the conciliar minority, becoming the traditionalist opposition energized by its liturgical dimension, appeared impossible to contain; an opposition now joined by a whole world of reformists or “restorationists” who, in the end and no matter what they say, have never totally been in tuned with Vatican II. The unity of what remained Catholic has blown up into pieces.

Therefore, it is in this situation of a collapsing Church and furthermore, divided, that was tried a tentative of reform of her Central government in relation with an comprehensive idea of what should be the reform of the entire Church, in other words, in relation with the understanding of Vatican II.

A first time, to meet the desire of the Council, Paul VI with his Constitution Regimini Ecclesiæ Universæ, had greatly reformed the face of the Roman Curia, particularly in creating new bodies (Councils for the Laity, for Promoting Christian Unity, etc.). The most emblematic change he initiated was the transformation of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, responsible for promulgating and defending Catholic doctrine, headed by the pope and thus without a Prefect, with a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. John Paul II’s Constitution Pastor Bonus, of 28 June 1988, which mainly harmonized the organization of the Curia with the new Code of Canon Law, had not brought much change. Indeed, the true novelty of this reform was in the renewal of the government body which emerged of the conciliar majority, as it was the case for those involved with liturgical actions. According to nominations, the Congregations and Councils were becoming more or less progressive or returning to more or less conservative positions.

Today, Prædicate Evangelium presents itself as an additional implementation of the “spirit of the Council” on the Roman government, and at the same time a model to be followed at all levels to promote a reform of the whole Church which will be truly conciliar. One of the major change is the demotion of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith to a second position, behind the Dicastery for Evangelization. But, here again, the Curia is mostly new because its staff has been  “brought up” to Bergoglian norms. As to the project of accomplishing a key conciliar radical improvement in the Curia, as well as in the whole Church, the anemia of the ecclesiastical body and the ever growing tensions within make it look like a pious dream.

Tentatives of restoration of lost unity: twice a failure

When the Church saw the dawn of the twenty first century, we were able to measure the fundamental failure of Vatican II in terms of its primary goal, the Mission: not only did she no longer see many conversions, also the number of faithful, men and women religious, and priests was shrinking so much that it seemed as if she was disappearing, at least in the West. The message of Vatican II was to adapt to the sensibility of men of our time and to look attractive to them as a rejuvenated, transformed, and modernized Church. But this did not get them a bit interested.

And Particularly, retrospectively, time made evident the rift, we could even say a latent schism, that happened after Vatican II, dividing the Church between two groups, both composite but well identified. The first one wanted to reconsider the Council or at least get it contained, where as the other considered the Council only as a start. The project to re-establish unity around this Council which did not give itself the seal of infallibility, in other words which was not a principle of faith per se, has been the cross of post-Vatican II popes, and they have failed. In the same way that the popes of the restoration have failed, John Paul II and especially Benedict XVI, the progressive pope Francis has also failed and none has even been able to keep the fiction alive.

2005, Ratzinger’s tentative: giving a frame to the Council

Shortly after his election, in his famous address to the Curia, on 22 December 2005, Benedict XVI made the distinction between two interpretations of the conciliar reform, “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, which he considered harmful, and the “hermeneutic of reform or renewal in the continuity”, which he made his own, destined to prevent a rupture between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” As such, the pope was defining what is called in liberal democracies – with a way of thinking more and more pervasive within the Church – a center-right, legitimized by the pope, and a center-left which he disqualified.

His intention was not at all for him to adhere to the traditionalist front which in various degrees rejected the Council and/or its liturgy. Yet, because of his interest for the pre-Vatican II liturgy, Benedict XVI could have gone further than the hermeneutic of renewal in the continuity. His “restorationism” could have ignited a process of transition, such as the one which took place under John XXIII, but in reverse.

Yet, as we know, the process remained in its first stage, including in regards to the “renewal in the continuity”: not only did it not come to a refusal of the Council, but the restorationism, the containment of the Council was perceived as a failure, a tentative without result. The Church in the West continues to disappear from the social arena. The number of ecclesiastical staff, priests, religious, seminarians continues to diminish and the Roman center gives the impression of being like a ship without a steersman. As he became the target of continuous attacks on the part of the defenders of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”, Benedict XVI became isolated in his private theologian cabinet, morally anticipating the resignation which he eventually resolved to do in 2013.

2013, Bergoglio’s tentative: maximizing the Council

Like naturally (in reality, the result of an intense electoral preparation), the 2013 conclave tried the other option, the one of the center-left, the opposite Vatican II “hermeneutic”, which Bergoglio had rallied. The new pope who in an address to the Jesuit reviews in 2022 presented himself in opposition to “restorationism” which wants to muzzle the Council and to “traditionalism” which wants to leave it behind, thus applied himself to “taring down the walls,” according to the expression he favored.

  • The wall of Humanæ vitæ and the various documents that came after and had preserved the moral of marriage from the liberalization that Vatican II had imposed on ecclesiology. Amoris lætitia declared in 2016 that people living in a state of public adultery could remain in this state without committing a grave sin (AL n.301).
  • The wall of Summorum Pontificum which had recognized a right to this conservatory of the Church of before represented by the old liturgy with its catechesis and its clerical staff. Traditionis custodes, in 2021, and Desiderio desideravi, in 2022, declared invalid this tentative of a “return” and the new liturgical books as the only expression of the Lex orandi of the Roman rite (TC, art. 1).

But the Bergoglio option is failing as had previously failed the Ratzinger option: the ecclesial institution has continued to collapse and the flame of the mission to diminish. If under Benedict XVI, the disillusion was crystalized over the absence of governance, under Francis, it is over too much of a muddled and dictatorial government, despite the watchword of synodality and despite Prædicate Evangelium, that criticism is growing. Furthermore, in the same way Benedict XVI never took the risk to demote the Council, Francis made sure not to go further so not to risk the implosion of an institutional structure: for example, despite all his declarations against clericalism, he has never really reconsidered priestly celibacy nor has he open the priesthood to women.

In this way, neither the tentative to restrain the Council nor the tentative to maximize it have stopped the erosion which followed. It has actually even increased it, in the fact that the pole of conservation (ratzinguerian and traditionalists together, more or less) got stronger. Relatively, first, because he regularly grows in number, at least by the coming of new generations, whereas the progressive pole does not transmit in this way. But also, because it became more homogenous, indeed the alliance grew stronger between ratzinguerians, defenders of the “hermeneutic of reform in the continuity”, and the “refusal front”, with the traditionalists. The latter being ever so present, as proven by the repeated attacks against them as if they were the enemy par excellence.

For a true reform

The old adage Ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church must always reform, spread around in the beginning of the XV century, from the time of the Grand Schism, where the necessity of a “reform in head and members”, in the papacy and in all of the ecclesial body, became evident to all. But we had to wait more than a century to see this strong desire of the Catholic world to truly succeed beyond the reform, in the form of the Protestantism revolt, with the Council of Trent.

In fact, the theme of the reform of a Church, holy in herself but composed of sinners, dates back from the XI century, what the historians have called the Gregorian reform – they prefer today to call it a “Gregorian momentum”. Religious life, especially as found in Cluny monasticism was the germ of that reform. It is in the order of things, the goal of evangelical perfection found in religious life is the model for the necessary renovations of the Church. They are accompanied and stimulated by the reforms of the religious orders (among many others, the one of the Carmel in the XVI century), with a come back to the challenging ideal of the Beatitudes, a spiritual and disciplinary renovation, a withdrawal from the corruption of the sinning world for oneself to convert and to bring the world to convert (Jn 17: 16, 18).

But as from the Christianity of the Enlightenment, in Germany, France, Italy, the term reform started to be used to describe an other reality, the adaptation of ecclesiastic institutions to the surrounding world that started to get away from Christianity.

Two types of reform, from now on, are often going to find themselves on opposite sides, one traditional, of a reform of revitalization of the identity of the Church, and one of a reform of the Church adjusting to the new society. It is essentially the traditional idea of reform which was found in movements such as the revival of religious orders, notably Benedictines, in the XIX century after the revolutionary upheaval, the restoration of Thomism since Leo XIII, the liturgical and disciplinary reform of saint Pius X at the beginning of the XX century, and the doctrinal and liturgical tentatives to contain the excitement of the 1950’s under Pius XII. On the contrary, the new idea of reforming, with its own programme found in True and False Reform in the Church, by Yves Congar (Cerf, 1950), can be read in the “new theology”, of the postwar era, in the ecumenical movement and, for some of it, in the Liturgical Movement, and it triumphed at Vatican II.

An ecclesiological reversal

A Gregorian kind of reform, with a restored liturgy, a rigorous discipline, strict training of the candidates to the priesthood, a sane and strong stature of the shepherds, a re-evangelization  supported by a re-catechization, goes hand in hand with an ecclesiological reversal.

But, isn’t it purely incantatory to wish for a return to a Church of the “Gregorian momentum” type, when the state of Mother Church, half a century after Vatican II, and for a large part because of the Council, is in a state of maximum dereliction, without any capacity to exercise the “triumphalist” pretension attributed to the papacy of the XI century?

Certainly not, if we consider that the strength of God is first shown in weakness. The one of Catholicism is extreme, what is always considered a peculiarity for the prevailing culture.

Quite weak also is the “new Catholicism which, despite it all, continues to prosper but that can hardly be seen as the crucible of a spiritual, catechetical, missionary, vocational renewal, but which could certainly participate in it. As it is, what we call “new Catholicism”, which is made of “identity” priests, young faithful, strict practicing families, new communities, traditionalists of all tendencies, represent in the West all that there will be left alive in a few years. Its numerical importance is rather slim and in addition it is having the hardest time resisting the weight of modernity, the impregnation of a ravaging individualism and the “bourgeois” temptation.

What reform for tomorrow? “For when I am weak, then am I powerful” (2 Cor 12, 10). Getting back on the subject of Rome and its Curia, is it necessary, is it even possible for the successor of Peter to appear a long time as a sort of universal leader? In a great “infirmity”, to speak like saint Paul, which is of the essence of the Roman and universal episcopate, namely the fact to speak the faith in the name of Christ without the possibility of error, will maybe appear as the pure gold that is found at the bottom of a sieve, in a time of crisis.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[1] Il Sismografo: Vaticano. Laici e sinodalità. Quel che si sono detti i cardinali nel concistoro segreto.