Church Chat by Tom Smith

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Number 116, December 28, 2015

What's a Refomer to Do?


The New Year looms. While Happy New Year is welcome, it would be better to be able to say Happy Old Year a year from now. To have a year begin, remain, and end happily depends on many factors, some which we control and many which we don't.

For the Catholic Church, 2016 could be critical. Will the reforms that Francis initiated take hold and expand? And, more personally, what's our role?

As a minimally effective but earnest Catholic Church reformer, I have a new and unexpected problem. For decades it was quite clear what my vision was but it was also evident that the real life context for that vision included a stubborn, rigidly conservative, self-serving hierarchy, a narrow focus on dogmatic teaching, and a stifling clericalism. And there was an obvious attempt to sterilize Vatican II. In that environment, I knew that my main message was to highlight the devastating consequences of that approach and to point towards the enlightened possibilities outlined in the Council. Frankly, it was easier to be prophetic.

But then along came Francis. He has changed the context. It's not that many issues are now resolved and many hopes realized. But Francis is clearly guiding the church in a direction that I am happy to follow. The Vatican is no longer the major obstacle to renewal that it was for decades. While I am still impatient with the rate of change, I can at least support many of the initiatives that Francis has launched. I haven't felt that positive about papal leadership for a very long time

That happy change leaves me with a problem. What does a reformer do when the reform is now being led by the Pope? Follow his lead seems the most sensible approach. But how does that role work in this changed context?

I see three possibilities but, of course, there could be more. Here are my current three:

  1. Focus on local issues. How does your bishop measure up to the new standards that Francis champions? Things like: a simple life style, obvious personal commitment to the poor, service first rather than dogma first ministry, personal humility, a joyful spirit, decentralization, collaborative decision-making, etc. How does your pastor measure up to the same standards? How do you measure up? If you, your pastor, or your bishop still think and function like it was pre-Francis, then there are opportunities to be prophetic, to be a reformer. In fact, we can now cite Francis when we push for reform on the local level.
  2. Stick to one issue. Women's ordination comes immediately to mind. One day I think Francis is heading toward an acceptance of women's ordination because it seems so consistent with the other initiatives he has made. It seems he is headed toward a major reorganization of church governance with lots of decision making on a regional level. Maybe women's ordination will be part of that process. Then the next day I feel he's not going to do anything about women or celibacy. Any reformer, if he or she is so inclined, can focus on this issue and keep at it for some time.
  3. Education. The prophetic role can morph into an education role. There are millions of Catholics who don't really know what Francis is doing, why he is doing it, and what difference does it make. Admiring Francis because he lives simply and identifies with the poor is one thing. Becoming knowledgeable about the nature of the Church, our history, and what is included in an authentic spiritual journey takes some study, reflection, dialogue, reading, prayer, and a spiritual guide or two. In our technological age, insightful articles and blogs are readily available. A modern day educator who sifts through all the resources and knows their relevance could easily educate lots of people by forwarding the best of the articles to interested readers. The basis for reform could then expand.

In any case, people like me, organizations like Call to Action, and news media like the National Catholic Reporter live in a new context, along with everyone else. The Francis factor makes a difference. His reform is bigger than my plan, but my plan certainly fits in with his reform.

It is exciting to be a part of the transformation that is happening right now. Our biggest sin would be to act like it isn't happening or that it is irrelevant.

Somewhere, in the middle of this discussion, there's room for a New Year's resolution. Got any suggestions?

2015 Essays

What's a Reformer to Do? - Church Chat #116, December 28, 2015
The Good Enough Synod - Church Chat #115, October 27, 2015
What Are You Reading - Church Chat #112, August 7, 2015
Hitler - Church Chat #109, April 17, 2015
A Confirmation Problem - Church Chat #110, May 4, 2015
A Church for the Poor - Church Chat #108, April 2, 2015
Ferguson - Church Chat #107, March 16, 2015
The Big Umbrella - Church Chat #106, February 9, 2015
The Book - Church Chat #105, January 20, 2015

2014 Essays

Story versus System - Church Chat #104, April 5, 2014
Bishop Schneider's Dilemna - Church Chat #103, March 18, 2014
Bishop Schneider's Priests - Church Chat #102, February 12, 2014
Meet Bishop Schneider - Church Chat #101, January 26, 2014
Step by Step - Church Chat #100, January 7, 2014

2013 Essays

A Christmas Wish - Church Chat #99, December 23, 2013
Survey - Church Chat #97, November 16, 2013
Church and Politics - Church Chat #95, October 11, 2013
Creed, Code, Cult - Church Chat #92, August 18, 2013
Rio Repeated - Church Chat #91, July 30, 2013
The Pope Francis Fan Club - Church Chat #90, July 12, 2013
A Priest Forever - Church Chat #89, June 21, 2013
People of Good Will - Church Chat #88, May 30, 2013
Urgency - Church Chat #87, May 6, 2013
Trickledown Papacy - Church Chat #86, April 16, 2013
Selection of a Pope - Church Chat #84, March 10, 2013
If I Only Knew Then - Church Chat #82, February 4, 2013
Suicide - Church Chat #81, January 16, 2013

2012 Essays

'TIS NOT THE SEASON - Church Chat 80, December 17, 2012
Lunch - Church Chat 79, November 17, 2012
Revolution - Church Chat 78, October 29, 2012
Democracy - Church Chat 77, October 15, 2012
Religious Liberty - Church Chat 76, September 28, 2012 - Church Chat 74, August 20, 2012
Feelings - Church Chat 72, July 10, 2012
Conscience - Church Chat 71, June 16, 2012
The Butler Did Not Do It - Church Chat 70, June 2, 2012
The Vatican Catholic Church - Church Chat 69, May 17, 2012
Schism - Church Chat 67, April 25, 2012
Fear - Church Chat 67, April 16, 2012
Holy Week - Church Chat 66, April 5, 2012
Church, Inc. - Church Chat 64, March 1, 2012
Loyalty to ? - Church Chat, February 16, 2012
The New World - Church Chat #62, February 6, 2012
Big Stuff, Little Stuff - Church Chat #60, January 20, 2012

2011 Essays

Resolutions - Church Chat of December 29, 2011
New Liturgy Christmas - Church Chat of December 12, 2011
Doctrine versus Mission - Church Chat of November 25, 2011
The Diocese of Penn State - Church Chat of November 15, 2011
The Episcopal Woodshed - Church Chat of October 29, 2011
The Global South Model for All Catholicism? - Church Chat of October 18, 2011
Prophets With a Smile - Church Chat of October 4, 2011
Choices - Church Chat of September 20, 2011
There's Gotta Be More - Church Chat of September 5, 2011
Gaps - Church Chat of August 7, 2011

2010 Essays

What If It's Narcissism? - Church Chat of November 24, 2010

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