The meaning of ‘reform’ in the Church

I have been writing about the visible bonds of unity (faith, sacraments, and government) through which the Holy Spirit guides the people of God as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church on her pilgrimage through this world. This has led me to write about the inseparability of the ‘institutional Church’ and the Church as the Body of Christ or his beloved Bride. So it is that we must love the Church whole and entire.

At the same time, as I noted, like any institution made up of sinful human beings, the actual here and now life of the Church is subject to corrupting influences. How should we deal with this aspect of the reality of the Church? What does ‘reform’ really mean in the life of the Church?

Now many people have had the experience of belonging to or working for an institution that is imperfect, but to which they were deeply committed. As a result, they learn to tolerate all manner of disorders for the good of the whole, often struggling to discern the difference between what should be tolerated and what they should work to change.

There are three ways we could look at the question of change in such situations: change of the very nature and purpose of the institution, change of the structure or working of the institution, or change of the membership or people involved in the institution.

Generally, to try to change the very nature and purpose of an institution to which one belongs would involve a certain lack of integrity; if a person was radically at odds with the very nature and purpose of the institution the honest course of action would be to leave and even oppose it from the outside, rather than to try and subvert the institution from its professed aims.

The Church, however, is no mere human institution, but was established by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When any one opposes the very nature and purpose of the Church they are, whether knowingly or unknowingly, setting themselves in opposition to God himself; if they do so from within the Church herself, they act as Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Alas, there are indeed people who follow in the footsteps of Judas.

The proper structure and working of an institution is subordinate to the nature and purpose, but in a purely human institution the structure and working may have been poorly conceived and a member might rightly perceive the problem and work to rectify it.

In the Church the matter is rather more complex. The essential structure and working of the Church has also been established by Jesus Christ and cannot be changed. The distinction between hierarchy, religious, and laity comes from him. The sacrament of Holy Orders and all the other sacraments come from him. The teaching comes from him and much of the Canon Law that governs the working of the Church is rooted in that teaching.

For example, since Christ established an all male priesthood and entrusted the governance of the Church to the priesthood, the final decision making authority in the Church will always be ‘patriarchal’.

At the same time, when we enter more into the details, there is certainly much in the structure and working of the Church that is simply the result of historical circumstances and human decisions. Even here we must be careful because the Holy Spirit is always at work in the life of the Church and divine providence is always at work in the historical circumstances that have shaped the life of the Church. Nevertheless, there are elements in the structure and working of the Church at are open to change and have in fact, of the course of the centuries, and in recent times, been changed.

The Canon Law of the Latin Rite of the Church (to which we belong) was for centuries a body of accumulated legislation until a vast work of synthesis and codification was completed and Pope Benedict XV promulgated the first Code of Canon Law in 1917. Then, already by 1983, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a new revised Code of Canon Law was completed and promulgated by Pope John Paul II.

Finally, though any reform of the structure and working of the Church must be at the service of the mission of the Church. What is that mission? To change people, or better to serve as Christ’s instrument in changing people, changing them from sinners to saints, and so leading them to heaven.

In a purely human institution reform often comes about through a change of personnel, through firing and hiring. Sometimes this needs to be done in the Church. During the course of history bishops have been deposed, priests have been ‘defrocked’, and bishops, priests, or laity have been excommunicated. All this has worked on the principle of cutting off the diseased member for the good of the whole.

Nevertheless, real reform in the Church comes about not by changing the personnel but by the change of the persons themselves, from turning away from sin and turning towards the Lord, by allowing the Holy Spirit to enter in and transform our lives. One saint leads others to holiness; one saint helps others to change their lives. The most important change, however, always begins in the heart, with each individual who in the truth of his heart before God declares, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.