We live in a society in which admitting one’s own sins is seen as a sign of weakness.
What the Pope has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26).
These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?
The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.
Not a New Word
In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already.
The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.
Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.
Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.
The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.
Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?
Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.
Leonardo De Chirico, theologian, evangelical pastor and Director of the Reformanda Initiative.