Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Reform—legal and ecclesiastical


Since Benedict XVI announced his vacation of the Petrine Ministry, many commentators have been voicing numerous views about the “need” to reform the Church. While I am sure that many of the motivations for these sentiments have been pure, I wonder if there is clarity about what the speakers really mean when the raise the issue of “reform”. I will address the subject of ecclesiastical reform in a moment after I first offer a comment about legal reform and what makes it different from ecclesiastical reform.

Most contributors and readers of the Mirror of Justice will acknowledge that the law is often the subject of reform. In some instances this reform is the product of desuetude of existing laws because the subject matter addressed by the law no longer exists. As the law is out of date, it is in need of change. So the law is reformed to reflect this. In other circumstances, reform is necessitated because the law must take account of new things—e.g., technological development—that did not exist when the norms addressing the general subject matter were first promulgated. This second circumstance is evident when property rights are discussed in the context of technology and intellectual property. In a third category, the claim for reform comes from elements of society who want to mold society in their image and argue that the law is an engine for social change. An illustration of this would be the move for the law to recognize same-sex marriage. In this context, we see the human intellect being challenged by a strong human will; the will or desire demands that the intellect conform to its yearning. A fourth category illustrating another kind of legal reform is the situation in which the development of norms and their reform reflect a testing of whether the intellectual processes of the original promulgation sufficiently took stock of the intelligible reality necessitating the promulgation of norms in the first place. In this fourth circumstance, the questions dealing with the proposed reform often focus on whether the intellectual process understood well the needs for which the norms were being developed in the first place and whether there is a need to reconsider the justifications, the objectives, or both for the law now.

These circumstances address some of the validations offered for the reform of the law. But what about the Church?

I have been looking over many of the recent claims made by pundits who are asserting that now is the time to “reform” the Church given the papal conclave that is about to begin and given the qualities that are deemed by some as essential for the new pope. I find that while the word “reform” is often employed by these analysts, I doubt that the speakers mean the same thing. For example, I can see that some advocates for “reform” of the Church are interested in changing fundamental teachings of the Church, particularly in the realm of human sexuality. Related to this claim for reform but of a more general nature is the voice that argues that there is a pressing need for “reform” because the Church is less interested today in confessing sins than she is in liberating consciences, if I may borrow from the title of one recent book on the subject. Consequently, the Church’s teachings must reflect this shift. Still, another group sees Church “reform” as mandating dramatic changes to the Petrine Ministry, the office of bishops, and the office of the priesthood. In addition, there are “reformers” who argue that the “institutional Church” must acknowledge the equality of the magisterial office of theologians with the teaching authority of bishops.

In looking over this list of reasons that are used to validate the call for ecclesiastical reform, I realize that each of these categories is not hermetically sealed from the others; in short, different “reformers” may well share some or all of these arguments for reform. However, these “reformers” tend to have one thing in common: they want to change the status of offices and/or amend Church teachings. None of them really acknowledge or discuss the reform of the human person as the one means of reforming the Church, and I think this is essential to any sincere and holy desire for “reform” of the Church. Why do I offer such an argument?

My explanation begins with the reason why Christ came into the world in the first place and founded the Church on the rock, Peter: to save us from our sins. In the world of the present age, we often hear phrases like “social sin” and “the evils of institutions” being identified as the sources of the problems which the world and its people face. This is wrong, because it is the sins of persons and the evils which persons introduce into the institutions they establish that are at the source of the grave difficulties which the Church and the world face. Until this element of intelligible reality is acknowledged as the essential source of any credible claim for reform of the Church, the clarion for transformation will be flawed. So I end today’s posting with a call for prayers that will be of assistance for authentic reform:

The first prayer is for the cardinals who will elect the new pope: may they put aside whatever individual flaws they have—and we all have them—so that they might elect a holy, humble, and wise man who understands well the nature of the Church and the great demands of the Petrine Ministry.

Second, let us pray for the many places in the world where the Church suffers persecution and other threats. In this latter regard of threats, we should pray for the Church in the United States.

Finally, let us pray for our own reform as members of the People of God that we will heed Christ’s teachings that lead us away from sin and strive for the path of virtue and holiness. Surely this last petition will be heard by God who will strengthen us in this holy desire. And with this, true reform of the Church will follow.


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink


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