The “Reform of the Reform” is Over

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The take-away from Pope Francis’ trip to Brazil is that the efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to reverse the course of the Second Vatican Council have come to an end. Francis’s papacy, it is now clear, will be about the Restoration of the Reform.

The key evidence for this can be found in his two addresses to church leaders, the first to the bishops of Brazil (BB) on Saturday, the second yesterday to the leadership of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM). The message to the bishops was engage the world, open up the church, and listen to the laity — all central themes of Vatican II.

Francis insisted that the church adapt to dealing with the world in all its diversity.

The scenarios and the areopagi involved are quite varied. For example, a single city can contain various collective imaginations which create “different cities.” If we remain within the parameters of our “traditional culture,” which was essentially rural, we will end up nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit.” (BB)

For that reason, he sharply criticized the “Pelagian” temptation to restore that traditional culture.

In dealing with the Church’s problems, a purely disciplinary solution is sought, through the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful. In Latin America it is usually to be found in small groups, in some new religious congregations, in tendencies to doctrinal or disciplinary “safety.” Basically it is static, although it is capable of inversion, in a process of regression. It seeks to “recover” the lost past. (CELAM)

Against such an impulse to turn back the clock, Francis warned, “Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the Church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community.” (BB)

Just as the church needs to recognize diversity in the world, so it should embrace diversity within itself: “The Church in Brazil needs more than a national leader; it needs a network of regional ‘testimonies’ which speak the same language and in every place ensure not unanimity, but true unity in the richness of diversity.” (BB)

Rather than pumping up the authority of the episcopal magisterium, Francis extolled the laity as a source of spiritual power and insight.

In practice, do we make the lay faithful sharers in the Mission? Do we offer them the word of God and the sacraments with a clear awareness and conviction that the Holy Spirit makes himself manifest in them? (BB)

The Bishop has to be among his people in three ways: in front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can sniff out new paths. (CELAM)

Francis expressed his world view in a striking slap at a man beatified by Benedict three years ago, telling the Brazilian bishops, “Before all else, we must not yield to the fear once expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman: “… the Christian world is gradually becoming barren and effete, as land which has been worked out and is become sand.” The Latin American pope wants no part of this 19th-century anxiety, widely shared today by contemporary Catholic traditionalists of the northern hemisphere.

To be sure, Francis did not omit to offer some conventional warnings about temptations at the progressive end of the Catholic spectrum — of Marxist categorization, of turning the church into another NGO, of psychologizing the faith. But nothing in what he told the bishops suggested anything like his predecessors’ fear of leftist barbarians within the gates.

In an interview with NCR’s John Allen last week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia allowed as how “the right wing of the church…generally have not been really happy about his election.” After Rio, they’ve got to be even less happy. The Spirit of Vatican II is back.

  • Viva el Concilio Vaticano Segundo!

  • tony

    Yawnn…this stuff gets so old. First, the church is the most diverse organization in the world…the idea that some old white guy who hasn’t had a new political idea since 1968 should be telling the church to embrace diversity is silly. Two, the pope said no women priests. Something you failed to mention in your Marxist “I see what I want to see in order to effect the ends I want to effect” session. Three, the words of vatican 2 completely contradict the direction you say the spirit of vatican 2 says…..lets try Lumen Gentium 25 “This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra”

  • Thank you Mark for encouraging article

    “Reform of reform” agenda here:

  • Joe

    Oh goodie! Now all of those clown Masses and rainbow vestments and dancing in the aisles can proliferate. Our Lord will be so pleased at the casualness and irreverence and people-centered worship.

  • robert


    Are you Catholic?? The reason I ask is that if you are , I don’t understand how you can come to the conclusions you come to. It seems as though you take things out of context. I say seem because I readily admit I could misunderstand the level of discussion your having. However, as Catholic sitting in the pews for fifty years, I don’t see any break in substance or really much in tone between Francis and his two immediate predecessors. You can parse these statement ad infinitum but the bottom line is what you see and experience in the Church. And, while there has been a reigning in of some liturgical and even pastoral abuses, the Church saw enormous growth in new cultures and growth in terms of laity participation under and supported by both John Paul II and Benedict. You essay seems to suggest both of these two latter popes were tied to cultural bounds of Catholicism and hierarchical rigidity. But to me you seem to confuse demands for doctrinal adherence with hierarchical and insistence on hierarchical control. To say that John Paul II is somehow related to a 19th Century effete anxiety seems completely ignorant of anything Blessed John Paul II was about. I sure would appreciate some references to a real distinction between Popes John Paul II and Benedict. I see no real distinction. Their styles are completely different, and the emphasis of each is different. They each had different priorities for their time. But a reversion back to the “Original” Vatican II reform really nothing. There will be no change under Pope Francis regarding the direction of the impact of Vatican II. Despite the so called reforms of the Vatican II reforms, the laity has flowered , the Church in Asia and Africa has mushroomed. And for all this talk of tampering down Vatican II, both the geographical and laity participation has come from very traditional believers! Not Traditionalists, but more orthodox , loyal Catholics. So your article just doesn’t resonate with me as you seem to be an outsider trying to comment on a game you don’t play. I could be wrong but I would be interested to see how the last three Popes are really different in terms of real Catholic doctrine. Differences in the language of pastoral care will be different but that is not the type of change liberal, cafeteria Catholics are looking for, the type of change I think you are referring to. Thank you

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