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2001 And Beyond: Preparing The Church For The Next Millennium

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

America, June 21-28, 1997, Copyright 1997 by America Press, All rights reserved

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. The text published here was delivered at the Fordham University Law School on May 6, as the 1997 John Courtney Murray Lecture, sponsored by America.

For almost 2,000 years Christianity has intimately touched the personal lives of millions of individuals, whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, famous or unknown. It has had an impact on family life, economic transactions, political alliances, artistic achievements and on the way in which we understand the meaning of life and human purpose. It has formed cultures and changed the course of history. Its teachings touch areas as private as sexual fantasies and as public as nuclear war.

Christianity has accomplished this not as an abstract philosophy but as a community of believers who are organized as a church. This community acknowledges Jesus Christ as its teacher, redeemer and source of unity. For almost 2,000 years it has tried to reflect on his word, listen to his Spirit, worship his Father and continue his work on earth building the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace and love. The church is a community of sinners called to be a community of love and service united around the table of the Lord.

During its history, the church has been constantly changing in response to a changing environment, new members, new leadership and new goals. If it is going to respond appropriately to the present and the future, it will have to continue to change. For the church to be true to its tradition, it must continue to change. How do we change the church to make it ready for the next millennium? The answers are not easy or clear. I do not claim to know the answers, and I am suspicious of those who do claim certitude, whether they be Vatican officials or members of the U.S. Catholic group known as Call to Action. While many current practices in the church could be improved, we should admit that most reform proposals or strategies have downsides.

As we approach the end of the second millennium, there are a number of issues facing the church that have paralyzed its ability to face the future. Let me examine three of the most controversial: sex, ministry and the hierarchy. Anything I say is subject to discussion, debate and correction. In addition, I speak here as a social scientist describing the impact of these controversies on the church, not as a theologian discussing morality or doctrine. As a social scientist, I do not deny the spiritual and theological character of the church. I am simply trying to use my professional training to gather and analyze data that may help the church in its self-understanding.


I have been using a computer program to search through 300 newspapers and magazines on the Internet, using keywords like "Catholic," "Vatican," "pope," "bishop" and "priest." After searching awhile, the program asked if I would like to add the word "sex," since this word came up so often in news stories about Catholics. Media coverage of the church often focuses on sex. In reality, the Catholic hierarchy talks more about social justice today than about sex; but reporters, like most of us, find sex much more interesting than social justice.

The real story here is that in the Catholic Church the battle about sex is over. On questions of birth control, masturbation, premarital sex, divorce and remarriage, the hierarchy has lost most of the faithful. The public opinion polls are clear, not just in the United States, but in Europe and most other countries.

While a few priests still harangue their dwindling congregations about sex, most remain silent. They neither defend the church's teaching nor attack it. Many priests are uncertain what to say; others feel that the church has no credibility on sexual issues, so they remain silent. Preachers also fear that anything they say could be misconstrued and reported to the bishop. For similar reasons, priests who are moral theologians do not want to specialize in sexual ethics. As a result, the silence from the clergy on sexual matters is deafening. We know from polls that most priests agree more with their people than with the Pope on some sexual issues. In this vacuum, the laity are muddling through, making up their own minds without much help.

Even the Vatican appears to have thrown in the towel. The Pontifical Council for the Family issued in February a vade mecum for confessors, entitled "Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life," that repeats the ban on artificial contraception but cautions against asking too many questions about birth control [text in Origins, 3/13; see Am., 4/12, p. 3]. It states that "in general, it is not necessary for the confessor to investigate concerning sins committed in invincible ignorance of their evil or due to an inculpable error of judgment...It is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance...even in matters of conjugal chastity."

When the overwhelming percentage of the faithful are "invincibly ignorant," the church had to come up with a pastoral solution that fit reality. What the church has done is to adopt the equivalent of the "Don't ask, don't tell" rule. The priests have been told not to ask, and the laity have decided not to tell.

Those tempted to rejoice at this situation should recall that with the changes in sexual attitudes have come increases in pornography, extramarital sex, date rape, sexual activity among children, illegitimacy, abortion, adultery, divorce and sexually transmitted diseases, to say nothing of broken hearts. While earlier studies documented the negative effects of sexual repression, today we see the effects of the sexual revolution. While earlier studies documented the impact of dysfunctional families on children, more recent studies are documenting the negative effects of divorce on children. Children appear to be damned if you do and damned if you don't.

That the church has not had a clear, convincing and pastoral message to help people through the sexual revolution is tragic for both the church and the world. On sex, however, the battle is over; and there are no winners.

Divorce statistics also indicate that Catholic marriages are failing at nearly the same rate as others, and Catholics are marrying again. While the American bishops have made the annulment process as simple and painless as they can, Rome constantly complains about the numbers of annulments granted in the United States despite the fact that these numbers have only scratched the surface of the problem. In addition, the annulment process is coming under attack from those who feel it is dishonest to say that a marriage never took place.

Without an annulment, divorced and remarried Catholics are barred from Communion. This is painful for the individuals involved and a scandal to their children, especially now that practically everyone who goes to Mass goes to Communion. No matter how much you try, there is no way you can explain to a child why the church won't let his or her mother go to Communion. What comes through to the child's mind is that "the church is telling me that my mother is a bad person."

The same is true if a parent is not Catholic. This is not a small problem. Millions of Catholic children are growing up in families where one or more parents cannot receive Communion. If millions of American Catholic children are forced to choose between loyalty to their church or to their parent, the church will lose. If divorced and remarried Catholics do not feel at home in the church, if ecumenical families do not feel at home in the church, we will be in danger of losing not only them but their children and future generations.


I have heard it asserted that over half the Catholics in the world do not have the Eucharist available to them on a given Sunday because there is no priest available. For these communities it is impossible to observe Jesus' command to "Do this in memory of me." At the same time, Protestant churches and religious sects are making large inroads into traditional Catholic areas such as Latin America and the Hispanic community in the United States. It is the more flexible and evangelical communities that are expanding at the fastest rate.

Dean Hoge of The Catholic University of America has shown in his studies that the vocation crisis is a myth. There are plenty of young people who are willing to serve the church as diocesan priests, but they also want to be married. Current church policy means that parishes will become larger while being served by fewer priests. The impact of the shortage is greatest in small towns and rural areas, where parishes are far apart and cannot be consolidated as they can in urban and suburban areas.

Already in most parishes, religious education and sacramental preparation have been handed over to the laity. What spiritual direction and pastoral counseling there is will soon be done by the laity. Baptisms and marriages will be turned over to deacons, which means that they will not be celebrated within a Eucharistic context. Your chances of dying with a priest at your bedside are almost nil. You will be lucky to be anointed if you are in the hospital when the priest makes one of his rare visits. The sacraments -- an essential aspect of the Catholic Church -- will become rarer.

Radical feminists could argue that God knows what She is doing, because church policy on celibacy is declericalizing the Catholic Church at an unprecedented speed. The laity -- in most cases laywomen -- are taking over more and more functions previously thought to be the prerogative of the priest. The celibacy rule may very well do what the Reformation could not -- namely, declericalize and desacramentalize the Catholic Church. The celibacy rule will force the laity to stop seeing the church as a full-service system in which they are passive recipients of services and the clergy are the service providers. We are rapidly becoming a self-service, do-it-yourself church.

Meanwhile, the hierarchy is ignoring its own self-interest by refusing to ordain married men. Given today's church structures, married priests would tremendously increase the power of the bishops. As every employer knows, the larger the labor pool, the easier it is to hire and fire employees. Likewise, an employee with a family to support is more docile than one without. With a shrinking labor pool, bishops today are finding it impossible to remove and replace priests who are incompetent or disruptive -- save for those priests who go to jail!

We often forget that the Catholic Church already has a married clergy. The Ukrainian Church and other Eastern churches in union with Rome have had married clergy for centuries. Even in the Roman rite, married Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism have been ordained. It is only married Latin-rite Catholics who cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church.

In some parts of the world, the celibacy rule is openly violated. The village priest has his woman and his children; everybody knows it; it is simply ignored by the bishop. In other places, some priests live secret lives. The bishop looks on these priests as weak and sinful, but as long as the affair does not become public, he hopes that the priests will eventually repent.

Despite the sexual scandals that have recently afflicted the American church, priests in the United States practice celibacy better than any other group of priests in the world. Partly this is due to the Irish origins of our early clergy, but it is also due to a respect for law and an abhorrence of duplicity that is part of the American culture. When Americans do not like a law, they change it; they do not normally violate it or ignore it.

On the other hand, for many non-American churchmen, it is much worse to call for the abolition of the celibacy rule than to violate it. Violation indicates weakness, which is only human. To attack the celibacy rule is to question church authority, which is not only disobedient but impertinent.

The ordination of women is one of the most hotly contested issues in the U.S. Catholic Church today; and as women in other parts of the world become better educated, this controversy will spread. The percentage of American and European Catholics supporting the ordination of women rises yearly, while the Pope comes within a hairsbreadth of saying that the teaching against the ordination of women is infallible. I believe that the only reason the Pope has not declared this teaching infallible is that the Vatican realizes that to do so would put the whole question of infallibility up for debate. As long as infallibility is kept in the closet and not used, Catholics don't worry about it. If it were used to define a teaching opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, then the doctrine of papal infallibility would be put at risk.

For growing numbers of American women, the church is seen as an institution riddled with a sexism that does not take their concerns seriously. Not only ordination but birth control, altar girls, lay preaching, inclusive language and fair treatment of lay and religious staff are seen as issues that particularly touch women. In the 19th century, the church lost European working-class males because it stood with the status quo against the inevitable movement of history. There is a serious risk that the church will lose women in the next century the way it lost European working-class men in the last.

The growing alienation of women from the church is extremely serious because it is women who, as mothers and teachers, pass on the faith to the next generation. This is a fact unrecognized by both church leaders and feminists. Women already have a vast amount of power in the church because as mothers and teachers they determine what the next generation of Catholics will actually believe. At best, the priest has 10 minutes to preach once a week. Women interact with children and teach them constantly.

If women are mad at their pastors, if they are angry with the hierarchy, if they are anticlerical, the next generation of men and women will be anticlerical. To expect priestly or religious vocations from families with anticlerical mothers is ridiculous. The church cannot survive without the active support of women.

The Hierarchy

In a recent article in America (2/22), the Rev. Andrew Greeley argued convincingly that the Catholic people are not as divided as many people say. The conservative wing of the Catholic community is in fact very small, though very vocal. The serious division is not within the community as a whole but between the people and the hierarchy. The gap between bishops and their people, and between bishops and their priests, is growing around the world. Every continent has seen complaints about the appointment of bishops who are out of touch with their people.

The Vatican is using the litmus tests of birth control, priestly celibacy and women's ordination (and liberation theology in Latin America) to screen the undesirable and disloyal from consideration as candidates for the episcopacy. Vocal defenders of papal positions are promoted even if they are unpopular with their people and the other bishops. Limiting the candidate pool in this way, while at the same time the number of priests is declining, means that it will be more and more difficult to find bishops who have the intellectual or pastoral skills needed to lead their people.

Many bishops blame this division in the church on dissenters and the press. In fact, the hierarchy itself must take much of the blame for the low state of its credibility. During the last three decades, time and time again prominent cardinals have attacked proposed reforms as disastrous for the church. Religious liberty, ecumenism, collegiality, meat on Friday, vernacular liturgies, giving the cup to the laity, Communion in the hand and altar girls were fought and delayed by members of the hierarchy who condemned the proponents of these changes as people who wanted to destroy the church. Throughout history, the hierarchy has often been its own worst enemy. It has condemned or silenced theologians (like John Courtney Murray, S.J.) who were later honored by the church. These rash condemnations not only alienated liberals but also conservatives, who felt betrayed when the bishops finally changed their minds. With this record of first condemning and then switching, it is no surprise that people do not take the church's current condemnations seriously. The books of condemned theologians become instant best sellers.

Some liberal Catholics optimistically hope that the next conclave will produce a pope more to their liking. I see no evidence to support that hope other than the fact that the Holy Spirit can always surprise us. John Paul II has already appointed 83 percent of the College of Cardinals and the percentage will continue to increase with the next consistory. These cardinals are not going to elect a pope who rejects John Paul II's legacy. The next pope may differ in style, but not in substance.

But since diocesan cardinals make up 73 percent of the College of Cardinals, we may see a push in the conclave for a pope who would reduce the power of the Roman Curia and strengthen the power of local bishops. But once elected, few popes have supported decentralization. Thus we may even get a pope who will make his immediate predecessor look like a liberal.

Reform Strategies

Given the current state of the church, what are appropriate strategies for those advocating reform? There are seven possibilities.


Schism is an ecclesial strategy with a long history. In our time, it is a strategy that has more appeal for conservatives than liberals -- except for Bishop George Stallings, a pastor in Washington, D.C., who started his own black Catholic Church after being ordained by an Old Catholic bishop. Liberals tend to join an already existing Protestant community if they break with the hierarchy. This is clearly an option for priests who want to get married and for women who want to be ordained.

Some would argue that it is only through schism that dissenters get respect from the hierarchy. As long as dissenters stay in the church they are treated like pariahs, but schismatics such as the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre have been wooed at the highest level. After you have been in schism long enough, you are honored and loved as separated brothers and sisters even if you hold more extreme views than those of Catholic dissenters.

Despite its superficial attractions, I do not believe that schism is a viable option. Once a schism starts, it can take centuries to heal. In addition, schismatic movements tend to splinter uncontrollably into more and more factions. Playing the schismatic card would be disastrous for church unity and church reform.

Play the Prophet

A second strategy is to stay within the church and play the prophet denouncing abuse and agitating for reform. This is a strategy that is attractive to both liberals and conservatives who feel inspired by the Spirit. They are even willing to suffer persecution for their beliefs, and opposition is often considered a sign that they are on the right track.

Many pseudo-prophets, however, easily become convinced that their solutions and only their solutions will save the church. Such prophets are strong-willed and opinionated and denounce as closed to the Spirit anyone who does not agree with them. Liberal prophets follow an ecclesiology inspired by Saul Alinksy, while conservative prophets opt for an ecclesiology inspired by Joe McCarthy. Thus liberal prophets organize pressure groups, circulate petitions and call press conferences, while conservative prophets make enemy lists, denounce their opponents and get them fired from their church jobs.

Both liberal and conservative prophets bring secular political models to their thinking about the church. The liberals impose a democratic model on the church, despite the empirical evidence we read every morning in the newspaper that democracy does not work very well. The conservatives impose a corporate or monarchical model on the church, despite centuries of evidence that it has failings. I see little evidence that liberal or conservative prophets are following a strategy that will lead to a successful conclusion.

While I have met prophets I admire, I have met very few I would want to see running the church or whom I would want to invite to dinner.

Public Conformity, Private Independence

A third strategy is that of the son in the Gospel parable who, when asked by his father to work in the field, said yes but then didn't do it. This is the strategy of public conformity but private independence. Under this strategy one is always agreeable, but then one does what one wants. Such a strategy is adopted by powerless people who have no respect for authority -- people who are slaves, servants or exploited workers, who live under colonial domination or who are women in a patriarchal culture. Some might call this an Italian strategy, but I believe that it is alive in many parts of the world (like Africa) where governments have limited legitimacy. This is a strategy adopted by priests who say one thing to their bishop and another thing in the confessional to penitents.

In a church where all decision-making authority is held by the hierarchy, it is not surprising that public conformity and private independence is an attractive strategy to many. From an American perspective, however, this is not a healthy strategy. In our culture, people do not like to admit to powerlessness. Nor are we comfortable saying one thing and doing another.


Most Americans prefer a strategy of silence to one of deceit. These Catholics prefer to avoid discussions of church reform, not because they agree with the hierarchy but because they do not like conflict. They do not see the church as a debating society or a political arena for resolving disputes. They see it as a place to pray and worship, to get refueled to face the trials of everyday life and to do acts of charity. They have enough fighting already at work and home and do not come to church to have more fights. Just as one learns not to raise certain topics at the family Thanksgiving dinner, they do not want certain topics raised at church meetings. If fights occur in parish committees or organizations, these Catholics will flee to the back pews and will not be heard from again.

Many in the clergy adopt this strategy of silence because they do not want to get caught in the middle of a firefight, especially on issues over which they have no control. Liberals following this strategy loudly proclaim the church's social teaching but are silent on many internal church issues. Conservatives will follow exactly the opposite strategy. Many historians, Scripture scholars and other academics follow this strategy by avoiding topics of controversy and doing their research and teaching in areas away from the ecclesial battlefields. Likewise, smart parish staffs keep their heads down and work on programs of education, ecumenism, justice, social outreach and music. Liturgists, on the other hand, are forced to walk though a minefield and rarely come out unscathed.

Christian Witness in the World

A fifth strategy of church reform is Christian witness in the world. In this century, I would point to Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. Instead of trying to reform the church ad intra, they just went out and did what had to be done ad extra: they fed the hungry, cared for the sick, clothed the naked and, in the case of Dorothy Day, agitated for political and economic reform.

While others worried about church politics, church structures and church documents, these two women and millions of other Catholics simply lived the Gospel by working or volunteering for programs aimed at helping the poor and making the world a better place. They witnessed to the Gospel in the world with their time, energy and money. Their witness is so loud and so clear that they remind the rest of us of what really matters. Such a witness is powerful and compelling. It is said that officials in the New York Archdiocesan Chancery never wanted to get into a conflict with Dorothy Day because they did not want to go down in history for persecuting a saint.

Christian witnesses also include pastoral ministers, teachers, health care workers and others who seek in Catholic, private and public organizations to serve God's children and not just make money. Christians witness to their faith by bring their values into the workplace, the political arena and their families. In their everyday work and family life they make choices motivated by the Gospel and inspired by the Spirit.

Do All That You Can

A sixth strategy adopts the motto: "Do all that you can." This is the strategy used by many American bishops who study church documents and canon law and then use every possible provision, ambiguity, or loophole to respond in a pastoral way to difficult situations without violating church doctrine or law. These bishops, for example, will maintain a well-staffed tribunal to grant annulments, will appoint women as chancellors or to other cabinet-level positions. They will talk about the need to reach out with "pastoral sensitivity" to those alienated from the church and will call for "study" of certain issues without calling for change. This is the strategy of such loyal churchmen as Archbishop John Quinn, the former archbishop of San Francisco, and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

This strategy is also practiced on the parish level, where priests reach out and listen sensitively to the members of their congregation. The pastor is often the one, for example, who has to remind the laity that at least one lector on Sunday should be a woman and that it is disastrous to have only men in the sanctuary, even when this happens just by accident.

Intellectual Foundations

A seventh strategy pursues a more long-term agenda. It is the hard work of intellectual study and research. Decades ago, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis decried the poverty of American Catholic intellectual life. Research is still not honored in many Catholic seminaries, nor is it honored in all Catholic colleges and universities. Few Catholic foundations will fund research, and Vatican officials look with suspicion on theologians with new ideas.

The Catholic Church spends a smaller percentage of its budget on research and development than any other multinational corporation in the world. Most members of the hierarchy see no need for serious research and development because they think the church already has all the answers and a perfect product. Nor do they believe in experimentation or market testing. That we are losing the battle of ideas is not surprising because we do not take this battle seriously.

A strategy of research and scholarship was followed in the 1940's and 1950's by Catholic intellectuals like Joseph Jungmann, Bernard Lonergan, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others whose work paved the way for the Second Vatican Council. In the long run, there is no substitute for study and research if we are to move beyond sound bites and slogans. This is not going to be easy, because we cannot simply memorize the answers in the catechism. Nor can we simply go back to Thomas Aquinas for the answers we need today. We must examine our tradition carefully and thoroughly with the same tools we have learned to apply to Scripture. We must look at the historical and cultural context, the literary styles and the place of an author in a developing tradition.

We must also imitate the great thinkers of the past, not by repeating their words, but by doing what they did. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas took the best intellectual thinkers of their age -- for Augustine it was the Neoplatonists, for Thomas it was the recently recovered works of Aristotle -- and used them to explain Christianity to their contemporaries. Our job is not to simply quote Augustine and Thomas, but to imitate them by taking the best intellectual tools of our time and using them to explain the faith and its ethical and pastoral implications to our contemporaries.

Great strides have been made in doing this by Scripture scholars and historians, the first two sciences freed by the Vatican to do their jobs with contemporary methods of scholarship. What is most worthwhile in contemporary Catholic theology is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and historical studies. Positive developments in liturgical theology, for example, owe much to the historical research of scholars like Joseph Jungmann. Likewise Scripture scholarship is now the starting point of theological research into almost any topic.

Systematic theology and moral theology have been much less successful because of their need for a philosophical foundation. The mere mention of the word philosophy is enough to send any Catholic audience running for the nearest exit. Ever since the Enlightenment, the church has fought a rearguard battle defending Scholasticism. That battle has been lost, although you would never know it from reading the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued in 1992. The collapse of Scholasticism means that the church today does not have an adequate basis for developing a contemporary systematic and moral theology. Nor is there a readily available secular philosophical system that it can use. While Augustine had Cicero and Plotinus as dialogue partners, and Thomas had Aristotle, we have no such philosophical giants with whom to dialogue. Contemporary philosophy is in disarray.

As a result, theology is often based on the personal authority of the author or of the persons quoted. Many theologians, including the writers of the catechism, practiced "cafeteria Catholicism" by selectively quoting from Scripture, papal writings, church councils and the Fathers of the church. If a particular passage supports their argument, they quote it; if it does not they ignore it. If theologians simply quote Augustine and Thomas, they will not get in trouble; but if they attempt to imitate them by trying to explain the faith using the best of contemporary intellectual tools, they can get in trouble. Thus Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., (1881-1955) was silenced for mixing science and religion, and moral theologians who use psychology or social analysis are suspect.

The Catholic theologian who best grappled with the philosophical grounding of theology in this century was the Canadian, Bernard Lonergan, S.J. (1904-84), although I find his writing a sure cure for insomnia and his unique terminology often confusing. Lonergan's attempt to develop a generalized empirical method that can be applied to every theoretical and scholarly discipline is critically important. Only when we understand how the methodologies of theology, history, science and philosophy are instances of a fundamental cognitive pattern will we break out of the black holes of relativism and dogmatism and be able to have intelligent dialogue in the church and with the world.

But the work of study and the quest for greater understanding is not to be limited to scholars. If the laity want to promote church reform, they must do their homework. If they want to be intelligent participants in the life of the church, they must study. American Catholics today spend more time doing physical exercises than spiritual exercises; they excel in professional expertise, but know little about Scripture; their children have perfect complexions and teeth, but do not know the meaning of life. They know the episodes of "Star Trek" better than the stories of the Bible.

There are a number of theologically educated lay Catholics, but a significant percentage of them are ex-priests, ex-seminarians, or ex-religious. They received their initial education and spiritual formation as religious or seminarians. This cadre of former priests and religious is aging along with their colleagues who stayed. At the time when we will need an educated laity most, they will pass from the scene along with the current generation of priests and religious.

Laypersons who do want to dedicate their lives to ministry find it difficult to finance their educations and find jobs. There is little indication that the laity at large is willing to pay fair salaries to the lay staff that must take over the pastoral ministries of priests in parishes and chanceries. In short, we should not expect salvation to come from the laity unless larger numbers are willing to take Christianity as seriously as they do the stock market and the Internet.


I fear that my presentation is overly pessimistic, because my analysis has focused on problem areas in the church. Hope is a hard virtue to practice today, but there are clearly signs for hope. We must remember that with Vatican II we made a quantum leap from the 16th to the 19th century. The council legitimized religious liberty, collegiality, ecumenism, liturgical reform, a concern for social justice and a greater role for the laity. This was an extraordinary achievement that cannot be rolled back. These reforms are deeply rooted at the parish level and are now part of our Catholic identity.

The reforms of the council have not been reversed (except perhaps collegiality). Rather, the reform movement has been stopped, so that while we are out of the 16th century, we are still stuck in the 19th century. That this has happened is not surprising to any social scientist or student of history. The post-Vatican period was both creative and chaotic, and large institutions do not deal well with chaos or creativity.

The Catholic Church, like IBM, was too big, with too many bureaucratic rules, to respond well to a changing environment. Just as many point to the personal computer, which IBM helped to create, as the source of the company's problems, so many point to the Second Vatican Council as the cause of the church's problems. The problem, however, was not the PC or the council but the inability of IBM and the Vatican to adapt their management styles to a new and rapidly changing environment.

The church must be committed to the task of continuous critical renewal. This is a dynamic process of deliberate self-constitution in which the church holds itself to its ideals and interacts with the world by responding to the needs of the times. In the history of the church, innovation has rarely come from the hierarchy. It has come from saints, scholars and religious orders, or it has been imposed from outside. Historically, however, it is the hierarchy which legitimizes innovations by accepting them into the institution. IBM’s shrinking bottom line forced it to change its ways. History will inevitably also force change on the church, but it will take longer than many may want.

How does a reformer, then, respond to a period when reforms are going to come slowly, if at all? I am afraid that the only answer is: with hard work, patience and love. The reforms desired by many in the church are not likely to occur in our lifetimes. Why should we be surprised or shocked by this fact? We have come to recognize in recent years that impossibility of creating political or economic utopias. We have come to realize that we cannot solve every problem faced by our children or families. We cannot even reform ourselves to be the people we aspire to be. But that does not mean we stop trying.

The human project requires intellectual, moral and religious conversion (to use the language of Bernard Lonergan), and such conversion is not easy. To be attentive, to be intelligent, to be reasonable, to be responsible and to be loving requires hard work. It is easier to be inattentive, thoughtless, unreasonable, irresponsible and selfish. Our personal, group and cultural biases keep us from adopting a higher viewpoint from which to see new solutions to our problems.

If we are to be true to our Christian faith, love must be at the root of any strategy we adopt. A strategy of berating and isolating the hierarchy is not only unproductive; it is un-Christian. A strategy of berating and isolating dissenters is not only unproductive; it is un-Christian. If our opponents do not believe that we love them, then we have failed as Christians. Jesus did not go to the cross shaking his fist and cursing his opponents. He went peacefully, witnessing to the truth with dignity, asking his Father to forgive those who crucified him.

It is not easy to convince a bishop that you love him but think his decisions are misguided. It is not easy to convince a theologian that you love him or her, but think his or her writings are misguided. It is even more difficult to ask someone who is being oppressed to love his or her oppressor. But we are called to witness to the world that we are Christians by our love, and not to scandalize the world by showing we are Catholics by our fights.

There are no political models to guide us in a strategy of active and consistent love. Only a few people in this century, like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Nelson Mandela have shown that it is possible to love one's opponents while struggling for truth against injustice. Cardinal Bernardin's call for loving and respectful dialogue was met with suspicion by both the right and the left. Can we Catholics fail to embrace love and reconciliation as a strategy for internal church politics, when we preach such strategies to national and international communities?

Church history teaches that there are periods of progress when the church responds with intelligence, reason and responsibility to new situations. Periods of decline have also marked the church, when individual and group biases blinded people to reality, hindered good judgment and limited true freedom. Although this is true of any organization or community, what distinguishes the church is its openness to redemption, which can repair and renew Christians as individuals and as a community. Despite their weakness and sinfulness, Christians have faith in the word of God that shows them the way; Christians have hope based on Christ's victory over sin and death and his promise of the Spirit, and Christians have love that impels them to forgiveness and companionship at the Lord's table. The future of the church and any program of authentic reform must be based on such faith, hope and love.

See also