The Reform We Need

Benedict Waves

Amidst of all the joys of a new pope and my continuing wonder at the smooth transition effected by cardinals who pray deeply and follow a centuries-old tradition, there was one deep sorrow about the papal transition: being forced to read the repeated slanders in the press about my beloved Pope Benedict XVI.  Media outlets such as The New York Times used the occasion of Benedict’s humble resignation to open up their pages to literally dozens of the worst anti-Catholic bigots in the country, most of them ostensibly “Catholic,” to spew their hate-filled bile.  And beyond the editorials, there were the ostensibly “neutral” news articles, with their odious, unsupported accusations of a “failed” papacy.

Consider, if you will, this small example from a New York Times article that appeared on the morning after Pope Francis’s election: “By choosing the first pope from the New World, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church sent a strong message of change.”  This reporter had no evidence to back-up that assertion of course, because by the time she filed this piece with her editors, none of the cardinals had yet had time to make any comments about the process.  Indeed, she quotes not one single Church official to back up her little meta-narrative.  But the tall tale she has decided to tell only gets more inventive as she proceeds.

“It was not yet clear,” she suggests, “whether Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio … will display the mettle to tackle the organizational dysfunction and corruption that plagued the eight-year papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.”  Organizational dysfunction and corruption that plagued his papacy?  What was her source or evidence for that assertion?  There was none.  It’s clear that, like the theater critic who writes his review on the way to the theater, our reporter made her story-line up in advance, and she was going to stick to it no matter what she found.

All of us who have been interviewed by the press know how this goes: they come to you with their story looking for quotes to fill in the narrative they’ve already crafted, and nothing you can say will dislodge it.  I’ve done a number of interviews during the past several weeks, for both print and television, related to the papal election, and in every one, the meta-narrative was always the same: “Will the new pope make the Church more open?”  My students experienced the same problem.  The press interviewed our students a dozen times, asking them each time about “change” and “up-dating the Church” for “the younger generation.”  And each time, our students spoke passionately and articulately about their love for Benedict and their desire for the Church to be faithful to the Gospel and its own traditions.  Never once did any of this ever make it into print or on the evening news. It didn’t fit the grand narrative.

But all of our New York Times reporter’s comments up to this point were just the usual media “boilerplate.”  The sentence where she really went for the jugular was this: “In many ways, Cardinal Bergoglio … seems to be the anti-Benedict. He is a warm, pastoral figure known as a good communicator, one who might have more success reversing the church’s sagging fortunes than did Benedict ….” Francis is the “anti-Benedict” because he is a “warm, pastoral figure”?  I’ve never met Pope Benedict, but I’ve talked to many people who have, and all of them were immensely impressed by his warmth and gentleness. It is a warmth and wisdom that I have felt in every one of his written works.

But to our Times reporter, in electing Francis: “It seemed almost as if the cardinals were trying again.”  Seemed to whom?  To any of the cardinals?  No.  It “seemed” that way to, well, one man, as it turns out: Alberto Melloni, notorious critic of the Vatican, who said this:

“The reign of the doctors is over, and this is the kingdom of pastors, a move away from theologian pope,” said Alberto Melloni, the author of many books on the Vatican and the Second Vatican Council. “The fact is that he was a minority candidate in the 2005 election, and it was like saying, ‘Last time we went wrong, so let’s pick it up before it’s too late.’”

First of all, to say that with Cardinal Bergoglio “the reign of the doctors is over” is just offensive, since Bergoglio is a Jesuit with very extensive educational credentials and a doctorate from—of all places—a German university. (A bit like Pope Benedict.)  And second, although this Mr. Melloni thinks that the “last time,” the cardinals “went wrong”—a personal opinion he’s entitled to, I suppose, for what it’s worth—there’s absolutely no evidence that the cardinals felt that way.  The lack of any evidence to support the narrative she was creating didn’t stop our intrepid Times reporter, though; she went ahead and found a puppet willing to repeat back to her the words she wanted to hear.  If the issue is reform, how about starting with The New York Times, its high school-level reporters, and their sophomoric sourcing.

As for Pope Benedict: What a mensch!:  a truly amazing, humble man with profound depths of scholarly understanding and pastoral wisdom.  He served the Church selflessly in taking on the papacy when he clearly wished to retire, always living in the shadow of his rock-star predecessor and close, personal friend.  And what a papacy it was!  Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) and Spes Salvi (“Saved in Hope”): two intellectually profound encyclicals, both of which draw us back to the source of the Christian mystery—not to mention Caritas in Veritate, his remarkable addition to the modern social justice tradition.  And then, there is his masterful three volumes on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he attempted to teach the Church once again how to engage in a theological reading of the Scriptures as the authentic word of God, one that while not avoiding the insights of the modern historical-critical methods, would not entirely adopt their philosophical presuppositions either.

Like his predecessor before him, Benedict effectively carried on the authentic reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as opposed to the false “reforms” that so often led the Church astray in the post-conciliar period.  A cardinal archbishop told an audience recently that the liturgy was so abused in the early seventies when he was in seminary that the faithful seminarians would say about the ersatz masses being done by their elders: “Everything in them changes but the bread and wine.” Benedict, by contrast, did a great deal to help realize the original intentions of the liturgical reformers.  Given that the lex orandi (the law of praying) is intimately intertwined with the lex credendi (the law of believing)—which is another way of saying that what we pray is what we believe—reforming the liturgy has always been an absolutely essential way of helping re-form the Church (in the sense of renewing its essence) and helping to re-inform the faithful who are its “living stones.”

Benedict did other things as well, largely unnoticed.  People in the media talk a lot about “reforming the curia,” although most of them have no idea who “the curia” are or what they do. I’m not opposed to reforming the curia, but the truth is that most lay Catholics don’t suffer much from the arcane difficulties in “the curia.” What every Catholic does need, however, is a solid, faithful bishop in his or her diocese, and Benedict has done a remarkably consistent job of elevating good men to these positions.  The “reform” of the Church has begun: we’re rid of a whole slew of ineffective and sometimes scandalous bishops in whose places we have many men of real faith.

What about the priest-pedophile scandals?  Am I missing something, or has no one else noticed that nearly all these cases happened during the “false reform” period after the Second Vatican Council?   Current bishops are simply trying to deal as best they can with horrors that occurred decades ago, before some of them were even priests. As for “reform” in this area, it began when the Vatican started replacing the previous crop of irresponsible, unfaithful bishops who did so much to destroy the credibility of the Church by eschewing the centuries-old spiritual wisdom of their Church about sin (not to mention some very explicit canon laws about disciplining priests) in favor of an O-so-cutting-edge-but-disastrously-wrongheaded model of psychological “therapy.”  These crimes weren’t caused by living faithfully in accord with the Church’s teachings, but by acting in ways totally contrary to them—indeed, at a time when unfaithfulness to the hierarchy was often taken to be a badge of honor and during an age of so-called “sexual liberation” when breaking previously-established “boundaries” was taken to be an act of heroic un-discipline.

As for the reform we need now, Cardinal Dolan got it just about right when he told an interviewer: “I have no doubt the Holy Father will call each and every Catholic to reform his or her life.”  The Church is certainly in need of reform.  And as “progressives” never tire of saying: “We are the Church.”  If so, then reform of the Church means reform of ourselves.

The Church is always in need of reform because she is made up of sinners who are all—every last one of them—in need of Christ’s redeeming love and forgiveness.  There will be no “perfect” Church until Christ returns.  As for popes, none has been quite as bad as the first one, Peter, who when Christ was at his lowest point and in deepest need, denies three times that he even knew the Lord.  Could there be any more grievous sin?  Whatever crimes some later popes have committed, they will never quite measure up to that one.  Indeed none of the Twelve remained faithful in Christ’s hour of need.  Who among them was at the trial to defend him?  Not one.  And yet, oddly enough, in spite of that, the Church has continued to grow for over two thousand years.  A very faithful Dominican friar once suggested to me that the quality of the Church’s leadership over the centuries was evidence for the divine guidance of the Church:  given the sort of people who were often in charge, the Church certainly wouldn’t have survived if God hadn’t been protecting it.

The authentic reform movements in Church history have always had at least these two distinctive characteristics:  The first is that they always involved a call to renewed fidelity to Christ, while rejecting the illusions offered by “the world.”  The second was that “reform” couldn’t just be just about my will and my desires.  Indeed, one finds constant warnings within each major reform movement—whether it was Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan, or indeed Jesuit—against “willfulness,” along with frequent exhortations to “humility” and “obedience.”  Why?  Because the “reform” of the Church isn’t primarily about what I want or what I’d like to see done.  Nor is it about what every Tom, Dick, and Harry the press gets ahold of thinks should be done.  We all know how that will turn out:  the reforms I and my friends zealously support are not necessarily the ones you and your friends support.  And when the new pope doesn’t obey the Gospel According to Us, we’ll turn on him, and he’ll become just another hated “obstructionist.”  True reform can’t be achieved that way; it’s merely an extension of the current strife.

Reform is about each of us living the Gospel more faithfully.   And the place for that sort of reform to begin is within me, within my heart; and within you and your heart. Because here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of no matter who is pope or what name he takes or what policies he sets: there can be no “reform” of the Church without the reform of human hearts.  Fortunately, that can begin right here, right now.  Unfortunately, it’s hard.  If it weren’t, everybody would be doing it.

Randall B. Smith

By

Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

  • Joe DeCarlo

    I no longer read or listen to the mainstream media, or Pravda,as I like to call it. I’m only concerned with the church and my spiritual life. We should pray for the church that it can return to the glory days of pre-vatican II, when the seminaries, convents, Catholic schools, churches were full, when there were long lines at confession, when there were very few cafeteria Catholics, when a man like President Obama could never muster 50% of the Catholic vote. These are the issues that I say a rosary for. God Bless Pope Francis I and may he reform the church to its previous status.

  • tom

    Even “Crisis” is filled with bloogers proclaiming the teachings of the RCC are wrong. This magazine needs to weed these commentators out and the bishops need to get rid of the so-called “Catholics” who hate the Church. Start with those in grave sin who hold political office and support abortion…even though they are “personally opposed ” to it. Biden…then Pelosi have to be publicly condemned; otherwise, the bishops become their co-conspirators when they feed these poseurs Holy Communion. It causes grave scandal.

    • Joe DeCarlo

      Yes, that would be a real reform of the church. Condemned, not only public figures, but all those so-called Catholics who are pro-choice, pro gay marriage, birth control,etc. The church needs to distribute tough love.

    • Crisiseditor

      Tom, we can purge the dissenters and doubters or we can convert them. Your job is to evangelize and persuade not condemn and alienate them further. The alternative is to stay in the ghetto and watch as the world goes completely to hell. We’ve convinced people before. We can do it again.

      • tom

        The Church needs a couple of intellectually powerful “bouncers” to throw the baggage out. Those in grave sin who spread scandal in the Church won’t be convinced of their error any more than Lucifer. Daily “comments” by parasites intent on ruing the Church can be read right here, daily. Let them buy a subscription to the Daily Worker. Christ was loving but didn’t hesitate to throw the forked -tongued out of the temple. Timothy Cardinal Weakling’s apparently not up to it, so the search continues for righteous “muscle”. I thought the Church’s excommunication of “Catholics” who voted for Hitler was apt then, and now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.wanat.1 David Wanat

      And did we miss the point about ‘The Church is certainly in need of reform. And as “progressives” never
      tire of saying: “We are the Church.” If so, then reform of the Church
      means reform of ourselves.’

      I think if we lose sight of that we risk being like the pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=23423206 Jason Winchester

      Cardinal Dolan is too busy giving Biden communion and joking with him after Mass to do any sort of public condemning. He’s also too busy going after private gun ownership which the Church has no teaching on, to bother with “gay marriage” which the Church certainly does have teaching on. He does this despite freely admitting that he has no competency regarding crime or the best way to combat it.

  • FernieV

    Thank you for this amazingly lucid analysis on the meta-narrative techniques so often found in the media. Every Catholic should read this!

  • Paul Tran

    Beautifully written !
    I , for one, never took anything the Washington Post nor the NYT has to say seriously. These papers epitomize gutter jounalism and, honestly, to accord them with the term “journalism” is an insult to the profession.
    According to stats, under Pope Benedict, the number of Catholic priests has risen from approx 343,000 to 344,000 worldwide – no small feat when Catholicism has been under venomous attacks from the tyranny of atheism – so Pope Benedict must have done something right.
    Moreover, statistically, the total number of Catholic priests convicted of pedophelia is 0.3% while it’s 0.6 to 0.7% in the general population. These stats, of course, do not absolve priests from the wrongs of pedophilia but clearly show people are often misinformed & misled by the press & media with their liberal agenda.
    Regardless of who is pope, the faithful & every individual must remain true to Christ’s teachings as the article says.

    • John ONeill

      It should also be pointed out that the number of sex molestation charges against public school teachers, the sacred cows of the American State, are almost ten to twenty times that of those against RC priests.

      • jerry

        So, we should treat our priest’s with the same way we do teachers? Last I understood these were supposed to be ordained men of God. When they abused, they were committing spiritual murder.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          not should,did. we should not, but during the time we were getting rid of other traditional notions, your form of clericalism was thrown out in favor of puppet shows and clown masses.

        • tom

          The awful priest pedophilia ended almost 20 years ago. Our public school teachers are arrested weekly, NOW. Their teacher union does nothing to protect the students but rushes to defend the criminals.

    • Bain Wellington

      Paul, according to CARA, in 2005 there were 403,000 priests worldwide in 1985, 404,000 in 1995, 405,000 in 2000, 406,000 in 2005, and 412,000 in 2010. Figures for 2011 will be out soon. The “Benedict effect” will still take some years more before it can be seen.

    • whatsup54321

      Actual cases of priest pedophilia were minimal and are nearly gone these days. As Bill Donahue from “The Catholic League” points out, most of the cases of so-called sexual abuse were when homosexual priests engaged in some sort of sexual activity with male adolescents (mostly “inappropriate touching”). The so-called priest pedofile scandal really was a homosexual scandal in our Church. Let’s call it what it was. (That does not minimize or excuse any of it, of course.)

  • John-O-Neill

    There is no doubt that the American media used the election of a new pope to slander and demonized Benedict XVI in much the same way that American academics slandered the late Pope Pius XII. The American media hates the Catholic Church and always has. The reign of Pope Benedict XVI was an inspirational era for the Church; no pope has written so eloquently and scholarly on the basic catechesis of the Church than Benedict. Benedict was as humble and saintly as the new pope but the American media is using Francis’ humility to blast Benedict. It is time to realize that we Catholics live in a hostile country and that the government of the American State is eager to destroy the Church. We must take our courage from John Paul II and Benedict XVI who lived under similar anti Catholic regimes in Poland and Germany. Do not render to Caesar the things that are God’s.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1306493603 Noreen McEnery DiDonato

      Well said.

    • tom

      Since atheists and “personally opposed” Christians run the government, conscientious objection to much of what our government does must be considered. We shouldn’t send our boys to fight wars the popes declare are “unjust” for beginners. We shouldn’t support public schools that teach immorality, either. Vote their budgets down all the time and oppose bond issues for leaking roofs until they stop their treachery.

  • jcsmitty

    Great article, but I would point out that the Apostle John did not abandon Jesus as the others did. If he wasn’t at the “trial” of Jesus it was probably because he was not a member of the Jewish council and because he was tending to the Blessed Mother. Small point, I know, but he shouldn’t be lumped with the others. My personal opinion is that St. John was the only one of the apostles not martyred as a reward for his loyalty to both Jesus and Mary.

    Of course, we could use a little loyalty today to Christ’s vicar as well. How many Catholics are right in there with the enemies of the church criticizing their priests and the Holy Father?

  • Jackie Durkee

    Thank you for this message. It was absolutely wonderful!! If we want to see the church, country, and society change, this change has to come from true Christians renewing their faith and hearts and living selfless, humble, obedient lives for Jesus Christ. We must all submit to Christ and allow Him to transform us into holy Saints.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1306493603 Noreen McEnery DiDonato

    Professor Smith, As Catholics who love our Holy Father, whomever he may be, we are right to be upset with the vile lies in the press. They will take every opportunity to put their “spin” on reality. We know this and expect it. Nothing changes. The problem is that their “reality” is distorted and very far from a truth they cannot understand. No thought is given to the Holy Spirit who guides the Cardinals who decide on who our new Pope will be. They look at the situation with only human eyes. They cannot comprehend the supernatural. They dismiss the fact that the Catholic Church has survived for 2,000 years. They seem to think that we are interested in their opinions and that somehow we are swayed by them. We see with the eyes of faith which is something they do not possess or understand. Yes, you are completely correct in your assessment. But, we know that the “media” in all its shapes and forms, will never see the truth in a world which sees only humanly and not heavenly.

  • hombre111

    Pretty defensive and every defensive attitude yields to some grain of truth. Pope Benedict was not my favorite pope ever, but he was a good man and a great teacher. Loved reading an encyclical I could actually understand. And I rejoiced at his decision to resign. Having witnessed the long, long, long demise of Pope John Paul II, he could not inflict that kind of damage on the Church. An act of humility you say? Then this is your admission that Pope John Paul was not humble enough to let go, even when he was stumbling and drooling. So, Pope Benedict’s resignation was also a tremendous act of love for the Church.
    I learned from somebody who studied in Rome how small in numbers the Curia really is. Maybe that is part of the problem. Pope John Paul centralized the Church more than ever before, but the bureaucracy was not expanded enough to do a decent job. Great power in the hands of a few. I hope Pope Francis thinks that one over. Surely, there is a better way.

    • fredx2

      As to retirement – You cannot have a one size fits all rule. JP II did enormous service by putting his suffering on display – he showed every suffering person in the world that the Pope was just like them, living with it, struggling with it, bearing the pain. In the past, Popes retreated into the Vatican and you just did not see them as they declined. JP II put it all on display, on TV, and he allowed himself ( the athletic man that he was) to be shown as a bent, crippled shadow of his former self. That was solidarity with every aging person – and every person who ever will age. There was much greatness in this.
      But Benedict, at a different time, made a different decision. Circumstances were different. Benedict realized that enormous challenges were all hitting the church at the same time – curia problems, gay marriage, very serious bioethics issues – the need for evangelization. He made a reasoned judgment that it would be better to step down and let a younger man aggressively address these issues. Because of his health, he would not have been able to. And so the church, right when it needed an active Pope, would have had a declining Pope. So he stepped out of the way.
      No need to play one off against the other. Both were right.

      • hombre111

        At first I looked at Pope John Paul with admiration. The man was teaching us how to die. But then I began to learn about the medical and surgical procedures he was using to extend his life at the same time other people reported about his mental, as well as physical incapacity, and the Vatican efforts to camouflage both. A doctor friend of mine was totally disgusted with what the Pope was allowing his doctors to do. At the same time, I was following what was going on in Rome via my expensive subscription to L’Oservatore Romano. It dawned on me that less and less was going on. The Pope was dragging the Church into his sick-bed.
        Is this part of the papal job-description? Or did he owe the Church more? I think so. But this actor-become-pope could not let go and simply go to God, let alone resign. Reminded me of those aged actors and actresses still starving for the public eye.So, in the end, I was simply disgusted, and resonated with a sarcastic comment addressed to the Pope that appeared somewhere: “Just die, why don’t you?” But that would have taken humility…and guts.

  • Coffie

    Wonderful article. Frankly, I can’t imagine a more remarkable, courageous, and effective pope than our now Pope Benedict Emeritus. In my mind, he is Benedict the Great. One can only wonder how he withstood, with such courage and grace, not only the extremely rigorous schedule, but also the constant pernicious and revolting commentary on his full support of orthodox Catholic teachings. You get a real picture of the ugliness in people’s souls by what they post on the internet. If anyone doubts the existence of evil, of Satan’s minions alive and active in the world, they have only to read over the comments at the bottom of any New York Times or Washington Post article about Pope/ Emeritus Benedict and /or the Catholic Church, priesthood. These are difficult times and important to remember the Way of Christ is not about being popular, but faithful. The exemplary courage and humility of Benedict is an excellent example. My prayer is that Pope Francis will continue with reforms begun so effectively by his noble predecessor.

  • Nanci Keatley

    “What every Catholic does need, however, is a solid, faithful bishop in his or her diocese, and Benedict has done a remarkably consistent job of elevating good men to these positions. The “reform” of the Church has begun: we’re rid of a whole slew of ineffective and sometimes scandalous bishops in whose places we have many men of real faith.”

    We are so grateful to Pope Emeritus Benedict for appointing one of those good men to our diocese. Archbishop Sample was installed yesterday in Portland, and we are looking forward to what he brings to western Oregon!

  • Tony

    Pope Benedict is a brilliant theologian, all of whose works center upon the person of Jesus Christ and the ontological meaning of love. But to say that to a NYT reporter is like talking about quantum physics to a Labrador retriever. Or like talking about gentleness to a scorpion. Meanwhile, the “trouble” that plagued Pope Benedict’s papacy was largely caused by the supreme and insufferable ignorance and malignity of the press. THEY were the ones who called him the Pope’s Rottweiler, and then, having said that to themselves a thousand times, they began to write of him that he was “known as the Pope’s Rottweiler.” It’s as if a thug were to beat you black and blue, and then to criticize you for your shaky legs.

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  • Facile1

    The Roman Catholic Church does not need reform. As anyone can see from the reactions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the unsolicited forgiveness of sin is insult enough.

  • Stella Milam

    A very good article! What happened to truth in jouralism?

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  • fredx2

    Great Article. The NYT was beside itself trying to lable the Benedict Papacy as “failed” or “scandal plagued”. One thing for sure – if the NYT says it was “failed” that means it was successful. if it says it was “scandal plagued”, that means that this Pope cleaned up the scandals.
    The great scandals? that a butler stole some papers. Big deal, Nothing really came of it. The Vatican Bank? It did not meet standards to keep money laundering from happening – but so do 9 of 16 European nations. Not that the Vatican did anything wrong, it was just that others may have been using the bank to launder money. US put ithe Vatican on a list of money laundering countries? But there are 67 other countries on that list. Most reasonable observers say Benedict is responsible for starting a program to clean up all the problems,and they give him high marks.
    The Sex abuse scandals? Pope Francis the other day, told CDF to “act decisively” and to follow exactly the program set up by Benedict.
    As noted, number of priests is up.
    Sounds like a pretty successful Papacy
    I watched CBS coverage of the announcement of the new Pope. Nora O’Donnell announced the new pope, and they gushed over him for about 5 minutes. Then, suddenly, O;Donnell started saying “the new Pope is ULTRA- Orthodox”. She kept saying it, over and over. It seemed as if someone had suddenly told her: call him “ultra orthodox”.

  • sarge628

    Who is forcing you to read the Times?

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