Despite Appearances, “Reform” Has Not Come

How blessedly instructive it has been, following the installation of the first pope from the Americas, Pope Francis, to witness the world’s sheer unaffected delight in this man.  His warmth and simplicity have endeared him everywhere.  Indeed, he has disarmed us all by the spontaneity of his style.

Of course—it needs straightaway to be said—none of this augurs any great or seismic shift in the life of the Church.  It is one thing to shorten a papal Mass or two during Holy Week, something else again to supplant the Sacred Mysteries altogether.  To tweak is one thing, to travesty quite another.  If, in the interest of time, and to the evident relief of the faithful, the length of a liturgy gets reduced, one shouldn’t rush to judgment regarding a long-term secret strategy aimed at rewriting the Creed.

Thus, says Hilaire Belloc, “The moral is, it is indeed, thou shalt not monkey with the Creed.”

Putting a Jesuit in charge may, as some chuckleheaded conservatives warn, leave a crack or two in the cloister, but such cracks are not likely to cause whole structures to implode.  Not if the Holy Ghost has anything to say about it.  So don’t look for radical revisions of the doctrine of the Real Presence.  Don’t read into the papal tea leaves, I’m saying, looming and transmogrifying alterations of the Catholic Thing.  Not on this, or any pope’s watch.

And certainly the Catholic priesthood is not about to be refashioned according to new paradigms of empowerment.  Its solemn mandate to protect and preside over the Mysteries of the Altar will remain entirely undisturbed by the new regime.  These are matters, after all, about which no Catholic, not even His Holiness the Pope, has any business adjudicating in a way that would distort or deny or diminish the Church’s indefectible faith.  I say that because when the Pope on Holy Thursday chose to wash the feet of a couple of women, concededly a pretty startling departure from the immemorial practice of washing only the feet of those who, like the Apostles at the Last Supper, were men, it was seized upon by some, particularly in the secular press, as a signal to the world announcing the Pope’s openness to the idea of inviting women to become priests.  Longtime Vatican watcher Silvia Poggioli, for example, reporting Easter Sunday for NPR on the Pope’s performance to date, positively purred with pleasure at the prospect.  Let us rejoice, she seemed to be saying, at these hints and intimations of  “needed and substantial reform.”  It is not enough, she opined, for changes “in tone and symbolism” alone to take place.  Mere cosmetic adjustments, she warned, will not, and should not, placate the “so-called Vatican II Catholics, left on the sidelines during the last two popes.” Surely we owe them something for having survived the recent rigidities.  Indeed, to assuage the appetites of the disaffected left, we had better be ready to place a great many new items on the menu.

And while one hates to have a food fight with so formidable a gourmand as Signora Poggioli, it is simply not going to happen.   Not certainly in a Church that has never understood herself to be a cafeteria.  Let the crazy people pick and choose their pastries if they please.  We’ll just try and avert our gaze amid the myriad and painful depletions they are forced to endure as a result of so mindless an evacuation of the historic faith.  Besides, to recall a witty rejoinder from Chesterton, it is hardly the case that in a violent storm Windsor Castle (read: Anglican Christianity) was suddenly blown away from one of its roof tiles.  Why should anyone be surprised, then, when wayward children, having wrenched themselves free of their Mother, find that the center no longer holds?  Isn’t dissipation the order of the day among all the so-called reformed churches anyway?

But Rome is not about to join the lemmings as they race toward the sea.  The Church is not going to jettison the Apostolic Deposit just because the Holy Father, preferring protocols less formal than those of his predecessors, begins his papacy with the words Buena Sera.  Or that having surveyed the vastness of the papal apartments, he chooses, for the time being anyway, something rather less resplendent.  Why should Christ’s Vicar have to occupy living quarters as sprawling and sumptuous as those chosen by Vice President Biden when, following the conclave that elected Francis, he and his entourage travelled to Paris to live it up on the taxpayer’s dime?

Not even to please the NPR set, I am saying, will the Church consent to reconfigure her life and mission.  Which is why I think Raymond Arroyo over at EWTN was a whole lot closer to the mark when, comparing Popes Benedict and Francis to operatic stars like Pavarotti and Domingo, he noted how “the style is different, but the songs are the same.”

That goes for the other hot button issue, by the way, which the folks over at NPR were equally exercised about on the morning of Christ’s Resurrection.  I mean the Bible.  It seems there aren’t enough books in it and that numbers will have to be greatly increased so as to accommodate the latest findings of post-modern scripture scholarship.  In an interview with Bob Edwards, whose early Easter Sunday broadcast managed to enrage me more than usual, a fellow by the name of Hal Taussig, a founding member of the notorious “Jesus Seminar,” who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, launched a full frontal assault upon the New Testament, urging us to augment it with an additional twenty or so newly discovered texts.   Never mind of course that from the beginning these texts had been rejected as bogus and that their inclusion in the canon would have left everything in ruins. However, Professor Taussig was so blithe and off-hand about it all, telling us in a chirpy sort of way how Christianity would find itself all the more relevant to the 21st century were the Church only to imbibe the spirit of inclusivity.  “Oh, come on now, just drink the damn kool aid!”

In fact, one of his colleagues, John Dominic Crossman, writing the foreword to this brand spanking new compilation, argued that everything in the existing canonical New Testament will have to be recast in the light of these new and liberating discoveries.  Beginning, one suspects, with the details of the Resurrection itself.  (So deliciously timed, too, to coincide with the Easter celebration.)  Surely the myth of a dead man climbing out of a grave could only have traction in a pre-modern world, not the one constructed by robust little rationalists who know so much more than the authors of Holy Scripture.  Or the Mind of the Church which sat in judgment upon these upstart texts a very long time ago, wisely refusing to countenance their claim to belong to a sacred canon inspired by God.  What must He think of all this impacted idiocy?   As the inimitable Kierkegaard once put it, “God presumably waits in the lobby while the scholars upstairs debate his existence.”

Isn’t it wonderful how these people, if only we’d give them half a chance, will happily undertake the improvements we all require, so many renovations of belief and behavior that the rest of us are either too timid or unimaginative to entertain?  Where would we be without the wisdom of NPR?   Or the Jesus Seminar?  How utterly lost and forlorn we would all then be.  How on earth, I wonder, did Christianity ever get along without them?  Maybe I should ask Bob Edwards that one next time around.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • To sit down and talk with Jews and Muslims about how a Christian can agree with an Anti-Christ has always dumbfounded me and made me prudent about any political rhetoric that gains little for the soul and everlasting life— God without Christ is too Superior for Salvation, Haven’t we heard the Holy Spirit, do we sin by rejecting it’s cry in the Wilderness… Alex Marin — Viva Cristo Rey

  • Scott Waddell

    Note the Pope’s first official act regarding the U.S.–The appointment of two bishops, both protoges of +Bruskewitz, whose authentically Catholic diocese exploded with vocations. Granted, these appointments were well in the works before Pope Francis, but that he didn’t scotch the terna and install Fr. Whateverfloatsyourboat, S.J. I’ll take as a good sign.

  • David Lee


  • Leonard St. Pierre

    Well said…Professor!

  • Patricia

    It’s Holy Spirit, not Holy Ghost. Great stuff.

    • musicacre

      Holy Ghost has been used for hundreds of years….by the church.

  • JERD

    Not only is God waiting in the lobby listening to scholars upstairs debate his existence, he is also listening to the NPR commentators whose voices are piped in from the speakers in the lobby ceiling providing us our modern, ubiquitous distraction. He can’t contain his laughter.

  • fredx2

    Regarding NPR and its mission – We are in the middle of a protracted attempt to change the church so that it adopts the values those in the Universities and in the major media hold. The idea that the bible needs more books is one that most serious people realize is bogus. The non-canonical books they trumpet are basically fakes, and everybody basically knows it. The “scholars” that engage in this stuff are basically radicals with publishing contracts.
    However, NPR, etc will return to it over and over again. For if there really are other “sacred” books , everything Christianity is can be upended – and refashioned according to their ideas. Christianity stands like a bulwark against their various faddish social revolutions. For their revolutions to succeed, it must be destroyed.
    But they don’t need to convince everyone that they are right – they just have to sow enough doubt so that the uninitiated become confused.

  • FrankW

    Thanks for a good article. Once again, those who see the Catholic Church as a human institution which is behind the times, and wish that it would confirm to the whim of society will be disappointed.

    Uh boy, do some of these names ring a bell. John Dominic Crossan? He’s the same guy who claimed that Christians mistakenly believe in the resurrection of Christ because the dead body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs. To listen to him (and the entire Jesus Seminar for that matter), you’d think these arrogant ignoramuses
    were actually present during Jesus’s crucifixion. I’ve come to believe that the only reason many (if not all) of them make such outrageous claims is because it’s the best way to draw attention to themselves.

  • hombre111

    The author gets it right. The Catholic Church is, by nature, conservative. So, don’t expect any sudden shift in the boat. But being conservative is not pure blessing. As a good reading of Church history shows, the Church’s repeated choice to lag a couple hundred years behind the time curve can lead to disaster. My favorite example is the time it took for the Church to understand that it could not control the kings of France or England by threat of excommunication. Nationalism was on the rise, and people were French, or English, first. But the Church tried to wield its useless club, as with Elizabeth. The result was a persecution of the Church that lasted until the early 1800’s, which erased most Catholics fromt he English landscape. Surely, there was a better way.

    Now the Church is behind on the curve again. For instance, as an old priest, I watch the changes forced upon the Church by the priesthood shortage, which is a shortage only because there is a vocation shortage. In 1979, when I first realized what was going to happen, there were 107 priests in my diocese of about 60,000 Catholics. I did some calculations and predicted that, by 2002, there would be 42 priests in a diocese that had grown to 140,000. Bingo. Right on. Ordain married men? No. Women? gasp. Better to have a situation where many Catholics have no contact with the Eucharist and no chance to have a real conversation with a priest because the priests are too busy.

    • cestusdei

      We were persecuted and we were also right. Nationalism has worked so well eh? So it is now. We continue to be faithful to Christ’s truth about who can be ordained. And we are persecuted.

      • hombre111

        Howdy, cestusdei. Maybe I need to re-explain my point. Let me use one example. When you read Church history, you see that, for a while, the Papacy was the strongest power in Europe. The spiritual tool of excommunication enabled the pope to accomplish secular purposes, such as taxation, because the lesser nobles would side against the king when he was excommunicated, and the pope would get what he wanted. It is interesting to see how the Church’s taxing power worked during the exile in Avignon. The popes never understood the anger created by their taxing system. England threatened to pull away from the Church at that time, and the popes could not see the writing on the wall. With the rise of nationalism, the people in general sided with the king against the Church. History was changing and the Church could not understand where it was going, and could not adapt.

        Start with the Avignon papacy and read on into the present era. Along the way, see missed opportunity after missed opportunity. It wasn’t so much about Christ’s truth as the inability of the Church to move and adapt with history. And so it goes on.

        • disqus_BD1WTedpf7

          Peter was never granted any special power in the area of politics, so I agree there may have been pleny of missed opportunities.
          One interesting modern advantage though, with the accessibility of information via internet, church leaders don’t have to be victims of yes men and those that filter their access to information, so they may know a bit better what the average Catholic on the ground thinks of things.
          One negative aspect to this is the fact that the media is much more organized and seems wedded to an anti-Catholic agenda and thus constructs, solidifies and spreads narratives and characatures of the church and her leaders that can ‘brain wash’ generations of people. The inquisition is still being exagerated to hammer the church, and now the priest pedophile scandal as well, just to mention a few.
          I believe that a forward thinking intellectual could reasonably predict that the church will certainly be marginalized, if not outright persecuted, in the next 20 years if it doesn’t either cave to political correctness or launch a successful restoration.
          Happy-clappy popes, bishops and priests will just prolong the crisis.

          • hombre111

            Sadly, the inquisition and the priest pedophile scandal are self-inflicted wounds that will hurt the Church for long years to come. It is useless to try to spin them away by claiming “exaggerations.” Atheists and Protestants have never managed to do the damage to the Church that we have managed to do ourselves. And note: the popes and bishops–the so-called shepherds and members of the Magisterium–were the ones who caused this.
            Don’t know of any happy-clappy popes. Pope John Paul II used to kid around with the youth when he was with them, and they adored him for it. As for bishops? Pretty serious guys. And my fellow priests? Also serious guys.

            • But they are exaggerations, and in many cases downright misinformation, it’s not spin. And the majority of priest abusers were not pedophiles, but homosexual priests preying(no pun intended) on teen age boys.

              • hombre111

                When will conservatives ever get it? The abuse of children/teenages by priests was a terrible scandal. But the real tragedy was the role the hierarchy played in covering it up, moving priests around, stonewalling, and etc.. And, in the United States, nobody resigned.

                • whatsup54321

                  The systemic sin of the leaders is much more far-reaching than the individual sin of any one priest.

                • Both were equally great tragedies. I wouldn’t downplay the direct actions of the individual priests against their victims, nor the actions of their leaders.

    • disqus_BD1WTedpf7

      If as you say, the church is by nature a conservative institution, then how on earth did we end up with the new mass, lay women lectors, altar girls, feminist nuns and playboy priests?
      Obviously something is wrong with this picture, as this all happened within less than one generation.
      The institution itself is conservative but the leaders aren’t conserving anything. Paul VI, JPII and this new one seem to think they can just do whatever they want, ignore what they don’t like and move on.
      It is so paradoxical that since the clear definition of papal infalibility of Vatican I, that a pope is not to define anything new but to zealously protect the doctrine of the church and its traditions, we have had popes that feel free to change traditions and ignore doctrines that are ’embarassing’ to the modern world, whenver they want.
      a diabolical disorientation indeed.

      • hombre111

        Dear _BD1. Hola. First off, you need to read a book about cognitive therapy, which would reveal to you at least one thinking distortion contained in your letter, which could help explain your anger and depression if such thinking is habitual.

        1) “The leaders aren’t conserving anything.” This distorition is called universalizing. All someone has to do is point to one thing they are conserving, and your thinking falls. For instance, Church leaders staunchly conserve our faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the role of Mary, and the sacrifice of the Mass. And etc..

        2) “Popes feel free to change traditions and ignore doctrines.” Name a doctrine. And please, distinguish between Tradition and tradition. Wearing a fiddle-back vestment belongs to tradition with a small t, and can change. Declaring our belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ belongs to Tradition, and can’t change. So, what are the traditions and doctrines you are talking about?

        • disqus_BD1WTedpf7

          This com-box is hardly an academic journal so one would think they can use some linguistic flouishes.
          The point I was trying to make is that the crisis in the Church has resulted from an unfaithfulness to preserving many important traditions, especially the liturgical tradition which is so very important to the life of the Church, it is the Church’s life-blood so to speak.
          One doctrine the Church is attempting to change is EENS (no salvation outside the Church) they are defining it out of relevancy.
          Also the doctrine of Christ the King, they have made him a King but of no political consequence.

    • whatsup54321

      I’ll elaborate on what I hope is a sarcastic statement on your part in your second paragraph:

      Priestly celibacy is a wonderful gift to the life of the Church, but, clearly, it simply is not essential to the priesthood. There is absolutely no valid theological reason why the Church cannot ordain married men to the priesthood as an option in the Latin rite. It does not go against Tradition – or even, tradition – as we already allow married priests in the Latin rite under certain circumstances and we did the same for the first millennium of the Church. What’s more, most Eastern rites allow a married priesthood. (For those who do not know, Eastern rites in the Catholic Church are in full communion with Rome, and their priests are just “as Catholic” and just “as equally priests” as those in the Latin Rite.)

      Any arguments of a practical nature that I’ve ever heard or read against a married priesthood as an option just do not hold water. All we have to do is look East to learn more about how a married male priesthood is implemented on the practical level. I just do not know why we refuse to learn from other Catholic rites.

      While we hold celibacy as a great gift to the Church – a wonderful and important charism and witness – once we say that it is essential to the priesthood, we insult and degrade any married priest (in any rite). Optional celibacy not only makes great pastoral sense, it has been in place throughout the history of the Church – even to this day.

      Amazing to me that due to current legislation we are willing to make the Eucharist (and other Sacraments) less available to God’s people. Equally amazing is that we are willing to deprive the People of God with a more abundant presence of the ministry of ordained priests.

      We need the ministry of the ordained priesthood – as a matter of fact, it is essential to our Catholic identity. When will we learn?

      I sincerely hope that Pope Francis, or some other pope in the near future, realizes the great need that exists for more priests, especially in the West. God is calling. The vocations are there. The institution in this case is simply standing in the way.

      (Note: I am not and never was an ordained priest and I would not desire to become one should the celibacy requirement in the Latin rite be lifted. It is clearly not my vocation. Also – the idea of admitting women to the priesthood is a whole other matter and has nothing at all to do with the argument for a married male priesthood. A married male priesthood does not lead to a female priesthood.)

      • hombre111

        I could not agree more. In my discussions with a couple of old priests, the three of us agreed on the following. First, just because we made a promise of celibacy did not mean we were celibate. Our passions did not suddenly subside. Sex for us remained what it seems to be for everybody else, married or unmarried: a challenge and sometimes a problem. We were more like dry drunks staying away from temptation by sheer will power, “because it went with the job.” Celibacy had never really been discussed in the seminary and we had no real spirituality to support our celibate promise.
        Second, we would say that we finally became really celibate later. I would say I finally became celibate as I approached my early fifties. That is, I finally developed the emotional and spiritual foundation for that promise that had cost me so much. That does not mean that the whole thing suddenly became easy. It remains a difficult challenge that sometimes tests me to the limit.
        One final conclusion that we agreed on: Priestly celibacy is a wonderful gift to the life of the Church. But the compulsory celibacy imposed on diocesan priests has probably done as much harm as good.

        • whatsup54321

          Amen, Amen, Amen! (And thanks for your honesty.) When will we learn!?!

  • sarge628

    What is a “chuckleheaded conservative” ?

  • A Hicks

    At the risk of appearing as a “chuckleheaded conservative,” while we certainly should not
    expect any changes to Church doctrine on this or any pope’s watch, it could be argued that “transmogrifying alterations of the Catholic Thing” did in fact occur on Pope Paul IV’s watch, as was obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. That is, unless we want to
    exclude the Mass from the “Catholic Thing.”

  • John O’Neill

    The greatest enemy the Church has today is the American culture. Americans fervently want to make the Church adapt the American way of life which includes: homosexual marriage, abortion on demand, school distribution of condoms, eternal politicking through the Democrat party, adultery normalized, education reduced to propaganda for the American World State, the revision of the Bible which will delete things offensive to American tastes. Just take a day or two and watch American Television and you will see the dystopia which is being prepared for the rest of the world. Let us not render to the American Caesar the things which are God’s.

  • Sylvia

    The article is far too long; far too many words. Even as an intellectual, I would prefer a shortened version, which would have been even more efficient.

    • Are you serious?

    • whatsup54321

      I was thinking how wonderfully written it was – and, even, somewhat amusing!