Vatican reform may be slow, but it is inevitable

Indeed, 2,000 years of Church history shows that change is the norm rather than the exception

Dr John C Keng

Updated: June 03, 2013 10:52 PM GMT

Theologian Hans Kung

In a commentary published on May 1 on, Father William Grimm threw out a punch line title: Reforming the Vatican is like nailing jelly to a wall. He is right to say that jelly will not stick to the wall; however, it will leave a mark. 

Does it matter? I think so. It adds to the momentum of the global outcry to wake up the most chronically nostalgic papacy in recent memory and bring up-to-date anachronistic Church teachings.

Fifty years after Vatican II, the Catholic laity and grassroot priests alike have finally seen the light with a Latin-American's accession to the papacy in Rome.

Reviewing Church history, change, believe or not, is actually the norm. It is true that reform creates division and always faces furious resistance from the establishment. But it is also true that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is stronger than the hierarchy. In 2,000 years, history has repeatedly taught us that the collective sense of the believing community often preceded the Church administrators that change, either in the Church's beliefs or practices, was needed.

Famed theologian and persistent Vatican critique, Fr Hans Kung, in a 2011 video interview, urged peaceful revolution against Roman absolutism. He did not hide his dismay toward the restoration movement (versus Vatican II) under the Polish pope and then the German pope . Yet he predicted that change in the Church is imminent despite resistance from the Roman Curia. In his words, the world is moving on, going ahead, with or without the Church.    

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, while brawling with English bishops over education issues in 1859, advocated the consensus of the faithful is the voice of the infallible Church.   He further elaborated that there were times when the Church's shepherds collapsed under secular temptation or outside pressure, and it was the people who sustained the belief in Christ's divinity. Therefore, the body of the faithful, under Providence, presented the ecclesiastical strength. Newman's wisdom is particularly applicable to the current situations of the Church, some one-and-a-half centuries later.

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ, in calling for globalization of the papacy, stressed that the contemporary world requires a successor of Peter who can teach and direct the entire people of God. He echoed documents from the Vatican II Council in the restoration of limited, but real, autonomy to regional churches and to recognize bishops as fellow members of the supreme directorate of the Universal Church.

Cardinal Dulles further summarized frequently presented suggestions and delineated five specific aspects of structural reform to the Vatican hierarchy for discussion:

  • A more open and democratic process in the nomination of bishops.
  • Normalization and empowerment of the Synod of Bishops.
  • Clarification of the consultative role of the episcopal conferences as defined by Vatican II.
  • Internationalization of the Roman Curia.
  • Re-visit the papal teaching authority as universal primate in tune with general consensus of bishops.

Those issues are not new, nor do they lack controversy. They all belong to the perennial dialectical tension between centralizing and decentralizing advocators within the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Each camp has gathered its own loyalists who are abusing their adversaries, jeopardizing the unity of the Church. 

However, animosity and passion subsided; there have been numerous doctrinal redefinitions, sometimes a complete reversal to their respective predecessors.

For example: in early Church history, the acceptance of the Gentiles was not creditable to the Church; while in the Renaissance period, the Roman Inquisition ordered Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei to stand trial as a suspect of heresy.   And yet, in 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for all the mistakes committed by the Catholic Church. More recently, in the postmodernism era, ecumenism was once unthinkable but became Church teaching after Vatican II, while lay-led Communion services were prohibited in the early 20th century and are being promoted now. Etc, etc ….

In the electronic age, when information spread far and wide and opinions were exchanged via cyber space at the speed of light, invited or self-imposed participation of the communitarian in discussions on all Church issues became ineluctable. Thus, qualitatively changing the traditional, sometimes secretive, Vatican decision-making process. 

Exclusivity and an authoritarian type rule by a handful of Rome elites are no longer in >

However, the issues of reform should not be presented as a zero sum; neither should the resolutions be relied solely upon the will or power of the Rome papacy. The Church is composed of both teachers and the taught.  Faith of the Church is not entrusted to a few but to all God's people. 

The pope is an institutional sign of the unity already achieved by the faithful . The chair of Peter presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time it sees that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute to it (Vatican II document: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 13).

Forget not that America was discovered by a seaman whose expected destination was somewhere else. When first discovered, it was not wanted. In the ensuing years, most efforts were made to get around it.  Reform, to a large extent, resembles sailing in uncharted waters. There is the dream, but the destination can never be guaranteed.  

Shall Pope Francis and his eight-cardinal-strong advisory council sail the ecclesiastical boat to discover yet another New World of faith and glory, either by well-conceived navigation strategies or, like Christopher Columbus, by accident?


Dr John C Keng is a Canada based freelance writer on social and Church issues, targeting readers in the greater Chinese region

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