The long experience of the Catholic Church has included many seasons of decline and renewal. Throughout the centuries the Church has striven by preaching and exhortation to help individual Christians reform their lives. At various times reformers have arisen to make the consecrated life a more authentic school of perfection. One thinks in this connection of the Cistercians and Trappists as reformed branches of the Benedictine order, and of the Discalced Carmelites, who conducted a thoroughgoing reform of their order in sixteenth-century Spain. The universal Church likewise has undertaken major institutional reforms; for example, the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, which imposed stricter discipline on the clergy and secured the independence of the Church from secular control.

At many times in her history the Church has been threatened by false reforms that, if accepted, would have denatured her. Such reforms were attempted by the Encratites in the second century, the Donatists in the fourth century, the Waldensians in the twelfth, the Spiritual Franciscans in the thirteenth, Wycliffe in the fourteenth, and Jan Hus in the fifteenth.

The Conciliar movement in the fifteenth century brought forth some good fruits but came to a bad end at the Council of Basel. Attempting to convert the Church into a kind of constitutional monarchy, it ran afoul of the Catholic doctrine of papal primacy.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century the necessity of a thoroughgoing reform was generally recognized. After the failure of the Fifth Lateran Council to achieve this objective, the whole Church teemed with reform movements, notably among Christian humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More. Catholic cardinals such as Gaspar Contarini, James Sadoleto, Reginald Pole, and John Peter Caraffa proposed timely reforms some years before the Council of Trent. Luther and his colleagues also took up the theme of reform, but in the name of correcting abuses they attacked essentials of the Catholic faith and became separated from the Church. The reform decrees of Trent targeted some of the real abuses and continued to bear excellent fruits long after the Council. But in the next few centuries, the term “reform” became suspect among Catholics because it seemed to have a Protestant ring.

The First Vatican Council ran counter to certain reform movements of the nineteenth century. It successfully eliminated the remnants of the Conciliar Movement and crushed ecclesiastical nationalism in the form of Gallicanism and its counterparts in several nations. As a result, the papacy maintained uncontested control of the Catholic Church through the middle of the twentieth century.

During the decade after World War II, the Church in Europe, especially in France, experienced a revitalization thanks to a number of movements that may be grouped under the heading of ressourcement. The Second Vatican Council was able to build effectively on the revival of biblical and patristic studies, the liturgical movement, kerygmatic theology, the catechetical renewal, the lay apostolate, the ecumenical movement, and the social apostolate. Aware of the negative connotations of terms like “reformation,” Vatican II used such language very sparingly, but did not shrink from implementing some of the desiderata of Luther and the early Protestants.

Fearing that the term “reform” had too negative a connotation, the Council spoke by preference of purification and renewal (renovatio). The Constitution on the Church, for example, declared: “The Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal” (Lumen Gentium 8).

In one passage Vatican II spoke explicitly though very guardedly of ecclesial reform. This passage, in the Decree on Ecumenism, touches not only on personal but also on institutional reform:

Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she is always in need insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth. Therefore, if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even in the formulation of doctrine (which must be carefully distinguished from the deposit itself of faith), these should be appropriately rectified at the proper moment. (Unitatis Redintegratio 6)

This passage is, as I have noted, very cautiously phrased. In stating that the Church is subject to reform to the extent that it is a human institution, it implies the presence of a divine element that is not subject to reform. It rules out any attempt to reform the deposit of faith.

Since Vatican II reform movements have proliferated, but some of them have been ambiguous or misconceived. On the left we find initiatives that seek to make the Church more tolerant, more liberal, and more democratic. Some progressivist reformers aim to dissolve the Church’s hierarchical structure and transform her into an egalitarian democracy. Bishops have now and again criticized or condemned liberalizing groups such as the “We Are Church” movement, which originated in Austria, and the “Call to Action” here in the United States.

Moderately to the right are orthodox but intransigent theologians who aspire to “reform the reforms” introduced in the wake of Vatican II. At the extreme right the Church is confronted by movements that seek to undo the work of the Council itself, restoring what they venerate as Tridentine Catholicism. The Holy See has condemned the reactionary traditionalism of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. His breakaway church and a variety of so-called Sedevacantist movements are certainly schismatic if not openly heretical.

In order to make a sound evaluation of reform movements, it will be helpful to unpack the concept of reform itself. To reform is to give new and better form to a preexistent reality, while preserving the essentials. Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there. Unlike development, it implies that something has gone wrong and needs to be corrected. The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an ideal already accepted.

Reform may be either restorative or progressive. Restorative reform seeks to reactualize a better past or a past that is idealized. Progressive reform aims to move ahead toward an ideal or utopian future. Either style can run to excess. Restorative reform tends toward traditionalism; progressive reform, toward modernism. But neither direction can be ruled out. Sometimes the past needs to be repristinated; at other times, it may need to be transcended.

In any discussion of reform, two opposite errors are to be avoided. The first is to assume that because the Church is divinely instituted, it never needs to be reformed. This position is erroneous because it fails to attend to the human element. Since all the members of the Church, including the Pope and the bishops, are limited in virtue and ability, they may fail to live up to the principles of the faith itself. When guilty of negligence, timidity, or misjudgment, they may need to be corrected, as Paul, for example, corrected Peter (Galatians 2:11).

The second error would be to assail or undermine the essentials of Catholic Christianity. This would not be reform but dissolution. Paul rebuked the Galatians for turning to a different gospel (1:6). The Catholic Church is unconditionally bound to her Scriptures, her creeds, her dogmas, and her divinely instituted hierarchical office and sacramental worship. To propose that the Church should deny the divinity of Christ, or retract the dogma of papal infallibility, or convert herself into a religious democracy, as some have done in the name of reform, is to misunderstand both the nature of Catholicism and the nature of reform.

Anyone seeking to reform the Church must share the Church’s faith and accept the essentials of her mission. The Church cannot take seriously the reforms advocated by those who deny that Christ was Son of God and Redeemer, who assert that the Scriptures teach error, or who hold that the Church should not require orthodoxy on the part of her members. Proposals coming from a perspective alien to Christian faith should be treated with the utmost suspicion if not dismissed as unworthy of consideration.

The Church must be herself, and must not strive to become what nonbelievers might like her to be. Her first responsibility is to preserve intact the revelation and the means of grace that have been entrusted to her. Her second responsibility is to transmit the faith in its purity and make it operative in the lives of her members. Her third responsibility is to help persons who are not yet her members, and human society as a whole, to benefit from the redemptive work of Christ.

More than a decade before Vatican II the French Dominican Yves Congar wrote a book with the title True and False Reform in the Church. The work was considered controversial in its day, but has, I think, been vindicated as thoroughly orthodox. It is still in my opinion the most searching theological treatise on our subject. Drawing to some degree on Congar’s fine exploratory work, I should like to suggest a number of principles by which reform proposals in our day might be assessed.

1) According to Congar, “the great law of a Catholic reformism will be to begin with a return to the principles of Catholicism.” Vatican II, echoing his words, taught that “every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (UR 6).

Catholicism derives its principles from God by way of revelation. The most authoritative guidance comes from Holy Scripture understood in the light of apostolic tradition, inasmuch as this is the normative channel whereby revelation is transmitted. In his reform of the liturgy, Pius X issued a call to return to the sources (Revertimini ad fontes). Pius XII declared that speculation becomes sterile if it neglects to return continually to the sacred sources of Scripture and tradition, which contain inexhaustible treasures of truth.

2) Any reform conducted in the Catholic spirit will respect the Church’s styles of worship and pastoral life. It will be content to operate within the Church’s spiritual and devotional heritage, with due regard for her Marian piety, her devotion to the saints, her high regard for the monastic life and the vows of religion, her penitential practices, and her eucharistic worship. A truly Catholic reform will not fanatically insist on the sheer logic of an intellectual system but will take account of concrete possibilities of the situation, seeking to work within the framework of the given.

3) A genuinely Catholic reform will adhere to the fullness of Catholic doctrine, including not only the dogmatic definitions of popes and councils, but doctrines constantly and universally held as matters pertaining to the faith. In this connection cognizance will be taken of the distinction made by Vatican II between the deposit of faith and the formulations of doctrine. Because human thought and language are inevitably affected by cultural and historical factors, it may be necessary from time to time to adjust the language in which the faith has been proclaimed. Repeated in a new situation, the old formulations can often be misleading, as instanced by the examples of Baius and Jansenius in the seventeenth century. These scholars quoted Augustine to the letter but did not take account of the changed meaning of his words.

4) True reform will respect the divinely given structures of the Church, including the differences of states of life and vocations. Not all are equipped by training and office to pronounce on the compatibility of new theories and opinions with the Church’s faith. This function is, in fact, reserved to the hierarchical magisterium, though the advice of theologians and others will normally be sought.

5) A reform that is Catholic in spirit will seek to maintain communion with the whole body of the Church, and will avoid anything savoring of schism or factionalism. St. Paul speaks of anger, dissension, and party spirit as contrary to the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:20). To be Catholic is precisely to see oneself as part of a larger whole, to be inserted in the Church universal.

6) Reformers will have to exercise the virtue of patience, often accepting delays. Congar finds Luther especially lacking in this virtue. But even Luther, stubborn and unyielding though he often was, cautioned his disciple Andreas Karlstadt on the importance of proceeding slowly, so as not to offend simple believers who were unprepared for changes that were objectively warranted. Prudent reformers will recognize that they themselves stand under correction, and that their proposals, even if valid, may be premature. As Newman reminded his readers, there is such a thing as a good idea whose time has not yet come. Depending on the circumstances, Church authorities may wisely delay its acceptance until people’s imaginations become accustomed to the innovation.

7) As a negative criterion, I would suggest that a valid reform must not yield to the tendencies of our fallen nature, but must rather resist them. Under color of reform, we are sometimes tempted to promote what flatters our pride and feeds our self-interest, even though the gospel counsels humility and renunciation. Persons who have prestige, influence, and power usually want to retain and increase these; those who lack them want to acquire them. Both groups must undergo conversion.

8) For similar reasons we must be on guard against purported reforms that are aligned with the prevailing tendencies in secular society. One thinks in this connection of the enormous harm done in early modern times by nationalism in religion, a major factor contributing to the divisions of the Reformation era and to the enfeeblement of the Catholic Church during the Enlightenment. The liturgical and organizational reforms of Joseph II in Austria, the Civil Constitution on the Clergy enacted in France in 1790, the extreme liberalism of Félicité de Lamennais early in the nineteenth century, and the evolutionary religion of the Modernists at the dawn of the twentieth century ” all these movements afford examples of initiatives perfectly attuned to the spirit of their times but antithetical to the true character of Catholic Christianity.

In our day the prevailing climate of agnosticism, relativism, and subjectivism is frequently taken as having the kind of normative value that belongs by right to the word of God. We must energetically oppose reformers who contend that the Church must abandon her claims to absolute truth, must allow dissent from her own doctrines, and must be governed according to the principles of liberal democracy.

False reforms, I conclude, are those that fail to respect the imperatives of the gospel and the divinely given traditions and structures of the Church, or which impair ecclesial communion and tend rather toward schism. Would-be reformers often proclaim themselves to be prophets, but show their true colors by their lack of humility, their impatience, and their disregard for the Sacred Scripture and tradition.

It is often asserted that reformers ought to speak prophetically. This may well be true, provided that the nature of prophecy be correctly understood. Thomas Aquinas made an essential distinction between prophecy as it functioned in the Old Testament and as it functions within the Church. The ancient prophets, he says, were sent for two purposes: “To establish the faith and to rectify behavior.” In our day, he adds, “the faith is already founded, because the things promised of old have been fulfilled in Christ. But prophecy which has as its goal to rectify behavior neither ceases nor will ever cease.” Prophetism since the time of Christ, as Congar reminds us, must always be inscribed within the framework of apostolicity. “Any prophetism that would, in one way or another, look for a revelation still open to substantial accretions or admit the possibility of changes in the apostolic revelation is not true prophetism of the Church.” To give in to revolutionary impulses would impoverish the Church’s divinely given legacy and impair her mission to the world.

Since the Second Vatican Council ill-considered projects for institutional reform have become a consuming passion among certain intellectuals. Under the circumstances it is understandable that some excellent theologians react negatively to the very idea. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger makes an important point:


The reform that is needed at all times does not consist in constantly remodeling “our” Church according to our taste, or in inventing her ourselves, but in ceaselessly clearing away our subsidiary constructions to let in the pure light that comes from above and that is also the dawning of pure freedom.

He goes on to observe that “the more administrative machinery we construct, be it the most modern, the less place there is for the Spirit, the less place there is for the Lord, and the less freedom there is.”

Henri de Lubac speaks in similar terms:


I do not believe that structural reforms, about which there has been much debate for some years, are ever the main part of a program that must aim at the only true renewal, spiritual renewal. I even fear that the present-day inflation of such projects and discussions furnishes an all-too-convenient alibi to avoid it. The conciliar formula “Ecclesia semper purificanda” seems to me as to others [e.g., Jean-Jacques von Allmen] “much superior to the ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda’ which is used so extensively nearly everywhere.” But I do believe, on the other hand, that any disturbance, any change, or any relaxation of the essential structure of the Church would suffice to endanger all spiritual renewal.

Cardinal de Lubac is not here denying the desirability of any and all institutional reforms, but only insisting that we should not exaggerate their importance and that we always take care to leave intact the essential and abiding structures of the Church. He is surely correct in thinking that no social reorganization will be able to overcome the human tendency to sin and error. The most perfect structures, in the hands of incompetent or selfish administrators, will only make things worse. But where people are motivated by faith and generosity, even deficient structures will be tolerable.

Notwithstanding all doubts about the proper balance between personal and institutional reform, it should be clear that the Church of our day has no cause for complacency. At least here in the United States, it stands in urgent need of far-reaching intellectual, spiritual, and moral regeneration. Some of the issues to be addressed, I submit, are the following.

Religious illiteracy has sunk to a new low. We urgently need an effective program of catechesis and religious education on all levels. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is only the first step in this revival, since the renewal it stands for cannot be implemented without the formation of a corps of trained catechists and the preparation of suitable materials for the religious education of different age-groups and constituencies.

Dissent is rampant, not only on secondary and reformable teachings but even on central doctrines of the faith. Catholics should be trained to have greater confidence in the Magisterium, which enjoys a special assistance from the Holy Spirit. They should willingly conform their private judgment to its teaching, even when no dogmatic definition has been made.

The call for a new evangelization strongly issued by Paul VI and John Paul II has fallen, it would seem, on deaf ears. The majority of Catholics have little appreciation of their mission to spread the faith as a precious gift intended for all. In some cases they behave as if faith were an unwelcome burden. Members of fundamentalist churches, Mormons, and Pentecostals commonly exhibit a stronger missionary thrust than Catholics.

Liturgical laws are often flouted. The sacraments need to be celebrated with dignity and reverence. The Mass should be seen not simply as a communal meal celebrated by a local community but as the sacrifice of the universal Church performed in union with the whole body of bishops and the Bishop of Rome as its head. As Pope John Paul II reminds us in his recent encyclical, Holy Communion cannot be worthily received except by persons who are in union with the Church and free from serious sin (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 36-37; 44-45).

Religious practice is falling off. Many fail to attend Mass on Sundays. The sacrament of Penance is neglected by the vast majority of Catholics. There is a serious dearth of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

The immoral behavior of Catholics, both lay and clergy, is a cause of scandal and defections. Under this heading I would include not only sexual abuse of minors, which has been so extensively publicized in recent years, but sex outside of marriage, abortion, divorce, alcoholism, the use and marketing of drugs, domestic violence, defamation, and financial scandals such as falsification of records and embezzlement. The morality of Catholics all too often sinks below the standards commonly observed by Protestants and unbelievers.

Self-evidently these and similar reforms ought to be undertaken under the leadership of the bishops. Unfortunately, however, the prestige of the bishops is today at a new low. In some cases there is alienation between bishops and priests. Laity are in some places organizing against bishops and seeking to apply fiscal pressures and negative publicity as means to bring about what they see as reforms. This situation makes for new problems, likewise calling for reform. The Church cannot be made to function like a political community, with adversarial parties contending for supremacy.

Some of the alienation between different groups may result from mechanisms introduced in the wake of Vatican II. The Council exalted the episcopacy to an unprecedented peak of power and responsibility. No normal individual is capable of being at once the chief teacher, the leading mystagogue, and the principal administrator for millions of Catholics, responsible for a huge array of parishes, schools, universities, hospitals, and charitable organizations. Bishops are also expected to be in constant consultation with pastoral councils and senates of priests. Within the diocese the bishop holds the fullness of legislative, judicial, and executive power.

In addition to their tasks within their respective dioceses, bishops are regularly engaged in the deliberations and decisions of the national episcopal conference to which they belong and in some cases have assignments from one or more of its multiple committees. A number of them are also involved in the government of the universal Church. They occasionally serve on congregations of the Holy See, and take part in synods of bishops. No wonder that there are failures in the handling of certain assignments of priests and other personnel.

According to the job description in the official documents, the bishop ought to be a man of high culture, firm in faith, solid in orthodoxy, a paragon of holiness, graciously winning in personality, able to assess the talents and weaknesses of others, skilled at managing large corporations and conducting fiscal policy, eloquent in the pulpit, fearless under criticism, indefatigable, and always self-possessed. Do we have in the United States a sufficient supply of priests with all these qualities? Many of the candidates being elevated to the episcopate, it would seem, are men of ordinary abilities, kind and hardworking, but incapable of measuring up to the almost superhuman responsibilities of the office. They run the risk of being morally, psychologically, and spiritually crushed under the burdens. As a prime structural problem, therefore, I would single out for special attention the episcopal office. What can be done to restore the priestly and pastoral ministry of bishops to its position of primacy?

In this context the relationship between clergy and laity may need some reconsideration. The distinction of roles, clearly spelled out by the Second Vatican Council, can be overstepped from both sides. Bishops, in their zeal to give explicit pastoral direction on every question and to control everything that goes on in their diocese, sometimes infringe on the proper competence of the laity, whose responsibility it is to apply the gospel to the circumstances of the marketplace, the professions, and political life. But the laity should understand that doctrinal teaching, pastoral governance, and liturgical leadership are tasks ordinarily reserved to persons in holy orders, especially the pope and bishops.

Within the Church itself, the laity have certain rights and responsibilities, as sharers by baptism in the threefold office of Christ, prophet, priest, and king. Their talents should be used for the benefit of the Church. Although the order of the Catholic Church cannot be congregational, members of the congregation can make a positive contribution, especially where their professional skills and experience are needed. There is every reason why the voice of the faithful should be heard, provided it does not come from an adversarial stance as part of a scheme to seize power.

I submit, therefore, that a great deal of thought and probably some experimentation are needed to arrive at the correct via media between clericalism and laicism. Plenty of organs for collaboration now exist: plenary councils, diocesan synods, diocesan and parish councils, and committees. New structures would not seem to be necessary. Often more is accomplished by informal consultations than by official meetings.

For the sake of successful cooperation the respective responsibilities of clergy and laity must be clearly demarcated. Whenever the functions are confused, misunderstandings, tensions, and conflict follow. Successful cooperation might help to reduce the excessive load of responsibility that now weighs upon bishops.

The idea of reform is as old as Christianity itself. Reform is by definition a good thing, and frequently is needed both on the personal and on the institutional level. But history teaches that reform can be misconceived and indiscreet. The only kind of reform that the Church should consider is one based on authentically Christian and Catholic principles. Holy Scripture and Catholic tradition give the necessary parameters. All who propose ecclesial reform should make it clear at the outset that they sincerely embrace these principles. Otherwise they should not be invited to participate in the process.

Where existing institutions prove clearly inadequate, institutional reform has a claim on our consideration. But it is less important and fruitful in the long run than personal reform, which requires purification of the heart from pride, sensuality, and lust for power. Where there is a humble and loving spirit, combined with firm faith and stringent self-discipline, institutional reform will be at once less urgent and easier to achieve.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from his most recent McGinley Lecture, delivered at Fordham on March 2, 2004.