We live in exciting times. They are times of great change and great drama; of great controversy and great polarization; of great trial and great suffering. And they demand a vigorous response. We live in an era of cultural decay coming in the wake of the great upheavals of the 20th century, the most recent of which was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Traditional forms of social cohesion like religious commitment, love of country, and familial stability, have been in decline for some years now. Crises have rocked the Catholic Church seemingly uninterruptedly for the last 40 years—whether confusion and dissolution in liturgical discipline, near-catastrophic failures in catechesis, a dearth of religious and priestly vocations, or (more recently) immoral and scandalous behavior of clergy. The question arises, “What do we do?” To begin, I propose a way of rethinking our use and understanding of a particular word. This word is summoned by diverse and sundry individuals and groups to defend changes in the Church, whether great or small, good or bad, wise or foolish. And the word is...“reform.” But first, a few words about using words.
Sometimes when a word begins to be used in a variety of contexts, and by different people with differing intentions, it gradually loses its original specificity and can act as a kind of bully club, delivering a punchy and often emotionally-charged swipe at the expense of clarity and reasoned engagement. Such, I suppose, is the fate of words like “liberal” and “conservative” in popular discourse, or “open-minded” and “fundamentalist” in popular religious discourse. The words indeed mean something, but that meaning has gone through the wash so many times, and been worn again and soiled by so many different people, that they are often hurled forth irresponsibly, casting, as it were, a dirty and undignified garment on the adversary in the place of reasoned and patient engagement. Thus, in one fell swoop, a proponent of same-sex unions can brand his opponents “bigots” and the defender of traditional marriage has of a sudden been verbally clothed in a white suit with a pointy-hat, bigotry ready at hand. Or, in a similarly fellish swoop, a Catholic who believes the Magisterium ought to be adhered to in all matters of faith and doctrine can be called, with a tinge of visceral disdain, “narrow” or “rigid,” after which jaws clench, voices hush, and the argument has apparently been ended.
The word “reform” has not quite the same emotional baggage as those just mentioned, but ever since the Vatican Council II, it has been at least as bandied about by diverse and sundry groups, dressed up in one ideological agenda or another. On one side of the spectrum it is used to justify sweeping liturgical changes or to dismantle the concept of “hierarchical structures” or to advance women’s ordination. On the other side it is used as a dirty word in the midst of a wholesale critique of everything that has happened since Vatican II, sometimes even rejecting the Council itself and longing for a return to the perceived-to-be-pristine 1950s. And yet, the Vatican Council II itself spoke of the need for “reform” in the Church: “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.” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). The Council is careful in its phrasing. In her human aspects, the Church has many deficiencies, and we should not be afraid to recognize them and “reform” them. But in her essence the Church, united to Christ her Head, is perfect, an eternal font of creative energy, holiness, and life flowing through her. This distinction is vital for any notion of “reform.”
In common speech today the term “reform” drums up associations with political and social movements that seek to recraft social structures or advance political agendas. It is often bound up with a notion of democratic participatory decision-making and grassroots “movements” that seek to challenge existing structures. This is not what the Church means by “reform,” and to project this meaning onto ecclesial realities can lead to grave errors. The reason is that the Catholic Church is not merely a human or social or political institution. These realities are an inevitable part of the way she is structured here on earth, but they do not constitute her core, her heart, her “soul,” as it were. Properly speaking, the “Church” is not so much a structure, as a living organism with its own inner vital principles all afire with life and energy, principles that need to be respected and properly developed. It is more like a living and breathing human being than a machine. In this case that “being” is nothing less than the Mystical Body of Christ, the second Person of the Trinity in unity with his pilgrim people on earth.
Avery Dulles—in an article more detailed and theologically astute than I can be here—has admirably laid out the principles for “true and false” types of reform, principles that should be presupposed for any thinking about what “reform” is. He points out that the Second Vatican Council used the word “reform” very sparingly, more often opting for the terms “renewal” (renovatio) and “purification” (purificatio). These seem more adequate terms since they point not so much to molding and shaping and bashing a thing into order from without, as to an encouraging-from-within, a support and nourishment that catalyzes the inner-forces of a thing so it can grow and develop properly.
Dulles’ distinction is a very Thomistic one. All living things have their own proper laws placed within them. A flower will only grow in a healthy way through a combination of nutrients in the soil, an amenable external environment, sufficient light from the sun, and water. A flower cannot be slashed at and bent about from the outside in order to conform with an idea that we have of what it should be. We cannot make a rose into a violet by painting it and cutting and pasting its petals this way and that, any more than we can feed a turtle steroids and turn it into a crocodile, or work very hard to train our pet cat to beat a cheetah in a race. What we can do is feed and nourish the rose, the violet, the turtle, or the cat, so that each grows and develops into the thing that it—and only it—is supposed to be.
If things like cats and turtles and flowers have these inner-principles, these “forms,” that need to be respected if we are to enjoy their company or their beauty, the Church has an inner-constitution which is infinitely more alive, vital, creative, and deserving of respect. This inner-principle of the Church is all afire with the divinity and the creative energy of God, flowing from an eternal source that will never cease. This “energy” is nothing less than the Holy Spirit Himself, often spoken of as the “soul” of the Body of Christ, that is, the Church.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict have continually called for a “new evangelization” to spark an age of renewal and yes, even “reform” in the Church. But this reform can never be achieved through a clumsy application of political and social models, or a purely secularized morality where truth is relative, irresponsible or even perverse behavior is condoned, and the only social rule is that one should never “offend” another. But neither will the new evangelization happen by simply retreating into a previous era as if the last 50 years never happened.
What the Body of Christ needs today is reinvigoration. It needs—or rather Christ now urgently calls—religious and lay people, priests and bishops, the whole Body of Christ, to a fearless and audacious confidence in the goodness of God and the power of the gospel to convert the world. We need, in a word, to become holy, to avail ourselves of the living waters flowing eternally from the Temple of God and the Heart of Christ pierced on the Cross. This can be the only true source of authentic renewal. How do we go about this? Ultimately, the responsibility devolves on each individual Catholic. But in a special way it devolves on: (1) religious to be faithful to their vows and the charisms of their founders; (2) clergy to order and lead and inspire their flocks with true knowledge and firm faith in Christ and his Church; (3) bishops to sound the call and be “examples for the flock” (1 Pet 5.3).
But getting more practical, Dulles gives a number of criteria to distinguish signs of true and false reform. True reform will: (1) not be an abandoning but a “return to the founding principles of Catholicism”; (2) respect the Church’s spiritual and devotional heritage, including Marian piety, the cult of saints, high regard for monastic life and religious vows, penitential practices, and eucharistic worship: (3) be committed to the “fullness of Catholic doctrine” as authoritatively proposed by the Magisterium; (4) respect the “divinely given structures of the Church, including the differences in states of life and vocations”; (5) sustain unity and communion, avoiding schism and factionalism; (6) be marked by a spirit of patient perseverance, not feverish demand for sweeping change; (7) not yield to our fallen nature’s tendency to prideful self-assertion; and (8) guard against reforms too closely associated with fads and ephemeral ideologies in the secular sphere.
Dulles sketches out in practical terms what he quotes one of the 20th century’s theological giants as affirming in more concise terms. Henri de Lubac said that he did “not believe that structural reforms...are ever the main part of a program that must aim at the only true renewal, spiritual renewal.” John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and—indeed—the Lord himself calls with intense urgency every Catholic to take up this call to the spiritual renewal and vigorous revitalization of the Church’s life. Such a renewal will come—can only come—from respecting and drawing off of the Church's interior vitality imbued and poured out by the Holy Spirit. God alone gives the growth, of course, but we are messengers and ambassadors of his work on earth, and he urgently, very urgently, exhorts us to the task.
 The inspiration and much of the substance of this article I draw from the late Avery Cardinal Dulles’ excellent article, “True and False Reform,” First Things Aug/Sep 2003. (Read it here.)
 We do not have time to go into it here, but Dulles names a number of areas the Council pointed to for authentic renewal: biblical and patristic studies; liturgy; kerygmatic (i.e.preaching) theology; catechesis; lay apostolates; ecumenism; social teaching.
 I avoid the technical terminology here, but in Thomistic terms, this “inner-principle” is called the “form,” and the elements of change and particularity—all that goes into its color, shape, change through time—are its “matter.”