From the first days of his papacy Francis has been hailed as a radical reformer. The mainstream journalists have enjoyed creating a new narrative: The shadowy Dan Brown-type Vatican (as we all know) is worm eaten with secret pedophiles, a cadre of homosexuals, mobsters running the Vatican Bank, an ancient, sinister international conspiracy and Cardinals who are shady, secretive and scheming. Benedict XVI was, at best, a congenial old duffer more interested in red shoes and fancy vestments and giving top jobs to his cronies than in cleaning up the church. At worst he was the Goblin King sitting happily on top of the dung pile of the Catholic Church.
Then along comes the new St. Francis! The Cardinal from Buenos Aires who lived among the poor, took the bus to work and cooked his own rice and beans. The new broom is going to sweep clean. Down with the old and up with the new. Pope Francis is probably a Liberation Theology sympathizer– a revolutionary like “Good Pope John” who started the second Vatican Council which was the revolution the church needed in the 1960s. Since then John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to turn the clock back, but at last the new springtime of the church is back. Bring out the love beads and bell bottoms! Viva Papa Francesco! Revolution is here to stay!
Or perhaps not.
The problem with the narrative devised by the secular press is that it is constructed on philosophical presuppositions of which the journalists themselves are probably ignorant. The modern secular world interprets world events and history according to a hermeneutic of revolution or what Pope Benedict called a hermeneutic of rupture. This is essentially a Hegelian understanding of history in which there is thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In other words, there is a status quo, there is the challenge to the status quo and this brings about conflict out of which a new order is born.
This “hermeneutic of revolution” was pioneered at the Protestant Reformation–which is properly called the Protestant Revolution. Before that there was conflict, but for the most part the conflict was between nations, tribes or kingdoms. To revolt against one’s own tribe or nation was considered treachery and treason. However, the Protestant Revolution changed all that. The Protestant Revolution was perceived as righteous. At that point the precedent for revolution was established, and Western society has been determined and driven by the idea of righteous revolution as progress ever since. When I say “revolution as progress” the assumption is not only that things move forward through revolution, but that the revolution must, by definition, be a good thing. For the modern secularist, revolution means progress and progress must, by definition, be a move forward.
The key mark of revolution (as opposed to legitimate reform) is that the revolutionary is not only eager to bring about a new order. He must first destroy the old. Revolution is iconoclastic. The old must be destroyed in order for the new to be established. This is why we can characterize most of the Protestant Reformation as revolution rather than reform. The Protestants were not content to simply reform the medieval Catholic Church. They had to destroy the whole thing and start again.
Reform, on the other hand, corrects and expands the status quo rather than destroying and starting anew. The Catholic understanding has always, therefore been one of constant reform and renewal, not one of revolution. Catholic reform is built not on a Hegelian premise of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, but on a hermeneutic of continuity. We do not destroy the old to start again. We correct the old, modify the status quo and expand and develop our understanding of the faith and the work of the church. To use a gardening analogy, the Catholic prunes the vine, fertilizes the soil and weeds the vineyard. The revolutionary grubs up the whole place with a bulldozer and tries to plant a flower bed.
This need for renewal and reform is a constant work of the church. She never stays in one place. Through the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit she is always searching for renewal and reform from within and evangelization of the world without. Human sin, corruption, apathy and torpor is always with the Church and in every age she is called to the hard work of renewal and reform. I say this is hard work because it is far harder to gradually, gently and carefully correct, expand, nurture and bring the church where she should be. It is far easier to destroy the status quo and start again. It is far easier, but it is far more destructive and in the end, the revolutionary is hoisted on his own petard because it will not be very long before the nouveau regime becomes the ancien regime and another revolution is required.
This contrast between reform and revolution sheds light on the recent history of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council was a reforming council, but it was not a revolutionary council. Unfortunately, in an age of revolution, with the zeitgeist one of revolution, the council was hi-jacked by those who could not see the world in anything but revolutionary terms. Thus I still hear Catholics speak about “pre-Vatican II” and “post Vatican II” as if a great revolution took place. The other day a fellow priest condemned our plans for a traditional style church saying that “It is pre-Vatican II. We are supposed to build modern churches now that encourage participation.” The true interpretation of the second Vatican Council is that it reformed the church, but did not bring about a revolution. The Second Vatican Council corrected, adjusted and expanded the ministry of the church and the truths of the faith through the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was never intended to be revolutionary and iconoclastic. The wreckage of the Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II was an abuse, not a right use.
This brings us back to Pope Francis. Is he a revolutionary or a reformer? Those who are brainwashed by the revolutionary spirit of the age will be disappointed to find that he is not a radical revolutionary but a gentle reformer. He will certainly seek to cleanse the church, correct her human faults, pull the weeds and bring us back to our gospel roots, but he will not be an iconoclastic revolutionary. Instead he will lead the church in the work she is called to do: a work of constant reform, renewal and conversion of life.
Finally, what the Pope is doing for the church, he calls all of us to do on the individual level. In our own lives, in the lives of our families, our parishes, schools and diocese and in our local communities we are not called to revolution, but reform. Grace builds on nature. God meets us where we are and encourages us to fulfill that great destiny he has for each of us. We reach that destiny not through violent revolution, but through gradual growth, gentle development in the spirit and the hard daily work of running on the path of God’s commandments. At the heart of this task is the call to personal repentance, reform and renewal.
This is the task of the church. It is the task of each of the baptized. It is the hard and steady work of renewal and reform instead of the adolescent and violent option of revolution.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He is author of thirteen books on the Catholic faith. Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing is available in Catholic bookshops and through his website: dwightlongenecker.com
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