The Church needs reform. She is riven by polarization, weakened by laxity among the faithful, and challenged by the apparent tensions between her teaching and the times. But this need for Catholic reform raises two interlocking questions: Whose Catholicism? Which reform?
For many, reform means creating a new form of Catholic life. Such “reform” rejects any stable meaning of “Catholic” and seeks to transform Catholicism into something that takes contemporary secular beliefs as its starting point. This seems to be the underlying approach of those who rally to the German Synodal Way or to Outreach.
But if true reform means returning to form, then understanding the form of Catholic life is essential. To this end, Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s True and False Reform: What It Means to Be Catholic is so important because it develops an account of reform grounded in an understanding of what it means to be Catholic. It thus offers an intellectual offering for navigating our times in a way that restores and renews the dynamic constancy at the heart of Catholicism.
Cardinal Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, offers an excellent standard for good theology when he says of himself: “I believe, live, and feel with the Catholic Church.” Discerning true reform means discerning whether we are believing, living and feeling with the Church or with the world. If we are living out this trifold action, we can inhabit the theological space needed to discern true reform and true Catholicism.
In this, Cardinal Müller looks to St. Paul, for “when the apostle calls for reform, he means that we should become like Christ and be conformed to him in thinking and speaking in our actions and sufferings.” The question of reform is at its root a question of to whom we will conform. The locus of reform is conforming to Christ, which is to live as members of his communal Body.
For Cardinal Müller, 75, to act as though the Church needs to get with the times is to act as though the Church needs to be reformed according to the form of the world. This is “to get the subject and object of reform confused.”
In and through the Church, the real task “is to reconcile the world through Christ with God.” True reform of the Church leads to the reform of the world, such that the world conforms to Christ. The word for this is evangelization, in which we aim to invite the world to join us in the task of Christian life. Thus reform of the Church is “always an inner renewal in Christ, which then is manifested in a true following of Christ.” In putting on Christ rather than getting with the times, the Church either enables the times to get with the Church or stands as a sign of contradiction against a corrupt time.
To understand reform in this way is to gain insight into what it means to be Catholic. Being Catholic does not mean being a member of a denomination among others or of a community of people trying to catch up with the sexual revolution. If reformation is always reconforming to Christ, then to be Catholic is to be a member of the Body that conforms to Christ. “The faithful are the members of this body and living building blocks of this temple of God,” the cardinal writes, “and are to become so through living lives conformed to Christ.”
If our reforming does not start from there, it starts from the wrong place. Far too many today start from the wrong place.
Reform Through Conforming to Christ
This conforming to Christ must be Catholic in two senses. First, it must be universal, such that all people, irrespective of race or nation, are invited and included within the universal Church. This inclusive universality means that one region of the Church, such as Cardinal Müller’s home country of Germany, cannot decide that it will invent its own way of being Catholic.
Secondly, if Catholicism is comprehensive, in that it is for all people, it is also comprehensive in that it is for each person’s whole being. One cannot be partially Catholic, to take a part here and leave a part there. My catholicity must be universal to who I am. This is why Cardinal Müller holds that we must “want to be, think, and live as Catholic,” which means “putting into practice everything that constitutes being a Christian and its ecclesial mediation.” My whole life — my beliefs, actions, and desires — must conform to the whole Christ.
Those of us who refuse aspects of Catholic doctrine or practice are failing in our Catholicity. To accept Catholicism is to commit to a fullness that is like a marriage. One can neither be partially married nor partially Catholic.
For the baptized person, there is a “new relationship to God” which “re-grounds his whole being.” Conforming to Christ as a Catholic requires our universal conforming to the universal Church, which is the Body of Christ. Just as a married person gives his or her all, the Catholic must “put into practice everything that constitutes being a Christian and its ecclesial mediation.”
Through our universal conforming, others are called to join with us in conforming to Christ. Our global Catholicity is grounded in the Catholicity of the whole Church in each of her members. In letting the unconverted aspects of our lives be evangelized, we can evangelize our world.
The Danger of Selectivity
How do we fail in this Catholicity and thus fail in right reform? We are selective. Cardinal Müller powerfully brings across how pernicious cafeteria Catholicism is. To treat the Church as offering selections to pick from is to fail to be Catholic. When we select which doctrines or which moral teachings to assent to or live out, we reject Catholicity for a pernicious specificity.
Consider a story related to me of seminarians throwing recycling into trash and laughingly saying “Laudato No,” a clear derision of Pope Francis’ teaching on care for creation. Their “No” undermines the full “Yes” that Christ summons us to. Likewise, bishops who think Eucharistic coherence is something we can set aside, priests whose dream weddings are between two men or two women, or politicians who defend the legal killing of the unborn fail to be Catholic because they reject the universality of the faith.
Cardinal Müller particularly directs his concern regarding selective Catholicity towards two groups: progressives and traditionalists.
The latter prefers “a past Christian cultural world,” and the former aims “to sell yourself to the ‘modern age.’” Both undermine Vatican II because they fail to see it as “the highest teaching authority of the Catholic Church.”
The progressive faction has particularly harmed the Church. While traditionalists are overly attached to past ages, they are still attached to the Christianity of a past age. Progressives are attached to the worldliness of this age.
What Cardinal Müller presents is what I would call a Vatican II traditionalism. This is a traditionalism that embraces the whole of tradition inclusive of Vatican II and so a traditionalism open to reform and new expressions of Catholic life. Progressives violate Vatican II by supposedly embracing it while rejecting the rest of the tradition. Traditionalists violate tradition by supposedly embracing it while rejecting Vatican II’s essential role in it.
What is needed is a real traditionalism grounded in the whole of tradition, inclusive of Vatican II and grounded in Christ summoning the “Church to continual reform as it sojourns in the world.” Cardinal Müller’s book is crucial to returning to a Vatican II traditionalism that is increasingly faltering due to the selectivity of both progressives and traditionalists.
Living the Reform
If true reform is living true Catholicism, where will this reform come from? For Cardinal Müller, “the only and the true reformer of the Church is God, for She is His.” For us to “also be co-responsible citizens in the City of God,” we must hold to this.
True reform, coming from God, motivates us to reform ourselves and the Church by living her full Catholicity. If we are to participate in the reform of the Church, we need to recognize that “what matters is to believe with the Church and live with her in her liturgy and Christian ethics.” This can never mean believing some teachings, partially participating in her shared liturgy, or only living out socially convenient ethical teachings.
For Cardinal Müller, this will mean living Catholicism as “creative minorities” through new and old ways of living the full faith. Such full fidelity leads to dynamic movements; barely Catholic or formerly Catholic movements lead to decay and “a path to completion.”
True reform is happening today, as exemplified by religious orders like the Sisters of Life, “wild” Catholic movements in atheist Berlin and new educational initiatives in American universities. The hierarchical Church needs to get behind these movements and launch initiatives like the Eucharistic Revival. Christ is calling us to continual reform; we need to heed that summons. Cardinal Müller’s book contributes to this reform and to Catholicism by helping clarify both, so that we can live out the true reform that the Church needs.