Church Reformers Shouldn't Let Good Work Go to TheirHeads

In recent years I have become much more optimistic about the future of the Catholic Church in America. This has nothing to do with accepting anything heterodox, liturgically improper or goofy, or immoral. Such problems exist, and a rebellion against the Faith by many Catholics who continue to walk through the doors of our churches is still a reality.

However, the two sources of my optimism are observations of the dried-up and tired initiative of dissenters, and the growth and development of various reform movements within the Church. Reading “progressive” or “liberal” dissenting publications is like reading a Japanese or German war report in 1944: a steady collapse of earlier conquests and efforts causes much anger and fulmination. The right-wing dissenters have always been angry, so nothing is new on that front.

The good news is that hundreds of new religious orders are being founded, many of which are flourishing. Of course they have their own problems, but young people are open to devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of Sacred Scripture, to understanding the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains concepts new to many who grew up in the last thirty years, and to a deep love of the Church and our Blessed Mother Mary. Call to Holiness conferences attract Catholics across the age spectrum; Youth 2000 attracts young Catholics to eucharistic adoration; large crowds attend debates where the Catholic Faith is defended against its attackers; many new converts join the Church each year. The truth of the Catholic Faith is simply much more attractive than the claims and partial truths of its attackers and detractors. At this point, I believe that the dynamism is with Catholic orthodoxy, not with dissent.

The next decade will probably see growth in religious life, seminary enrollment, and families. However, these first glimmers for a hope of a Catholic future contain potential problems which could undermine the good that is happening today.

Most especially, the pride of reformers can become a tool of the Evil One to undo God's work. This pride could originate in an attitude whereby a Catholic thinks that he or she has accomplished something great in ending an abuse. Instead of perceiving how God's grace moves to convert you first, and then your neighbor, the reformer might take the credit for a job well done.

Claiming credit, even privately, for what God is doing, can easily lead to the sin of party spirit, whereby a person politicizes the good deeds accomplished by the grace of God. Politicizing Church renewal leads to the formation of cliques and power groups within the Church. Certainly, such groups have existed, still exist, and will exist in the future. However, they generally receive censure from both historians and from our Lord, who considers such part spirit and factionalism a fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:14–21).

If a victory of Catholic orthodoxy is looming larger on the American horizon, we would do well to learn the lessons of the victories won earlier in this century. Will orthodox teaching and practice triumph as at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 or will there be a Marshall Plan at the end? Will there be a vengeful pursuit of indemnities from the defeated, as occurred at the end of World War I, or will a loving, sympathetic effort be made to rebuild what has been lost and destroyed, as happened after World War II?

In today's Catholic Church, will personal pride and party spirit seek vengeance and indemnity from those who abused the liturgy, textbook, and classroom to promote a politicized religious agenda through the 1970s and 1980s? Or will Christian charity pursue the truth, and seek opportunities for conversion, forgiveness, and reconciliation with Christ and his Church?

The humiliating defeat and indemnification of Germany in the 1920s is still seen as a major cause for the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. A mean, vengeful, conservative (that is, politicized) party spirit within the Church over the next decades will only serve to restore the angry protests and silly shenanigans of a politicized Catholic left. We would do well to imitate the steady, hard work and self-sacrifice of the World War II and post-war generation. The task at hand is education in the Catholic Faith, reform towards upholding the dignity of the liturgy, revitalization of the priesthood, religious life and lay movements, and growth in holiness, for which the biblical norm is God's own holiness (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15–16: “Be holy as the Lord is holy"; see also the divine norm for perfection in Matthew 5:48 and for compassion in Luke 6:36).

This task requires the grace of God. For this reason, St. Augustine prayed, “Lord, command what You will, but give what you command.” We can be as holy, perfect and compassionate as God, only if he gives us the grace to do so. We can be his instruments of renewal and reform, only if we pick up our crosses and follow the steps of Jesus. In so doing, the reform will avoid the dangers of prideful party spirit, because the reformers have sought not the flesh, but the Lord, the one true good of life.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.