Twenty Church Reform Suggestions

Friday, June 25, 2004



Some Catholics tend to fear the very word, "reform". It calls to mind historic memories of the Protestant Reformation and the painful divisions that linger to this day.
The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy
and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of
penance and renewal. (LG 8)
Penance is rooted in the notion of conversion and reform. Renewal is to make new. The Church is called to constant renewal and reform.

At the same time, Catholic renewal and reform must remain distinctively Catholic in faithful continuity with the Tradition received in Rome.

In suggesting twenty ideas for Church reform, I am envisioning that for the average Mass going Catholic, much of what we love most about the Church would remain the same. We still want to keep the doctrines summarized in the creeds. We would keep the seven sacraments and much of our devotional life.

Indeed, we may try to increase devotion to such traditional piety as the Rosary and Holy Hours while carrying out these reforms. There is no contradiction.

So, without further ado, here are twenty suggestions for renewal in the Catholic Church:

1. The Church should follow its own teaching regarding social justice for full time employees and full time volunteers

The issue is that lay employees of the Church are often drastically underpaid, while the Church, herself teaches that a person should earn a just and living wage for labor.

Teachers in Catholic schools from Pre-K all the way through the university level often do not earn enough to support a family. Nurses in Catholic hospitals can earn more and have lighter patient loads in some secular hospitals. Those who work in Catholic charities and social services are often barely above the poverty line themselves. Church secretaries and rectory cooks are often paid merely as a symbol.

Furthermore, the Church relies heavily on volunteer labor. Voluntarism is good and should be encouraged. However, when a volunteer or group of volunteers eliminate the need to hire for an essential Church service, the position should still be included in the budget at a just and living wage. Should the person filling the role wish to turn down a check, the monies should be held in escrow to fill the position when the volunteer leaves.

2. Restore elected bishops

Bishops were elected by the faithful in the early Church, all the way beyond the days of Saint Augustine, who was elected in the late fourth century. The Holy Father could maintain veto power, but should generally simply rubber stamp the consensus of the faithful in a diocese.

3. Create an elected non-clerical parish administrator, with a cleric acting as spiritual pastor

To help alleviate the effects of declining vocations and increase the effectiveness of pastoral ministry, lay people should be elected as full time paid parish administrators.

These administrators would be business manager types responsible for fund raising, budget creation, building maintenance, and so forth. The administrator might be compared to a company COO.

In turn, ordained pastors would be freed from these tasks in order to focus on providing sacramental ministry, religious education, spiritual direction, and theological direction and advice. The pastor might be compared to a parish CEO. He is the person who sets strategic direction and has oversight over the COO without actually running operations. The COO is accountable to him, but does the grunt work.

4. Give more canonical power to parish councils in setting parish direction

Parish councils should also be elected, and they ought to have some canonical power to remove an incompetent administrator or pastor.

Of course, there should be a well defined process for the exercise of this power to protect the innocent and the Catholic integrity of the parish. Nevertheless, the laity ought to have some voice in shaping the pastor's and the administrator's vision.

All priests would still be ordained by a Bishop, who must be approved by the Pope. This will help maintain unity. Yet, more input would be sought from the local community and some power would be given to the local community to deal with incompetence.

5. Give more canonical power to local bishops synods

The bishops ought to set the agenda for the national churches to increase the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the Catholic Church in a given region. The Holy Father should generally support local synods.

6. Promote and effectively utilize lay advisory review boards for all diocesan policies and financial administration

This idea comes from the lay review boards established after Vatican II for holding the Church financially accountable. The idea has already been expanded in the wake of the sex abuse crises of the early twenty-first century.

The Pope, Cardinals, curia and higher bishops should also work to increase accountability, maintain orthodox unity and moral integrity. This is pressure from above. Lay review boards would work to put more pressure from below on the Church leadership.

7. Restore the role of patriarch

This adds another layer to the Hierarchy, but is deeply rooted in the historical reality of the early Church. The idea here is to have a single leader for major geographic regions who can ensure that bishops synods and conferences are occurring and working properly.

8. Ordain women priests

The Church is simply looking foolish on this issue, and spends too much time defending a doctrine that is difficult, if not impossible to defend. Women priests would give Christian witness to the dignity of women in the Church.

Along with women ministerial priests, the local bishops synods, with the patriarch's approval, could explore proper use of inclusive language in liturgy to refer to both God and the people of God.

9. Restore optional celibacy for ministerial priests

This was the dominant tradition for 1139 years of Church history, and remains the practice of Eastern Rite Catholics. There simply is no reason to maintain the practice of mandatory celibacy, and the celibate vocation will not die out if priests are permitted to marry.

10. Try a term priesthood (serve for ten years, then re-enlist)

I posted this idea of Andrew Greeley's a short time ago, and people objected that it takes away from the permanent sacramental quality of being a priest.

Theologically, I agree with the notion that once a priest, always a preist. Nevertheless, if a man (or woman) is not happy, there ought to be a way out with dignity.

11. Revise the teaching on contraception

I am not saying that the teaching ought to be completely abandoned. Rather, I think a more general direction on contraception is the actual belief of the Church as a whole. The Church could say something like this:

Adultery, fornication and all sexual activity outside of marriage involves sin, and often mortally so. To the extent that a contraceptive mentality contributes to these behaviors, the Church condemns such an attitude.

Within marriage, children are a blessing from God, who creates each individual life and provides us the means to support our children. Within the context of marriage, the notion of bearing and raising children should not generally be treated as a disease to prevented by pills or removed by surgery.

At the same time, the Church supports the conscientious decisions of married couples to act as responsible parents by limiting the number of children in certain moral circumstances. Each married couple should examine their conscience and prayerfully reflect on whether abstinence, natural family planning, or artificial contraception is the best suited means to achieve the end of responsible parenthood when limiting the number of children is deemed necessary.

12. Consider blessing gay unions

Marriage is a well defined sacrament that Scripture and Tradition define as a union between man and woman for the purpose of expressing unitive love and bearing children.

Yet, the Church non-sacramentally blesses certain life-style choices. For example, a nun is not ordained, and receives no "sacrament of celibacy". Yet, her vows are blessed and supported by the Church in a powerful way.

Furthermore, the Church permits marriage for heterosexual couples struggling with infertility.

In a like manner, the Church could bless the unitive love expressed by gay and lesbian couples. While such a blessing may not technically be a sacrament instituted by Christ, the union could be elevated to the recognition and respect afforded the vows of a non-ordained sister, monk or friar.

In this way, the integrity of the sacraments are maintained while the Church demonstrates the mercy and compassion of Christ to help homosexuals live a more graced life than the secular gay life-style offers.

13. Promote a consistent ethic of life

The Church should be more supportive of those who oppose the death penalty and work for peace, along with opposition to abortion.

Continue to teach that abortion is a mortal sin and work for legal solutions, but drop the language of automatic excommunication.

It simply is not right to excommunicate a confused teenager who doesn't fully understand the ramifications of what she is doing. Even psychopathic serial killers are not excommunicated.

14. Permit divorced and remarried Catholics to return to communion without annulling their first marriage

The Church teaches that a valid marriage is "indissoluble", meaning that it is permanent in nature, and can never be revoked. A divorced Catholic cannot receive communion if they remarry another person unless they have an annulment.

For some people, the annulment process is no big deal, and it is thought of as a "Catholic divorce" and a means of reconciling with the Church for sin.

However, these views are misunderstandings of what an annulment is. An annulment is actually a formal declaration by the Church that what appeared to be a marriage was in fact not a valid marriage at all.

The ramification is that any children from the annulled marriage were born out of wedlock, and the sexual expression of that union was fornication.

The annulment process is also expensive and there must be grounds for the Church to declare the marriage null and void before an annulment is granted.

For these reasons, some people either cannot get an annulment (because they lack grounds or the funds), or they chose not to get an annulment (because they refuse to consider their first marriage completely invalid).

Without the annulment, a second marriage is considered by the Church to be an adulterous relationship. The reasoning is that since the first marriage was valid and hasn't been declared null through an annulment, a second marriage is simply an act of publicly cheating on your spouse.

While divorce may always involve sin to some degree, and remarriage after divorce is not ideal, the Apostolic Tradition has allowed for a different way of handling this. In Eastern Orthodoxy, divorce is permitted and remarriage allowed without an annulment. Communion is permitted after a period of penance.

The Church does have a responsibility to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Yet, she also has a responsibility to convey the mercy and forgiveness of God revealed in Christ. Christ in no way condoned divorce. Yet, he forgave the adulterous woman.

In some cases, a divorced Catholic is coming back to the Church after years away - perhaps due to children in a second marriage. Such a Catholic may not want either marriage annulled, and yet may seek to build a new relationship with Christ. The Church is a hospital for sinners as surely as she is a home for saints. There needs to be a way for broken people to bring themselves to the broken bread on the altar as they are.

15. Increase emphasis on social services tied to parish level

Most Catholic parishes in the United States do some type of social service ministry. Additionally, many parishes have a school and some even support nursing homes. It's not that we don't do this.

I believe that the local Churches should strive to be the leading center of charitable activity in the geographic region covered by the parish. I think we should actually be almost competitive in providing social services.

16. Increase emphasis on social justice activities

The Catholic Church as a whole has been a leader among all religions in advocating for political and cultural reform for social justice. However, most of the work gets done by large national groups associated with the Bishops. Every parish ought to develop a social justice advocacy group that works with the dioceses, national and international Catholic justice groups to make a better world. Of course, a local group also ought to be able to identify local issues of importance to the parish, and advocate locally for those issues.

17. Allow local adaptation and experimentation in missionary countries

European language, song and art is not somehow more pleasing to God than the languages, song and art of non-European culture. Even the matter and form of the sacraments might be subject to review in a new culture. Jesus chose common bread made from common and simple wheat and water as a sign of his presence to a first century Jewish audience. Perhaps he would have chosen common and simple corn and water tortillas if he were incarnate in Central America. Perhaps dance would have been used more frequently in the liturgies if Christ were incarnate in Africa. Perhaps there are some pastorally sensitive ways to deal with issues like the polygamy of a new convert in Papua New Guinea.

18. Be more ecumenical

The Church defined in Vatican II that the fullness of truth necessary for salvation subsists in the Roman Catholic Church, and that there is no salvation apart from the mystery of Christ, nor is there salvation apart from the mystery of the Church.

Yet, the Church also defined that many people outside of the institutional boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church are mysteriously united to the Church in a real way. The Church defined that salvific grace is found outside of the institutional boundaries of the Church. The Church affirmed that grace, goodness and truth is found in other religions, and that we can and should promote dialogue and cooperation between various faith communities.

The Church should put its doctrinal development in greater practice by seeking more opportunities to pray and work for others.

19. Simplify the Basic Message

At the center of the "good news" is that God loves us so much that he joined our condition and died for sins, and that death and sin were conquered in his resurrection. The Gospel is a love story between God and humanity, and Catholicism is about "incomparable dignity of the human person revealed in the incarnation" (EV 3).

The Roman Catholic faith is deep enough that an elephant can float on its waters, but so can a mouse. There is a hierarchy of truths in the deposit of faith. We need to always remain focused on the center of the faith even as we try to continually help people grow and deepen their knowledge and faith. We sometimes worry more about whether someone understands the doctrine of the immaculate conception properly than whether they understand the significance of the resurrection.

20. Allow Academic freedom for theologians, and create lay theologians

Theologians are seekers of truth. Seekers of truth take the evidence wherever it leads. It is the job of a theologian to ask tough questions, speculate out on a limb, critique the status quo, argue and debate fine nuances and distinctions, and research uncharted waters. Laity should be invited to participate in the theological enterprise with priests.


All of these reforms may sound like they diminish the power of the papacy. I believe in the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, and believe that a pope can effectively lead by helping to support and defend the proposed structural changes. Furthermore, he could speak more authoritively to the non-Catholic world because he (or she) would be speaking more as our representative and spokesperson.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 2:22 PM

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