Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Challenge of Authentic Reform

In September 1964, during the Vatican Council's third session, Thomas Merton, like so many others at that time, was considering proposed changes in liturgical observances - for example, "concelebration, should priests say private masses or go to communion at High Mass?" Looking at the bigger picture, however, Merton made this prescient observation: "Looking through the Usages for things that might be dropped as 'artificial' - noticed with alarm that they are all built into the very structure of the life. To take away these observances would be in fact to take away what practically constitutes the 'Trappist Life' for many monks! This is very serious. It seems that there is no real 'adaptation' possible??"

Merton was on to something - as anyone who lived though the "changes" (as they are sometimes still called by veterans from my generation) that the Church put itself through in the 1960s and after, changes that in some respects still divide the community. Nor, needless to say, does his observation apply only to the religious changes of the 60s. Secular society went through the same thing - with even more radical consequences and lasting divisiveness. It is a lesson everyone who had ever studied the history of the French Revolution should have been ready for. But, then as now, the wishful thinking that mere "adaptation" is possible without heading down the road to either substantive reform or radical revolution (or both) is perennially seductive.

The fact is that human beings (and a fortiori human societies and institutions) require and depend upon stable and habitual behaviors. So changes, even truly necessary and benevolent ones, are challenging and difficult at best, disruptive and destructive at worst. Small "adaptations" without deeper consequences are certainly possible - but only in truly small, inconsequential matters. When it comes to important matters, the consequences of destabilizing are always serious and can be catastrophic. Enlightenment Europe learned that lesson as it watched the French Revolution careen uncontrollably from constitutional monarchy to reign of terror to Bonapartist despotism.

Of course, the Church is not the same as secular society.  Yet, insofar as the Church is a human organization, the dynamics of what happens among actual people may be similar when adaptations are unreflectively made and change spirals uncontrollably in a revolutionary rather than reformist direction.

So real reform is never easy and cannot be implemented unreflectively. It requires  what religious language calls discernment. Hence, the importance of paying careful attention to Pope Francis' recent remarks on the subject.

“This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months. Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor. My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing.

“But I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time. The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”

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