The reforms the cardinals are in fact discussing

Because the daily pre-conclave meetings of cardinals in the Vatican’s Synod Hall are confidential, and the cardinals have largely stopped speaking to the press to give themselves privacy for reflection in advance of Tuesday’s conclave, it is hard to work out what are the dividing lines and debates in this papal transition. What issues are on their minds? What are they looking to the next pope to prioritise?IMG_8208

In the absence of clear information, the media have been turning to those who seem to want “change” – groups such as the abuse survivors’ organisation SNAP, or INWAC (better known as ‘We Are Church’), both of whom have been giving briefings and interviews around the Vatican.victims660cloneclone

The unreality of these interviews is that the kinds of changes these groups want to see are not what the cardinals are discussing. The changes required to make the Church a model of safeguarding have already been implemented, at least in the western Church, and the issue is now regarded as “work in progress” – in other words, any future pope will carry forward the reforms that have already been put in place. SNAP’s attempts to produce a ‘blacklist’ of cardinals whose past remarks on the issue they regard as inadequate is certain to be ignored, as well as their list of three they want to see as pope.

INWAC’s manifesto calls for the “renewal of the Church” by what it calls the “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council —  a language and theology that were popular in the 1970s but which are now associated with largely aged, middle-class European liberal Catholics. The church teachings they want changed are, of course, those which secular individualist cultures, underpinned by an exaggerated ethic of autonomy, find most repellent: not allowing priests to marry, for example, the ordination of women, and sexual morality in general. Again, there is absolutely no chance of such changes being considered because church positions on these issues flow from the teaching which church leaders believe it is their obligation to hand on.rome-06mar2013-410x307

In the same vein is a group of intellectuals, including theologians, who have issued a ‘Catholic Scholars’ Declaration on Authority’ with a blueprint for structural reforms to enable the Church to embrace what it calls  — in an astonishing act of faith in modernity — “the openness, accountability and democracy achieved in modern society”.

Their calls have received wide coverage in UK newspapers, despite being entirely unpresentative of the views of practising Catholics. Baroness Helena Kennedy, on their behalf, criticises “misguided” church rulings on sexual ethics, including contraception, homosexuality and remarriage, and describes priestly celibacy as “torture”.

Like INWAC, the Scholars say they want to see “more democracy” in the Church.

Because the process underway in Rome is designed precisely to allow the cardinals freedom to discern, without pressures from theological agendas, political lobbies or interest groups, such can groups can claim that an “authoritarian” church leadership is deaf to their concerns, and “opposed to reform”.

But there are two major fallacies in this narrative. The first is to assume that, because the Church does not have the same democratic structures as modern western states, it does not therefore have lines of accountability. A Catholic Church run on democratic lines would be, of course, implausible, given its size and global reach; and anyway, democratically elected governments are not known for listening to popular or majority views (think Iraq war or gay marriage). The second is that, as a matter of simple observation, the cardinals are discussing changes and reforms – but not the ones called for by a small northern-European group with an anachronistic understanding of Vatican II.

IMG_7916The process now underway to elect a new pope is the fruit of discussion, debate, deliberation, and discernment among more than 200 men with vast experience of the Church and the world. Most of them are bishops or archbishops, who run great dioceses and look after the concerns of great swathes of humanity. The idea that they do not “listen” is palpably untrue: the cardinals that have been interviewed here and spoken to journalists are clearly people who listen very attentively – not just to the powerful and articulate, but also to the voiceless and vulnerable, whose concerns they bring to the this gathering of global church leaders.

The general congregations, as the pre-conclave discussions are called, have ranged over a large number of topics. From what has been said explicitly and what has leaked out, it is we can say with certainty that the following topics have been discussed:

  1. The need for curial reform in the light of the recent Vatileaks scandals, to ensure that the Curia works for the Pope and for the mission of the Church, rather than distract from it.
  2. The need for a better working relationship between the bishops of the world and the Vatican. The great growth of the Church worldwide, both in geography and population, demands more frequent contact between the local Church and the body overseeing the universal Church.
  3. The need for communicating better the Catholic faith in a way that is more credible to contemporary culture.
  4. How the governance of the Church can better reflect the majority population of Catholics in developing countries, and bring the energy and vigour of the faith in those countries to reinvigorate the Church of northern Europe.
  5. The place of women in the Church and the need to get rid of artificial barriers to their leadership of Catholic institutions.


The Vatican commentator John Allen says the cardinals want to see curial reform in three ways:

  • Transparency: Internally, they want a curia that’s clearer about the logic for its decisions and about who’s making them; externally, they want the Vatican to do a better job of communicating with the outside world, including greater savvy about how to engage the media.
  • Accountability: Cardinals want to see the right people put into the right jobs, and then held accountable for poor performance. (Privately, many cardinals would concede that this wasn’t Benedict’s strong point, noting that he stuck with his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, well after many of them were convinced his sell-by date had passed.)
  • Modernisation: Cardinals want a curia that’s more in tune with 21st century standards of business management, including a capacity to process business in a timely fashion. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, for instance, said in an NCR interview that the church can no longer afford the Vatican’s traditionally glacial pace, because “we’re less patient, and the world moves faster than it once did.”

To note these calls for reform does not, of course, easily indicate the name of the pope who will walk out on the balcony next week. But whoever it is will know, having listened to his brother cardinals, what their priorities are. The next pope’s agenda, in other words, is to some extent defined by what he has heard — and that agenda includes many reforms necessary to better equip the Church for mission, articulated by prayerful leaders who have listened to millions. It is a process most Catholics trust.

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