International Church Reform network

priest and reform-movements working together

Reform of the Reform

Reform-movements and priest-initiatives met to reflect on their work and to network for further learning. An example for what ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ means.

by Markus Heil

The International Church Reform Network ( met in June 2018 in Pezinok near Bratislava. In this network, leaders of different reform-movements meet together, along with reform-minded individuals.

The local hosts in Pezinok gave a thorough introduction into their history as part of the Hidden Church in Slovakia during the time of the communist regime.

Learning from the Hidden Church gave a focus for considering different aspects. Most significantly, it allowed the question “Is the Catholic church a totalitarian system?” in comparison  to previous decades of communism.

We asked whether the idea of a parallel Society, as developed by Charter 77  (1) members is also applicable to contemporary church reform work. “Is the hope for a reform of the current clerical system, which is so connected to the Roman Curia, in any way realistic?” “Should we aim instead for the idea of a parallel society, no longer fighting the old system but rather building a new alternative way of being church?”

Different people shared their different perspectives on these questions, leading to a range of answers.

The discussions around Charter 77 with Martin Palous, together with the poem on Hope by Vaclav Havel,[2]gave the whole network the idea of drawing courage from our heroes and heroines. They inspired the conference to learn from the past; to see the depth of philosophical discussion and reflection; to give with just a few words an essential new direction, and through this energize a reform-oriented state of mind.

The Hidden Church also taught the participants that there are not only vociferous and extrovert ways to protest. But there are also times for silent and hidden reform, when people  create something new through their courage and endurance. We have to learn to differentiate when to speak up and when to stay silent, quietly continuing with good work without much media attention.

In those repressed times, the Hidden Church developed both a theology of the dying church and a theology for times of trouble. Those reflections gave birth to fresh theological discussions back in the 1970’s and 80’s, when huge parts of the church were dying. If we consider the current state of church and society today, we can see parallels with that period. Theological questions are now arising which demand attention.

By holding differing positions in this field, the ICRN proved to be a diverse network, but one in which diversity is seen as a strength.

A Change in consciousness

During the Pezinok conference, there were some remarkable changes in perspective. The significant outcome is not that from the four working-groups, there are now seven, but rather that the manner in which they re-adjusted their focus demonstrates the best fruits of this meeting.

The Fundamental Rights group started with the painful comment, that many Catholics seem to have accommodated to the lack of rights – and although they fight for the rights in their own democratic states, they are hardly conscious of that lack inside the institution of their own church. Among the general population Church tends to be seen as a traditionalist alternative to the contemporary world. So how can we mobilize a new consciousness, where fundamental rights could give new air to the lungs of the church?

Here Charter 77 set an example by naming as succinctly as possible, the new spirit of the time with its relevance for contemporary institutions. Because Charter 77 made reference only to the final declaration of the Helsinki agreement, showing the gap between people’s rights on paper and the reality of oppression, so too this working-group has set itself the task of narrowing the catalogue of rights from broad theories to the real essentials.

The Emerging Ministrygroup that has formed around the Lobinger Modelof ordaining priests in Parishes, was focused especially on the interest this model has gained over the last few years and how it has helped to free the discussion from the one and only, one way ordination (male, celibate and academics).  ‘Team-priests from and for the community’was the starting point for discussion about this model. But gradually the very word ‘ordination’ was seen as only a part of the issues of Eucharistic famine in the old world, or of caring for small communities scattered in the new world, and of how the Eucharist can be celebrated and held alive in their midst. Inevitably, questions of the nature of priesthood, of sacrament itself, of Eucharist and community all demand attention.

The working-group on Women’s Equality presented their previous work by introducing story-telling circles of ‘How women feel in today’s parishes’.

By reflecting on deeper issues, they resolved that equality is not an additional, optional  question for the church but an essential requirement. The church’s credibility depends on her practicing what she proclaims.  The church can only speak about justice, if she acts with justice in all her internal workings. And there various aspects of Catholicism where on many levels, standards of equality discourse, legal structures and financial transparency are not met by the church.

The LGBTQI+working group on leadership training for LBTQI+ has changed its focus. The idea now is to do something for the network itself, since the impression is that there is a general need for information on LGBTIQ+ issues. Though that need for information differs within  different groups,  the experience shared by most shows that Roman Catholic LGBTQI+ groups usually consist mostly (sometimes only) of gay men. So the important questions are – How to become really inclusive? – and – Who are the people that need to be included?

A new group centres on Synodality, with a precise emphasis to create some written materials about the key explanations and visions of the reform movements.

This is also a great place for the contribution of university teachers to the movements.

One example of these contributions was in the presentation of Herman Häring. He explained how the current theology of episcopacy and its teaching authority is in itself narcissistic and therefore gives support to any personal narcissistic tendencies of episcopal officeholders. Identifying problems in the theology and distinguishing it from the psychology of episcopacy would help both to solve difficulties with the theology and also significantly improve the selection of personal. Anyone who is called ‘infallible’ is in great danger of turning out to be a narcissist.

One further working-group is doing some preparation in clarifying what we have learned  during the papacy of Pope Francis,so that we can get a better picture of what we might expect from later office-holders in future years.

The seventh working-group is trying through Activist ‘happenings’to raise consciousness during the next synod about the fact that only bishops will speak and vote and therefore 99.9 % of the People of God are excluded. There will be an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the need to bring the diversity of catholic experience into decision-making processes. A special focus is now on the legitimate and essential representation of women at synods.

General direction

In today’s world, even the reform movements have lost some momentum and their dominant narrative no longer communicates well. Therefore, an update of church reform, in computer language from version 2.0 to ‘church reform 3.0’ is envisioned, but is as yet far from being completed.

Nevertheless church reform 2.0 stays as homework, looking to a future which will not be sustainable without married and female decision-makers.   So we aim to connect with the reforming energies of today’s youth, with their fast and diverse engagement in different topics, like the current Me-too movement or the fight for Gun Control in the USA, or the recent participation of young people for a new political culture in Slovakia. We are not trying to copy these movements, but to find ways to connect like these campaigns have done, to help move our society forward in its spiritual dimension. That will be the great challenge for the next years of church-reform.

For these further steps, a new narrative is needed to communicate with the young (in age and in mind) where people are longing for communal spirituality, with all its political and social implications.   This new narrative can only be born in a group when the old narrative is already dissolving.

During the conference to some extent we were more concerned with letting go of the old than with creating the new. We can decide to visualise the church as the Titanic, with some people still reading tomorrow’s menu while others are organizing life-jackets and life-boats or we might choose to see the current clerical structure as an ancient dinosaur. It’s up to us whether we still feed it or let it slowly die of its own accord.

More meetings in this Network are planned. As the leaders of these reform-movements made great friendships, we are in a strong position to support each other as we identify difficult topics, blind spots and endure tears and pain together. This seems like a good culture for producing new shoots of growth in our church.


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