"Always in need of being purified": The Church and Change

Some of you may be aware of the Talking Heads song, “Once In A Lifetime,” in which David Byrne sings the refrain “same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was,” over and over.  I sometimes get the sense that many members of the Church, clerics and laity, approach the Church on the same terms. We can do nothing to change the Church because it is the “same as it ever was” today.  There is another line from this song that indicates a better means by which we can approach the institutional structure of the Church, especially from an historical point of view:  “you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” The reality is that the institutional structures of the Church are ever-changing and have been from its origin in 1st century Galilee and Judea.  Lumen Gentium acknowledges the need for the Church to be aware of its sojourning nature here on earth: “While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal (my italics; 8).

The reason it is important to establish and explore this reality is because one of the ways to respond to the sexual abuse crisis in our Church is to examine why the current institutional structures of the Church allowed sexual abuse to be perpetrated by a small minority of priests and, as shocking, then allowed sexual abuse by clerics to be hushed up. The sad reality is that it is probably impossible to stop all sexual abuse of minors, not without the complete and final eradication of sin. Though many steps have been taken today to lessen the ability of predators to get access to children, it seems that structures of secrecy were in place that allowed abuse to continue or be covered up within the Church. I am aware that most abuse takes place, and took place, outside of the Church, but I do think that it is especially heinous when those who were called on to welcome children and protect children by Jesus himself harm and abuse those very children. At root the abuse of children and the subsequent cover-up of this abuse is a problem of misused power, authority and secrecy. In a nutshell, some would say that within the Church the sexual abuse of children is the product of clericalism.


I want to examine this issue in three separate posts. In the first post, I want to say some things about the nature of the Church and change, derived to a great degree from Ben F. Meyer’s 1967 article, “The Perennial Problem of the Church: Institutional Change” from Law for Liberty: The Role of Law in the Church Today (ed, James E. Biechler;  Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1967). In the second post, I want to examine the nature of authority and power in the Church as taught by Jesus, especially as it concerns children and other “little ones.” In the third and final post, I want to make some suggestions for change and the dangers and opportunities implicit in suggesting, let alone implementing, any sort of change. The impetus for this post is not only the sexual abuses crisis in the Church itself, but the challenge of Fr. Robert Beloin, the Catholic Chaplain at Yale University to the laity to take responsibility for change. He states that apart from the failings of priests and bishops there is to blame “a passive laity that does not demand a voice in the important organizational affairs of the Church where their expertise could make such a difference.”

1. In Meyer’s article he discusses, as a New Testament scholar, the jarring change that was emerging in the wake of the recently completed Vatican II Council. He first of all locates change in the Church as a specifically “religious problem,” by which he means, I think, that it is not first and foremost a social problem, but” that since Christianity is essentially ecclesial” it is a problem of the believing body of Christians and must be understood theologically in the first order.  Meyer then makes what I think is an important theological point about change in the Church and about theology itself, which ought to be heard by Catholics of all stripes, whatever side of (artificial) conservative and liberal divides they find themselves on:

“Theology is theology just to the extent that it sharpens the acuity of that imperfect vision which is faith, attunes the ear to the word of God, nourishes an affectivity for the radical obedience through which man enters into divinely graced freedom. Theological reflection on change and on the stirring but also jarring experience of it in the Church cannot, then, legitimately intend any erosion of faith, nor any separation of faith from Church, nor any diminution of faith in the Church. Nor can this reflection be cut off from its own ultimate, indispensable source: the faith of the New Testament” (my italics; 119-120).

That paragraph is like manna to a hungry theological soul: theology’s goal is to aid in the increase of one’s faith and its intent cannot be to decrease faith, either in Christ or in the Church, and it must always return to its source for inspiration, the faith of the New Testament, in which we find Jesus Christ and his teachings. This is important for me to establish as a key point because so often when one discusses “change” people either turn off, as “change” means for them that you want to destroy the Church and are some kind of “dissident”, or “change” is a code word for turning the Church into a reflection of the current culture in which one lives, overturning elements of the perennial teaching of the Church at the drop of a hat.  But “change” in the Church must always be a call for the Church to fulfill what Jesus Christ intended it to be. If the visible Church does not meet the demands that Jesus left for us to fulfill, how can we not be asking, what must be done to make it better?  As individual Christians, we ask how we can change, how we must alter our lives, how we can turn from sin, what penance must we do; how can we not ask these questions of the Church as an institution?How can we turn away from Lumen Gentium and the claim that the Church is “always in need of being purified” and must “always follows the way of penance and renewal”?

What form might “change” take? Change must ground itself in Jesus Christ and the faith of the New Testament. People sometimes tire of New Testament theologians always returning to the source of the river and rightly point out that rivers have sources, origins, but a river also flows, growing, expanding and moving through time. The Mississippi is no less the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico than it is at its origin in Minnesota. True enough. The Church can grow and expand and travel far from the source without losing its necessary connection. This image, however, contains within it at the same time the argument for change. A river flows and the Church grows; the question is not whether change happens in the Church, the question ought to be whether this change is linked to the source, an authentic tributary which gives life wherever it flows, or is it a stagnant pool, now cut off from the river, which looks calm on the surface but which festers under the surface? To talk about Church and change we have to acknowledge that the visible Church, as we see it today, as it is organized, from the titles of its hierarchs to the offices in which they work, to the Vatican itself, is not the Church as it was organized in Jesus’ day. The change is real and visible. Our task needs to be to go back to the source, the origin, and ask which of these changes, which have happened at various points within the development and history of the Church, are authentic and which of these changes, which might at one time have responded to the living needs of the Church, are now cut off from their source.

“The visible congregation, distinguished by its confession in the risen Jesus, is the presupposition, not the product, of ecclesiology. The Church, including its visible, social, and institutional reality, is ecclesiology’s primordial datum. Apart, moreover, from the ecclesial themes defining the Church in the New Testament there can be no authentic ecclesiology” (my italics; 120).  Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God and a proclamation demands a response. The people of God are those who respond to the call. The people are the “primordial datum.”  This is especially the case when we consider Jesus’ call to the leaders and authorities of the Church and especially his demands on their behavior and how they treat those under their authority and the cost for abusing this authority. The Church is more than visible congregation, however, and Meyer points out that all of the various images describing the mystery of the Church come back to the source, namely, the Church is a participation in Christ. The Church “alone among the analogues bearing the name “society” symbolizes (in the full sense of embodying, intending, and signifying) the divine mystery of the world’s salvation in Christ” (121).

This speaks to the significance but also the problem of change in the Church. The Church exists in history and is shaped by history; it cannot escape history anymore than we as individuals can. The Church cannot absent itself from history and wish for a time when no one questioned its operations and structures, when secrecy was a kind of divine right, and clerics had to answer to no one. What it means for the Church to exist in history is that change for the Church, as for each of us, is “a perennial problem, never solved and settled once and for all” (121). Yet, change is not at the core of the Church. Meyer speaks of two “’constants’ in the problem” (121): the invisible reality of “participative identification with Christ”; and the “finality” of the Church as the institution by which the redemptive work of Christ is mediated “to the advantage of all men” (121).  The Church was established by Christ as the means by which his work would continue in the world for the sake of the salvation of the whole world. That can never change.

The variables of change, however, are numerous in type and number:

a)      Changes in the institution;

b)      Changes in dogmatic perspective;

c)      Changes in preaching;

d)     Changes in Church structures;

e)      Changes in catechesis;

f)       Changes in processes;

g)      Changes in practices;

h)      Changes in the liturgy;

i)        Changes in education.

The list could go on and on in general categories and even more so in specifics. When we realize the immensity of change, even though it is inevitable, it is often seen as frightening, and it often is frightening. Yet, it is the constants that should give us hope: “the mystery of the Church’s participation in Christ is a literally inexhaustible resource for radical and fruitful change in its institutional life. If the aspirations and deep needs of the world for whose salvation the Church exists are a challenge, its radical capacity to respond to this challenge incomparably surpasses the capacity of any simply human agency or institution” (my italics; 122).

This speaks to a beautiful reality, grounded in the love and being of Christ. Yet, “it is a dismal fact that its enormously rich resources for change have been relatively little revealed in its institutional life in recent centuries” (122). This is not just a problem of “management issues,” as if bishops, cardinals and popes worked for some sort of spiritual Exxon or Kraft, whose pitfalls and errors represent the equivalent of tumbling stock shares, but of the loss of mission, of something so basic, so deep, and so majestic that even a world that does not believe can see its loss as a frightful portent. The loss of institutional credibility for the Church is the loss of the moral strength to speak truth to power and to mediate salvation to a world hungering for truth. “If the world is hungry for freedom and justice, starving for redemptive love, the Church has within itself the resources for renewal and response; and not only has these resources, but is committed to draw on them, for they are the enabling grace given to the Church to fulfill its mission” (122).  Lumen Gentium 4 states, “uninterruptedly He (The Spirit) renews it (the Church) and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse.”  What is the Spirit saying to us now?

John W. Martens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Father Michael Nixon and parishioner work a volunteer table at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Panama City, Fla. Photo by Atena Sherry.
Much like New Orleans’ Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, the low-income neighborhoods east of Panama City, where St. Dominic is located, were especially hard-hit by the storm. Now residents here are desperate for help.
Atena SherryOctober 18, 2018
“I believe there are adequate, alternative options for true women’s health care out there, and Planned Parenthood is not needed,” said Alisha Fox, a health and wellness coach at a Catholic fertility center in Chicago.
Colleen ZeweOctober 18, 2018
 Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa checks out the name badge of Nathanael Lamataki, a youth delegate from the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, as they leave a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Cardinal Souraphiel highlighted the role globalization plays in connecting young people in unjust ways.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 18, 2018
The pope said he would visit North Korea “if an official invitation arrives.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 18, 2018