The evangelical reform of the Church

Hans Kung, out there on the far left fringes of Catholicism, has ideas about the reform of the Catholic Church; so does Bernard Fellay, the schismatic bishop and leader of the hard-right Lefebvrists. The National Catholic Reporter has its notions of Catholic reform; so does the National Catholic Register; neither is likely to agree with the other about the proper reform agenda. Calls for Catholic reform are ubiquitous, across the landscape of Catholic opinion. But how often do we stop and think about what distinguishes authentic Catholic reform from ersatz Catholic reform? Are there criteria that help us understand what’s true and false, in this matter of Catholic reform?

All serious thinking about Catholic reform begins with the fact that Christ the Lord gave a “form” to his Church. The Church didn’t just happen; the Church has a constitution (in the British sense of the term) and that constitution is of the will of Christ, manifest through the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the Church throughout history. So all truly Catholic reform is in reference to that “form.” All truly Catholic reform is re-form: a recovery of an element of the Church’s “form” that has been lost, or an extension of that “form” into new terrain (although always in essential continuity with the originating “form”).

Sometimes the reform process in the Church works in both directions. At the Second Vatican Council, for example, the Church recovered an element of its constituting “form” that had gotten a bit lost over the centuries—the idea of a clear distinction between religious and political authority, which goes back to the Lord Jesus’s own distinction between the things that are God’s and the things that are Caesar’s. At the same time, Catholicism stretched its thinking about Church-and-state in response to the dynamics of modern history. The result of this two-fold process—recovery (the move back) and extension (the move ahead)—was Vatican II’s teaching that religious freedom is a fundamental human right that a just society should recognize in law as a civil right.

In “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church” (Basic Books), I suggest two criteria by which to distinguish true from false reform in the Church: the criterion of truth and the criterion of mission.

The criterion of truth tells us that authentic Catholic reform is always reform based on the truths the Church knows through Scripture and tradition, as those truths have been expounded by the Church’s authoritative teachers, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If a proposed “reform” contradicts a truth of Catholic faith, it can’t be an authentically Catholic reform.

Indeed, the criterion of truth is Christ himself, for the One who declared himself the way, the truth, and the life is always the measure of authentic Catholic reform.

Then there is the criterion of mission. All true Catholic reform is mission-driven and mission-driving. All authentically Catholic reform contributes to the Church’s mission, which is the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of the world. The mission, in other words, is nothing less than the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What can be changed in the Church must be changed, if mission-effectiveness demands it. What cannot be changed in the Church, because it is of the constitutional “form” of the Church (like the episcopate and the priesthood), must be purified and reformed so that it may make its proper contribution to the mission. Because every territory is mission territory in the Evangelical Catholicism of the future, mission-effectiveness measures everyone and everything in the Church.

Catholic reform is not deconstruction; proposed reforms that discard truths of the faith because they make the neighbors nervous are not authentically Catholic reforms. But neither is authentic Catholic reform a return to some imaginary, perfect past. The Church, the Bride of Christ, always strives to be joined more perfectly to her divine spouse. That is the essential dynamic of all true Catholic reform.

COMING UP: Colorado bishops issue letter on the Hyde Amendment and other pro-life Congressional policies

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We, the Catholic bishops of Colorado, urge Congressional Representatives to support the Hyde Amendment and the Walden Amendment. We also ask the Faithful to sign The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) petition to lawmakers encouraging them to preserve the Hyde Amendment, which can be accessed at:, and to contact their Congressmen and women to support the Hyde and Walden amendments.

The House Appropriations Labor and Health and Human Services subcommittee recently passed a spending bill that strips protections for pre-born children, healthcare providers,and American taxpayers by excluding pro-life provisions, including the Hyde and Weldon amendments.

The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortion in most cases, except for rape and incest, has received bipartisan support since its inception in 1976 – including by pro-abortion administrations. Hyde is critical in saving lives. The Charlotte Lozier Institute estimates that approximately 60,000 pre-born babies are saved every year because of the Hyde Amendment.[1] This is the first time in 40 years that the Hyde Amendment was not included in the annual appropriations bill[2] and failure to include pro-life amendments will only further increase divisions in our country.

The Weldon Amendment prevents any federal programs, agencies, and state and local governments from discriminating against health care practitioners and institutions that do not provide abortion services. It ensures that pro-life individuals and organizations can enter the health care profession without fearing that the government will force them to perform a procedure that violates their well-founded convictions. It has also received bipartisan support and was added to the appropriations bill every year since it was first enacted in 2005. [3]

Congress’ recent actions endanger the lives of pre-born children and infringe on the rights of millions of Americans who do not wish to participate in the moral evil of abortion. A recent Knights of Columbus/Marist poll found that 58 percent of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortions[4] and a 2019 Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans think abortion should either be illegal or only legal in a few circumstances.[5]

The government should neither use taxpayer funds for the killing of pre-born children nor compel medical practitioners and institutions to violate their well-founded convictions. Congress must uphold these long-standing, common-sense bipartisan policies that promote a culture of life in our nation.

Human reason and science affirm that human life begins at conception. The Church objects to abortion on the moral principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with respect due to every human person. There has never been and never will be a legitimate need to abort a baby in the womb.

It is critical that Congress continue its long-history of supporting policies such as the Hyde and Walden amendments, and that all Colorado Catholics and people of good will make their voice heard in supporting these life-affirming policies.

Sign the petition to Congress here:

Contact your Congressional Representatives here:

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver

Most Reverend Stephen J. Berg
Bishop of Pueblo

Most Reverend James R. Golka
Bishop of Colorado Springs

Most Reverend Jorge Rodriguez
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver