The evangelical reform of the Church

George Weigel

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: St. Isidore Online Curriculum expands, will be offered again for 2021-2022 school year

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The Archdiocese of Denver’s online Catholic curriculum, St. Isidore, has been a true blessing to many families with children in grades K-8 who wanted a strong Catholic curriculum this past year but didn’t feel comfortable with their students attending school in person because of the pandemic. This included families like the Buckmeisters and Janisses. 

“St. Isidore has been an incredible blessing for our family this past school year. Not only are the teachers and administrators knowledgeable and accessible but engaging and exceptional in fostering the love of the Catholic faith for our son. Moreover, the online curriculum at SICC was wonderful as it was adaptable for our son who needs to be challenged above his grade level in certain academic areas,” said Kristen Buckmeister, parent of a St. Isidore student. 

“Our girls have benefitted immensely from the SICC curriculum and instruction. They enjoyed the guided learning through creative and engaging subject presentations followed by assignments they worked on their own,” said parent Lisa Janisse. “They felt very connected to their teachers. The religion teacher asked for daily intentions and that made the class very personal. Our children were able to share their concerns and pray for the intentions of other classmates as well. The girls were greatly assisted through two or three live tutorial sessions per day. They would start with prayer and pick up right where the teachers left off. The tutors were very patient and facilitated the group dynamics, so everyone had an opportunity to speak up and learn.” 

This past year, the program was only offered to families like the Buckmeisters and Janisses who were already enrolled in one of our Catholic schools. The students were learning through St. Isidore, but also remained connected to their local school.  However, this year, because of the increasing interest in a strong Catholic online curriculum program, the program is expanding to any interested family, regardless of enrollment in one of our schools. They don’t even have to live in Colorado to participate.  

“Every family has such unique dynamics, and what we learned this year with our virtual program is that Catholic virtual education is a gift of assistance to parents desiring a Catholic virtual option. We’ve learned this year that we can indeed educate well in a virtual setting, and we want to offer that to anyone in our archdiocese, or outside of our archdiocese, who desires an excellent Catholic virtual option for their children,” says Abriana Chilelli, Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal.    

For those not familiar with St. Isidore and its strength as an online curriculum option, Kristen Lanier, assistant organizational leader at St. Isidore, has helped start online schools in public school districts and has been extremely impressed with what St. Isidore offers. 

“I have been blessed to help in the conception and implementation of several remote schooling models and St. Isidore is truly unique,” Lanier said. “St. Isidore’s approach to remote learning blends the very best strategies in virtual education and brick-and-mortar classrooms, all while honoring the gifts endowed to each student, family, and staff member. Students receive a program filled with both flexibility and rigor that provides access to teachers via catered, program-specific lessons, real-time small group guided instruction, and daily meaningful interaction with peers. Mission truly drives this work and it is a gift to watch what the Holy Spirit inspires in our team, students, and families.”

As long as parents still desire an online Catholic curriculum for their students, the Office of Catholic schools wants to help provide it.

“For a lot of parents, this past year has caused them to now see some real advantages of having their children at home learning virtually,” Chilelli concluded. “We’ve heard from lots of parents who want to continue with their children learning at home. We realized the archdiocese could help. We always want to support parents in the formation of their children as they grow in wisdom and friendship with the Lord.”

For more information, visit denvercatholicschools.com/st-isidore-apply today.

St. Isidore is available to:  

Any family enrolled in an Archdiocese of Denver participating Catholic school who may not want to send their children to in-school learning this upcoming school year due to the ongoing social distancing, masking requirements that will be in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as potential virus variants. This program is intended to be a support for local schools and enable those families to remain enrolled at their current school during the pandemic, but receive all curriculum and instruction digitally.  

Any family not enrolled in an Archdiocese of Denver Catholic school who wishes to have the support of the Archdiocese of Denver in educating their children virtually. 

Enrollment deadline is May 23, 2021 at 10 p.m. If you are interested in registering and or want to learn more, please email Sarah.Heaton@stisidoreonline.org