In living our lives, we try to be faithful to the values we believe in. This is true in the little daily things we do (like exercise and prayer) and also the major things of our lives (fidelity to our vocation in life). But there is also a general tendency in us to ‘slacken off’ and to become less attentive to the development of our life project: from the physical to the spiritual.
The same is true of the Church.
We are in a period of decline in the North East section of the United States. In other areas, notably in the South and South West, the Church is growing. Similarly, on a worldwide scale, Europe is in decline in terms of faith; while Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing by leaps and bounds. So, when we look at the Church in evaluating what is going on we cannot become too parochial (in both senses of the word!).
The Church is not an organization which is a thing. It is an organism that has its own laws and grows organically. So, we have to be careful in looking at the Church’s need for renewal that we consider the total Church and not just one geographical corner of it.
A distinction needs also to be made between the term renewal and reformation. Reformation is an act of correction. Things can become badly ‘formed’. In this case, one must get rid of things that are accretions. These malformations impede the move forward of the organism of the Church. This implies a purification of things that have gone wrong in the Church.
The Protestant Reformation got rid of not only some of the secondary things in the Church but also the Sacraments, the notion of Tradition, the Priesthood, the Papacy and many other essential elements of Catholicism. It was a radical reformulation of the Christian Religion.
The Catholic Church at the Council of Trent reestablished a proper understanding of these elements rejected by the reformers. This was an attempt at renewal which did not jettison but reinvigorated the fundamental aspects of the Church’s self -understanding.
To use another image, when you have a growing plant, you can remove branches and reinvigorate it; but if you remove too much, you can kill the plant you are trying to help. This is the danger that reformation poses. But renewal is more like enriching the soil, weeding it, and aerating it. This can renew the plant and cause it to grow even more markedly than before.
What the Church needs now is not the shears but enrichment of the soil through spiritual nutrients and a removal of the weeds of bad teaching. While it might need some pruning, this should be done very carefully lest we remove what it needs for growth.
When we get down to basics, we can see false directions that the Church has taken that needs correction. Her theology is sound but it is not followed.
Take the doctrine of hell. We should, indeed, remove the ‘torture chamber’ idea of hell that is unworthy of a loving God. But hell is an important doctrine of the Church. Without hell there is no human freedom. We must be free to choose God through moral and virtuous action, or to refuse His love through selfish, pleasure seeking and proudful rebellion. One needs to be able to choose to say no to the offer of God’s love. The consequences of that choice are dreadful and horrible. But they are freely chosen by persons who do not want to be obedient to God. Hell is not condemnation. It is the consequence of our choices. Should we shake and tremble at the very thought of hell: YES! God is so loving, so caring, so beautiful. To lose God for all eternity is a frightening thought. Flames and screams are just the way great artists choose to describe the inner torments of the great refusal of God’s love. But they are only images. The truth is even worse: to be stuck with our own selfishness, in the company of others like ourselves.
People have stopped believing in their own power and freedom: that of saying no to God. Forgiveness is not automatic. A person who develops ways of selfishness may never even think of asking for forgiveness. That is the tragedy of evil. That is why Jesus was so insistent on repentance. Without the inward realization of how wrong we are and the articulation of our change of heart to God, there is no forgiveness and we are justly given the results of our own desires. To believe that God automatically forgives us is not believing in our dignity and freedom, both of which God respects in giving to us what we ask for and deserve.
The Church needs renewal. Her teaching is correct but we are not often consistent in following Her teaching.