Lesson 4: Reform for a New Situation

A priest in handcuffsI ended the last lesson reporting that the Latin American bishops with whom I associate Pope Francis’ theology of the spirit think the times call for institutional and pastoral reform. There are two ways to understand reform. The first sees it cleaning up corruption and the second making changes needed in a new situation. Both call for repentance if you define it as rethinking what you are doing.

The bishops are calling for both. Throughout their documents, they claim we must own up to the Church’s past failures and her present depravities. They also make clear the church’s voice in the public conversation must be prophetic which means it must speak against the pervasive corruption in modern governments and corporations.

But by far they call for a reformation that lets the Holy Spirit bring changes that will serve the needs of the present times. And they leave no doubt that they think many former church practices and doctrines no longer work in this radically new world.

Globalism is disparaged as the new controlling factor. More specifically, the bishops blame the global economic system for decimating the values of local cultures. When profit is the only real goal, efficiency and productivity become the most significant values. When power, wealth, and fleeting pleasure are the priorities, ethics, truth, justice, and love are seldom considered. The tremendous advances in science and technology increasingly serve the market rather than the needs of all people.

Pope Emeritus Benedict laments that the resulting relativism is taking down European culture that he sees intertwined with Christianity. The Latin bishops remind us it is also destroying the cultures of the Southern Hemisphere that they regard just as important. They mention that 43% of the faithful, presumably meaning Roman Catholic faithful, reside in Latin America and the Caribbean. Consequently, they list the preservation of Latin American culture close to the top of their priorities.

Pope Francis contributes by advocating decisions about how the Gospel will be proclaimed in different cultures be made by bishops and synod councils from those regions. Of course, he personifies this by being the first Pope from outside of Europe.

It is helpful to read the bishops’ most controversial recommendation in this context. When they call on all Christians to demonstrate a preference for the poor, they are speaking primarily of the new poor who have emerged in this new global situation. These have no place and thus no voice in the economic system. The bishops want the church to speak for these poor in the public conversation. The Pope again personifies this concern by including different groups of these voiceless ones in his public appearances. This recommendation is important enough to examine its ramifications in the next lesson.

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