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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2013

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

The Church is Always to Be Reformed

by Bishop James D. Conley

In the wake of the Council, one of Europe’s greatest bishops wrote that the Catholic Church had become like a naval battle, in which “the ships are driven to and fro by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens all the scene, so that watchwords are indistinguishable in confusion, and all distinction between friend and foe is lost.”1

There are not a few who would agree with this assessment and appreciate the imagery. By many accounts, the Church today is in a state of crisis. Increasing secularism and disregard for basic and fundamental doctrines, we’re told, runs rampant. There is real truth to these accounts. In the past 50 years, the Church has seen significant battles — and considerable confusion — about even the most basic understanding of the Gospel mission.

But the bishop who wrote about the Church in the raging tempest, waging a great naval battle, wasn’t talking about a skirmish that began in 1965, with the close of the Second Vatican Council. The bishop was Saint Basil the Great, and he was writing about the Council of Nicaea, which ended in AD 325.

Nicaea was convoked at a time of religious and social upheaval. The early Church was fractured over the Arian crisis — the question of how Christ relates to God the Father. The relationship of the Church to the empire, and of Christians to the secular world, was still being worked out. The Church had a need for answers and for the invigoration of Christian unity. The organizational structures and methods of the early Church weren’t sufficiently addressing the problems of the day.

Quite simply, in 325 the Church had a need for an aggiornamento — an approach to articulating the Church’s ancient truths in a new and changing culture.

Nicaea set the Church in a direction it would follow for the next 1,700 years — even up to today. The Council addressed the most compelling theological questions of its day, most especially those surrounding the divinity of Jesus Christ. The methodology of Nicaea set forth a model for the universal governance of the Church that, rooted in the deposit of faith, also endures today.

Nicaea was a defining moment for the Church, and one whose creed, its definitions and doctrines, and even its methods, set the tone for the Church’s future ministry. The temptation of historical hindsight is to imagine that Nicaea implemented new structures and resolved ambiguous theological questions neatly, with the lingering objection of only a few obstinate heretics.

But at the conclusion of the Nicene Council there were serious questions that remained in dispute. They were disputed by men and women of good faith, whose formation and intellectual integrity required them to grapple with the truth, and with one another, to forge a resolution. In the end, the truth won out — the integrity of the deposit of faith, and the Church’s magisterium, were protected by the enduring grace of the Holy Spirit.

But the process of truth’s triumph is one that takes time and can be quite messy. My spiritual mentor, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, read history with a hermeneutic of sensibility. He reflected that post-conciliar periods have “ever been times of great trial … with generally two characteristics — a great deal of violence and intrigue on the part of the actors in them, and a great resistance to their definitions on the part of portions of Christendom.”2

We are witnesses to that great trial today.

Like Nicaea, the Second Vatican Council was convoked at a time of incredible social and ecclesial upheaval. When Blessed John XXIII opened the Council in 1962, the Church was in need of an aggiornamento — updating.

The Council was inaugurated at a time when the philosophical and intellectual consequences of the Enlightenment were becoming manifest in social mores and institutions. It took a period measured best in centuries, but by 1962 the Enlightenment had lain to waste many of the fruits of western Christian culture and the scholastic and sacramental worldview that informed it.

Blind adherence to rationalism and the idolatry of progress were the hallmarks of the 17th-and-18th-century Enlightenment. Its thinkers, to varying degrees, rejected the value of faith, of intuitive knowledge, and of natural law. In effect, the Enlightenment unmoored ethics and philosophy from the richness of Christian culture and intellectual history.

By 1962, the bleak effects of communism in Eastern Europe were readily apparent. The sexual revolution — which would lead to an all-pervasive contraceptive mentality, abortion, and a grave threat to marriage itself — was beginning in earnest. Christian theology, and the pastoral work it informed, was increasingly embracing the dangerous creeds of individualism, materialism, and relativism. In short, in 1962 the Western world stood at the precipice of a great social decline into which she has now completely succumbed.

By 1962, the dawn of unprecedented global travel and communication had made the world smaller and more interconnected. The potential for new human communion was great — but so was the danger of exploitation and depersonalizing materialism.

Blessed John XXIII called for an ecumenical council in order to prepare the Church for her mission in a changing world. A council was needed, the Holy Father decided, to “bring the perennial life-giving energies of the Gospel to the modern world, a world that boasts of its technical and scientific conquests but also bears the effects of a temporal order that some have wanted to reorganize by excluding God.”3

In real ways, the Second Vatican Council addressed the consequences of the Enlightenment.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the Council served to redeem what could be redeemed from modern philosophy and to discard the rest. At the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict said, “the Church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity by transcending them on the one hand, and on the other by avoiding their errors and dead ends.”4

Vatican II’s emphasis on the universal vocation to holiness is perhaps the clearest example of this transcendence. To address the primacy of the individual in Enlightenment thinking, the Council emphasized that, “everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness.”5 In a unique way, stressing the eternal dignity of each person transcended the Enlightenment’s propensity to stress the temporal dignity that was a focus of materialist ethics, and in fact redeemed a significant philosophical component of modernity. In a similar way, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which emphasized the obligations that are concomitant with freedom, transcended the limited Enlightenment understanding of conscience. In short, the Second Vatican Council can be understood as an effort to reach and reorient the Enlightenment mind with the truth of the Gospel.

Of course, if the Second Vatican Council was an effort to redeem and overcome the dangers of the modern world, it’s fair to ask why the Church continues to evidence signs of crisis. There are three compelling answers.

The first is that minds shaped by modernity have a propensity to read the documents of the Second Vatican Council out of their context in the intellectual history of the Church. Without understanding their foundation in scholastic and patristic theology, some contemporary scholars have used the texts of the Council to justify an ecclesiology that is ruptured from the Church’s history. There is a tendency, for example, to read into the universal call to holiness a kind of novel anti-clericalism, which rejects the obvious value of the Church’s hierarchical constitution. This leads to the absurdity of lay liturgical concelebrants, the clamor for women’s ordination, and the rejection of the magisterium’s doctrinal and moral authority.

Secondly, the current signs of crisis in the Church can be attributed to the challenge of integrating new models and mindsets into an ancient and large institution. The proposals of the Second Vatican Council require serious contemplation before application, and hasty attempts at implementation can lead to cartoonish errors and the virulent backlash of anti-conciliarism. The see-saw between overzealous implementation and sclerotic resistance is characteristic of wholesale changes in any large institution, and is precedented by similar struggles at any period of transition of the Church’s history. This was precisely what Saint Basil described in the fourth century and what many others would observe after the Council of Trent.

Finally, the Church evinces signs of crisis because she is comprised of human beings, who are all impacted by the crisis of sin. In any era, and at any time, the crisis of personal sin is manifested in the Christian community of the Church. This is no less true in our contemporary period.

The good news for the Church is that the crisis of implementing the Council, or even of understanding it properly, is showing signs of abating. The Year of Faith, especially, has demonstrated signs of the Second Vatican Council’s real fruit. Liturgical piety — real reverence in the worship of God — is evidenced by the profusion of adoration chapels in American parishes, and by the families who pray in them.

Lay apostolates in education, formation, evangelization, and social justice are being formed from the heart of the Church, and with a focus on authentic conversion and universal holiness. And the New Evangelization — the commitment to presenting the Gospel to a technocratic, largely post-Christian west — has informed the Church and her youth with a kind of enthusiasm, missionary zeal, creativity, and true fidelity that is transforming families, parishes, university campuses, and entire communities.

As George Weigel points out in his new book Evangelical Catholicism, our post-modern culture is toxic to the Christian message. We can no longer expect the faith to be passed on by cultural osmosis. He writes that “the cultural Catholicism of the past was ‘comfortable’ because it fit neatly within the ambient public culture, causing little chafing between one’s life ‘in the Church’ and one’s life ‘in the world.’ Evangelical Catholicism, by contrast, is a counterculture that seeks to convert the ambient public culture by proclaiming certain truths, by worshiping in spirit and in truth, and by modeling a more humane way of life. Evangelical Catholicism does not seek to ‘get along’; it seeks to convert.”6

As she did after Nicaea, the Church today shows signs of crisis. But Saint Basil’s naval image may be too strong. I prefer another image, which draws from more placid waters. Blessed John Henry Newman, in writing about the evolution of ideas, noted:

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savors of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase… At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way.7

As she always has, the Church exists in a world in crisis — and she will, until the coming of Christ’s eternal kingdom. But the springs of the Second Vatican Council run clearer and clearer as time passes — the living, flowing water leads to life in Jesus Christ. As Pope Benedict said, in his final address to the clergy of Rome on February 14:

The real strength of the true Council was always present and slowly it has emerged and is becoming a real power which is also true reform, true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that 50 years after the Council we are seeing the “virtual council” is breaking down, getting lost and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength. It is our task, in this Year of Faith, starting from this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with the power of the Holy Spirit, is realized and the Church is really renewed. We hope that the Lord will help us. I, retired in prayer, will always be with you, and together we will move ahead with the Lord in certainty. The Lord is victorious.


1 On the Spirit, St. Basil the Great. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, p. 48.

2 The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain et al. (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1961-1972 ; Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1973-2008), p. 170.

3 Humanae Salutis 3, John XXIII, 1959.

4 Meeting with World of Culture, Benedict XVI, 2010.

5 Lumen Gentium, 39.

6 George Weigel, Evangelical Catholicism. Basic Books (2013), p. 19.

7  John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), pp. 39-40.


Bishop James D. Conley is the bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln. This article originally appeared on the Catholic Pulse website:, and appears in Voices with the bishop’s kind permission. Photo credit: Lincoln Journal-Star/Ted Kirk (used with permission).


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