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Cardinal Dulles Offers Insight On Church Reform


NEW YORK: In light of present scandals, the Catholic Church has no place for complacency, but rather stands “in urgent need of far reaching intellectual, spiritual and moral regeneration,” according to Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. Cardinal Dulles noted the need to fight barriers such as inadequate religious education and uninformed dissent, and instead promote a new form of evangelization and greater reverence for the sacraments. “In our day, the prevailing climate of agnosticism, relativism and subjectivism is frequently taken as having the kind of normative value that belongs by right to the word of God,” said Cardinal Dulles, who delivered his annual Spring McGinley Lecture titled “True and False Reform in the Church” on April 23. “We must energetically oppose reformers who contend that the church must abandon her claims to absolute truth, must allow dissent from her own doctrines and must be governed according to the principles of liberal democracy.” Using both historical and theological insight, Cardinal Dulles offered several examples of successful and unsuccessful reform initiatives within the church.

In the 16th century, for example, the failed efforts of the Fifth Lateran Council led to passionate reform movements within the church from humanists, cardinals and even separatists like 95 Theses author Martin Luther. Despite some positive outcomes of the various reform movements, Dulles noted how “in the next few centuries, the term ‘reform’ became suspect among Catholics because it seemed to have a Protestant ring.” More recently, in the reforms catalyzed by the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Dulles noted how the “papacy maintained uncontested control of the Catholic Church through the middle of the 20th century” after successfully eradicating remnants of previous reforms that stood in the way of papal primacy. The documents of Vatican II (1962-1965), on the other hand, were carefully crafted to express the council’s specific reformist agenda in words like “purification” and “renewal,” so as to avoid negative connotations that might accompany the word “reform.”

Cardinal Dulles echoed many of theologian Yves Congar’s tenets for reform within the church, emphasizing the importance of adhering to traditional doctrine and Scripture while safeguarding the church from secular reforms and those fueled by pride and self-interest. Although the notion of reform has positive connotations, church history often demonstrates how the process can be mired by misconception and indiscretion. According to Cardinal Dulles, both Scripture and Catholic tradition provide the necessary framework for church reform and should be wholly embraced by those reformers leading the charge. “The church cannot take seriously the reforms advocated by those who deny that Christ was son of God and redeemer, who assert that the Scriptures teach error, or who hold that the church should not require orthodoxy on the part of her own members,” said Cardinal Dulles to an audience of more than 300 in the Leonard Theater at Fordham Preparatory School on the Rose Hill campus. “Proposals coming from a perspective alien to Christian faith should be treated with the utmost suspicion if not dismissed as unworthy of consideration.”

Cardinal Dulles also addressed current leadership problems within the church. He pointed out how the prestige for bishops is at a new low due in large part to recent scandals and rifts between them and other members of the clergy and laity. He proposed that the relationship between clergy and laity be reconsidered, advocating for a balanced, collaborative relationship with clearly demarcated responsibilities. The church leadership would be further enriched by a diverse array of voices, he said, so long as individual competencies, such as the administerting of sacraments, are properly partitioned, respected and maintained.


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