What Might Reform Look Like?

Hans Küng en la UNED 02 For those who are not familiar with Hans Kung, here is a quick background.  Way back at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1958-1964), Kung, a Swiss priest, was a prominent member of the group of young theologians that was trying to move the Council fathers toward a more expansive and modern interpretation of the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Among even this group, Kung was the youngest and (arguably) the most brilliant, matched only by an obscure Bavarian priest by the name of Josef Ratzinger--the future Pope Benedict XVI.  These Young Turks basically got their way, and their fingerprints are all over the documents of Vatican II.

In the aftermath of the Council, the Young Turks eventually split down the middle over what to do next.  One party, lead in many ways by Ratzinger/Benedict, pulled back from some of the outcomes of the Council and called for some measure of retrenchment.  The other side, led by Kung, called for going farther.  Needless to say, the Ratzinger view prevailed in the institutional Church, and Kung has been more or less in exile since the early 80s.

With that as background, here is Father Kung's thoughts on what directions the "Franciscan Reform" might take.  First off, I think his reflection on the "spiritually poor" is important.  There are many Catholics out there who love the Church and want to be active members, but who are excluded for the reasons Kung mentions.  This insight is at the heart of the failure of imagination and/or compassion that one sees in some Catholic conservatives--they imagine that the world consists of them (who love the Church) and the heretic outsiders who hate it.  There are many, many people who are estranged who feel their estrangement is not by choice, but as a result of the policies and attitudes of the Church.

As a product of his reflection on the spiritually poor, Kung focuses on three areas of emphasis to reach those people--(1) change the rules that prevent divorced and remarried Catholics to participate fully in the sacraments; (2) serious outreach to women who use contraception, have abortions, etc.; and (3) allowing married priests.  I would add (4) serious institutional reform that would allow the regular Catholic in the pew to be confident that their money was being used prudently and their leaders were not going to embarrass them publicly.  But, in general, I think Fr. Kung is spot on.

Among Kung's three points, the easiest to address is #3.  Even the most traditionalist voices agree that mandatory celibacy for all priests is not an iron-clad rule that could be changed.  There would be institutional resistance to these changes, but if it was implemented wisely and carefully, I think it would be welcomed by most quarters in the Church.  Basically, Francis could just do it.

#1 is a little trickier.  The Catholic Church has lived and died on the hill of not recognizing divorces--look at Henry VIII (though, in truth, that's a more complicated story than is portrayed).  This would be a big, big change.  However, there are two different options for making this happen.  One would be to simply announce that the Latin Church was adopting the model used by the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which allow second marriages under the principle of oikonomia, or pastoral discretion.  This has the advantage of tying the move to ancient practices.  This article has a good summary of the arguments for this approach.  The other move is to not change the policy per se, but to rework Canon law in a way that accomplishes the same effect--perhaps a summary process for annulment that is handled by a local priest.  While somewhat of a slight of hand, it might be more palatable to traditionalists.  Either way, I think Pope Francis has called his shot that he is looking to do something here, because he was the one who brought up this issue in the first place.

The final point, regarding women who use birth control or have abortions, is the most problematic, because it is so vague.  Notice that Fr. Kung does not say that the Church should change the teachings in these areas.  I suspect that's because he knows that such a move creates a serious danger of splitting the Church.  Changing the birth control teaching means explicitly rejecting a central message of the last three Popes.  It can't be finessed in the way that the divorce issue can be.  Thus, if it is only a call is for some sort of new pastoral response, it is unclear to me what that response would be or how it will work out in practice.  Certainly, Pope Francis is pointing to a change of emphasis with his comments regarding the need to have a more balanced presentation of the Catholic faith, rather than an at times obsessive focus on "pelvic issues."  That's good, but it's aspirational, and will be dependent in practice on the willingness of local priests to absorb that change of tone.  Some no doubt will and lay off these issues, but others will not.  In truth, that's the status quo right now anyway, so I'm not sure the Pope's statements do much of anything, other than nudge folks in that direction.  I would be really curious to know if Father Kung has something substantive in mind with this issue.


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