Here we go again: With Catholic news, reporters should be careful with this word – ‘reform’

Get Religion

December 31, 2022

By Terry Mattingly

Let’s pause for a moment and reconsider a very loaded and tricky word that shows up all the time religion-news coverage (as well as political coverage, of course).

That word is “reform.”

For really, really, loyal GetReligion readers, I will admit that I am, in part, flashing back to this 2008 GetReligion post: “Who gets to “reform” what?” Once again, let’s look at some of the language that shows up in online dictionaries when you search for that term. To “reform” an institution or a law means to:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system” * bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” … * a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” … * improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country” * a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

The key words in that digital cloud are these: “improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects …”

Also, let me remind readers that I am not a Roman Catholic. Some people seem to be confused about that. My views on this topic are based on decades of reporting (and a graduate-school readings class focusing on the church before and after Vatican II) about the very complex world of Catholic life and thought.

With that in mind, let’s look at the top of a recent Religion News Service story that ran with this headline: “Can Pope Francis make real change for women? Vatican women leaders assess his chances.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A panel of women who have attained leadership positions in the Catholic Church met … to discuss Pope Francis’ ambitious plan to reform the power structures in the church, raising questions about female ordination, the role of bishops and the need for women theologians.

In October, Francis launched a churchwide consultation process titled “For a synodal Church — Communion, Participation and Mission,” commonly known as the Synod on Synodality. The three-year process, which will conclude with a summit of bishops at the Vatican in 2023, is intended to engage every level of the Catholic Church, from parishes to bishops’ conferences.

Now, there are all kinds of Catholics who believe that “reform” is needed in their divided, evolving church. The problem, of course, is that they do not agree on “what” needs to reformed.

At the very least, there are (1) Traditionalists who believe Vatican II itself was an error that should be reformed; (2) Conservatives (think the retired Pope Benedict XVI) who embrace the documents of Vatican II, but believe there have been errors in applying those reforms; (3) “Spirit of Vatican II” liberal Catholics who believe the council were just the start and that its reforms were meant to evolve in the future. I am sure that I left out several other options in that short typology.

All of this affects discussions of the work of women in the church. There are conservatives who believe things are just fine as they are (or even that some changes went too far). There are also conservatives who believe there are plenty of acceptable ways to increase the role of women in church legal affairs, counseling, seminary faculties, diocesan offices and other forms of church work. There are Catholics who believe women can be ordained as permanent deacons without threatening church doctrine on the priesthood. There are full-tilt liberal Catholics who seek the ordination of women as priests, deacons, etc., with all of the doctrinal changes that can be linked to that.

Catholics in each of those groups have very different working definitions of the word “reform.” For starters, there is a left and a right in this debate, as well as a very complex middle.

After reading the lede for this RNS story, readers have every right to ask if Pope Francis is truly seeking to “reform the power structures in the church” in ways that raise “questions about female ordination, the role of bishops and the need for women theologians.”

At the moment, the hot-button issue is the ordination of women deacons who serve at Catholic altars, with the right to preach, perform weddings and perform other duties — short of celebrating the Mass. For background on these debates, including statements by Pope Francis, please see these two GetReligion posts — “Historical facts rock solid on female deacons? RNS story makes it seem that they are” and “Deaconesses or female deacons? Journalists do you know the history of these terms?

Here is a key Crux story to read, in terms of earlier coverage: “Pope agrees to set up commission to study women deacons.” Crucial passages include this:

Currently, canon 1024 of the Code of Canon Law says that only a baptized male can receive the sacrament of ordination, so the law does not presently permit female deacons. The question, however, especially in light of the Biblical evidence for women being referred to as “deaconesses” in early Christianity, is whether that law could be changed.

A high-level Vatican panel took up the question in 2002, when the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a document on the diaconate which considered whether women might be eligible for the role. Although the document did not draw any firm conclusion, it seemed to lean against the idea of female deacons.

At that time, the Crux team stressed that the 2002 document, in the end, offered “two points for reflection.”

First, the document says that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the “sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised.

Second, the document asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-councilor magisterium,” despite clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand and the diaconate on the other.

Here’s the big question that remains on the table to this day: Can Catholic leaders equate the ancient “deaconess” role with the ordained ministry — at the altar — being offered by modern permanent deacons?

This new RNS story does not open that door, other than this summary paragraph:

“While Francis has said that the ordination of women to the priesthood is out of the question, he created two commissions to study the possibility of women becoming deacons, who may not perform the sacraments but serve at Mass and preach the homily.”

Instead of heading in that direction, the big issue in this story is stated as follows:

In 2018, America magazine published a groundbreaking study by the Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, which showed that more than 70% of young women in the United States were drifting away from the Catholic Church, and at a much higher rate than men.

The report found that 38% of the respondents left because they disagreed with church teaching, while 23% objected to the status of women in the church.

More than four years after America’s report, many more women occupy leadership roles in the church and at the Vatican, but little has changed in terms of linking the traditions of the faith into the concerns of modern-day women.

As always, readers need to know more about “these young women in the United States,” in terms of their attendance at Mass and perhaps (the issue I keep highlighting) whether they are active in the rest of the sacramental life of the church — including Confession.

But let’s end here: It is stated as fact that the “reform” plans of Pope Francis raise “questions about female ordination.”

True or false? What is the definition of “reform” in this case?