In a four-part speech hosted by New Ways Ministry, Fr. Charles Curran detailed the four ways in which Pope Francis is a reformer: style, priorities, church structure and moral teaching.
Over 150 people packed the Center Chapel at the Bon Secours Retreat Center near Baltimore April 3 for the inaugural Fr. Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture. Curran, who was fired from The Catholic University of America nearly 20 years ago for publicly opposing several of the church's teachings, delivered a wieldy 60-minute lecture on the current situation in the church while speculating what's to come.
While Curran argued for bold reforms under Francis, he was quick to temper expectations: "Some people will be disappointed because he won't change church teachings. Nonetheless, Francis has left the door ajar."
According to Curran, Francis' style was a shock from the start, referencing his chosen name, his place of residence, and his choosing to wash the feet of refugees, including Muslims. But, as Curran pointed out, Francis' reforms are "more than just style."
More significantly, Francis has reformed the church's priorities, starting with his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which reminded the faithful about the joy of the good news. Perhaps more visible reforms, Curran said, have been the shift of focus from the culture-war social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception, to a focus on the poor, like with his encyclical Laudato Si'.
Curran also suggested that Francis has acknowledged the importance of the sense of the faithful, preferring that Catholic teaching come from the bottom up. Francis wrote that he prefers a church that is "bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."
Of particular importance to Curran is Francis' acknowledgement of the danger of centralization, and his decision to build up the role of local and national churches. "The Bishop of Rome learns from what other churches are saying." Francis had over 20 references to national conferences of bishops in Laudato Si', and further exemplified this bottom-up approach with the two synods on the family. Francis called for a frank, honest and open discussion at both synods, allowing a place for tension and disagreement. This, Francis said, is how the church moves forward.
Curran discussed at length the moral reforms of Francis, joking "It's tough enough being a theologian of the church, much less a prophet." Francis has adopted a pastoral approach to moral issues. While Curran believes that this approach doesn't go far enough, at least it opens the door. However, he cautions that, "It's a problem to go from certitude to certitude with no doubt in the middle."
Even with all the commotion Francis has caused in the church, Curran was frank that the reform movement has very real limits. One of biggest concerns raised during the conversation was the ability of the reform movement to sustain momentum into the future, an issue that New Ways Ministry is trying to address.
Pope Francis is a great example for the reform movement according to Bob Shine, a 26-year-old divinity student who is taking up the mantle of church reform with New Ways Ministry.
"Much like Pope Francis is saying, yes, reform is important but it has to come in tandem with renewed emphasis on gospel and gospel living," Shine said. "We can't get obsessed with the rules; we have to ask how we're bringing people to Jesus in the reform movement."
"It's going to mean a big revamp of how things exist if we're taking the needs of the communities who are coming to dominate our church seriously," he said.
New Ways Ministry may not have had a place in the church under previous popes, but Francis is moving the sort of dialogue and difficult conversation initiated by this organization to the forefront. In essence, he's taking a group that was in some sense relegated outside of the church and opening the door for them to be part of the fold.
In light of Francis's recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the lay faithful must take an honest look at the forces within the church that are trying to change it and ask if the reform movement is indeed ready to step through that ajar door opened by Francis.
Like Curran, Shine recognizes that "we're in a period of new openness." But Francis won't be around forever.
"I think the greatest opportunity we have right now to create permanent and sustainable change is that [Francis] is creating space for lay Catholics to take ownership for our church," he said.
[Allison Walter is a senior fellow at Faith in Public Life, a strategy center for the faith community located in Washington, D.C.]