The need for a catholic reform

in the formation, the life and the ministry of priests


         As the Pope and the Synodal Fathers definitively clarified in the recent XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (7-28 October 2012) whose subject was the New Evangelization, all of the pastoral problems related to the matters that the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council took under study as “de disciplina cleri et populi cristiani” are to be seen as springing from one central original problem: faith.  By which we mean a strong and secure faith in that which the Church has defined as divine revelation for the salvation of all men.  A strong and secure faith is the basic condition for an authentically Christian life, a life that is capable of accepting the invitation to the fullness of love (“the universal vocation for sanctity” as pointed out by Vatican II) which the Lord offers to all of us.  And in order to make this goal achievable He has placed all the supranatural means at our disposal, to each of us according to our own concrete life circumstances and in our relative institutional place within the ecclesial communion.  For it is only with this strong and secure faith that the Christian of today can resist being dragged along with the deviations of relativism. Today’s Christian finds himself immersed in a social reality - the culture and the political structures born of the process of secularization - which in so many ways obstructs the practice of a Christian life, and tends to disorient the minds even of those who sincerely mean to remain faithful to the Church.  An adequate and vital understanding of the mysteries of salvation consists of that lumen fidei which makes it possible, amongst the myriad messages which reach us from every side, to distinguish that which belongs to the supranatural treasure of the revealed truth (that truth which the Catholic Church, by provision of its divine Founder, contains and infallibly interprets) from that which instead belongs to some form of human wisdom (religious, philosophical, scientific) whose validity is only relative. These relative forms of human knowledge must always be weighed in critical comparison with the revealed truth, which is absolute, because it is the “ultimate truth”, as John Paul II tells us in Fides et ratio.  So, a strong and secure faith is what renders the Christian capable of recognising the voice of the Good Shepherd in any and every concrete social and historical moment; it allows him to distinguish it from the voices, however persuasive, of bad teachers and false prophets.  It allows us to avoid being led astray from the way of salvation and sanctity.  In today’s society, that which is traditionally known as “discernment of spirits” takes the form of a capacity to value (as the ultimate criterion of faith) the doctrine of the faith, as it is authoritatively proposed by the ecclesiastic magisterium, in the human doctrines, even the theological ones, which merely express hypotheses of interpretation and attempts at application but will never be able to replace or eclipse the truths defined in rebus fidei et morum. In other words, in an age when “the dictatorship of relativism” attempts to flatten and homogenise everything, a Christian must know how to distinguish, case by case, between that which can and should be considered “dogmatic” and that which is simply an “acceptable hypothesis”.  (In the case, rare nowadays, that it is proven not to involve any heterodoxy).


         All of this is ever more necessary and urgent in today’s world (given the cultural situation that has come about in the wake of an ever-extending globalisation) for the catechistic and theological formation of all the Catholic faithful, in whatever social environment, everywhere throughout the world.  But it is even more necessary and urgent that the Church be able to provide in primis for the formation of her priests, both their preparatory formation before the conferring of the holy orders and their ongoing formation in all its varied manifestations.  Because it is the priests (be they parish priests, parish coadjutors, military or prison chaplains, factory or hospital chaplains, or missionaries) whose task it is to carry out the ministerium verbi in their homilies, in the catechesis of young people and adults, in schools teaching the Catholic religion, in the collective and personal spiritual guidance, in their functions as ecclesiastic assistant in Catholic associations, and so on. 


         So it is a question of understanding the urgency of a true “Catholic reform” which will render the formation of priests possible and effective, and thereby sustain their spiritual life and their ministry through the difficulties they face in today’s world.  It must be an educational and structural reform, involving both the ecclesiastical seminaries and the Higher Institutes for teaching Philosophy and Sacred Theology, and it must also take into account the errors and doctrinal deviations which afflict the Catholic Church in today’s world.  These issues were addressed with grave pastoral concern by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, including the reports on the distorted interpretations of the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. And it is precisely in reference to these doctrinal deviations - of which our churchmen are not only the innocent victims, but sometimes also become negative protagonists, having been led astray by them - that we see the need for a profound change.  A change in the way, in every single Diocese in the world, we go about the selection, preparation, and ongoing formation of the Catholic clergy.


         The doctrinal and pedagogical criteria for this educational process are laid out in many recent documents of the Church’s magisterium.  The one among them which focusses most concretely upon the formation of the clergy in the present time is found in the encyclical John Paul II, Fides et ratio (September 14, 1998).  Here the Holy Father warns us against the dangers of fideism on the one hand and rationalism on the other, advising theologians and educators responsible for the theological formation of the presbyters that they carefully assess the “recta ratio”.  By this he means what is already present in the fundamental principles and certainties of common sense or “implicit philosophy”.  This means an appropriate use of metaphysics in the interpretation of the dogma and in the precise identification of the rational underpinnings of faith.  Unfortunately this fundamental doctrinal and pedagogical guidance has not yet been adequately incorporated and applied in actual pastoral practice, which is why the Synod of Bishops saw fit to make this explicit recommendation: “In the contemporary context of a global Culture, many doubts and obstacles cause an extended skepticism and introduce new paradigms of thought and life. It is of paramount importance, for a New Evangelization, to underline the role of the Preambles of Faith. It is necessary not only to show that faith does not oppose reason, but also to highlight a number of truths and realities which pertain to a correct anthropology, that is enlightened by natural reason. Among them, is the value of the Natural Law, and the consequences it has for the whole human society. The notions of “Natural Law” and “human nature” are capable of rational demonstrations, both at the academic and popular levels. Such an intellectual development and enterprise will help the dialogue between Christian faithful and people of good will, opening a way to recognize the existence of a God the Creator and the message of Jesus Christ the Redeemer. The Synodal Fathers ask theologians to develop a new apologetics of Christian thought, that is a theology of credibility adequate for a New Evangelization.The Synod calls on theologians to accept and respond to the intellectual challenges of the New Evangelization by participating in the mission of the Church to proclaim to all the Gospel of Christ.” (Proposition 17 drafted upon completion of the work).