Occasionally, one hears it said that liberal Catholics are obsessed with matters of church reform — or simply church politics, to put it more crudely — while other Catholics choose to place their emphasis on outreach, that is, the mission of the church to the wider world.
Over many years I have pointed out to students and lecture audiences more times than I could possibly count that, if I were to have an epitaph on my gravestone, it would be “Both/And, not Either/Or.”
Given that inclusive and comprehensive Catholic mind-set, I cannot imagine how any serious Catholic could be concerned with issues of church reform independently of, or even in direct opposition to, the church’s missionary outreach to the world.
Nor could I imagine how any serious Catholic on the other side of the ecclesiastical spectrum could believe that the reform of the church has no bearing on the effectiveness of the church’s missionary outreach. The two go hand in hand. There cannot be one set of priorities for liberal Catholics and another for conservative Catholics.
It is true, of course, that most people can only focus on one important thing at a time. The capacity for multitasking is a gift that relatively few receive.
Nevertheless, the impression is sometimes left that Catholics formed by the Second Vatican Council, which was itself a renewing and reforming council, are only concerned with such issues as the election of bishops, the ordination of women, and changes in the church’s official teachings on human sexuality and reproduction.
But such Catholics realize — or should realize — that their efforts on behalf of reform will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of the church’s missionary outreach to the world, or, in a word, to evangelization. If those efforts do not have such an impact, they are, for all practical purposes, a waste of time and energy.
The relevance of church reform to missionary outreach is underscored in the following sample questions:
How can the church be truly effective in its missionary outreach if it lacks competent leaders who can articulate a missionary vision and who can inspire and motivate others to share in its implementation?
And how can a body of pastoral leaders — at parish, diocesan, national and international levels alike — be fully effective if one-half of the church’s members are automatically excluded from it simply because of their gender?
And how can the church retain the allegiance and active participation of some of its most experienced and intellectually gifted members if they lack confidence in the church’s official teachings about matters that they know much more about?
In the interest of evenhandedness, those questions can be reversed:
Why be concerned about how bishops are selected and how they exercise their authority over a diocese if there is nothing more at stake than who gains that position and power, who sits in the cathedral chair and who gets to walk last in an ecclesiastical procession?
Why struggle to win a place for women in the priesthood and in higher levels of pastoral authority if such women will simply be female versions of the male clerical establishment that now exists?
And why be concerned about how the official church goes about formulating its teachings regarding sexuality and reproduction if, after that process is improved, there is no comparable effort to modernize the ways in which those teachings are communicated and made relevant to people living in our time and circumstances?
It is never a matter of either/or: either church reform or missionary outreach. For the church, it is, and must always be, a matter of both/and: both church reform and missionary outreach. Better still, it is church reform that enhances missionary outreach, and missionary outreach that illuminates the need for ongoing church reform.
What is at issue here is nothing less than the continued vibrancy of the Catholic tradition. Catholicism, by its very nature, is inclusive, not exclusive. It is in principle open to a wide variety of religious expressions, without sacrificing its own sense of identity or diluting its theological and spiritual core.
As I pointed out some time ago in my book Catholicism, for Catholics it is “not nature or grace, but graced nature; not reason or faith, but reason illumined by faith; not law or Gospel, but law inspired by the Gospel; not Scripture or tradition, but normative tradition within Scripture; not faith or works, but faith issuing in works and works as an expression of faith; not authority or freedom, but authority in the service of freedom” (p. 1190).
And it is not church reform or missionary outreach, but church reform in the service of outreach, and outreach enhanced by reform.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.