Theology 101: Church Reform

By: Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D.

Reform is one of the few constants in church history. Religious reform is by its nature rooted in metanoia: the deliberate decision to live an earthly life according to other-worldly values. The concept of metanoia focuses on the individual soul, but reform has also been a longstanding concept, goal, and action of the institutional church.

Let’s consider two phrases. The first is reformatio in capite et in membris. Its origins as a phrase likely date back to papal correspondence and legal documents in the early thirteenth century. In that context, the phrase dealt less with reform within parish or lay life than with questions concerning the formal authority and jurisdiction between the pope and the college of cardinals or bishops or, moving down the hierarchy, between an ordinary bishop and the members of his cathedral chapter. Medieval reformers would have seen reform as a marriage of head and members, although given practicalities and the scale of what needed to be reformed, individuals naturally focused on either the head or the members.

The second phrase is ecclesia semper reformanda. As reform historians and linguists point out, the phrase may be rendered as “the church [will] always be reformed” (future passive tense) as well as “the church [is] always reforming” (present active tense). The former indicates that someone else—presumably God—is doing or will do the work; the latter indicates a faith’s believers are taking the lead and doing so right now. The distinction is important in se, but both translations presume that the church does, in fact, need to be reformed and therefore must of necessity be deformed in some way.

In modern history, we can contrast the attitudes toward reform of two popes to illustrate the point. Writing in 1832, with European monarchies reeling from revolution, Pope Gregory XVI stated: “[I]t is obviously absurd and injurious to propose a certain restoration and regeneration for [the church] as though necessary for her safety and growth, as if she could be considered subject to defect or obscuration or other misfortune” (Mirari Vos, no. 10). Over a century later during Vatican II, Pope Paul VI said: “A vivid and lively self-awareness on the part of the Church inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the church as Christ envisaged, his holy and spotless bride, and the actual image which the church presents to the world today. But the actual image of the church will never attain to such a degree of perfection, beauty, holiness, and splendor that it can be said to correspond perfectly with the original conception in the mind of him who fashioned it” (Ecclesiam Suam, 1964, no. 10).

It comes down to attitude. For Gregory XVI, the very notion that the church could be deformed and consequently in need of reform was impossible. Paul VI, on the other hand, took it for granted that the church will always be deformed and therefore reform was a permanent process and part of the very life of the church as an organic, developing human institution of divine origin.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Kean University. Among his books are Renewing Christianity and his latest, Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible (both from Paulist Press).