This discussion of possible areas of reform of the upcoming Council is an excerpt from the 1962 Lenten pastoral letter of Cardinal Richard Cushing to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Boston, “The Call of the Council.”
It may seem strange to some that words like change and reform, adjustment and adaptation are often used when the Church and the forthcoming Ecumenical Council are discussed. Certainly the Church, like her divine Founder and Head, is “ever the same…yesterday, today, and always”; ever giving the same apostolic witness of one Lord; ever professing the one Catholic Faith; ever renewing men in holiness through the same sacraments; ever showing herself as the faithful and constant spouse of her divine Bridegroom, in a very real and true sense then the Church is unchanging—she can never lose or deform that which the Apostles have left her or what our Lord requires of her. To this end Christ has promised his continuous presence in the Church through the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth.Yet we must remember that the Church, like an organic body, develops and grows in the course of centuries, “is being built up,” as St. Paul describes it. This growth is not only extensive, in the sense that new members are being constantly added to the Church, but in a true sense one can speak also of inner development. We mentioned earlier some of these developments taking place in the theology and in the spiritual and social teachings of the Church in recent years. These developments do not reflect a new Faith, they do not represent new moral or spiritual principles; rather do they demonstrate a more vigorous insight into faith and its implications. Pope John expresses this phenomenon of growth in the Church in his recent Apostolic Constitution when he writes: ” … Just as we see the face of human society completely changed, so also does the Church appear to our eyes endowed with a changed and more perfect form… reinforced with a bastion of richer doctrine, refulgent with a brighter beauty of holiness.” (Humanae Salutis) For this reason, we can properly apply the words “change” and “develop” to the Church’s teaching on faith and morals, and still assert with complete truth that the faith and the moral teachings of the Church are ever the same and unchanging.
Although the modem connotation of “discipline” may seem to evoke unpleasant images of enforcement and punishment, such meaning is far from the true significance of this word. Its ecclesiastical implications are more akin to the ancient meaning of the word, “instruction”.
Besides the magisterial authority of the Church which passes on the apostolic faith, there is another, important area of activity in which the Church is seen exercising her mission. And in this regard too we can speak with propriety of change and reform, adjustment and adaptation. We know that the Church is a society whose members are men, that she carries out Christ s mission on earth in a milieu which is imperfect, changing and fallible. The methods which the Church uses to carry out her mission of sanctifying in truth, the means she employs of directing, teaching, and encouraging her members, are generally referred to as “the discipline of the Church.” Although the modem connotation of “discipline” may seem to evoke unpleasant images of enforcement and punishment, such meaning is far from the true significance of this word. Its ecclesiastical implications are more akin to the ancient meaning of the word, “instruction”. All matters of ecclesiastical discipline have at their root some pedagogical purpose—they are meant to teach. Under the general heading of discipline are such concerns as church polity, liturgical rules, marriage regulations, clerical order, and the like.
In these areas we can well speak of adapting and adjusting methods to a changing society. Since members of the Church are human with the imperfections and limitations of human nature, it is also acceptable to speak of “reform” within the Church. Although this word since the sixteenth century may seem to have unpleasant associations for Catholics, the word and the reality had been present in the activity of the Church from the earliest years, just as they have been since the sad events which divided Western Christendom. The important thing to remember with regard to reform is that it is done within the Church, within the framework of ecclesiastical authority, within the visible Body—it is the work of the Spirit sanctifying the Body. When it takes place outside this framework, it is not reform, but a wounding action on the Body of Christ, and so opposed to the work of the Spirit, no matter how lofty its motives.
When the Holy Father himself speaks of adaptation and adjustment of Church discipline to the modern world, it is this that he has in mind: “that the Church may show herself more and more capable of solving the problems of modern man.” During the past century, indeed during the past decade we have seen many examples of such adjustment. Many of these examples might seem isolated to the casual observer, but they fall into general patterns of disciplinary, that is educative, reform. Most striking of these are, perhaps, the changes in liturgical discipline. From the instructions of St. Pius X encouraging more frequent Communion to the more recent “reforms” in the Holy Week Liturgy, the introduction of the “dialogue Mass”, the changes in the Eucharistic fast and the revision and new forms of the missal and breviary, we have been experiencing the fruits of the Church’s adaptation of liturgical discipline to modern man and to contemporary society. We must expect to see these and similar matters further extended in the discussions of the Council. It is important to realize that these changes do not reflect any “weakening” of the Church, any attitude of “giving in to modern man’s softness” as some might short-sightedly judge. The Church is in fact only adapting liturgical legislation to the present needs—both pedagogical and ascetic—of her members and to a changed and metropolitan society in which they must live. In similar manner, we might well expect to see some adaptations in the language and liturgical ceremonies as celebrated in the church of Africa and Asia, whose cultures are different from what we call Western civilization.
In these lands, also, as in the other areas of the world where the Church carries on Christ’s mission of proclaiming his Gospel, there is room for many changes of method. In our time, and indeed even in recent months, we have seen how the Church has suffered in some newly independent areas because it has been identified in the minds of some with a former colonialism. While immense progress in mission training has been realized in the last years we must continually re-appraise our mission methods so as to make identification of this sort impossible in the future.
One important thing we have learned from our work in South America, and from a life-time’s experience with the missions: we do not undertake the work of the Church anywhere in a patronizing fashion, indulgently regarding those men to whom we preach as children, nor do we go either as bearers of a “superior” culture.
Then, too, the common responsibility of all the Church to share in the mission of Christ to all men must be realized now in a more concrete manner. We are members of the Catholic Church, universal and ecumenical; our horizons cannot be limited merely to the geographic area of our residence. This realization has prompted me to form the Missionary Society of St. James which in the past few years has produced such tangible fruits in areas of Peru and Bolivia. God has blessed this work abundantly and He will bless too the apostolic priests who have left their homes for this important ministry. He surely will favor in a special way the generous souls who have supported this truly Catholic apostolate. One important thing we have learned from our work in South America, and from a life-time’s experience with the missions: we do not undertake the work of the Church anywhere in a patronizing fashion, indulgently regarding those men to whom we preach as children, nor do we go either as bearers of a “superior” culture. We go as brothers to announce the glad tidings of our Lord’s universal redemptive work, we go as fellow Christians to assist the clergy of the local Churches in their Catholic ministry.
Changes and adaptations in missionary methods also bring to mind other areas of instruction which in our modem age have been developing. New methods of catechetics are being proposed—so necessary in this age of unbalanced education and specialization. The growing percentage of those receiving higher learning and the decrease of family influence in religious education require compensating steps on the part of the Church to assure a knowledge of the Faith which is proportionate to the intellectual development of our students. New apostolic techniques must be found for this important work. The amazing educational potential of the press and television should be re-examined, especially in the light of the grave and deleterious effects these have on our people and the possibility they offer for good. For these last purposes Pope John appointed a special Secretariat for mass media to assist in the preparations for the Council, and this should find a creative and imaginative approach in this area commensurate with the opportunity it offers the Church.
…so many of our groups seem to have lost the Christian dynamic which once gave them purpose.
Within the local parish there also is need of change. The moving face of our communities, resulting from what are popularly termed the exodus to suburbia, urban redevelopment, the affluent society and the other phenomena of this period, requires change within the parochial framework. Can we suppose that parish organizations—whose origins date from the last century and earlier—continue to be effective in contemporary society? Our current sociological concerns—the family, marriage, teen-agers—already point to newer forms of activity outside the structure of present organizations. In the manner in which Pope John speaks of the universal Church, so must I confess, as shepherd of this archdiocese, how so many of our groups seem to have lost the Christian dynamic which once gave them purpose. Recent findings in social science can guide many new developments in the ordering of our parish life.
The popes of our century have constantly stressed the need for a Catholic laity who should actively assist their bishops in endeavors which are truly catholic. Within the parish and the local community there is ample opportunity and urgent need for the exercise of such an apostolate. We must hope that the Council would provide practical counsels from which our own zeal will structure new forms of parish life successfully meeting new challenges.
These are only some of the matters which are pertinent to our American society and our Catholic life in that society which deserve a careful study and reappraisal. It is to such matters that the Holy Father refers when he indicates that the Council will consider “topics both doctrinal and practical … so that Christian institutions and precepts might be perfectly adapted to the multiple forms of life and may usefully serve the Mystical Body of Christ.” His aspirations cover a wide area, including, “the sacraments and prayers of the Church, the discipline of morality, the works through which chanty is exercised and the needy aided, the apostolate of the laity and the undertakings of the missions. Surely here there is room for the exercise of every apostolic effort and the fruitful use of every spiritual energy.