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Let's Talk About Catholic Church Reform

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With stories about Pope Benedict's surprising resignation having grown old, the media has begun the process of speculating on who will be the next leader of the Catholic Church. Wrapped into these stories are questions about the possibility that the next Pope may change the Catholicism's position on any number of controversial issues like the use of contraception or female priests. Each of these articles carries the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) message that the Church needs to change to stay relevant. This may seem the case when viewing the church through a North American lens but when the Church is viewed from a global angle the picture of the Catholic Church changes dramatically.

Currently the Church is seeing its membership stagnate and decline in the west. The developing world, however, stands in sharp contrast. The number of Catholics is increasing rapidly in Africa, Asia and South America. Overall, the current story of Catholicism is one of growth. Suggestions that the Church needs to reform to survive are clearly North American-centric.

When discussing reform the focus is typically on issues which paint the Catholic Church as a conservative organization. It is true that opposition to abortion and same sex marriage are typically associated with the political right. The church, however, has a long history of positions on social justice that would fit comfortably in the platform of left wing political parties; opposition to the death penalty, support for fair wages and religious freedom come immediately to mind.

Unfortunately, when the media treats reform in the church as a battle between the left and right they ignore the core debate facing Catholicism. Democracy, the driving force behind the past 200 years of modernization, is meeting up against the top-down, centralized culture that has characterized Catholicism for nearly 2,000 years. In other words, average Catholics living in democratic countries are seeking the space to question their church.

The issues of the left-right debate will resolve themselves over time. In some circumstances the Church will be vindicated, as was the case when the world recognized Catholics opposition to eugenics was the only morally defensible view. In other instances the Church will admit mistakes and it will change course. This process is slow -- pardoning Galileo for refusing to deny that the earth revolves around the sun took hundreds of years -- but change does occur. While left-right issue can be resolved the role of everyday Catholics in the church is a conversation that will endure and ultimately define the direction of Catholicism.

This debate is also relevant to all of humanity as the Church is much more than just a religious organization. The Catholic Church is a major provider of health services and runs the largest non-governmental school system in the world. What the Church does matters to everyone. Historically this has helped civilization make giant leaps forward. The Church, for example, was responsible for preserving knowledge during the dark ages and at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. Even if recent scandals involving the Church have tarnished its reputation there is still hope; an institution with a 2,000 year past and over a billion members understands the need to be adaptive, even if its size makes institutional change slow.

What Catholicism needs now is for ordinary Church members to play a part in reform. We must work to develop a church culture that is welcoming to all. We must ensure the Church's social justice mission continues to play a prominent role around the world. Finally, we can no longer accept suggestions that it is in the Church's best interest to keep quiet about scandals. Attempts to cover up cases of sex abuse made the problems worse. The next scandal will be less devastating if it is quickly brought into the open and appropriately addressed.

Leaders in Catholic institutions, like hospitals and schools, must continue to push for the flexibility to respond to local circumstances. In African hospitals this means providing condoms to people living in a continent plagued by AIDS. In Ontario Catholic schools it means encouraging debate about controversial theological issues inside and outside of the classroom.

Reform of the Catholic Church has always begun at the grassroots. Ontario Catholic Schools can help this process by inspiring great theological debate. All of the hot button issues facing the Church belong in the school system. Every student in our system will at some point personally decided what they believe about God and the Catholic faith. If we provide our students the tools to consider theological issues many will decide to follow Catholicism while working to reform the Church.

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