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How to Change A Church

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Yesterday I sat on the steps of Harvard Divinity School with Tim, a learned, enthusiastic lawyer who has returned to grad school to study church history.   Guided by Tim’s astoundingly well-rounded studies, our conversation weaved in and out of a number of topics, including our faith lives and religious traditions–he, a practicing Mormon, and I, a practicing Catholic.

In an effort to gain insight into my personal convictions, I think, Tim asked me an interesting question: “If you were instantly declared Pope, what would you change about the Catholic Church today?” I laughed along with Paul, another lawyer and fellow Catholic student at HDS who had joined in our conversation. What a question…

My response sort of surprised me.  Had Tim asked me what kinds of reform I would like to see in the Church, I would have confidently recited the well thought-out list. But that is not what he asked.  “I couldn’t possibly initiate all the changes I’d like to see,” I told him. “And, honestly, I probably couldn’t initiate even one of them right away if I was magically elected Pope.”  I was being absolutely honest, and it was hard to admit this to Tim, and to myself.  “We have a global church and a history spanning thousands of years.  If even the smallest thing is going to change, a lot of work and time must be invested into helping people make sense of these shifts from within the faith tradition.  If something “new” is going to happen, we have to use the old authorities–scripture, doctrine, liturgy, etc.–to help people at all levels of the Church make sense of it within the context of their religious identities and communities.  Otherwise it won’t mean anything to people. It won’t stick. It will be confusing. We have to help people make sense of it religiously before we implement it.”

This is why I want to be a theologian. I know I may never see very tangible progress in the type of Church reform that I think is right and just and good, but I think that teachers and writers and ministers and theologians can do work now that helps people make sense of the potential reforms we will not witness, in all likelihood. This work must happen if, one day, the average person is going to think of a married or female priest in a Catholic way, for instance.

On numerous occasions I have been asked to articulate what I’d like the Catholic Church to look like, but Tim brought out another, perhaps more complex and pressing, question–how?  How is the Church going to look like that? And for that matter, how did the Church end up looking like it does today?  How do individual paradigm shifts, or major institutional reformations, occur?  If you’ve got any of these figured out, please let me know…


  1. Laura says:

    What a wonderful question! I grew up Catholic (dad) and Baptist (mom). The great equalizer will not be religion but love and unity through the power of the Holy Spirit. This will change the church! One particular issue that is in great need of change is the role that women take on in ministry. If you are interested- here is a short article from a recent historical view:

    The first step of change is being willing to be the vessel for that change

  2. Theresa says:

    it moves at a snails pace :p

  3. Maggi says:

    What a wonderful conversation to be having! It’s really interesting that you raise the question of what the church needs, both intimately and globally, to grow deeper in the life of the Spirit, because Chris R and I were just discussing this the other day. We were marveling at the incredible Catholic people in our lives, Jesuits in particular, and decided that we were both grateful for and envious of their incredible formation. Chris poignantly asked why the rest of us didn’t have the same opportunity for lifelong formation after confirmation, barring the sacraments of marriage and anointing. Not only do I wish this for myself and my peers, but for a couple of parish priests whose homilies I have squirmed through! If I were the pope, I would support better, more holistic formation all around. Which, of course, only reinforces your conviction for good theologians, writers, and teachers like yourself!

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