The ‘Incomplete Thought’: An Effective Way to Church Reforms?

By: Roberto Catalano

September 23, 2020

Responding to: Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

The ‘Incomplete Thought’: An Effective Way to Church Reforms?

In many sectors of the Catholic Church and of several Christian denominations, we still find a persisting adamant conviction of possessing the Truth. Upon this claim and its implications, the Catholic Church has built herself from the institutional point of view and, at the same time, has often structured her pastoral outreach. Throughout the centuries, this conviction often offered inspiration and legitimacy to ways of relating to peoples and cultures who never heard of Christ. Along with a few fundamental kerygmatic dogmas, other quasi- or pseudo-dogmas were created. An example is the long surviving formula: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Fortunately, quite often the Holy Spirit intervened by throwing open the Church windows to let some fresh air in, as Pope John XXIII used to say. With Pope Francis the Church is experiencing one such phase. Yet, we cannot ignore the strong resistance to his attempts to achieve changes and reforms, both inside the Church and in its relations with the world. In these years Pope Francis has progressively shifted the focus from the list of changes the Church needs to the how these reforms should be carried out. His style of living his ministry as Bishop of Rome is slowly introducing new methodologies, which he draws from the Gospel and, as a Jesuit—we should never underestimate this dimension—from Ignatius of Loyola.

Probably the main challenge can be traced to the above-mentioned misunderstanding regarding the Truth. It is a fact that Jesus came to announce the Kingdom of God, and he clarified that he is “the way and the Truth and the life” (John 14:6). Yet, it has to be acknowledged that, though as Christians we follow his teachings, and less often his example, still we do not possess the fullness of Truth. In fact, it is one thing to follow Christ who is the Truth and quite another to claim that we possess the Truth. Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have often insisted on this point, underlining that “no one can say: I have the truth...no one can have the truth. It is the truth that possesses us!” For many portions of the Catholic Church, it appears problematic to be fully aware of this and, above all, to be ready to face the consequences. One of the keys in order to remove this stumbling block could be what Pope Francis himself defines as the “incomplete thought.” This is a mental and spiritual dimension which could play a meaningful role in the much-needed reformation within the Catholic Church. The main problem, in fact, is not so much that of applying new systems or formulating new categories to the present situation. It is rather the compelling necessity of being fully open to what the Spirit suggests today for the Church’s life ad intra and ad extra. Openness calls for awareness of not knowing everything and of being open to something coming from outside. 

In fact, it is one thing to follow Christ who is the Truth and quite another to claim that we possess the Truth.

On several occasions, Pope Francis has spoken about the need for people “with an incomplete thinking, with an open thought” [1]. It is in this attitude that the Church may find new and real strength. In fact, a true evangelical hermeneutic is needed for a better understanding of life, the world and humanity. This fosters a spiritual atmosphere of research based on the truths of reason and of faith, which could provide solid foundations for a much-needed reform inside the Church. “The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete, thought, ...always in development,” says Pope Francis. The same can be applied to all people in the Church, especially those who exercise leadership ministry. For them, it is crucial to have a real openness of mind and heart, which makes it possible to learn how to listen to the Spirit’s “hidden agenda” [2]. “We need to initiate processes and not just occupy spaces,” the pope teaches. The first aspect calls for readiness to follow the Spirit, and it helps to listen to the Truth herself speaking to the heart and mind of people constituting the Church. The temptation to occupy spaces, instead, leads to power and to the tendency to keep things the way they have been. 

The main point for a real change in the universal church and at the local level is, therefore, that of allowing a radical modification of inner attitudes.

The main point for a real change in the universal church and at the local level is, therefore, that of allowing a radical modification of inner attitudes. It is a matter of shifting from the conviction of knowing what is good for the church and for other people to the awareness that we have to learn from the Spirit himself what has to be done. And the Spirit speaks through circumstances, people, especially those who are marginalized. Discernment is the key for understanding the guidelines of reforms, which should emerge not so much from pre-planned road maps that may come from reasoning and theologizing, but not from “listening.” This is a reform process which may be able to transform people and structures from within, carrying the guarantee of a true conversion. In summary, as Benedict XVI affirmed, “We need to learn anew about ‘not-having-the-truth.’

  1. ​The occasions were offered by encounters held within the Jesuit sphere. The first time was during an interview given to La Civiltà Cattolica. See “Interview to Pope Francis,” La Civiltà Cattolica 3918, vol. 3 (2013): 455.
  2. A. Spadaro, “Il governo di Francesco: E’ ancora attiva la spinta propulsiva del pontificato?” La Civiltà Cattolica 4085, vol. 3 (2020): 357.

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