What it means to be against reform

I oppose reform, not just this or that ill-considered reform, but reform in general. I’ve brought this up before with regard to the Catholic Church, a much reform-ridden entity, but reform is poison for any group.

To understand this, one must be clear about what “reform” is. Not all changes tend to be described as reforms. It would sound strange to hear that Beethoven “reformed” music, or that Einstein “reformed” physics, or that Cooley and Tukey “reformed” the discrete Fourier transform. New styles, innovations, and improvements are usually not considered reforms; I am entirely in favor of creativity in the fine arts, improvement of the practical arts, and advancement of the sciences.

Reform requires moral condemnation of previous practice. It always involves two roles. First, there is the reformer, the prophet (always a prophet), who announces the immorality of past ways, thereby gaining power and status for himself. Second, there is the discredited representative of the old order, who must be held in scorn. It would be absurd to think that the theory of relativity disgraced physicists who had been using Newtonian theory. Music, science, mathematics, and engineering are progressive disciplines; they advance by building upon the past rather than by tearing it down. Thus, they have no use for reform.

One might say that arts and sciences do not need reform because they are amoral. However, friendship and marriage are generally not considered to be progressive, and wounds to friendships and marriages often result from moral lapses of at least one partner. Yet it would sound strange to say that a couple “reformed” their marriage or friendship. This is because no friend would want to assert moral superiority over his friend by playing the role of prophet. Such a thing would be inimical to the spirit of friendship. To “reform” a friendship would be to end it. Marriage also is a form of friendship, and who but a narcissist would want to seize power and status over a spouse in this way? Friendships and marriages are not reformed, but healed, the difference being a spirit of forgiveness.

Suppose the reforming prophet is one who already holds power? Suppose a king decides that the ways of his people are wicked, so that rather than the upholder of their traditions, he makes himself their enemy. See what at once happens. The king suddenly claims a much greater power for himself than a traditionalist king would. The latter was only the servant of an inherited order, not the legislator of a new one. At the same time, the king alienates himself from the existing order, makes his government a revolutionary one, so that any imperfections of his kingdom are blamed on persistence of the old order with which he does not associate. A reforming ruler at once aggrandizes power and abdicates responsibility, regardless of the nature of his reform. And, of course, most reforms are evil even in intent, driven by the Satanic principles of freedom and equality.

The only benevolent case of reform is the reform of oneself. We do hear that an alcoholic or a gambler took it upon himself to reform his life, which is all to the good, because there is only one subject. The same man who stands condemned by the reform stands vindicated by it.

The Catholic Church is said to be always in need of reform, which is to acknowledge that all the prior centuries of self-recrimination and demoralization have bought us nothing. Indeed, one notices that all the great reforming ages of the Church end in catastrophe–the Gregorian reform in the Great Schism and Reformation, the Tridentine reform in the Enlightenment and Revolution. There seems to be no graceful exit from reforming zeal. Suppose instead of reforming the Church we were to improve her? Catholics will rightly be suspicious of the idea of such “improvement”. It seems to presume a fixity only of ends, with the means entirely unconstrained. The Mass cannot be improved (or–God forbid!–reformed) because it is a treasure in itself, apart from any purely extrinsic consequence of its performance. (The glorification of God is an intrinsic consequence.) Any change to improve some “outcome” could never give more than what it takes away–the great solace of worshipping God with the same forms and words as our ancestors. However, as inadequate as it is, an attitude of improvement is less damaging than one of reform. One can imagine listing the actions of the Church and their desired outcomes–catechesis and retention of our children, evangelization to non-Catholics, care for the poor and suffering–and ask how these could be done more effectively. It would actually be nice if someone were thinking about these things! Instead, they are all ignored or damaged by the constant futile effort to gain status by denouncing our fellow Catholics.