Ecclesia semper reformanda: the Church always to be reformed. Well, of course. But today, as always, the question is, what makes for authentic reform in the Church? Perhaps a rabbinical story recounted in a popular 1950s Catholic novel, The Cardinal, helps focus the question.

The scene set by author Henry Morton ­Robinson takes place in a New York hotel, where an early attempt at ecumenical reconciliation and interfaith dialogue, a kind of parliament of religions, is meeting. After numerous vacuous statements are made by this, that, or the other Christian cleric, an elderly rabbi gets up and tells a story.

There was a king, it seems, who owned a precious diamond that he cherished more than anything else in the world. One day, alas, a clumsy servant dropped the diamond, which was deeply scratched as a result. The finest jewelers in the kingdom were summoned to the palace, but despite their best efforts they could not repair the king’s diamond. One day, however, an exceptionally skillful jeweler wandered into the kingdom and learned of the sad condition of the king’s diamond. He volun­teered his services – and by his marvelous, almost miraculous, craftsmanship, he carved onto the diamond a beautiful rose, rendering the deepest part of the scratch the rose’s stem.

In the novel, the rabbi does not explicate his parable. But its meaning for a proper understanding of ecclesia semper reformanda should be obvious enough. All true reform in the Church is by reference to what is deepest in the Church: the “form” or constitution, which I use in its British, not American, sense, given to the Church by Christ the Lord. That deep “form” is the root from which the disfigurement of the Church can be transformed into renewal and reform.

Authentic Christian reform, in other words, is not a matter of human cleverness, and still less of human willfulness. If the Church is willed by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, then authentic reform means recovering – making a source of renewal – some aspect or other of the Church’s “form” that has been lost, marred, misconceived, or even forgotten. Authentic reform means reaching back and bringing into the future something that has been lost in the Church’s present. Authentic ecclesial reform is always re-form.