Thursday, October 18, 2012

True and False Reform

I've just finished reading Yves Congar's True and False Reform in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2011). Though first published in French in 1950, it remains a compelling invitation to look at the Church today and to embrace the notion of its ongoing reform.

One fascinating possibility connected with Congar's study is that it contributed to Pope John XXIII's decision to call for an ecumenical council.

It was at Vatican II that Congar learned that Archbishop Angelo Roncalli in 1952, when he was the Vatican's envoy to France, read the book, and mused, "A reform of the church: is such a thing really possible?"

Some who have read Congar's book and heard Pope John XXIII's opening address to the Council hear an echo of Congar's thesis in the Holy Father's understanding of the need for reform.

Blessed John XXIII's observation that "the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another" sounds like Congar's observation, "...ideas of the 'outdated' or of  'change' do not bear upon Christianity in itself or upon its dogmas and its hierarchical structure. What is called into question, frankly, are certain forms, practices, or habits of historical Catholicism."

The Vatican's initial response to True and False Reform in the Church was negative, and the Holy Office ordered that the book not be translated or republished.

"As far as I myself am concerned, from the beginning of 1947 until the end of 1956," Congar later wrote, " I have never known anything from that quarter (that is, the Vatican's Holy Office) except an uninterrupted stream of denunciations, warnings, restrictive or discriminatory measures and distrustful interventions."

By 1962, however, Congar was serving as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, and over the four sessions contributed many paragraphs to several Vatican II documents.

Congar, of course, was not alone in such rehabilitation. Prior to Vatican II Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and John Courtney Murray had also experienced their share of investigation and disciplinary actions before becoming expert consultants for the Council Fathers. (And the investigations and discipline continue today for a newer slate of theologians as Bradford Hinze of Fordham University records in the first chapter of When The Magisterium Intervenes, edited by Richard R. Gaillardetz, Liturgical Press, 2012.)

One of Congar's main convictions about true and successful reform in the Catholic Church is that would-be reformers must remain in the Church. He faults Martin Luther for his violence and irritability, and suggests that had Luther advanced what was good and Christian in his thinking without breaking with the Church he would have better served the cause of reform.

There are, in Congar's analysis, four conditions for reform without schism: 1) The primacy of charity and of pastoral concerns. He quotes Pope Pius XI: "Every true and lasting reform in the last analysis had its point of departure in holiness, in persons who were inflamed and impelled by the love of God and neighbor."

2) Remaining in communion with the whole Church, and the reason for that communion with the whole body is  that "complete truth is to be found only in total communion."

3) Having patience with delays. Says Congar, "In any reform movement, impatience threatens to ruin everything...The innovator, whose reform turns to schism, lacks patience."

4) Genuine reform through a return to the principle of tradition (not through the forced introduction of some novelty). He writes, "A Catholic reform movement therefore will be obliged to begin with a return to the fundamental principles of Catholicism ...Tradition is essentially the continuity of development arising from the initial gift of the Church ...Resourcement consists in a re-centering on Christ and on the paschal mystery."

Congar is the first to acknowledge that reform is not easy to effect. He recognizes the role of the hierarchy is to be conservators. He acknowledges that institutions are by nature reluctant to change.

At the same time he recalls the insights of St. Cyprian, St. Augustine, Pope Nicholas I and St Gregory VII: "When you have custom without truth, all you have is antiquity of error" and "The Lord never said, 'I am the custom,' but rather 'I am the truth.'"

Pope Paul VI consulted with Congar on more than one occasion. Perhaps Congar's insight influenced Pope Paul as well as Pope John. In his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, August 6, 1964, Pope Paul wrote, "...when we speak about reform we are not concerned to change things, but to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on his Church. Or rather we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image.." (47).

Friday, October 5, 2012

Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday, Vatican II!

Catholic University of America (CUA)  in Washington, DC, sponsored a four-day symposium titled "Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After Fifty Years," September 26-29, 2012.

Keynote speakers included Cardinal William Levada, former prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father John O'Malley, SJ, historian and professor of theology at Georgetown University, and Monsignor Paul McPartlan, professor of systematic theology at CUA.

Their talks and subsequent workshops offered a positive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and highlighted the many encouraging consequences resulting from the Council's teaching.

Cardinal Levada echoed Pope John Paul II's assessment that Vatican II was "the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century...a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning."

His Eminence noted the many developments in theology that preceded the Council and which became part of the Council's teaching, such as the liturgical movement, Patristic revival, and the biblical movement, "sparking a ressourcement in theological and historical disciplines."

The text of Levada's talk is online at

Father O'Malley's focus was on "The Hermeneutic of Reform: From Gregory VII to Benedict XVI," proposing that the reforms of Vatican II were motivated by and developed from a combination of resourcement (a return to the past to correct the present), aggiornamento (Pope John's term for renewal), and development (the theology proposed by John Henry Cardinal Newman in the 19th century).

O'Malley added, "When Pope Benedict XVI proposed a hermeneutic of reform for interpreting Vatican II, he stepped away from the sharp dichotomy of rupture/continuity that he had earlier insisted upon. Historians, surely, must welcome the new category. They know that the sharp dichotomy of rupture/continuity is never verified in historical events, which are always a mix of the old and the new. An event as radical as the French Revolution did not destroy the deep bond that contributed to define what it meant to be French."

The text of O'Malley's talk is online at

Monsignor McPartlan addressed the issue of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, insisting on the primacy of charity in ecumenism and observing that we need less arguing and more praying if we are to achieve a sense of unity.

Other CUA professors spoke to the apostolate of the laity, the liturgical and theological developments, religious freedom, Gaudium et spes, renewal of moral theology.

Over 500 participants attended one or more of the four day's sessions, many clergy and religious, seminarians and lay people, some students at CUA, and a few attendees from other parts of the country.

The tone of the symposium was positive, though some speakers (Cardinal Levada among them) acknowledged that some of the Council's initiatives have yet to be realized.

It is encouraging to see that other Catholic universities (e.g., Georgetown, October 11-12, 2012, as well as Saint Louis University, Saint Joseph's University) are not letting the Council's anniversary go unnoticed. Parishes across the country are also commemorating the golden anniversary, using the jubilee as an occasion for reviewing the letter and the spirit of the Council and recommitting to the direction set by this 21st ecumenical council of the Church.

It is good to know that fifty years later, Mother Church is still rejoicing that the Second Vatican Council, "by the singular gift of Divine beside St. Peter's tomb" was solemnly opened by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962.

Happy Birthday!