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is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another" sounds like Congar's observation, "...ideas of the 'outdated' or of 'change' do not bear upon Christianity in itself or upon its dogmas and its hierarchical structure.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."
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
records in the first chapter
of When The Magisterium Intervenes,
edited by Richard R. Gaillardetz, Liturgical Press, 2012.) Fordham University
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).