True and False Reform
In these days when American bishops seem to have the time to write scolding books informing us how we should be thinking and acting in public life, arguably areas about which people in general know more than their clergy, it is refreshing to discover a newly-translated classic that breathes the air of common sense about the Church’s mission in the world. Earlier this year those who only read English were finally given access to Yves Congar’s remarkable 1950 book, True and False Reform in the Church. Congar, the single most influential theologian at Vatican II, wrote this text in the years immediately after the Second World War and published it immediately before Pius XII’s sobering attack on “the new theology,” Humani Generis. No prizes for guessing why it was not immediately translated into English. But it is puzzling that it didn’t make it in the years after the Council, when everything else he wrote was translated. Perhaps it seemed to be passé at that point, writing as it did of the need for reform. But now that post-conciliar reform is mostly suppressed, it is as timely as ever.
Congar was an academic theologian alright, and sometimes quite dry, but this is not a book to frighten non-specialists away. Mostly, the fact that it speaks to our times as directly and helpfully as it did to a different world 60 years ago means that anyone concerned with the future of the Church will be motivated, even excited, by its open and hopeful tone. Of course we could all throw up our hands in despair and exclaim, “Well, we are clearly wasting our time if all our hopes for reform were uttered 60 years ago and ignored then!” But I’d recommend two different responses. First, attend to the specific proposals Congar makes. And second, be ready to see the patience he called for 60 years ago as coming pretty close to being exhausted.
As a taster, let me offer you Congar’s approach to the meaning of “fidelity.” We might expect a discussion of the tension between letter and spirit, something with which we are familiar in debates today about “the meaning of Vatican II.” But Congar offers us a different pairing, fidelity to the form and to the principle. There is a kind of fidelity, he writes, “which includes the possibility of surpassing” the forms in which a principle is expressed at the present time. So the real choice is “fidelity to the letter or fidelity which includes development.” Invoking Augustine in his support, he asks why “genuinely good Catholics” are frequently accused of “novelty” and forced to wait for time to prove them right. In an “epochal” moment, a moment of crisis in the Church, established form “can act as a brake or bottleneck,” with sometimes tragic consequences. But truth will out, “the sap makes the bark expand—there are breakthroughs.”
Congar is at great pains to distinguish his (and our?) present moment of crisis from the days of Modernism. We are not talking about reforming dogma, he says. What really matters is “how to do catechesis, how to preach,” and he follows this by a call for improvement in clergy education.” And in its turn, this brings us back to our own present epochal situation, and, curiously, to Cardinal Francis George’s latest book, God in Action, so clearly reviewed by Bill Portier here on the Commonweal website. I’m not so much concerned with the argument of the book, at least not right here, as with the dedication. I once had a friend who was writing a Ph.D. on 18th century book dedications, and she taught me to take them seriously. The Cardinal dedicates his book to “the many Catholic priests who, through prayer and ministry, live with God and interpret his purposes for his people.” I confess to some confusion about this dedication. “Live with God” is surely a hope, actually an eschatological rather than a worldly hope, but it’s really the notion that the role of priests is to interpret God’s purposes to the people that puzzles me. For one thing, we are all of us—laity and ordained, even bishops—God’s people. For another, as Congar taught us so well in a different book, we are all priestly people with the prophetic mission to teach. We are all called to interpret God’s purposes. We are all priests and prophets. And in today’s complicated world it just might be that those of us who live more fully in the secular world might have a role in interpreting God’s purposes on behalf of the Church, for the clergy who minister to us. Congar’s book ends with a postscript written in that turbulent year, 1968. Reading that makes me think he would have accepted with equanimity the possibility that a hierarchical Church can tolerate mutuality and reciprocity in its teaching function.