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True and False Reformation in the Church, by Yves Marie Congar 


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

Congar's essay True and False Reformation in the Church is a classic of 20th century theology. No one had theologically studied this aspect of the life of the Church until then. He did so at a crucial moment.

On December 6, 1944, by the will of Pius XII, Roncalli, who represented the Holy See in Bulgaria (1925), Turkey and Greece (1931), received a telegram appointing him nuncio in Paris. It was not a promotion, but to put out a fire. At the end of the Second World War, the new head of the French Republic, General De Gaulle, a Catholic, asked for a change of Nuncio Valeri, who was too fond of Pétain's regime. And he urged that it be before Christmas, when the diplomatic corps was traditionally received and the nuncio acted as Dean. In addition, the French government demanded the renewal of 30 bishops of France for the same reason. 

Angelo Roncalli was then 63 years old. He would spend nine years in Paris until he was elected Patriarch of Venice (1953) and then Pope (1958), under the name of John XXIII. 

Fruitful and complex years

Those post-war years in France were, from the Christian point of view, extraordinarily rich. A magnificent flowering of Christian intellectuals and theologians emerged, as well as apostolic initiatives, which renewed the panorama of French Catholicism. It had already begun after the First World War. 

This, between great cultural and political tensions. On the one hand, the one maintained by the broad sector of traditional Catholics, refractory to the Republic, proud of France's Catholic past and wounded by the secularist republican arbitrariness that had already lasted 150 years. And on the other hand, the temptation that communism represented for Catholicism with social sensitivity and the young clergy, since it sought to incorporate them into its political project . 

In this context, everything was easily confused and politicized and unexpected tensions arose. The Holy See - the Holy official document- received in those years hundreds of French denunciations, and a climate of suspicion was created against the so-called "Nouvelle Théologie" that hindered due discernment and greatly complicated the life of some great theologians such as De Lubac and Congar. In 1950, De Lubac was separated from Fourvière. 

Genesis of True and False Reformation

On August 17, 1950, Father General of the Dominicans, Manuel Suarez, from visit in Paris, met with Yves Marie Congar (1904-1995) to discuss the reprinting of Christians Disunited (1937), the pioneering essay that Congar had written on Catholic ecumenism. At that time the topic was in its infancy, and would only mature with the will of the Second Vatican Council, becoming a mission statement of the Church. But at the time it aroused historical misgivings. Moreover, the Holy See wanted to prevent ecumenical relations from getting out of hand. The Ecumenical committee of the Churches had just been created. 

Congar carefully recorded the conversation in a memorandum (published in Diary of a Theologian): "I tell him that I am correcting the proofs of a book graduate True and False Reformation...[Father General's somewhat frightened look]; that no doubt this book will bring me difficulties, the burden of which poor Father General will still have to bear. [But what can I do? It is not possible for me to stop thinking and saying what seems to me to be true. To be prudent? I am doing my best to be prudent.

Reading the book today, after the post-conciliar ups and downs, one has the feeling that it could have served as guide on the changes. But when it was published, things sounded different. From entrance, the very use of the word "reform", at least in Italy, seemed to give reason to the Protestant schism. Although the book received some laudatory reviews (including in L' Osservatore Romano), suspicions were also raised, which had more to do with the context than with the book itself. Congar tells the anecdote of a lady who went to buy one of his books and the bookseller asked her: are you also a communist?

Complications of the moment

Father General of the Dominicans, Manuel Suarez, was a prudent man in a difficult status . Everything was complicated by the question of the worker priests, in which several French Dominicans were involved (but not Congar). project bold and interesting evangelizer and that perhaps in another context, with greater pastoral attention from those involved, it could have fructified serenely. But with the two tensions mentioned above, it was unfeasible. On the one hand, criticisms and denunciations multiplied; on the other, an opportunity for communist recruitment was seen. 

Everything was precipitated by some defections. And this provoked an intervention in the Dominicans in France in 1954, but through Father General himself. Among other things, Congar was asked to stop teaching (but not writing). The second edition of True and False Reformation and its translations were also delayed (but the Spanish edition came out in 1953). There was no further sanction and nothing was put in the Index, as had been feared. But for many years he could not return to the regular teaching .

And Nuncio Roncalli? He remains to be studied. He was certainly a man faithful to the Holy See, who acted sensibly and with great humanity. He was bypassed both by the denunciations that went directly to Rome (also from the bishops) and by the measures that were taken through the general superiors. However, when as pope he convoked the Council, both De Lubac and Congar were called to the preparatory commission. And they would play a great role: De Lubac, more as an inspirer, but Congar also as the editor of many texts. Those were his themes! Church, ecumenism...

The intention of the book 

Already the degree scroll is a program True and False Reformation in the Church. It is not about the "Reformation of the Church", but about the "Reformation in the Church". And that is because the Church is not in the hands of men. The Reformation is made from its own nature, more by removing what hinders than by inventing. And it requires a work to adapt the life and mission statement of the Church to the changes of the times. Not for the comfort of accommodation, but for the authenticity of the mission statement. That is why, in reality, "reforms prove to be a constant phenomenon in the life of the Church, as well as a critical moment for Catholic communion," he points out in the 1950 prologue. 

For this reason, in a time of effervescence such as the one we were living through, it seemed important to him to study the phenomenon in order to reform well, learning from historical experience and avoiding mistakes. In the same place he lucidly says: "The Church is not only a framework, an apparatus, an institution. It is a communion. There exists in it a unity that no secession can destroy, the unity that its constituent elements generate by themselves. But there is also the unity exercised or lived by men. This questions their attitude, is built up or destroyed by that attitude, and constitutes the communion." In this there is an echo of Johann Adam Möhler, always admired by Congar (and edited). 

The 1967 Preface gives an account of the change of context since he wrote the book. On the one hand, the magnificent Ecclesiology of the Council, but also the relationship with a world much more independent of the ecclesial. This is positive in one sense; but, on the other hand, "that which comes from the world runs the risk of being lived with an intensity, a presence, an evidence that surpasses the affirmations of faith and the commitments of the Church. It demands a new evangelizing presence. 

On the other hand, Congar warns (we are in 1967) that "it happens that some, unwisely, question everything without sufficient preparation [...]. In the current status we would not subscribe to the optimistic lines we devoted to the reformist thrust of the immediate postwar period. Not because we are pessimists, but because certain orientations, even certain situations, are really worrying". All in all, it seems to him that the book retains a substantial validity. 

The structure

He describes the structure in the 1950 prologue as follows: "Between an introduction which studies the fact of the reforms as they are presented today and a conclusion, two major parts, to which it seemed appropriate to add a third: 1. Why and in what sense is the Church constantly reforming? 2. Reformation and Protestantism". He added this third part to better understand the Reformation and the rupture it entailed. It should have been a reform of life, but they wanted to reform the structure and this led to schism. 

The introduction notes the fact of reform in the history of the Church: "The Church has always lived reforming herself [...] her history has been punctuated by reform movements. [Sometimes it is the religious orders that correct their own laxity [...] with such impetus that the whole of Christianity is moved (St. Benedict of Aniane, Cluny, St. Bernard). Sometimes it was the popes themselves who undertook a general reform of abuses or of a seriously deficient state of affairs (Gregory VII, Innocent III)". He then points out that the time in which the book is written is a time of ferment. And he deals at length with the "status of criticism in the Catholic Church". There is, in fact, a self-criticism to which attention must be paid in order to facilitate improvements. 

The first part, the most extensive, is entitled "Why and in what sense is the Church reformed?". It is divided into three chapters and studies the combination of God's holiness and our weaknesses, of which the Church is composed. And it does so by going through topic in patristics, scholasticism, other theological contributions and the Magisterium. It underlines the meaning of the mystery of the Church as a thing of God. And it determines what is and what is not fallible in the Church.

Conditions for reform without schism

This is the degree scroll of the second part, which contains the most substantial and lucid part of the book. He points out that in every movement there is room for development authentic or deviation, and that many times the reaction to a unilateral error also provokes a unilateral accent. Then he studies what are the conditions of a true reform. And he points out four conditions.

The first is "the primacy of charity and pastoral care". One cannot pretend to reform the Church only with ideas or ideals, which can remain theoretical affirmations: one must stick to the pastoral internship , which is what guarantees efficacy. Heresies often treat the Church as an idea and mistreat reality by creating destructive tensions. 

The second condition is "to remain in the communion of the whole". It is also the condition of being Catholic, united to the universal in the Church. Often the initiative comes from the periphery, but it must be integrated with the center, which exercises a regulatory role. 

The third condition follows the previous one and is "patience, avoiding haste". Unity and integration have their times, which must be respected, and haste causes ruptures. This patience, sometimes painful, is a test of authenticity and rectitude of intention. Congar experienced this in his own flesh, although he did not always manage to be so patient.

The fourth condition is that true renewal presupposes a return to the beginning and to tradition, not the introduction of a novelty by virtue of a "mechanical adaptation". Congar distinguishes what is an adaptation as a legitimate development that has to be done by connecting with the sources of the Church, from what would be an adaptation as the introduction of a novelty that is added as something postitious. This was also inspired by Newman, another of his great references. 

Also on the Reform

As if it were an echo, the encyclical Ecclesiam suam (August 6, 1964) of Paul VI, in the context of the Council, still to be completed, speaks of the conditions for a true reform of the Church; and of the method, which must be dialogue. It is a matter of "always restoring to her her perfect form which, on the one hand, corresponds to the primitive plan and, on the other, is recognized as coherent and approved in that necessary development which, like the tree of the seed, has given the Church, starting from that design, her legitimate historical and concrete form". Benedict XVI will also refer to the necessary distinction between reform and rupture when interpreting the will of the Second Vatican Council and specifying the hermeneutic with which it should be read. 

Bibliographic news

A thick biography of Congar has just been published by Étienne Fouillox, who also edited his Diary of a Theologian (1946-1956), and is a well-known historian of that very interesting period in France. You can also find online several programs of study by professors Ramiro Pellitero and Santiago Madrigal.