Fr Harry E. Winter OMI, USA
September 18, 2012
Yves Congar OP’s True and False Reform in the Church has finally (2011) been translated into English, with an excellent introduction by the translator, Paul Philibert OP; it has been placed on the internet, readily accessible. For anyone who wishes to grasp what happened at Vatican II, reading this book is highly recommended. The first edition, in 1950, was the reason Congar was silenced. As he wrote in the second, 1968 revised edition, even the papal nuncio to France, Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) wondered, as he read and annotated the 1950 edition, if “reform” was possible in the Catholic Church.
So in October, 1962, Pope John used a felicitous Italian word, “aggiornamento,” to describe what he hoped the Council would achieve: updating (the Church). The French quickly found a phrase, “opening the windows for a breath of fresh air.”
When one explanation opposes another, positions can harden and each side forgets the truth contained in the other’s position. When the Protestants wanted to “reform” the Church in the sixteenth century, Catholics developed the “Counter Reformation,” which could indicate that we were against reform. Over the centuries from the sixteenth to the twentieth, the Catholic emphasis on the divinity of the Church would let the Protestants take over the need for the Church to be continually reformed. The great expression from the early days of the Church, that the Church was already “reformed” (holy) and “in continual need of reformation” (human, sinful), was forgotten by Catholic theologians. So as Vatican II began in October, 1962, “reform” was too strong a word to use.
Paul VI used the term “renewal” in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (#’s 10-11; 26-27) published in August, 1964, between the second and third sessions of the Council. The Council Fathers and experts quickly followed his lead. When the Decree on Ecumenism was affirmed in November, 1964, in tight conjunction with the Constitution on the Church, the decree affirmed “renewal and reform” (#4, par. 2) of the Church, and the necessity that the Church be “purified and renewed” (#4, par. 6).
same decree stated “in humble prayer, we beg pardon of God and of our
separated brethren, just as we forgive those who trespass against us” (#7,
par. 2). Who would have thought that
reform would involve asking pardon—in a sense, an even stronger concept than
Since the Constitution on the Church has a higher value than the Decree on Ecumenism, it is important to remember that the Constitution actually cited the principle above: “the Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal” (#8, par. 4). Next, the Constitution introduced a key Biblical concept for the Church, that She is a Pilgrim Church (#8, par. 5; #48, par. 4). So the Constitution on the Church gives a Scriptural underpinning for reform. When Israel was on pilgrimage from Egypt to Palestine, She threw away anything not absolutely necessary. That is reform and purification.
Walter Abbott SJ’s edition of the Vatican II Documents footnotes the reality of the purification of the Church between Trent and Vatican II by calling attention to the Collects for the First Sunday of Lent, and the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which spoke of the Church needing purification (Abbott, p. 23, n. 25). These collects were used from Trent on, but since they were prayed in Latin until the Vatican II changes, not many Catholics would have heard their plea for the purification of the Church.
We observe that the fact of purification did not die out at Trent or in the ensuing centuries. Trent did reform some abuses, despite being called the council of the “Counter–Reformation.” The abuse of bishops leading several dioceses simultaneously was eliminated; the institution of seminaries by Trent vastly improved the quality of priests. Pius X purified the Church from Jansenism by encouraging frequent Communion, and earlier First Communion. It was the explanation of reform in catechism and theology that became vestigial.
The first session of Vatican II could not speak of reforming the Church. But by the third session, reform was again an acceptable concept, and was getting a Biblical underpinning with the introduction of the image of the Church as a Pilgrim People. Conclusion: the Church is both irreformable, and always in need of reformation. Which is why Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit: to reconcile truths which seem irreconcilable.