True reform in the Church: Yves Congar's golden mean

True reform in the Church: Yves Congar's golden mean

Andrew Kania

Lauded by Cardinal Avery Dulles as being one of the great classics of 20th century Catholic theology, Yves Congar's True and False Reform (1950) originally found itself on that dubious shelf of works which the Vatican officially discouraged people from reading. In fact Angelo Roncalli after reading the text while papal nuncio in France exclaimed, "Reform of the Church: is such a thing really possible?" (Congar, 2011 edition, p.xi).

Possible? Indeed, a decade later, Roncalli, now Pope John XXIII, would open the Second Vatican Council using words taken from True and False Reform. So after many years in the desert, Congar's time had come. But those desert years had been particularly painful; so painful, that having been silenced by the Church in 1954, Congar wrote to his saddened mother: "What put me wrong (in their eyes) is not having said false things, but having said things they do not like to have said" (Nugent, February, 2005, Australian ejournal of Theology, 4).

How could Congar have ever envisaged that, shortly before his death, he would have received the cardinal's red hat from John Paul II in honour of the instrumental role he played in the Second Vatican Council?


Congar's True and False Reform certainly warrants the acclaim that it has received for in this work he builds meticulously, argument upon argument, a thesis about what is needed to occur in the Church in order for the her to continue to grow.

Certainly those in the Vatican must have known that they were in for an eye-popping read, for Congar stated in his introduction: "It is a fact that the Church has long maintained the point of view, perfectly healthy in itself, that the criticism of persons and of things within the Church does not entail either loathing or loss of faith" (p. 29).

Congar followed this remark with an even more provocative one regarding how the Church lost much of its openness after the Reformation, creating for itself a bastion-like appearance constantly deflecting barbs fired over its ramparts. Congar writes : "The system of powerful central authority which has prevailed in the Church since the 16th century has, in its way, tended to interpret every critique as arising from a spirit of opposition and even from a dubious orthodoxy" (pp. 32-33).

How true is Congar's comment even for us today. That a devout Catholic can have reservations and deep-felt criticisms about the actions of the Church, and still be a loyal Catholic, is something that today is often held to be well nigh impossible.

Such a false perception has been one of the major causes of scandals in the Church occurring for if one cannot criticise or hold up to question the actions of fallible individuals, then in the end fallibility, masked thinly as endemic divinity, will lead to pitfalls where total, devoted obedience is abused - and abused on a wide scale.

To this end, the great English scholar and martyr, St Thomas More, would speak out: "Do we need to keep a respectful silence even in the face of abuse? Must we call every criticism of the evils brought about by human malice a novelty, an absurdity, or an impertinence? Let's stop calling ourselves Christians, if we have to keep still about what Christ taught us. Almost all the precepts of Jesus condemn present behaviour more than all of my criticisms" (quoted on p. 33).

Congar is explicit: the Church as the Bride of Christ is perfect but those men and women who comprise her, both lay and religious, are far from perfect and any group of individuals that seeks to build up a wall that forbids criticism, in time clearly risks becoming corrupted.

Historically, the Church has been accused many a time for a failure to cleanse Itself. At the Council of Trent, Cardinal Pole declared candidly about the salt of the clergy losing its flavour: "If we do not recognise that, then it is vain for us to go into the Council, vain to invoke the Holy Spirit, who enters the soul of the people first of all 'to convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation' (Jn 18:8). To the degree that the Spirit has not accused us to ourselves, we are still unable to say that the Spirit has come inside us and he will not come inside us, if we refuse to pay attention to our sins" (quoted on p. 77).

True reform

Congar's constant call for reform in True and False Reform is reform in the truest sense of the word. He calls for the laity to find a voice, and then to be heard ( cf. p. 39); he calls for frank "criticism" ( cf. p. 36); he calls for "evangelisation" (p. 44), and not prosyletism; but he also calls for wisdom, temperance and common sense, as well as honest introspection.

That the world should now be demanding more from the Church is as a response not only to previous Church inaction, but because the world and its people demand more accountability of institutions today. The Church needs to listen - and listen for what truth is echoed from the very least of their brothers and sisters; for although, as Couturier reminds us, the Church is perfectly holy, because she is sacral, and she is holy and capable of perfection because she is ecclesial - it is because she is also ecclesiastical that she "is terribly sinful and in need of sanctification" ( p. 116).

Many since the close of the Second Vatican Council have attempted to sabotage the spirit of the Council and the writings of those architects who were involved by claiming for themselves complete freedom in tearing down the tenets of the Faith and precepts of the Church, as if theological emasculation was the actual intent of a Congar or a de Lubac.

There are also many who sabotaged the work of the Council by closing their ears and shutting their eyes on the pretence that reform was sinful. To both sides, Congar has many things to say, even half a century after True and False Reform was first published.

Limits and guidelines

For Congar there are strict limits and guidelines to reform in the Church: "Some things in the Church are unchangeable because they are of divine institution and they represent the very foundations upon which the Church is built. Among these, for example, are dogma, the sacraments and the essential structure of the Church.

"Other realities, without being as essential as that, are so deeply linked to the essence of the Church that they cannot be fundamentally changed and so demand our docility and our respect. (Here, for example, are found formulas of doctrine, even those that are not dogmatic formulas properly so-called.) We should not rush to judge or change things that are linked to centuries of discernment, to a 'Catholic' sensibility, like the customs of the Church" (pp. 150-151).

Both polar opposites of the Catholic Church, ultra traditionalist and modernist, have failed to understand Congar: the former, for promoting a resistance to reform at any cost and by so doing suggesting that the Church nurtured by a life-giving Holy Spirit should be static. The latter, for their part, have failed to distinguish between reforming the Church and conducting an open revolt; for when dogma is subtracted from the Church, there can be no belief, and thus there can be no community of believers although there may exist some confraternity of opinion.

Congar's via media allows for change, but it also hallows and respects the fundamentals of the Church. In essence it is a truly golden mean, a wise instruction from the Apostle of Patience.

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania, who is the director of spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth, delivered a keynote address in Sydney last year at an international conference marking the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

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