Forty years after the opening of Vatican II, in spite of its widespread call for aggiornamento and its encouragement of an ecumenical spirit that recognizes similarities among various denominations of Christianity, the concept of reform remains an unfamiliar, if not suspect, idea in the minds of many Catholics. For these, reform remains "a Protestant thing," and the mere suggestion that the Bride of Christ should require correction or emendation elicits accusations of heresy, or at the very least, a suspicion of one's loyalty and respect for the Church. Christopher Bellitto, however, concludes in this recent work that "the history of Christianity is the history of reform" (p. 216, emphasis added), and he sketches in very broad strokes the processes of reform that he alleges were present in the Church from its very beginning.
Renewing Christianity begins with a brief synopsis of the reform theories of Ladner, Congar, and Jedin. Bellitto then describes various agendas for reform from different epochs of church history. His observations are much too succinct for any comprehensive discussion of the pertinent issues; however, most chapters include an interpretation or two worthy of further study and consideration.
In the Patristic Era, reform of the individual received the greatest emphasis. While some may prefer to view metanoia more as personal conversion than church reform, Bellitto repeatedly returns to this theme as the basis for all successful reforms in later ages. In the Carolingian period, temporal rulers spearheaded efforts to Christianize society through education (of the royal house, monks, and even the laity). This, according to the author, is more formation than reformation; nevertheless, it too lays the foundation for later reform movements.
The High Middle Ages were characterized by two types of reform: (1) the top-down, institutional reform of the so- called Gregorian Revolution, and (2) the bottom-up reforms instigated by the scholastic humanism of the twelfth-century Renaissance. Bellitto asserts that the latter complemented the former and that, despite many stops and starts, a diversity of reform movements combined conservation of the tradition with innovative exercises of the apostolic life to reform the Church in both head and members.
In a chapter subtitled, "The Era of Multiple Reforms," Bellitto correctly considers together the Avignon Papacy, the Protestant Reformation, and the Council of Trent. Too often disassociated, the events and personalities of these centuries must be understood in relation to one another. Failures by the institutional hierarchy to reform the Church in capite and missed opportunities to heed the call for reform are honestly assessed. Luther is treated rather sympathetically; however, the examination of Calvin is more critical, though not entirely unfair. The Catholic reform of Trent is seen as reaching back to earlier notions of personal reform as a necessary component of any structural change.
Filling in the gap between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, Bellitto discusses Romanticism, Catholic social teaching, Newman's ideas on the development of doctrine, and Modernism (sic!) as reform movements that set the stage for Vatican II. Again, the author's rather broad understanding of what constitutes reform may trouble certain readers. The book concludes with a review of Vatican II, and an interpretation that a preference for language of renewal redefined reform in the Church and emphasized the open-ended nature of reform as a process. Bellitto notes that the intrinsic ambiguities of this work in progress have regrettably led to polarization within the Church as it seeks to implement the Council's ideas.
There is some difficulty in ascertaining the best audience for Bellitto's concise history of church reform. It is obviously intended for the non-specialist; foreign titles are translated, and even such simple terms as ecclesiology are defined for the reader. Its suggestions for further reading are good, but limited to general works in the English language. The inherent pitfalls of a brief overview of such a complicated subject will naturally provide fodder for debate among professional historians; nevertheless, the book is not without merit. It encourages a closer look at relationships among different movements and elements within the Church. More important, it challenges any who might have a mostly static view of the Church to see it as a dynamic organism, constantly in search of the best way to become the spotless Bride of Christ.