Anyone who has read the newspapers over the last several years has been ineluctably treated to the mistakes and outright crimes of clergy. Congar hammers their behavior as loathsome failures that bring with it a heightened sense of scandal. But almost in the same breath he speaks reverently and lovingly of the church that, despite the sins of its members, remains a source of grace—a bride without wrinkle or spot. This is not just a charitable view of the ecclesia militans; it is the tradition’s view as well. At least since St. Cyprian, who thought of the earthly church as already participating in “the heavenly realities” (De unitate Ecclesiae catholicae, 6), the church has come under fire from without accompanied by cries for change. Where deviations from the tradition occur is in the polemic from within that uses the sinfulness of some as a weapon to paste an entire body as bankrupt of God’s grace.
This does not mean, Congar contends, that the church can never be criticized. Congar cites approvingly Johann-Adam Möhler: “we have to acknowledge meeting bishops and priests who . . . have let the heavenly fire become extinguished at their hands. . . .Catholics don’t have to dread confessing such things, in fact they have never dreaded it” (78). This kind of position, one that acknowledges the church’s sinfulness with a mixture of honesty and humility, is essential in today’s church. It bears noting that such a position has enormous potential for ecumenical relations. As I read through the volume I could not help but keep in view the growth and internal strife experienced by reform groups like Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful with all their attendant expectations and limitations. These organizations had initially a plan to work with the hierarchy to right what they saw as failings within the church. The results have been mixed. In their early stages they sought to bring about a laity with an ever clear “awareness that they not only belong to the Church, but that they are the Church” (87). This quotation could be taken in from the playbook of either CTA or VOTF but the words themselves, as Congar again notes, are drawn from an allocution of Pope Pius XII in 1946. And that is one of the most charming elements of this book: We—hierarchy and people, generation to generation—are much closer than we might ordinarily think. We begin reform from there.
Expertly translated by fellow friar Paul Philibert, OP, who made judicious edits to Cardinal Congar’s French text, True and False Reform in the Church should be read by all pastors and thinking Christians. It is rightly ranked among the most important theological works of the twentieth century whose renewing power is now happily re-issued for a contemporary readership.