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The Author


True and False Reform in the Church; by Ives Congar

Translated by Paul Philbert;

Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 2011


             I am neither theologian nor translator.  I am simply a reasonably well-read lay person.  To my delight, however, I found the prose, and therefore the argument, in this book clear and intelligible, despite its comprehensive, scholarly approach to the subject, which one would naturally expect from a revered peritus of Vatican II.  I recommend it, therefore, for preachers who are theologians and for those who are not.

             It would be hard to overstate the timeliness of Paul Philbert’s translation of Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church.  The sex abuse scandal, growing centralization of power, reactionary movements against the aggiornamento of Vatican II, shortage of priests with the consequent loss of Eucharistic lie for the faithful--all of these signs of the times remind us that the Church is always in need of reform.

             In the first part of the book,  with many historical examples, Congar situates the possibility of reform, identifies the need for reform, and explores the roles of prophet and reformer in the Church.  After a survey of the Fathers and, more generally, the magisterium and theologians, Congar affirms the teaching of the distinction between Church as institution and Church as community of persons.  The institution, he says, comes from God, and represents “the totality of principles established by Jesus Christ to make humanity his body.”  These principles are revealed doctrine, the sacraments, the apostolic powers “derived from the sovereign energies of Christ as king, priest and prophet.”  In the realm of institution and principles, the Church is pure, holy, “ impeccable, infallible, and virginal.”  As a communion of persons, as a sociological phenomenon, however, the Church embodies the weaknesses, failures, and sin inherent in the human condition.

             In asking Why and What Way Do  the People Need to Be Reformed?  (Chapter 2), Congar describes two dimensions of failure:  Pharisaism and Synagogue.  Pharisaism substitutes means to ends:  clericalism, for example, which focuses on externals, rather than on the Mystery of the Church.  Congar has a biting criticism of Pharisaism:  “A church grown fat and fixated on its works, its successes, and its securities risks becoming more worldly and forgetting its true purpose:  through and for whom it exists.”

             The second dimension of failure, Synagogue, is a refusal to change when change is necessary: “an excessive attachment to historical forms that give the church its cultural expression, and are by that very fact dated and partial [which] can lead to an inappropriate blocking of the church’s fidelity to its living principle.”

             The second part of the book describes four conditions for authentic reform of the Church.  It must be pastoral; it must be in communion with the whole Church; it must incorporate a spirit of patience; it must be a development of tradition, not an external innovation.

             Paul Philbert begins his Introduction with a compelling reason for a preacher’s study of this book:  “You are about to explore one of the transformative masterpieces of twentieth-century theology. Cardinal Avery Dulles once called Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church ‘a great work [that lays] down principles for authentic Catholic reform.’”  And, in the same paragraph, Philbert quotes Congar himself:  “’If there is a theology of Congar, that is where it is to be found.’” 


Patricia Chaffee, OP

Racine, Wisconsin

Book Review Archive

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