Catholic Reformer Print
Church
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 18 August 2010 08:24

The Dominican theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995) is hardly a household name, especially among Protestants.  But he was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and, because he left such a deep imprint on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), he was one of the most important theologians of the century from any tradition.

He is of particular interest to Protestants because he was himself a reformer – a Catholic one, for sure, but a reformer nonetheless.  His life and work provide a model for small-c catholic reform among the heirs of the Reformation.

Congar regarded his commitment to reform in the Roman church as a response to a call from God.  During a retreat shortly before his ordination in 1930, he was meditating on Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 and “perceived a definite call to labour in order that all who believe in Jesus Christ might be one.”  He spent the remainder of his life working through the implications of that call.

Pursuit of Christian unity became a driving force for Congar.  Though he agreed with the famous declaration of Vatican II that the body of Christ “subsists” in the Roman church, he also insisted that non-Catholics should not be regarded as non-Christians or heretics.  The Orthodox are not “heretics” simply because of their refusal of communion with Rome, and Protestants and Orthodox are both separated brethren, “Christians who already possess in greater or lesser degree what we desire to see fulfilled in them, and who themselves secretly look for such a consummation.”  Christians born into a non-Catholic communion are “very rarely real heretics.”

In addition to writing voluminously on ecclesiology, he formed friendships with Protestants and Orthodox, putting his commitment to unity into personal practice.

Troubled by the fact that the church seemed to have no ability to arouse the interest in the gospel among modern people, Congar was also committed to seeing how Roman Catholic teaching could be made intelligible to unbelievers.  More basically, the church and world need each other, Congar believed: “At bottom, the Church and the world need one another.  The Church means salvation for the world, but the world means health for the Church: without the world there would be no danger of her becoming wrapped up in her own sacredness and uniqueness.”

One of Congar’s primary goals was to rehabilitate and expand the role of the laity in the Roman Church.  In this, he is, to Protestant ears, often contradictory.  While he wants to affirm the role of the laity, he often seems to be taking back what he offers, since he continues to work within the Catholic notion that the difference between clergy laity is not “functional” but “essential.”  Yet, his main goal is to provide a “priesthood of all believers” justification for the “lay apostolate” and the participation of the laity in the church’s mission.  He was an apostle of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Congar is perhaps most relevant to Protestants in his meditations on “true and false reform.”  He assumed, like all Catholics, that the basic structures of the Catholic Church remain inviolable and infallible.  “Nothing could be more dangerous,” he claimed, “than to work to reform something in the domain of the ecclesial life without being assured of a very solid ecclesiology, that is to say a theology of the structure of the Church.”  Further, “regarding the Church itself and its basic structures of doctrine, sacramental life, and institutional offices, the tradition is closed.  The Church can err neither in its basic structures nor in its secular and general practice.”

Yet, he insisted just as strongly that the church was in need of continual reformation in its morals, practice, and theological formulation.  But how can one distinguish true and false reform?  What’s the difference between reform and revolution?

One might expect a Catholic to emphasize submission to the hierarchy or lock-step conformity to tradition.  But that was not what Congar highlights.  Instead, Congar lays out a fourfold standard: True reform is marked by 1) the primacy of love and pastoral concern; 2) the intention and effort to remain in communion with all; 3) patience, both from reformers and from the established authorities; and 4) a commitment to recover rather than overthrow Tradition.

That is a remarkable sketch of reform.  If Congar’s work shows that the differences between Catholics and Protestants remain, in his phrase, “practically impassable,” it indicates how much we heirs of the Reformation have to learn from those who battled for the twentieth-century Roman Catholic reformation.



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