Godtalk: Francis' middle way


True and False Reform, Congar, 2010

It is clear that the Pope is a reformer. But he cannot be easily categorized as either a progressive or a conservative. Christopher Bellito, a theologian, argues that the best way of understanding him might be to look at the work of the great French theologian Yves Congar, who developed principles that steer between the extremes of tradition and progress as well as between conservation and innovation.  His warning against two extremes or temptations that could beset reformers sounds a lot like Francis. Finding common ground between these two extremes remains the challenge of reforming.

Congar identified the first temptation of reformers as a Pharisee-like adherence to religious formalism and obligation. This perspective tends to hold on to tradition and ritual as fixed inflexibly in time and place. The opposite temptation is the wholesale rejection of what is termed "old". The Church should adapt, but she should not lose touch with her core and her past. We must be open to the letter and spirit of the law as well as to the natural development of tradition.

Congar also identified four characteristics of critical self-examination. First, reform thinking must be frank, sincere and candid. Second, it must be serious and focused on what counts, not on surface issues, non-essentials or nostalgia.  Third, the preeminent concern of self-examination must also be what effect change will have on the masses, especially the laity. One suspects that were he alive today, Congar would have  greater confidence in the laity to explore reform and renewal than some current members of the hierarchy, who apparently fear that open, even messy discussion confuses and scandalises the faithful. Finally, Congar called for a return to our scriptural and early historical roots.

Then Congar offered four conditions for reform without schism. It might help if  those opposing Francis' free-flowing discernment process  heed Congar's advice particularly on this point. First, reform must be pursued in charity and a spirit of pastoral service.  The goal is to help, not to harm or win an argument. We must rebuild, not destroy. The second condition for reform without schism is to maintain community with dialogue; a way to start is to focus on what's held in common and not what separates people. The spirit of unity can work within the Church's hierarchical centre as well as in the sensus fidelium in the pews.

Congar's third condition for reform without schism is patience: reformers must  remember that there is sometimes need for delay, which must be respected. The work of Trent and Vatican II needed the time between sessions to test, to write and edit, and to establish a climate for consensus. Over time, some ideas that seemed radical or were even censured turned out to
be helpful and orthodox. Congar spoke often about his own struggle to practise "active patience", a phrase that captures  the typical urgency and restlessness of reformers while reminding us that we are never in complete control of timelines.

Congar's fourth condition is adaptation as development. Tradition can develop and is best done when a variety of perspectives work together.. If reform is grounded in our foundations and traditions, it cannot break unity, but reformers must have unhindered access to those sources and room to explore their applications to today's  times. Stone walls stifle renewal.

What can we draw from Congar's principles of true and false reform right now?   Congar was prophetic in laying out a plan for a post-partisan papal reformer. Francis wants to split the progressive-conservative divide by mowing right over it. Like Paul VI, Francis is getting hit from both sides because he is trying to stand in the kind of middle space that Congar proposed as the fruitful forum for reform and renewal. Both popes are hard to put in a neat box of left or right.  At least publicly, Francis appears to defy categories and not really care about what his critics say.

In speaking about renewal, we are not concerned to change things, but to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features that Christ has impressed on his Church. Or, rather, we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image, and that is at the same time consistent with its necessary, normal and legitimate growth from its original, embryonic form into its present structure.

It is that very balance that we can draw from Congar’s principles of true reform.  He offers  a post-partisan climate to a divided Church. Congar's work invites us toward a Church of both/and instead of either/or; he envisions a Church where we talk with and not at each other. With Francis, who is a son and not a father of Vatican II,    we seem poised to take the best but avoid the worst of  the council's interpretation and implementation battles.

If it takes the Church about 100 years to figure out what a Council was all about, our current 50-year anniversary of Vatican II seems a good time to start synthesising. Informed by Congar's insights, we can see our time not in terms of an endless cycle of conflict but rather as a privileged pendulum moment of stasis and synthesis between Hegel's classic thesis and antithesis. Perhaps we might take as our guide at this moment in the Church's pilgrim path Jesus' lesson in Matthew 13:52 that "every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household  who  brings  out  of his treasure what is new and what is  old".

From Bellito’s article in the Tablet 3/1/15, edited

Peter Knott SJ