Council fathers reluctant to use the word 'reform'


Bishops leave St. Peter's Basilica after a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

October 15, 2012

The Second Vatican Council was "animated by a spirit of reform," but was afraid to use the word "reform," Church historian Jesuit Father John O'Malley told a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the council.

In its 16 documents, Vatican II used the Latin word for reform, "reformatio," only once – in its Decree on Ecumenism when it said the Church is in need of continual reform, said O'Malley, a professor in the theology department at Georgetown University.

Other than that, it preferred "softer words," such as renewal, updating or even modernizing, he said.

O'Malley was a keynote speaker Sept. 27 at the symposium Reform and Renewal: Vatican II After Fifty Years held at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

The Jesuit noted that Father Yves Congar, a French Dominican theologian and expert on ecumenism, wrote his book True and False Reform in the Church in the 1950s that "a veritable curse" seemed to hang over the word "reform."

And when Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, heard of Congar's book, he said, "Reform of the Church; is such a thing possible?"

The Vatican's Holy Office forbade the reprinting of Congar's book or its translation into other languages from the original French, he said. But during Vatican II, the priest was one of many theologians helping the bishops; Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994.

O'Malley traced the history of reform in early Church councils up to and including the 16th-century Council of Trent. Trent, however, coming on the heels of the Protestant Reformation, repeatedly insisted on the Church's unbroken continuity with the faith and practice of the apostolic Church.

"In its insistence on continuity, Trent helped develop the tradition and fostered the Catholic mindset reluctant to admit change in the course of the Church's history and teaching," O'Malley told an audience of about 250 people.

"By the early 17th century, Catholic reluctance to see or admit change had become deeply rooted and pervasive."

As well, Protestants had laid claim to the word "reform" as their own, he said. The word then "suffered banishment as foreign to Catholicism and subversive of it."


That all changed in 2005 when, shortly after his election, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech to the Roman Curia describing Vatican II as a council of reform, rather than one of rupture with the Catholic tradition, he said.

"Reform is, according to him, a process that within continuity produces something new," O'Malley said. "The council, while faithful to the tradition, did not receive it as inert but as somehow dynamic."

The Church, according to Pope Benedict, grows and develops in time, but nonetheless remains always the same, he said.


In another talk, Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at Catholic University, traced Pope Benedict's aversion to theories of ruptures in Church history to his research into St. Bonaventure's theology as the young Joseph Ratzinger.

St. Bonaventure was critical of the theory of the 12th-century monk Joachim of Fiore, who maintained that there are three eras in salvation history – the Old Testament age of the Father, the clergy-dominated era of the Son and the age of the Spirit in which spiritual men would hold first place and there would no longer be sacraments or a hierarchy.

Joachim predicted the age of the Spirit would begin in 1260, Pecknold said.


For St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, there could only be one rupture, humanity's redemption in Jesus Christ, he said. Moreover, not only was Joachim wrong about history, he also was wrong about God. His theory implied that the Father, Son and Spirit are three gods acting independently.

Pope Benedict, said Pecknold, sees any interpretation of Vatican II that separates the spirit of the council from its actual teaching is to see it in the same light as Joachim's view of history.

To interpret Vatican II as a rupture with the past is, for the pope, an interpretation which is "bound to be Church-dividing and is thus non-Catholic," he said.