Contemplating True and False Reform in the Church with Seminarians

This past spring[1] I led a small seminar exploring the history of reform and renewal from the Apostolic age to Vatican II with a handful of seminarians at St. Joseph Abby and Seminary College. Together, three major concerns or issues came to the forefront of our conversations about the Church’s past reform experiences: clerical behavior, the role of community in reform, and the role of past examples in present-day reform. I think these can provide points of reflection for our contemporary reform needs. Since we hit the high points, our goal was to discern principles of reform rather than a schematic or template of reform with specific reform action points.

For example, seminarians often took notice of the frequency with which previous reform movements targeted illicit and sinful clerical behavior. Past reformers often remarked on how clerical sinfulness gave license to the laity to engage in sinful behavior.[2] I think there is certainly much contemporary evidence validating this sort of thinking. Even if we are not speaking explicitly of specific sins, a priest’s word is enough to validate a choice or a lifestyle.

As our seminar leap-frogged through time we examined the roles of martyrdom and the monastery in the early Church, the secular arm’s role in reform, reformers produced by places like Cluny or Citeaux, the Councils of Lateran IV and Trent, the Oxford Movement under John Henry Newman, and finally the twentieth century lead-up to Vatican II. In addition to these primary sources, our central text was Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church, about which the seminarians remained undecided throughout our course.[3]

Before delving into these concerns I would like to provide our course’s definition of “reform” and “renewal,” which we pulled from various sources. Funnily enough, even when Congar wrote True and False Reform in the mid-twentieth century the word “reform” was a trigger word within the Church.[4] Understanding that the Church is ever reforming and ever renewing herself helps to quell some fears of forced progressivism or conservativism.[5] Seminarians, however, were still cautious of reform claims from priests or laity who held controversial views. Additionally, we affirmed that criticism in no way impacts the deposit of faith. Authentic reform and criticism contribute to the living out of the Gospel.[6]

In that vein, “renewal” may be defined as restorative. Think greater fidelity to the Church’s mission: the salvation of souls.[7] “Reform” on the other hand is “augmentative and ameliorative.”[8] Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century are a good example. Greater fidelity to the call to holiness and to the monastic vocation, i.e. renewal, led to concrete actions and administrative developments at the Church’s center and periphery, i.e. reform. Renewal in Christ forms a foundation for institutional and personal reforms to better live out the Gospel and evangelize. Without personal conversion at its heart, no reform attempt will be successful.

Clerical Behavior

First, reading the repetitious canons against clerical behavior, at both regional and ecumenical councils, is like reading the demerit list of high school students. Same stuff, different day. Bishops and abbots dealing with concubinage and incontinence, gambling, sacramental and pastoral neglect, absenteeism and simony, drunkenness, etc. One would think that these problems would have been solved between Nicaea and Trent, but many were perennial. Consistently, reform-minded bishops, abbots, and clergy received resistance from clerics to reform their lives and/or communities. Sanctions, excommunications, and other canonical punishments were levied against recalcitrant priests and religious who were failing to live out their vocations and/or were causing public scandal.

Seminarians were fascinated by what I would call the laicization of clergy and bishops’ disciplinary measures. Laicization, here, does not mean losing faculties and the clerical state, though that did happen. Clerics were cited in the canons for living as a laymen: hunting, engaging in politics, mercantile behavior, frequenting alehouses, etc. In straightforward terms, clerics and religious were reprimanded for not providing an example to the laity and therefore not living out their vocations. In some cases, there was sinful behavior involved, but mainly the key issue was clerical attention was taken away from saying Mass, the divine office, pastoral care, etc. in order to focus on worldly pleasures and practices that, in and of themselves, may not be sinful.

In this vein and with the obvious caveat that society and culture in centuries past differed from today, the seminarians struggled to understand how or why someone would enter holy orders and not want to serve the People of God. Why be a priest and not say Mass? Seminarians also saw discrepancies between the contemporary Church and past reform movements. Specifically, episcopal behavior with regards to clerical discipline and reform. In their view, past bishops did not hesitate to censure, excommunicate, or publicly reprimand recalcitrant priests or religious. Seminarians expressed desires for bishops to speak clearly and publicly on several contemporary issues, such as public statements by theologians or priests that potentially sowed confusion or lead others into sin.

In short, they desire clearer public statements against false teachings to be paired with a heavier disciplinary hand. I understand the desire for clarity from the pulpit, but the seminarians failed to understand our contemporary context. Certain disciplinary measures that were normative for past centuries would not be well received today, or they may even be ineffective. But, considering the ever-unfolding sex scandals, bishops, as individuals, must first re-earn respect and provide a living witness to personal renewal and reform before bringing the hammer down. The seminarians’ desire for the enaction of canonical penalties fails to realize that punishment is merely one facet of reform movements. And, more importantly, any punishment dealt must hold conversion as its end goal. Not punishment for punishment’s sake. Several dioceses’ openness about past abuses is a good start at reform.

Role of the Community

In drawing lines for reform, there is always some amount of tension between the center, the hierarchy in union with the papacy, and the periphery, lay, clerical, and religious communities. Congar’s terminology for areas of reform do have their shortcomings[9], but they are useful here in describing how different parts of the Body of Christ see reform because of their different perspectives. We might characterize peripheral reform as beginning in parishes, monasteries, universities, etc. While central reform is that reform emanating from the bishops and the papacy. Historically, most reform movements began in the periphery before being either approved or taken up by the center. Gregorian reforms, of both Gregory the Great and Gregory VII, are center reforms, but both also benefited from the peripheral reforms of monasticism in their respective periods.

Seminarians at a Benedictine monastery could not help asking where our Cluny or Citeaux was that would inspire a new reform movement. Our descendants will know. For now, what they could appreciate is that no reform efforts can be attempted alone. Even a saint cannot bring about reform without co-workers in the vineyard. As diocesan seminarians, their concept of lived “community” or fraternity must be reconciled with the logistical fact that most diocesan priests live and work apart from their brother priests.

Yet, nearly all past reform movements and attempts, especially reform epicenters, took place in the context of a lived community. Abbeys, papal households, canons regular, etc. all fostered environments that either contributed or proved detrimental to growing in virtue.[10] In some way, lived community is a crossroads of personal and corporate reform and renewal. It is the venue at which virtue and mission is fostered.

As diocesan seminarians, accountability groups, deanery meetings, and annual continuing education conferences will be potential future contact points for reform. Several times the men pointed out that their community living, while possessing its own pitfalls and issues, is where virtue and holiness are fostered, though not exclusively. The seminarians saw clerics, religious, episcopal households, etc. as being a sort of family. Spiritual mothers and fathers foster homes of virtue that in turn inspire other families to orient their lives toward Christ. This probably was the most disappointing aspect of reform for the men. Seminary is full of fraternity and community living followed by a few years as a parochial vicar before being made a pastor, often too soon due to need, and living alone.

Past Examples and Contemporary Issues

Our biggest point of contention was the degree to which past examples of reform should influence or be binding on the present-day attempts at reform. To what degree is innovation a departure, and to what degree is innovation an authentic development of reform? Part of this disagreement came from how much credibility we gave to our intuitive leaps regarding contemporary ecclesial activities. For example, how someone uses some words, such as “pastoral” or “liturgy” to describe an idea or activity, made some seminarians question motives and possible negative impacts regardless of whether or not the initiative itself was neutral. There was, in my opinion, a certain amount of fear from their experiences of parish catechesis and liturgy. Witnessing how new but good parish initiatives could be used as a vehicle for material which contradicts Church teaching made them wary of anything similar.

While I agreed that my own experiences included similar situations,[11] I am not inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Catholic Church of 2020 is not the Catholic Church of Trent or Lateran IV. This is not to say that the deposit of faith has changed, but that we are engaging with a post-Christian secularized society that questions the necessity and applicability of any religion, outside of personal devotion, or considers Catholicism openly hostile to contemporary social progress.

Therefore, our reforms must be guided by the principles of the past and not simply a copy-paste act. The Holy Spirit is not a dead letter but enlivens our efforts in dynamic and often unforeseen ways. I am not certain the seminarians saw contemporary reform in this way. So, they preferred tried and tested pre-Vatican material. Holy Scripture and Tradition ought to form our boundaries, not our preferences and proclivities.

Congar’s work supports the adage that if something isn’t happening in the parish then it isn’t happening.[12] To this point, the seminarians’ opinions developed while discussing how our principles of reform could be implemented at the parish level. As stated above, from the seminarians’ perspective, “re-using” methods and material of the pre-Vatican II past is safer than contemporary methods. In the opinion of some, the aggregate of positive and negative results of the mid-to-late twentieth century was mostly negative, especially with regards to the implementation and interpretation of Vatican II. Holding this opinion, often an unexamined opinion, may be why some seminarians are attracted to radical traditionalism as an over-correction to real problems they have encountered. Though, to be clear, none claimed Vatican II was illicit or false in its teachings.

Our disagreements stemmed from a misunderstanding of contemporary reform within the Catholic tradition. Everyone can agree on the basics of reform and renewal: personal and corporate renewal through the Holy Spirit. But, in practical terms, how is reform and renewal enacted on the ground? Seminarian fear and skittishness for contemporary efforts, including examples from Congar, were largely due to their perception that many innovations come with agenda-driven baggage, often with links to social issues, that potentially lead others away from Christ.

For now, whether it is true or not does not matter. What is important to note is that they did not see the same sort of agenda-driven efforts in our historical examples. This, I think, is because men and women of the past who possessed negative agendas were largely concerned with either material gain or political power, in contrast with contemporary “agendas” that are largely focused on social issues. Additionally, because our class time did not allow for in-depth analysis, reformers’ failings or struggles often did not receive due attention. In short, I failed to fully counteract some of their “Golden Age” viewpoints about pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Including greater details about the struggle to implement Trent, the reasons for resisting the council, and the ways Tridentine reforms were received, or not, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would have helped greatly.


The seminarians’ last and greatest criticism was my failure to meet expectations for specific examples or plans for reform, including citing specific contemporary clerics as examples.[13] This was something I was happy to hear! My goal was to foster their thought and break them out of their preconceived notions of how they are going to “fix the parish and the Church” through this or that, usually liturgical, change. Neither the Extraordinary Form nor the Ordinary Form hold a peculiar grace against sin. Heinous sins have been committed by adherents of both. A holy priest celebrating the Mass reverently and humbly draws the faithful towards Christ in either form. If liturgical changes will not automatically fix issues, then neither will a heavy-handed or accusatory (arch-)bishop automatically fix abuses and failures of the clergy or episcopacy. There is no “quick fix” for what the Church faces today, or has faced in the past, other than a deeper and more radical yes to Christ. And this yes must come from each man, woman, and child in the Church, for it is holy families and communities that will both beget holy priests and religious and evangelize a suffering world.

In light of McCarrick and the other abuse scandals, calls for the reform of both the seminaries and the episcopacy have begun, again. Without minimizing the need for reform in either, I would suggest there is a large piece missing from these clarion calls. Seminaries and the episcopacy, while important, leave out the largest portion of the clerical population: diocesan and religious priests. Past reforming bishops and councils often targeted this group first with vehemence. Failure to get with the reform program often resulted in defrocking and loss of the clerical state. Their focus upon active clergy came in part because reforming active clergy simultaneously impacted both the formation of future priests and the laity.

There is a false premise that if bishops and seminaries are “good” then there will be no problems or at least fewer problems. Clerics, like all of us, may fall at any moment if they lack vigilance or support. Life is long, and our brokenness often leaves us vulnerable to sin and apathy as the days shorten. Being proactive in supporting and reforming the clergy ought to be considered alongside seminary reform to ensure continuing formation beyond ordination.

While dioceses have offices for continuing education, clerical anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality and frequency of their offerings should be examined. Other clerics have complained that their formation, intellectual at least, is often self-directed and is typically last on the list of priorities packed with other pressing obligations. Contemporary calls for reform likewise dance around critical issues concerning priests in various religious orders. As the Body of Christ is one, our reforms should touch, to some degree, all parts of the Body so that all might be renewed in Christ.

[1] This article came out of an elective for seniors at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Covington, Louisiana in Spring 2020. The intention was to explore how the Church dealt with past instances of corruption, pastoral failures, evangelization efforts, clerical formation, etc. to discern principles of reform. Similar to how one might study military or political history to gain insights into current day problems.

[2] For example, see the Fourth Lateran Council’s canons 8, 14, 15, 16, 17. The Council of Trent and reformers such as John Colet in the sixteenth century make similar accusations against the clergy.

[3] Our main texts besides Congar’s True and False Reform included Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Other primary sources excerpts came from Cyprian, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Innocent I, canons from several ecumenical councils, penitential manuals, Gregory’s Pastoral Rule, Life of Charlemagne, Alcuin of York, the Charter of Cluny, Gregorian reforms, Innocent III’s sermons, the Curate’s Manual to Pastoral Care (14th/15th c.), Tridentine Preparatory Commission, Keble’s Assize Sermon, Tract 90, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Pacem in Terris, Dignitatis Humanae, and John Paull II’s On the Freedom of Conscience and Religion.

[4] Yves Congar, True and False Reform of the Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2011), 13; See also Avery Cardinal Dulles, “True and False Reform,” First Things (August 2003).

[5] Lumen Gentium §4, 7-8, 51.

[6] Congar, True and False Reform,29

[7] Unitatis redintegratio, §6 “Every renewal of the church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to the Church’s own calling…to continual reformation...”, see also §4

[8] Christopher Bellitto, Renewing Christianity: A history of Church Reform from Day one to Vatican II (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 9-10.

[9] See Congar, True and False Reform, 237-249, 261-264.

[10] For an example of episcopal behavior and household see Gasparo Cardinal Contarini, The Office of a Bishop (Milwaukee: Marquette, 2002), 13-16, 29, 35.

[11] Our small seminar represented two states and six dioceses. I have volunteered or worked in four dioceses.

[12] Congar, True and False Reform, 215-228; Bellitto, Renewing Christianity, 15.

[13] For a recent but probably not fully updated list of potential reform areas see Avery Cardinal Dulles’s essay of 2003: Avery Cardinal Dulles, “True and False Reform,” First Things (First Things, August 2003). Some examples of trouble are: religious education, catechesis, respecting the Magisterium, hierarchy renewal, liturgical renewal, reinforcing basic religious practices, and encouraging basic Catholic moral behavior.

Max Scholz, The Recital, 1906; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Lane

Michael Lane spent three years as Professor of History at St. Joseph's Seminary College in Covington, LA. He is currently finishing a dissertation examining Henrician reform in Shropshire county in the early sixteenth century at Louisiana State University while living in Baton Rouge with his wife and two sons.

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