Recommended Reading
by C. Colt Anderson
The Reform that Never Ends
A Review by Denys Horgan
The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day

Given that the church is always in need of reform—or purification if you  prefer—whose responsibility is it to see that the job gets done?

That’s the question that C. Colt Anderson, a professor of church history at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL. poses at the beginning of his recently published THE GREAT CATHOLIC REFORMERS: FROM GREGORY THE GREAT TO DORTHY DAY (Paulist Press, N.J., 2007).

Because the word “reform” connotes “Reformation” in the sense of the Protestant Reformation, the Second Vatican Council tended to avoid it except in reference to the liturgy. The council preferred instead words like “purification” and “renewal” as when it declared in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that the church embraces “sinners in her bosom” and is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal” (No. 8).

Anderson has no such hang-ups: a spade is a spade, and like it or lump it, a reform is a reform is a reform. Church reform is as old as the church itself and there is no reason to deny the ongoing reformation that is taking place in our day.

But whose job is reform? Is it the sole prerogative of the hierarchy? Or do the laity have a role to play? We are conditioned to accept reform from the top down. The people on top are supposed to know better and the laity are used to being scolded. Hardly a Sunday goes by without us being told how to clean up our acts.

But what if it’s the hierarchy, even the papacy itself, that’s in need of reform? Or, as the Roman satirist Juvenal put it: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?—Who will police the police themselves? If the hierarchy is not doing its job properly, must the laity step up to the plate? And if they do, where does their mandate come from?

Anderson takes as his guide the late French Dominican theologian Yves Congar whose ideas had a profound influence on the bishops of Vatican II. Congar, no mean historian in his own right, said that we have inherited a church that has become—only over the last four or five hundred years—excessively defensive, treating every criticism as dissent. He warned that any institution that fails to criticize itself is condemning itself and its efforts to nothing more than mere survival.

However, recognizing that not every criticism is necessarily constructive, Congar identified four principles of legitimate reform. Catholic reform: a) should be frank and direct; b) entails serious intellectual foundations; c) involves and empowers the laity; and d) begins in a return to the sources of tradition.  

The remainder, and the bulk, of Anderson’s book is a historical examination—always with and eye to Congar’s principles—of the efforts of ten reformers, lay, religious, and clerical men and women, over a period of 14 centuries. So, for instance he introduces the example of the sixth-century Pope Gregory (truly) the Great who faced down a clerical culture—bishops and priests—more interested in enriching itself than saving souls. Anderson presents for consideration the 11th-century Peter Damian whose chief concern was “the large number of priests and bishops who were seducing or compelling boys and adolescents to perform acts of sodomy.”

Women reformers figure prominently: first the 13th-century Clare of Assisi introduced a generation of suspicious clerics, from popes to friars, to the perplexing (for that time) idea “that women are full Christians.” Catherine of Siena in the 14th-century insisted that women had a duty to involve themselves in the reform of the church and dared with some success to confront popes. American Dorothy Day in the 20th-century tackled the indifference of the church to war, the plight of the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute.

Past reformers all.

If then the church is always in need of purification and penance, what’s to be reformed today and who will do it? Anderson suggests that the basic problem with today’s church is what he calls a crisis of accountability on the part of the bishops and priests. We have a church where the pope, apparently, does not listen to the bishops, where the bishops do not listen to the priests, and where nobody listens to the laity. Rome refuses to accept an open dialog on the shortage of priests and even bans outright (or attempts to ban) any discussion on the viability of a married priesthood or admitting women to ordination. Remarkable resistance to dialogue prevails in an age distinguished by its ability to communicate information as never before!

How to treat bishops who refuse to reform themselves? What about suing bishops who cover up crimes? A pointless exercise, Anderson says, for “When they are sued, bishops just cut resources going to the poor, fire lay employees, sell off their diocesan patrimonies, and ask for more money to balance their budgets. Others simply declare bankruptcy, but you can be certain that bankrupt bishops have a much more comfortable lifestyle than most Catholics.”

Perhaps Peter Damian, the patron saint of church reform, had the answer: the laity should collaborate with members of religious orders and reform-minded clergy to strip such bishops of their power and authority. He presented to his pope, Leo IX, a factual account of the misbehavior of the clergy in Rome. He was only partially heard.

We should not be surprised therefore, when movements such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful, each with memberships in the tens of thousands are summarily dismissed, when not totally ignored, by most of the hierarchy in the United States. People who caught the spirit of Vatican II and who have struggled to make that spirit a reality in their own lives and the life of the church are worn out and exhausted from banging their heads against chancery walls.

Does anybody in authority care about church reform? Churchmen now in power don’t even want to listen. Peter Damian, where are you? Who will lead the reform so necessary today? Who will speak truth to power? It’s time to take a closer look at Congar’s four principles of reform. Anderson gives us some encouragement and inspiration.

Denys Horgan is a writer and editor living in San Diego, California. He can be reached at