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  • Reassessing Reform: A Historical Investigation into Church Renewal ed. by Christopher M. Bellitto and David Zachariah Flanagin
  • Thomas E. Morrissey
Reassessing Reform: A Historical Investigation into Church Renewal. Edited by Christopher M. Bellitto and David Zachariah Flanagin. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2012. Pp. xiv, 289. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8132999-8.)

Some fifty years ago Gerhart Ladner opened a new line of research in medieval history with his “Idea of Reform,” which was intended to be a multivolume study, but the only one completed was on the early-medieval world. Now after much research and questioning by many scholars, this collection looks at Ladner’s insights and his impact. How valid was the model Ladner projected, and how much more we know from his line of thought or from going beyond or apart from his perspective, are a few of the questions presented by these articles.

After a brief introduction, explorations, and an overview that examines the various meanings attached to “reform” (personal, ecclesial, social), in part I three former students of Ladner look back at his work. Lester K. Field describes what the light of further research has told us. Louis B. Pascoe, S.J., reflects on the terminology and ideology, whereas Phillip H. Stump argues for the continuing relevance of this seminal book. Field notes that Ladner’s idea had little impact on Patristic and late Romanist scholars, and Field confronts the dilemma of the “nominalist” view that there is no “reform” as such but only the individual reforms and reformers. Pascoe takes up renewal ideology in its varieties and the idea of reform as something distinctively Christian (such as individual versus cosmological-deterministic). For Ladner, reform was linked to conversion, baptism, and penance, and he talked of the danger of false reform. Stump sees the influence [End Page 786] of biblical and patristic reform ideas on later reform ideology with a clear difference between reform and other ideas of renewal. Some reform movements had negative qualities (such as those affecting women). Jean Gerson and Pierre d’Ailly were proponents of hierarchical reform—that is, top-down. One telling phrase here is that “reform was desirable, to be reformed was less so” (p. 48). Stump considers Johannes Helmrath, Jürgen Miethke, Kaspar Elm, and John Van Engen and what they have added to our understanding of reform in its late-medieval form.

The remainder of this book is “praxis”: models and case studies of medieval and later reform. Ken Grant shows that Pope Gregory VII in his view of reform stressed truth over custom but was also wary of innovation and approached the crises in a polemical and revolutionary way. He wished to restore the original ordering of the Church (a theme that recurs so often over the ages). He started with a prophetic voice (under constraint to announce the truth) but moved to a demanding and coercive tone as he articulated the authority of the papacy in contrast with civil power. Michael Vargas takes up the case of the Dominicans in the fourteenth century in regard to reform and theory. He asks whether Ladner’s idea that there is constant and meaningful change in the Church is a workable device to examine this era; was there decline and decay in the fourteenth century, or was there a series of reform periods? Was there much achieved? Did stronger administrative structures and redrawn lines of authority really indicate or bring on true reform? He opts for what he sees as John O’Malley’s view that the Second Vatican Council has raised a new perspective on reform that supersedes Ladner’s study. C. Colt Anderson looks back at the famed reformer Jan Hus, discussing Hus’s apparent following of Gregory VII in the call for reform—especially in his criticism of simony. Was he old-fashioned for his time? The accusation of Donatism against Hus is shown to be a modern construct, but what Hus said and how he said it were not taken well by his opponents. Gerald Christianson picks up the story with the Hussites at the Council of Basel. Here we find some common reference points of that era...


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