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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 313-314

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Book Review

Renewing Christianity:
A History of Church Reform from Day One to Vatican II

Renewing Christianity: A History of Church Reform from Day One to Vatican II. By Christopher M. Bellitto. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press. 2001. Pp. xii, 233. $18.95 paperback.)

Composing a one-volume history of the Western Church is a daunting task. Although his intended audience is not mentioned, Bellitto's work is aimed at the general public, as well as undergraduates and seminarians. An intellectual historian, he uses the idea of reform as his book's organizing principle. Although writing from a Catholic perspective, he demonstrates in his introduction that the concept of reform is one shared by all Christians.

Some authors have an ideological axe to grind, which both serves to shape and color their thoughts and also acts as a delimiting device to discard material which does not conform to their ideological perspective. To his credit, Bellitto refrains from doing this. Instead, he uses the idea of reform as a means to distill about 2,000 years of history into about 200 pages. Throughout the book he differentiates between personal and structural reform, as well as between reform in capite and in membris. He also distinguishes between reform as restorative and renewal as augmentative and ameliorative (p. 10).

His synthesis of the High and Later Middle Ages is excellent, as might be expected of a medievalist; yet one of his best chapters is on Vatican Council II, which he says breaks new ground with its emphasis on renewal, not just reform. His impartial thoughts on the council's fallout, namely, about polarization, about the speed of implementation, and about the links between the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, invite the reader to further reading and reflection.

Quoting primary sources mostly from secondary works, Bellitto places them judiciously in the text. His footnotes and bibliographic essay are quite helpful, although his brief index is not.

The author's thematic concentration on reform and his breezy dismissal of significant events limits the book's usefulness as a general work on church history. He dispatches the entire Patristic period in ten pages, saying that it was about personal not institutional reform (p. 23). He summarizes well the Carolingian Renaissance, but then concludes that it was more about formation than reformation (p. 43). He states that "the idea of institutional, comprehensive reform does not begin until after the year 1000" (p. 23). For him, the first important [End Page 313] incidence is Gregorian Reform (p. 47). Surprisingly, the greatest medieval reform council, Lateran IV, is treated in only one paragraph (p. 61). The various reformations of the sixteenth century are covered summarily, yet some specifics which are detailed tend to becloud the general reader's ability to see the forest through the trees. Important political forces which shaped the sixteenth century are barely mentioned. Here and elsewhere, ideas float untethered from their social, political, and economic contexts. Left somewhat breathless and disoriented after a rapid forced march from 1600 to 1960, the reader is led gently into a well-shaped discussion of Vatican II.

The book's subtitle is "A History of Reform from Day One to Vatican II." Yet, the work lacks comprehensiveness. Moreover, the author's concept of reform is too narrowly construed to embrace the breadth of scope demanded by such general works.


Michael J. McNally
St. Charles Borromeo Seminary-Overbrook



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