The elements of Benedict’s “hermeneutic of reform” are nothing new in the life of the Church. Both Yves Congar in the 1960s and John Henry Newman in the late 1800s made exactly the same arguments for genuine reform: the application of a principle of internal ressourcement is the only way to a true expression of catholicity. Here I quote from Congar and Newman respectively:
“There are only two possible ways of bringing about renewal or updating. You can either make the new element that you want to put forward normative, or you can take as normative the existing reality that needs to be updated or renewed … You will end up with either a mechanical updating in danger of becoming both a novelty and a schismatic reform, on the one hand, or a genuine renewal (a true development) that is a reform in and of the Church, on the other hand.”
“Those [developments] which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt; for a corruption is a development in that very stage in which it ceases to illustrate, and begins to disturb, the acquisitions gained in its previous history.”
It is no mere coincidence that both Newman and Congar are universally recognised as being two of the great “prophets” who shaped the reforming agenda taken up by the Second Vatican Council.
Any analysis of the reception of the Council in the life of the Church today, any contemporary call for reform in the life of the Church precipitated by current events and times, and any reform proposed by Pope Francis, would do well to keep in mind the elements by which genuine ecclesial reform will happen. As a theological friend from outside of the Catholic tradition has recently put it, “No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.”