Reassessing Reform: A Historical Investigation into Church Renewal


At the conclusion of his definitive study The Idea of Reform, which carved out reform as a distinct field of intellectual history, Gerhart Ladner stated that the idea of reform was "to remain the self-perpetuating core, the inner life spring of Christian tradition through lesser and greater times." Ladner himself sought to explore patristic theology and early Christian monasticism and his insights laid the groundwork for a half-century of scholarship. Now, in celebration of the 50th anniversaries of the ...

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At the conclusion of his definitive study The Idea of Reform, which carved out reform as a distinct field of intellectual history, Gerhart Ladner stated that the idea of reform was "to remain the self-perpetuating core, the inner life spring of Christian tradition through lesser and greater times." Ladner himself sought to explore patristic theology and early Christian monasticism and his insights laid the groundwork for a half-century of scholarship. Now, in celebration of the 50th anniversaries of the publication of The Idea of Reform and the Second Vatican Council, Reassessing Reform explores and critiques the enduring significance of Ladner's study, surveying new avenues and insights of more recent reform scholarship, especially concerning the long Middle Ages.
Contributors aim to reassess Ladner's historical and theological examination of the idea of reform in the Christian tradition, with a special focus on its meaning from the end of the patristic age to the dawn of modernity, through case studies and historiographical assessments. Many of the authors are not only scholars of history, but they also work intimately with church reform in their own everyday professional and faith lives.
This study brings together the following contributors: David Albertson, C. Colt Anderson, Ann W. Astell, Inigo Bocken, Gerald Christianson, Lester L. Field Jr., Ken A. Grant, John Howe, William V. Hudon, William P. Hyland, Dennis D. Martin, Louis B. Pascoe, S.J., Phillip H. Stump, and Michael Vargas.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813219998
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 11/7/2012
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

CHRISTOPHER M. BELLITTO is associate professor of history at Kean University and academic editor-at-large of Paulist Press. He is the author of eight books, among them Nicolas de Clamanges: Spirituality, Personal Reform, and Pastoral Renewal on the Eve of the Reformations (CUA Press), and coeditor of five others, including The Church, the Councils, and Reform: The Legacy of the Fifteenth Century (CUA Press). DAVID ZACHARIAH FLANAGIN, associate professor of theology and religious studies at Saint Mary's College of California, is the author of several articles on the history of ecclesiology and the development of biblical exegesis.

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Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1999-8

Chapter One



At the conclusion of his groundbreaking study, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, Gerhart Ladner stated that "the idea of reform ... was to remain the self-perpetuating core, the inner life spring of Christian tradition through lesser and greater times." Ladner himself sought to explore the content of such a statement in the age of patristic theology and early Christian monasticism, while at the same time pointing forward to the many developments in reform ideology in the medieval period and beyond. His insights laid the foundation for a half century of scholarship, particularly bearing fruit in the study of reform in the Middle Ages. This volume seeks to reconsider his insights in a manner that both explores and critiques the enduring significance of Ladner's study and also surveys and demonstrates new avenues and insights of contemporary reform scholarship. Our hope is to reassess Ladner's historical and theological examination of the idea of reform in the Christian tradition, with a special focus on its meaning from the end of the patristic age to the dawn of modernity.

In the twin context of the fiftieth anniversaries of the publication of The Idea of Reform (1959) and of Vatican II (1962–1965), this volume—the ninth collection published under the aegis of the American Cusanus Society—was born at the conference "Reassessing Reform: Medieval Models of Change. Celebrating Gerhart Ladner's The Idea of Reform after Fifty Years," hosted by Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary in October 2008. The conference, a biennial event, was the eleventh organized by the American Cusanus Society. It was supported by the seminary's International Seminar on Pre-Reformation Theology and once again enjoyed the leadership of Gerald Christianson. As in the past, the conference especially benefited from the collaboration of scholars from a variety of fields and churches, making the event a model of intellectual and religious diversity and ecumenism.

But the conference itself was not the only effort to reconsider Gerhart Ladner's seminal study; it was the centerpiece of a larger scholarly enterprise spanning several years, informally dubbed "The Past for the Present"—so-called because many scholars work on church reform, not only remotely in the past, but immediately and intimately in their own professional and faith lives. At a number of recent conferences, such as those of the American Catholic Historical Association and the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we organized panels to look at historical models and examples of reform, always with an eye to see how the models were applied (or not) and succeeded (or failed) in later historical periods and especially within the context of Vatican II, which emphasized, among other important topics, ecumenism, ecclesiology, and aggiornamento. The papers that resulted from those panels and the Gettysburg conference have produced this festschrift for a book: Ladner's Idea of Reform. We took as our lead two prior efforts. First, we modestly and on a smaller scale followed the example of a 1977 Harvard conference inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Homer Haskins's The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, which resulted in a collection of essays edited by Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable. Second, and more recently, we turned to the 2004 Gettysburg conference devoted to Brian Tierney's Foundations of the Conciliar Theory, which resulted in the publication of The Church, the Councils, and Reform: The Legacy of the Fifteenth Century.

Gerhart Ladner (1905–1993) was an Austrian convert to Catholicism and part of the influential exile population that fled Nazi Europe. He earned his doctorate in art history at the University of Vienna, researched in Berlin and Rome in the 1930s, left Europe in 1938 to join Toronto's Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies in its earliest years, taught briefly at Notre Dame and Howard universities before spending a decade at Fordham University, and then moved in 1963 to UCLA's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies for the rest of his long career. He carved out reform as a distinct field of intellectual history and was always interested in the power of big, important ideas, unabashedly telling an audience in 1979, "Ideas have always made history and continue to do so." Witness, too, his presidential address for the American Catholic Historical Association of 1963, titled "Greatness in Medieval History," in which he proclaimed: "It is against the background of these two great supra-individual ideas and facts of Christian history: an ever precarious pilgrim-like terrestrial destiny and a nevertheless undaunted striving for a better and more Godlike order, that individual human greatness in the Middle Ages, from Gregory the Great to Dante, should be seen."

Although trained as a historian, Ladner married rigid historical methodology with a theological framework. In The Idea of Reform, he carefully placed the Greek and Latin vocabulary of reform in its earliest context to identify the theme of reform as a central one for Christianity from the first days of the church's history. A primary insight resulting from Ladner's research is that for most of Christianity's first millennium, the idea of reform was almost exclusively personal and, indeed, theological and even spiritual at its very core: Christians seek to restore within themselves the imago Dei, according to which they were created but which was diminished by Adam's fall. The salvific action of Christ offers the means of restoring this lost God-image and, primarily in the Western tradition, actually enables a reformatio in melius that would transcend the state of human beings in the Garden of Eden. Ladner's study was more about these ideas, images, and theories than about applications, although we should note that The Idea of Reform was the first of two or three volumes that he envisioned but never completed, and he brought this study only up to the period of the early Middle Ages. His later articles did at times venture into the period of the High Middle Ages and into the realm of institutional reform. These articles were collected and republished in a 1983 collection filling two volumes, Images and Ideas in the Middle Ages: Selected Studies in History and Art, a title that reminds us of his first interest in the iconography of power, a subject he treated throughout his career in addition to his work on the language of reform.

However, while Ladner himself did not get too far into the subject of reform during the High and late Middle Ages or the early modern period, many others—and here we find a measure of his legacy—have picked up where he left off and followed his intentions, adapting them to other emerging fields of medieval history of the last half-century. Consequently, his UCLA doctoral students, some of whom provide reminiscences and assessments in Part I, among others have pushed The Idea of Reform forward in many directions, both chronologically (especially into the High and late Middle Ages) and in terms of breadth by looking more closely at reform praxis; at institutional as well as personal reform; at changing notions of reform in different contexts; and at reform's impact on church and civil structures, education, social and economic developments, religious orders, and lay spirituality.

We deliberately did not ask our contributors to come either to praise or to bury Ladner. Some authors here build directly on Ladner; others diverge or disagree with him; still others use his work as a jumping-off point. Because we asked our contributors to reappraise his work with an open mind, a number offer quite pointed criticisms of Ladner's methodology, particularly of his definitions of reform vocabulary, which some scholars in the years since The Idea of Reform first appeared have found imprecise, sterile, or distant from practical application. The diversity of approaches has hopefully produced a rich setting where voices do not so much compete with or contradict each other as engage in a complementary, enriching conversation. This we take as all to the good and in the spirit of free, cordial inquiry with which Ladner himself, ever the Viennese gentleman and scholar, pursued his studies. Without presuming to speak for him, it is clear that he intended to start a conversation with some preliminary and even contingent definitions and conclusions. It is likely that he never believed his own work would do anything more than contribute to that conversation; it does not appear that he intended his work to be an end, but the beginning. The fact that he kept working on reform until the end of his life nearly thirty-five years after The Idea of Reform was published demonstrates that he certainly did not think he had offered his—or anyone's—last word on the idea of reform.

Through their analysis of the medieval interplay of personal, ecclesiastical, and societal reforms, the scholars in this volume offer their own contributions to Ladner's great idea. It is, in fact, in this radically altered landscape from Hildebrand to Galileo that reform most intentionally spread beyond its intrapersonal focus of the patristic era (though without renouncing it) in order to tackle the practical needs of a fallen church and society. Part I begins, deliberately, with shorter comments from three of Ladner's doctoral students who followed in his tradition, albeit applying his guidance to their own evolving interests and eras of study. We asked them to consider what they learned from Ladner, how their thinking has cohered or diverged from their initial contact with his work, in what ways they might critique their own mentor, and what the future might hold for reform studies. In Part II we intersperse case studies, from the High and late Middle Ages through the early Reformation decades, with historiographical assessments and critiques of Ladner.

One of Ladner's legacies that many of the scholars in this volume continue to strongly reaffirm is the importance of philological precision with regard to reform terminology. Such a need is only compounded by the modern ubiquity of the term "reform" with its powerful rhetorical connotations and simultaneous lack of concrete, clear meaning. The presentist—and often partisan—implications of such tendencies are treated in the essays by Lester L. Field Jr., and William V. Hudon, who lament that some scholars and most popular media are satisfied with an imprecision that serves simply to reflect and reinforce their own worldviews rather than teaching us anything about the past. The tendency to see reform backward from the present rather than forward from the past (which is the only meaning that our historical protagonists could know) creates the glaring omission of personal reform from most historical narratives. William P. Hyland and Dennis D. Martin explore this topic in their studies of the fifteenth century. While it is true that the Middle Ages introduced the idea of reform into the ecclesial and social spheres, only a post-medieval writer could conceive of such reform severed from its personal roots. Such a presentist perspective not only misrepresents the true intentions of medieval reformers but, ironically, also impoverishes the potential richness of the idea of reform for the present. Fortunately, now more than ever such imprecision need not be the case. Indeed, the advent of computers and digital databases—especially those online—has given modern historians the ability to refine their understanding of medieval vocabulary across broad reaches of time and geography with a speed and facility unimaginable to previous generations—although even here, Ladner was a pioneer.

However, while Ladner's emphasis on philology is justly praised here, some of his particular conclusions have been subject to nuance and critique. Both Louis B. Pascoe, S.J., and Phillip H. Stump raise further questions about the boundaries between reform and similar concepts, such as renewal and conversion, which appear to be far less distinct in the historical sources than Ladner's careful taxonomy would indicate. One example is the firm line that Ladner attempts to draw between reform as process or narrative, and conversion, baptism, and penance as steps of that process. As Pascoe notes, the division ignores the often extended nature of these steps (especially conversion) and their ongoing effects in the Christian life (especially baptismal grace). All indicate a complex relationship that raises interesting questions as to who is the more active agent of reform: God, by granting grace, as proposed by the Greek fathers, or humans, accepting and acting with grace, as proposed by the Latin fathers. In the end, one is tempted to conclude that Ladner's taxonomy here is deeply influenced by a Tridentine formulation of the doctrine of justification and its neat though anachronistic separation of the various stages of the Christian life.

Perhaps the imprecise distinctions in the historical sources between reform and other terms for renewal and change can point us to another lesson. If, as Ladner believed, the idea of reform is a real and enduring agent in the Christian tradition, it might be more methodologically fruitful to search for the idea itself rather than merely the occurrence of the word reform. That is, perhaps what is most important is not the vessel (i.e., the word "reform"), but rather the contents of that vessel (that is, the idea that the word represents). Ladner details those contents; that is, he defines reform as "the idea of free, intentional and ever perfectible, multiple, prolonged, and ever repeated efforts by man to reassert and augment values pre-existent in the spiritual-material compound of the world." In other which still exists eternally. In this conception, reform is restoration, not invention or innovation. It is Ladner's primary thesis that this "idea" is the "the self-perpetuating core, the inner life spring of Christian tradition." Furthermore, if one might continue with his aquatic image, he asserts that the Pauline notion of the personal restoration of the image of Christ in the self is the headwater of this river that nourishes two millennia of the church. Only slowly, with the rise of intentional monastic communities, does this interior transformation get applied to successively larger segments of the social order, until one speaks of reform of church and society in the Gregorian era and beyond.

The majority of the essays in this volume presume this narrative of continuity with change in the idea of reform, exploring tributaries that flow from the great headwaters into new and varied landscapes. The concept of continuity with change has implications not only for the medieval and early modern centuries, but also for the debates concerning Vatican II, particularly whether there was a hermeneutic of continuity and-or discontinuity at work at the council itself and in the subsequent decades of interpretation and implementation. From a High Medieval perspective, Ken A. Grant examines the major transition in reform language under Gregory VII, as the success of personal reform is suddenly made contingent on a paradigmatic reform of the ecclesia. Gregory VII was urging free and intentional change through human and divine effort, though the object to be restored (or created anew, according to critics) is the apostolic church, not just the soul-image of Eden and eternity. Likewise, Hyland shows how Premonstratensians at the fifteenth-century councils could work to reform the church according to an ancient model—but this time the model was the community of monastic charity as described in the Rule of St. Augustine.


Excerpted from REASSESSING REFORM Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface John Howe ix

1 Introduction Christopher M. Bellitto David Zachariah Flanagin 1

Part I Gerhart Ladner's the Idea of Reform After 50 Years

2 My Debt to Gerd: His Legacy as Teacher of History and Historian of Ideas, Fifty Years after The Idea of Reform and in Light of Present Research Lester L. Field 17

3 Gerhart Ladner's The Idea of Reform: Reflections on Terminology and Ideology Louis B. Pascoe, S.J. 31

4 The Continuing Relevance of The Idea of Reform Phillip H. Stump 42

Part II Models and Case Studies of Medieval and Reformation Reform

5 "He does not say, 'I am custom'": Pope Gregory VII's Idea of Reform Ken A. Grant 61

6 Administrative Change in the Fourteenth-Century Dominican Order: A Case Study in Partial Reforms and Incomplete Theories Michael Vargas 84

7 The Six Errors: Hus on Simony C. Colt Anderson 105

8 Church, Bible, and Reform in the Hussite Debates at the Council of Basel, 1433 Gerald Christianson 124

9 In Search of Unity: Reform and Mathematical Form in the Conciliarist Arguments of Heymeric de Campo's Disputatio de potestate ecclesiastica (1433) David Albertson 149

10 Premonstratensian Voices of Reform at the Fifteenth-Century Councils William P. Hyland 170

11 "Memoriam Fecit": The Eucharist, Memory, Reform, and Regeneration in Hildegard of Bingen's Scivias and Nicholas of Cusa's Sermons Ann W. Astell 190

12 Visions of Reform: Lay Piety as a Form of Thinking in Nicholas of Cusa Inigo Bocken 214

13 Carthusians as Public Intellectuals: Cloistered Religious as Advisors to Lay Elites on the Eve of the Protestant Reformation Dennis D. Martin 232

14 Black and White and Re-read All Over: Conceptualizing Reform across the Long Sixteenth Century, 1414-1633 William V. Hudon 254

Contributors 279

Index 281

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