Review: An Unfinished Council

by Michael Sean Winters

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Richard Gaillardetz’s new book An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis and the Renewal of Catholicism is the first of what we can anticipate will be many theology books that look back at Vatican II in the light of the magisterium of Pope Francis. Gaillardetz examines the shape of renewal and the contours of reform that now seem possible and, in doing so, sets a high standard for other theologians who explore this terrain. And, rare among books that focus on ecclesiology, Gaillardetz’s book is accessible to a lay reader and, just as importantly, is well worth the read among both professional theologians and the wider ecclesial community.

Gaillardetz’s opening chapter looks at the Church as it existed before the Council. It is hard to encapsulate such a wide subject into one chapter, and any reader might have put a different emphasis here or there, but what stood out to me was that Gaillardetz is fair, recognizing the strengths of the pre-conciliar Church as well as its weaknesses. He goes on in the second chapter to discuss the Council itself and, critically, the Council as an event, not merely as a collection of texts. Here, his indebtedness to many historians of the Council, and especially Jesuit Father John O’Malley is obvious. I was delighted, too, to see significant emphasis on the texts, especially the Constitution on Divine Revelation which did not receive the attention it deserved in the years immediate following the Council, eclipsed by the focus on the Constitution on the Church and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the  Modern World. Dei Verbum is at long last receiving the careful attention it has always deserved.  Gaillardetz proceeds to offer a “synthetic interpretation” of the council’s achievement in ecclesiology, and how that achievement remains unfulfilled in significant regards, setting the stage for his core proposals for reform.

The first reform Gaillardetz calls for is a humbler Church. He notes that the virtues have gained increasing focus in the work of Catholic ethicists, and asserts that humility and magnanimity are the virtues that Vatican II most obviously placed before the Church as proper to her self-understanding. On page 77, he lists the numerous times that conciliar texts pointed towards the need for a more humble ecclesial self-understanding, which is important for his argument in the first place but also shows Gaillardetz’s care as a scholar: There is no facile differentiation between the “spirit” and the “letter” of Vatican II, in this section or throughout the book. He captures the spirit by highlighting the different parts of the texts that express that spirit. There are no warm fuzzies here; There are footnotes. Deo Gratias.

Another example of Gaillardetz’s intertwining of spirit and letter is found on page 81, in which he cites the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, where in a “static” and “immutable” ecclesial self-understanding is replaced by a more “historically grounded” one. He writes:

The bishops thus conjoined the preconciliar emphasis on the magnanimity of the church with a bold new commitment to ecclesial humility and the need for a rigorously critical self-assessment. Only a balanced appreciation of the tethered ecclesial virtues of humility and magnanimity can steer our church between two corresponding excesses: the neotriumphalism of certain Catholic apologetics and the indiscriminate church bashing of both the secular media and the Catholic commentariat’s extreme left.

To apply a well known Catholic word from the preconciliar Church: Bingo!

I confess that I had my suspicions when Gaillardetz introduced a concept drawn from one area of Catholic theology, ethics, into another, ecclesiology. Sometimes such cross-pollination yields happy consequences, sometimes not. When Sr. Margaret Farley introduced the concept of justice into a discussion of sexual ethics, to the exclusion of a more traditional concept like concupiscence, the results were foreseeable and unfortunate. But, Gaillardetz is more deeply embedded in Catholic theology and his conclusions and proposals are less alien to that tradition, indeed, they are not alien at all, they are argued from the Council’s own texts.

The second major reform for which Gaillardetz argues is a shift to a noncompetitive understanding of theology, governance and ministry within the Church. Again taking his cues from the Second Vatican Council’s own documents, he notes the many ways the rediscovery of pneumatology at the Council undergirds this shift to a noncompetitive model of ecclesial governance and ministry. He cites the work of Protestant theologian Kathryn Tanner in this regard, writing, “For Tanner, such a theology is grounded in God’s unmerited gift of God’s self to us. This grace never becomes our private possession but is received and shared in gratitude.” I would call readers’ attention to the fact that the word grace is here rendered in the singular, as it should always be, and as it always is in the Scriptures. Too often, when we render it in the plural, we turn grace into a set of poker chips in our relationship with the divine, which in turns invites the kind of competitive understanding that Gaillardetz rightly impugns as detrimental to the Church.

I do not always concur with Gaillardetz’s applications of his ideas, to be sure. He writes, “This competitive framework also explains the harsh disciplinary actions of the magisterium directed toward dissenting theologians; if the magisterium is the exclusive depository of divine truth, then it must squelch any ‘competing’ claims to truth.” That is one explanation. Another is this: Some dissenting theologians really are swimming in waters that cannot be reconciled with the truth that has been revealed to the Church by Jesus Christ. Indeed, throughout the text, I did not see how Gaillardetz thinks the Church should cope with demonstrable error. When he writes, later in the same chapter, that “charisms could not survive unless they submitted to an ordering which sought the good of the whole church,” I can think of any one of a number of Catholic writers, some of them published here at NCR, who seem more concerned with advocating for a very particular agenda, such as same sex marriage or the ordination of women, without a second thought to the effects of their advocacy on ecumenism or the pastoral realities of the Church in more traditional cultures, still less “the good of the whole church.”

Turning to Pope Francis, Gaillardetz notes the various ways the pope’s vision appears consistent with his ideas about the need for humility and noncompetitive understandings of theology and ministry within the Church. He highlights Pope Francis’ call for a “centrifugal” sense of mission directed to the peripheries, his emphasis on the Church listening as well as teaching, the need for subsidiarity within the Church, and the pastoral orientation of doctrine. I think Gaillardetz’s treatment of subsidiarity needs work, but the case he makes for understanding the direction the pope wants to lead the Church as being not just fully consistent with the Council but flowing from it is persuasive. Indeed, there is an interesting example of Gaillardetz doing in his theology what the pope is advocating about going to the peripheries. He writes:

In some progressive Catholic circles, there is a reflex attitude of vague embarrassment when it comes to the Catholic Church today. Sensitive to the excesses of Catholic neotriumphalism, some Catholics have responded with a kind of ecclesial self-flagellation that is overeager to confess the failings of contemporary Catholicism at the expense of a positive account of what Catholic Christianity has to offer the world today. Theologians can get stuck in the critical task of delineating the distortions and systemic power inequities that exist in the church and its tradition and thereby overlook Catholicism’s many gifts and insights.

True enough. But, the very next paragraph begins, “We live in a world struggling under the burdens of massive economic inequities and the horrific global scourges on human dignity of human trafficking, regional violence, and even genocide.” See it? Gaillardetz names the myopia of those who reflexively attack the Church, and shifts the focus immediately to the sufferings of those on the margins. That is how the Church gets healthy, not with endless fretting about internal “power” but by attending in the name of Christ to those whose sufferings reveal His wounded flesh anew. The additional items on Gaillardetz’s list for renewal of the Church are equally sound, such as “learning to wrestle with the Catholic tradition” and “forming a humble Catholic identity,” although his treatment of power, relying heavily on Foucault, seemed a bit weird to me.

In sum, Gaillardetz has made an important contribution, inviting us to look anew at the Church we love and, significantly, reminding us all that such love entails responsibility on the part of all the baptized. Such a sentence could scarcely have been written before Vatican II and there have been times in the last thirty-five years when, if written, the sentence would make little sense. But, Pope Francis is bringing new depth to the magisterium and it can be hoped that more theologians will bring the kind of careful reflection that Gaillardetz has brought to examining these new avenues. And, because this book is widely accessible to lay readers, it can help the laity fulfill their responsibility within the Church for which the Council called. This book should find its ways into the hands of both pastors and parish book groups: They will come away, as I did, with a better and deeper sense of the changes we read about in the headlines, and recognize that Pope Francis is bringing the reception of the Council into new areas of ecclesial life.  










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