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Forwards from the Sixties

02 May 2014

Robert Nowell reads two reflections on the legacy of Vatican II


Roman reformist: Cardinal Yves Congar, whose thinking informed the Second Vatican Council

Roman reformist: Cardinal Yves Congar, whose thinking informed the Second Vatican Council

Faithful to the Future: Listening to Yves Congar
Brother Émile of Taizé
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT343 )

The Second Vatican Council: Celebrating its achievements and the future
Gavin D'Costa and Emma Jane Harris, editors
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT343 )

HALF a century after the Council that Pope John XXIII, to the world's surprise, summoned to meet in Rome come these two books that in their different ways help us to understand what happened and what it all means. The most rewarding, and the grittiest to read, is Brother Émile's study of the Dominican Yves Congar, whose theological explorations underpinned much of the Council's work.

Particularly useful is Brother Émile's analysis of Congar's exposition of tradition, not as something shackling the Church to a past that, since it is past, cannot be recovered, but as something pointing the way to the future that God is leading us into. Perhaps this quotation from Congar best sums it up: "Tradition is living because it is carried by living minds - minds living in time. These minds meet with problems or acquire resources, in time, which lead them to endow tradition, or the truth it contains, with the reactions and characteristics of a living thing: adaptation, reaction, growth, and fruitfulness. Tradition is living because it resides in minds that live by it, in a history that comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions, and questions that need answering."

I hope that brief quotation helps the reader to see why this is a book worth reading and re-reading to enable us to understand how the Church needs to be loyal both to its past and to its future if it is to do what it is meant to do (and, sadly, too often fails to do): to bring to people the good news of salvation.

The volume's major defect is that the footnotes, many of them with substantial quotations that need to be read along with the passage that they refer to, are not only clustered at the back of the book, but are renumbered for each chapter, which can make it difficult to find what one is looking for. A brief sketch of Congar's life would have been useful.

The other volume is a collection of talks and essays on the Council originating in a series of lectures organised by the diocese of Clifton. (Intriguingly, it is from the same publisher, but in this case the footnotes are placed where they belong.) Understandably, the quality varies: the reader should not be put off by the first chapter, which expounds Pope Benedict XVI's bizarre distinction between the Council of the bishops and the Council of the media.

Among the more valuable contributions are those by the Jesuit James Hanvey, exploring the fresh understanding of the Church expounded in the two key Constitutions on the Church and on the Church in the world of today (though, reading it, I sometimes wished it could have been translated into a language understanded of the people of God: what are "epistemic epiphanies"?); Paul D. Murray on the shift it represented in the Church's attitude to other Churches; Gavin D'Costa on how the Council reached out to Jews and Muslims; Tina Beattie on the way in which the shift in emphasis with regard to Mariology seems to have led to a loss of the sense of "holy mother Church" (though if this also meant losing the sense some Catholics had of "holy stepmother Church", perhaps this was not such a bad thing after all); and one that should give us all pause for thought, Ralph Martin's analysis of the shift in the Church's pastoral strategy away from the necessity of bringing to others the salvation that only the Church can promise.

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