Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the director of graduate studies. He received a B.A. in Humanities from the University of Texas, an M.A. in Biblical Theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in Systematic Theology. He has published numerous articles and has authored or edited thirteen books.
Dr. Gaillardetz was a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in the fall of 2015, and while he was in residence, Betsy Johnson-Miller interviewed him about his new book, An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism. In Part One of this interview, Gaillardetz explains why he sees Vatican II as an unfinished council, and discusses the new emphasis this council gave to the work of the Holy Spirit. Read Part Two of this interview.
Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Could you give us a sense of what the book is about and why you decided to write it?
We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the close of the single most significant event in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation—Vatican II. Markers like that are often occasions for us to step back and ask, “What is the enduring significance of the Council? What contributions has it made? What are the challenges that still lie before us in the Church?” Vatican II offers us a great deal, but as the title of my book suggests, it is an unfinished project. Theologians can help with the completion and furtherance of that project, and I thought the book might be a modest contribution to that end.
Besides theologians, who else can be included in working on the unfinished business?
The Council wasn’t just about changing policies and structures, though it did that. It was about transforming our very sense of what it is to be church. If it’s only theologians and ministers who grasp the vision, the changes the Council issued won’t go very far. Somehow we have to engage and inform the people in the pews, so that they can appropriate for themselves the Council’s vision. That work continues for them as much as it does for theologians and pastoral ministers.
One of the images that you use to consider Vatican II is that of an “unfinished building site.” Why did that image grab you?
First of all, let’s be very clear—I’m stealing it with due acknowledgment. The image comes from Hermann Pottmeyer, a distinguished German theologian who is now retired. Pottmeyer recalled the 16th and 17th century rebuilding of the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. The popes, bishops, and the inhabitants of Rome decided that the old Constantinian Basilica, which had been built over a thousand years prior, had become so dilapidated and worn down that it was no longer meeting the needs of the church. So, the project to rebuild St. Peter’s was undertaken. What is interesting, however, is that they did the rebuilding project while significant elements of the older basilica were still standing. It was almost a century later before they completely tore down the old basilica. What happens when you try to build a new edifice that’s a build-around—because elements of the old edifice are still standing? Pottmeyer saw much the same thing happening at Vatican II. The Council was trying to create a new vision of the church while an older vision, the “old basilica” if you will, was still standing. I found that metaphor so helpful, that I decided to employ it as the structuring principle for my book.
The old basilica is a particular way of imagining the Catholic Church. We might call it a kind of form that the church took. That form was a good thousand years or more in the making. There are a lot of ways to talk about that, but I refer to it as the “hierocratic” form of the church. This was the classic construct of what the Catholic Church looked like for many Catholics, let’s say in the 1950’s. It wasn’t a horrible thing. Much like the real Constantinian Basilica, it had served the church well for centuries. But, also much like that basilica, it had—in many ways—outlived its usefulness.
In calling a Council, Pope John was recognizing that the old form, which still had a lot that was worth keeping and preserving, was no longer adequate to the needs of the church of the 20th century. That insight marked the beginning of a new building project. Taking key elements from the old project, to be sure, but constructing a new edifice, a new form, a new vision for the church.
Now Pottmeyer argues that Vatican II was only able to establish the pillars, but could not construct a dome that would pull all those pillars together into a unified vision. Hence the “unfinished” part. Vatican II made a number of important contributions, but it’s for the church today, and in a special way, for theologians, to help call forth from the Council’s teaching a more unified account of the church. The challenge before us is to take these different pillars and show how they interact with one another in service of a coherent and compelling vision of the Church, one adequate to our engagement with the world today.
Speaking of those pillars, one in particular, the Holy Spirit, caught my eye. You write about a new emphasis being placed on the Holy Spirit with Vatican II. How do you account for this turn to the Holy Spirit?
Right before the Council began, a Greek Orthodox theologian, Nikos Nissiotis, wrote an essay in which he severely criticized Catholicism (though I think his criticism holds true for Protestantism as well). Nissiotis accused Catholicism and much of Protestantism of what he called Christo-monism, which is a way of imagining the church in relation to Christ, but which does so to the exclusion of the role of the Holy Spirit.
This criticism was a little harsh. It’s not like Catholicism had completely forgotten the role of the Holy Spirit, but here’s what often happened. There was a way in which we understood that the mission of Christ was to institute the church and to establish its structures, whereas the mission of the Spirit was to animate those structures. For example, much of the discussion in the church before Vatican II in the 20th century talked about the “mystical body of Christ.” A wonderful image, but many still thought of this body as a largely institutional reality, with the Spirit as the soul animating it. One of the most influential theologians of the Council, a Dominican theologian, Yves Congar, challenged that notion and he said, No, we need to think of Christ and the Spirit as co-instituting the church. They work together. It’s not that we have these structures that have been established since the beginning of time, and all the Spirit does is animate them. No, the Spirit also plays a role in determining what the church is today.
So there was a genuine newness introduced at the Council, including at the level of structure and policy. Vatican II’s recovery of the Holy Spirit represented a way of saying that the Church is a dynamic, living organism, even at the institutional level. Structures are part of the life and growth of the Church, and they need to change as Christians explore the exigencies of each particular age. When Vatican II recovered the Holy Spirit, it recovered a more dynamic, a more historical notion that the Church is always alive, always growing, always changing. That’s the first thing.
The second thing that recovering the Holy Spirit did was to break us out of what we might think of as a zero-sum game. I bring that up because frankly, 50 years after Vatican II, many parishes still play this zero-sum game, where there’s the ordained clergy on the one hand, and the baptized lay people on the other. There’s a tendency to think of these two groups in some kind of battle for ecclesiastical turf. On the one hand, you can emphasize the need for priests, but if you do—so the zero-sum game suggests—you will have to downplay the role of the gifts of all the baptized. Lift up the gifts of the baptized, and you’re not paying enough attention to the ministerial priesthood. Vatican II comes along and says, “Now wait a minute.” In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium [The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church], it says that the Holy Spirit—and I’m going to paraphrase—gives to the Church both hierarchic and charismatic gifts. The Spirit underlies both those who hold church office—ordained ministers—and those who exercise the gifts that they received at baptism. We do not have to play a zero-sum game, because the Spirit gifts the Church with both official ordained ministries and the charisms of all the baptized. This new framework then invites us to think about how ordained ministries and the charisms of all the baptized can fruitfully work together to build up a Church in service of its mission.
Third, there was a tendency before Vatican II to think of divine revelation using the language of the depositum fidei—the deposit of the faith. Revelation was imagined as if it were a collection, a kind of a filing cabinet of dogmatic truths. And who had control of the filing cabinet? The pope and bishops. And what was the role of the laity? The pope and the bishops expounded on those dogmas, and all we did was to say yes. Our job was just to obey. Vatican II, in its recalling the role of the Holy Spirit, says that the Spirit allows the whole church to receive God’s Word, not just the pope and bishops. It emphasizes that the pope and bishops play a distinctive role as teachers, but then Lumen Gentium says that every baptized Christian has this sensus fidei, this instinct for the faith. It’s not just a passive thing, where the bishops teach and we respond, “Yes, I believe.” No, this spiritual sense or instinct calls for an active probing on the part of the believer. This means that the faithful—all of the baptized—have, through the Spirit, this ability to penetrate God’s word, to understand it more deeply, to discover new insight, to apply it in bold, new, and often unanticipated ways.
Through the recovery of the Holy Spirit, the Council emphasized that the whole church receives God’s Word. The bishops have the responsibility to receive that Word and guard it faithfully in their teaching, but all of the baptized can receive the Word as well. This recovery of pneumatology—the theology of the Holy Spirit—was central to what the second Vatican Council was trying to do. Sadly, it’s one of the aspects that has been least developed in the post-conciliar church. So this is where the Council’s vision is still unfinished.
To push that question a little more—in some of the documents from Vatican II, there seems to be a tension between wanting to recognize the dynamism of the Holy Spirit while at the same time making sure that the Holy Spirit works within the structures of the church. Do you see this tension?
To domesticate the Spirit? Yes, that is a tension in the Council. And part of that goes to that issue of the Trinitarian foundation of the Church. For example, let’s go back to what we talked about earlier. If you think that Christ instituted the Church and created all its essential structures 2000 years ago, and all the Spirit does is enliven those structures, you are only allotting to the Spirit a very limited scope of activity. The Spirit is going to be hemmed in by these invariant structures established by Christ 2000 years ago. If, however, you follow the insight of theologian Yves Congar and see the Word and Spirit always co-instituting the Church, then you don’t think of structures as ahistorical, imposing institutions that are the same for all time, but as growing, changing, and responding to new pastoral realities.
So now, instead of saying that the work of the Spirit is constrained by church structures, we can recall our Catholic sacramental principle which holds that the Spirit is always working through such structures, dynamically allowing those structures themselves to morph in whole new ways, while at the same time, remaining faithful to the fundamental givens of the Church. Instead of the structures placing limits on the Spirit, there are now ways in which the Spirit can animate and enliven the church, bringing about structural change as well as the conversion of believers.