To evaluate this book correctly it is important to note that it is a reprint of a 1975 book published under the title L'autorité dans le catholicisme contemporain, Vers une Église post-Tridentine. Though the new subtitle [Disappointed Hope] sounds somewhat pessimistic, it conveys quite accurately the whole tenor of the book.
Originally a doctoral dissertation defended in 1972 at the University of Paris X (Nanterre) under the direction of Roland Barthes, the work is a study of the contrasting ecclesiologies of the post-Tridentine era and of Vatican II. It was made up, beside the introduction and general conclusion, of three chapters. The first two describe the post-Tridentine ecclesiology as it is embodied in Gregory XVI and Pius IX (chapter1) and in the 1918 code of canon law (chapter 2). Chapter 3 analyses the ecclesiology of Vatican II, especially as contained in its two major documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. For this edition, the author adds a preface explaining why his original argument and conclusions are still valid even 30 years after the council, and a fourth chapter entitled "Trente ans après: Le conflit de paradigmes: Tridentin versus post-Trident" to bring us up to date with what has transpired in the last three decades.
For Hégy, the basic difference between pre-Vatican II and Vatican II ecclesiologies lies not in specific teachings on this or that aspect of the church but in a radically different conception of how reality--that is, the "sign"--is known, in other words, between two different epistemological paradigms. In the first, which Hégy calls "classical," the sign is "motivé," that is, it is taken to "represent" reality objectively, and thought is said to "express" that representation. In this paradigm, church authority is an absolute necessity to guarantee the objectivity of both the representation and the expression of divine truths. In the second paradigm, which can be characterized as postmodern (as presented by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, on whom Hégy draws), the relations of representation and expression vanish. Language does not express thought but things, which are infinite in number and can be expressed by an infinity of words. The thinking and speaking subject does not have a necessary but an indeterminate relationship to things and words. Needless to say, this second paradigm is a mortal threat to ecclesiastical authority; therein lies the root of the contemporary crisis of church authority and all its teaching and legal paraphernalia. As Hégy elegantly puts it, "Catholics do not reject church authority, they simply ignore it" (14).
Hégy is not only a theologian but also a sociologist, and his sociological surveys, together with those of Dean Hoge, William d'Antonio, and James Dvidson, have confirmed that there has been a "collapse of Tridentine Catholicism." This collapse was greatly exacerbated by the recent scandal of clerical sexual abuse, in the United states as well as elsewhere.
Hégy does not however end his book on a pessimistic note. Rather, he sketches a vision of church that pushes Vatican II's ecclesiological insights to their logical conclusion. The operative words in this new model of church are accountability and transparency, in the mold of many American institutions, public and private. There must be a separation of powers at all levels of church life; an institution in which one person holds all the three powers--legislative, executive, and judicial--is no longer credible nor has it ever been.
This book is one of the most insightful studies of Vatican II and its aftermath. It will not please Catholics who want to preserve the status quo. But surely will it open up many issues for honest discussion, and the future of the church may well depend on facing these issues squarely. Its usefulness will much increase if there is an English translation to reach a wider non-French readership.