Gabriel FLYNN, Yves Congar’s Vision of the Church in a World of Unbelief. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2004. pp. xii + 280. $99.95 hc. ISBN: 0-7546-0652-X.
Reviewed by Patrick HAYES, St. John’s University, Staten Island, NY 10301

This revised Oxford University thesis bears a preface by Congar’s confrère, Pierre-Marie Gy, OP, who writes that “the question of unbelievers was perhaps the most important his [Congar’s] generation had to consider.” The result of both social and cultural change and, most crucially, the laxity and lackluster appeal of the Church itself, unbelief is taken by Flynn as the central problem that runs through Congar’s work. This, the author claims, is what drove Congar’s abiding love for God’s Church. The bulk of Flynn’s argument is contained in three large chapters: the vision of the Church in Congar’s theology; the shape of the Church in Congar’s theology; and reform and tradition in Congar’s ecclesiology. This triptych is mostly expository, but the last chapter forms a much needed and at times novel perspective on Congar’s contribution to authentic ecclesial reform.

The author sees Congar developing a “total ecclesiology” which not only responds to a need for a synthetic understanding of the nature of the Church, but also suggests ways that the Church manifests its own contributions to and solutions for unbelief. Flynn’s starting point is a 1935 essay, “Une conclusion théologique à l’enquête sur les raisons actuelles de l’incroyance.” The young Congar later described this essay as the inspiration for the highly successful Unam Sanctam series that he edited—a collection, Flynn notes, that “prepared the way for Vatican II.” The trajectory toward the Council is evidenced in Congar’s inaugural volume of Unam Sanctam, Chrétiens désunis: principes d’un ‘oecuménisme’ catholique (Paris: Cerf, 1937). Congar saw division in the Church as scandalous and one of the causes of unbelief in the modern epoch. His further studies on the laity, ‘true and false reform,’ and tradition were part of an overall program to address unbelief in the Church and to bring about a sustained and fruitful renewal.

In the main, Flynn combs through the Dominican’s immense literary output with rigorous care. At times, however, the study can seem like a string of quotations by Congar, held together by Flynn’s commentary, giving the book the feel of a dissertation. More substantively, there are some questionable assessments of Congar’s work.

For example, in a discussion of Congar’s major treatise on the laity, Jalons pur une théologie du laïcat (1953), Flynn writes: “Congar was critical of a theology of priesthood that was clerical in nature, and sought to replace it with another that would give a place to the laity. However, his theology of the priesthood has been surpassed by that of other theologians.” (82) Two problems arise here. First, it was not the intent of Jalons to substitute a theology of the laity for a theology of the priesthood. Second, the subjective judgment on the worth of Congar’s theology of priesthood strikes this reader as unsupported. There may be other theologians who have provided us with a deep and probative theology of priesthood (one thinks of Thomas O’Meara or Kenan Osborne, for instance), but there are a number of Congar’s works that form a lasting contribution to ministry and priesthood (e.g., Sacerdoce et Laïcat. Devant leurs tâches d'évangélisation et de civilisation [Paris: Cerf, 1962] or A Gospel Priesthood [New York: Herder, 1967]).

Other statements just fall flat. Flynn comments at one point on the notion of koinonia which “has proved to be a useful starting point for ecumenism,” though he claims that “the results of these endeavors have been rather disappointing.” (114) The author provides no supporting evidence to substantiate the assertion.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Flynn’s book will advance Congar studies by leaps and bounds. He has located a decidedly fruitful avenue for understanding the theologian’s key interests and successfully establishes how these influence the overall project of a life’s work. His final chapter on Congar and tradition is exceptionally clear and does the Christian community a real service in providing some guidelines for understanding church history, which are pregnant with possibilities for furthering ecumenical discourse. An extensive bibliography of works by and about Congar fills the final pages. Additionally, a valuable appendix updates the Congar bibliography originally provided by Pietro Quattrocchi (assembling writings from 1924-1967) and Aidan Nichols (assembling works from 1967-1987) from 1987 to 2002. Graduate libraries and seminaries will do well to make this study available to their scholars.

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