This landmark volume in the history of contemporary ecclesiology places at the reader’s disposal a frank and comprehensive survey of the Catholic Church. One gets a sense that this is the summation of course notes accumulated over many years of teaching the subject. The fluidity of the narrative and the topical considerations on which Father McBrien alights suggest an author thoroughly at home in the field and equally in command of its fine points and open questions. Where aporias exist, McBrien shows us how the tradition created them and how the tradition might close them. It is a masterful and beautifully ordered evaluation of the Church, measured in its conjectures, and probative of the established understanding. In short, it is among the best offerings in Catholic ecclesiology ever produced in the English language.
There are eight parts to this volume, which in turn may be broken into several sections. Teachers with an eye toward using the book as a classroom text will find that the sections may be parsed in relatively manageable portions for their students. After an introduction to terminology and how ecclesiology fits into a more systematic schema in theology, McBrien’s next two sections relate New Testament ecclesiologies as well as those that emerged in the “post-biblical period to the mid-nineteenth century.” In these sections there are ruminations on familiar tropes, like the Church as people of God, Body of Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, St. Augustine, monasticism, the Gregorian reforms, Great Schism, St. Thomas Aquinas, Protestant Reformation(s), and the missionary experience are all treated—albeit at break neck speed—giving attention to the precise ways in which the Church was understood and shaped. Their respective thinking on given theories of the Church is often coupled with the requisite analysis of their historical circumstances which inevitably accentuated or muted ideas on the height, depth and breadth of the Church. It is a pity that neither Giles of Rome, nor John of Paris, get much more than a footnote here; Nicholas of Cusa is not even mentioned. At a time when the Church’s self-understanding was hammered out by such formidable canonists and churchmen, it seems a shame that they are passed over. Still, some of the more complex terms that emerge during the periods of nascent growth in the New Testament Church as well as over the next eighteen centuries are given in a glossary that is at once concise and useful.
The fourth part treats the historical development of ecclesiology from the First Council of the Vatican to the years leading to Vatican II. This is arguably the best part, particularly for McBrien’s survey of the encyclical literature of Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII and their impact upon debates over infallibility. Together with a very useful presentation of the manualist tradition, based on a reading of the representatives of the Salamanca School, such as Joachim Salaverri’s De Ecclesia Christi (about which one hears very little these days), and the more familiar names of twentieth century ecclesiologies—Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, and Küng—McBrien encapsulates some of the main areas of contention. Each relates to the hierarchical magisterium differently and McBrien suggests that this variety is as it should be because that is the way it has always been. Diversity is constitutive of or elementary to Church tradition.
Part five is the prism through which the entire book must be read and it is devoted the ecclesiologies emerging from Vatican II itself. No other event in the history of the Church is so decisive for coming to grips with problems of the Church ad extra (discussed in part six) or ad intra (discussed in part seven). McBrien identifies several breaks with the old ways of perceiving God’s Church even while arguing that the novelties called for by the Council should not be seen as an abandonment of tradition. For him the capstone of Vatican II seems to be the encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, issued before the Council’s close in 1964, which takes a very broad and expansive look at how the Church might fulfill its mission of self-understanding while becoming more effective in communicating itself to the world. The encyclical also remains for him a kind of yard stick by which to measure the Council’s efficacy in a number of areas, such as ecumenism or political theology or the status of women—areas in which the Church continues to lead around the world, even if in McBrien’s estimation there are perceptible short falls in what the Church could be doing. The last part of the book is a rehearsal of many of these themes and he ends with some observations on the future of the Church—the fruit of mature reflection.
McBrien dedicates the volume to an ecclesiological compatriot, the Dominican Cardinal Yves M.-J. Congar (d. 1995), perhaps in partial payment for Congar’s defense of McBrien’s prior Catholicism, a book that went through several editions and was given careful scrutiny by the Doctrinal Committee of the American Bishops’ conference. At the time of its investigation, Congar had penned a long and detailed letter praising McBrien’s work and though a quarter century has passed since then, it seems fitting that McBrien’s lengthy treatise should serve as a monument to a theological fellow-traveler who sought nothing more than to understand and make more accessible the instrumentality of God’s Church for the salvation of the world.