In Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II Richard Gaillardetz has the opportunity to delve into all of his ecclesiological research interests: Vatican II, ecumenism, authority, and ministry. He has written previously on all of these topics focusing specifically on the Second Vatican Council in his 2006 book, The Church in the Making (one of eight volumes in Paulist Press’s Rediscovering Vatican II series), in which he goes in depth on the council’s three main documents on ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is also Catherine Clifford’s primary interest. She has recently examined the council as an editor in a collaborative effort looking at how the council was received and implemented in Canada (Vatican II: Experiences Canadiennes - Canadian Experiences, University of Ottawa, 2011). With this current effort marking the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the council these authors have the opportunity to look at the entire council.
In the Introduction, Gaillardetz and Clifford declare that their “hope is to guide the reader into a direct engagement with the conciliar documents themselves” (p. xvii) so that their relevance today can be better understood and appreciated. The approach taken is to present twenty passages from the council documents that the authors believe provide interpretive keys “that can lead the reader to a greater appreciation for the larger vision of the council.” (p. xviii) As one familiar with Vatican II would expect, the vast majority (fourteen) of the twenty excerpts chosen come from the four pillars of the council (the constitutions) while the remainder come from four other documents (on religious freedom, the bishops, interreligious dialogue, and ecumenism). This is not to say that the authors ignore the remaining eight documents as their generous use of quotes from those texts ensure that all are drawn into the discussion at some point to flesh out the topic under review. A helpful Index to Conciliar Document References (this is the only index in the book) indicates that all documents are cited — at least in a general way.
For each document from which one of the key passages is taken, some background to the formulation of the document is given. This background necessarily includes not just the workings of the council but historical events in the Church that affected or shed light on the conclusions reached in the promulgated text. (Fortuitously for our time, the background on religious freedom, per the document on that subject, Dignitatis Humanae, may receive the most extensive background.) The significance of the council to the reader’s life today, and how it might be best applied in his or her encounter with the world, is an important part of the book and provides an opportunity for reflection for the thoughtful reader (a particularly excellent example is an analogy between art appreciation and the sensus fidei [p. 43]). A very helpful feature throughout is sidebars which provide short definitions or explanations of terms (e.g., episkopos, feudalism), people (e.g., Dom Virgil Michel), groups (e.g., Catholic Action), and events (e.g., The Council of Trent). A short conclusion reviews the reception of the documents in the past half century. A fairly extensive (but not nearly exhaustive) and diverse section of Further Readings follows the Conclusion.
Gaillardetz and Clifford are strong proponents of Vatican II as a reform council and thus emphasize this aspect throughout. While they see glimmers of this mentality since the Reformation, they generally hold that the time from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century until the time of the Second Vatican Council was a period in which spirituality took a back seat to the manuals of theology (developed and used to counter Protestant claims) which dominated the period; Vatican II was an effort to restore a balance between spirituality and concrete reality. The authors focus on and clearly back the role of those bishops at the council who had more progressive agendas, citing with approval their influence on the final documents. Also favored is the flattening of the hierarchy of the Church with an emphasis on the importance of the laity in its consensus fidelium, the priesthood of all believers, and its greatly expanded involvement in lay ecclesial ministries.
The authors really missed an opportunity to provide an extensive overview of their perspective on the practical implementation of the council in the last fifty years. Discussion in the abstract, maybe a couple of sentences, or at best a paragraph or two are all that are found in the individual chapters. The conclusion is the only extended treatment of reception history, and its coverage is less than five pages. While “fifty years is but a heartbeat in the long view of church history” (p. 188), Vatican II’s reception and influence to this point is still worth an extended and in-depth look. As there has been at various council anniversaries already, we will undoubtedly see even more books on implementation pros and cons from a variety of perspectives. Maybe these authors will yet take up the challenge.
This is a book that would be most useful to the engaged, interested, and educated person who is not very familiar with the Second Vatican Council. Scholars of Vatican II will find little, if anything, new here, while the average Catholic in the pew would likely find this a bit too challenging a read, despite the sidebars. As we are already beginning to see books on the council being published as we mark its fiftieth anniversary, with undoubtedly many more to follow, this book can certainly be in the mix for reading but by no means should be the only volume one picks up. Gaillardetz and Clifford tell the reader that this book is not a substitute for the documents. Very true. The one indispensable volume on the council is one that contains the full text of all sixteen documents. Only after reading the actual words of the Council Fathers can a person properly assess — and gain full value of — commentaries such as this one.