Faggioli, Massimo. Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012. pp. 224. $14.95 (E-book $11.95; Kindle $8.76) ISBN 978-08091-4750-2. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105


          Responding to a recent editorial published in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune calling for the resignation of the archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the wake of the ongoing controversy regarding priest abuse of children (“To heal church, Nienstedt must go,” July 28, 2014), one reader wrote:

Maybe, just maybe, the archdiocese does need a “different” leader. But not a reformer. It needs an archbishop to erase all of the reforms instituted since the 1960s — reforms that probably contributed to today’s abuse. James P. Lynch, Letter to the Editor, Star Tribune, July 29, 2014.)

No doubt the writer was referring to “reforms” which arose from Vatican II, the Council in which 2,500 bishops and theologians, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, met from 1962-65. What are the “class of interpretations” and “the ongoing battle over the meaning of Vatican II” to which John O’Malley, S.J. and Mark Massa, S.J. refer on the cover notes to Faggioli’s book? As someone who is not a Catholic (but who cherishes mightily the opportunity to work at a Catholic university where the mission charges us to “educate students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good”), I need some help here. My colleague at the University of St. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Theology Massimo Faggioli (with a PhD from the University of Turin and author of a startling number of articles on Catholicism and Vatican II), offers a lucid guide to anyone seeking to understand “the history and legacy” of Vatican II as a force in modern Catholicism and, many would argue, religions more broadly considered.

Faggioli begins with the premise that Vatican II has been the subject of much misrepresentation. But first, he offers an important reminder that “from a historical perspective, the council is still very young. The two-thousand-year history of the Church’s councils bears witness to a necessarily slow and lengthy reception of every ecumenical council… “ (p. 1) Faggioli tells us that the cultural, historical, political, and theological debates (the “battle” in the book’s subtitle) over Vatican II is testimony to the council’s place in the life of the Church moving through the modern world, especially as the Church shapes herself into a “World Church.”

The subheadings in Chapter 1 provide a historical foundation for the history of the debate on Vatican II: “Acknowledged, Received, Refused,” “Celebrated and Enforce,” “Historicized,” and, finally, “Toward a New Fight over Vatican II” are very helpful for someone who leans politically liberal (and Lutheran) and whose own research testifies to the powerful contributions of religion and the religious toward a good society. Chapter 2 is most helpful for someone who has never understood what all the fuss over Vatican II is about, especially if she has heard the over-simplified rhetoric while failing to understand just how social movements occur in this most complex of social organizations. Faggioli traces the reaction to Vatican II from “exuberance” and “disappointment” (p. 20) through “balancing reform and continuity” (p. 37), while acknowledging the critical role played by Marcel Lefebre and others who vehemently rejected the “heresy” (p. 37) of Vatican II. In Chapter 3, Faggioli speaks to the ecumenical thrust of Vatican II, starting with the official representatives of non-Catholic churches sent to observe the council. To these observers, Vatican II signified an important shift in the “landscape of Christianity” (p. 49), so that the common problems of different religions could be more clearly understood. Faggioli articulates the impact of Vatican II on various “theological fault lines” (p. 52), as well as liberation theology and feminist theology and the importance of Catholic theology in the global South.

As someone who has been privy to some of the debate between Augustinians and Thomists among my colleagues in philosophy and theology, I appreciate Faggioli’s careful articulation in Chapter 4 of the impact of Vatican II on the relationship between the Church and the world. And, in speaking about theological ressourcement (returning to the sources of the early Church), Faggioli quotes Belgian theologian and joint secretary to the Doctrinal Commission of Vatican II, “Transformation, it is true, does not come without pain” (p. 67). Not surprisingly, a body of research has grown up around the controversies among the hermeneutics that arose from Vatican II. Faggioli provides a cogent summary of that research in Chapter 5, followed by a discussion in Chapter 6 of macro-issues surrounding the debate, such as the gap between expectations and results of Vatican II and the “impossibility of returning to the pre-Vatican II period” (p. 123).

As a sociologist with more than casual interest in social change, perhaps the most compelling arguments in the book are those around “Change and Historicity in the Church and in Theology” (pp. 133-38). In his Epilogue, Faggioli references the concept of paradigm shift, as put forth by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I hope others are not offended by the idea that even religious institutions may evolve by coming to terms with “residuals”, those things that cannot be explained by status quo knowledge systems.

I was eager to read this book and have been recommending it to my colleagues and especially my students. I think Faggioli is right:

Now Vatican II appears left out on a limb, especially when one considers that the generation of bishops and theologians who took part in Vatican II has faded from the scene, and [my emphasis] the youngest generation of Catholics does not seem interested in understanding the message that Vatican II might bring to the future of the Church. (p. 20)