Paul LAKELAND. A Council That Will Never End: Lumen Gentium and the Church Today. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013. pp. 158+xxxiii. $19.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8066-7. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Mercy College of Health Sciences, Des Moines, IA 50309.

 Paul Lakeland begins this relatively brief work by sounding both positive and pessimistic notes. On the one hand, Lakeland lauds the achievement of Lumen Gentium, claiming that its teachings led to “the shape of the changed Church” that we now experience today (ix). As an example of positive change, Lakeland points to the explosion of lay ecclesial ministry in North America, a phenomenon, he asserts, that Lumen Gentium helped to bring about. On the other hand, Lakeland notes that the Church in the last few decades has fallen into a state of serious malaise, from which it seems unable to extricate itself. Lakeland attributes this malaise to ambiguities that were imbedded in the texts of the Second Vatican Council. In his words, “It is my conviction that much of the malaise of Roman Catholicism today is to be attributed to ambiguities and lack of clarity in the texts of the Council documents in general and in Lumen Gentium in particular” (x). The goal for the Church moving forward, then, should be to clarify what the council fathers left ambiguous. This task constitutes the “unfinished business” of the Council, a phrase that Lakeland employs frequently throughout the book.

Drawing on the work of historical theologians, Lakeland notes that the conciliar documents were “masterpieces of compromise” (xvii). In order to obtain overwhelmingly positive votes on the Council documents, the bishops at Vatican II occasionally imbedded statements in the texts that stood in obvious tension to one another. Lumen Gentium is a representative case: “[I]n a number of places in the document the reader can see genuinely different ecclesiologies at work, side by side” (xv). To test his thesis, Lakeland walks the reader through three broad theological topics that Lumen Gentium addressed: the ministry of bishops, the ministry of the laity, and the possibility of salvation for those who are outside the Church. In each case, Lakeland argues, Lumen Gentium set “traditional” (read, neoscholastic), historically naïve statements on these topics directly alongside ones that were more in line with the program of aggiornamento called for by Pope John XXIII at the start of the Council. 

Lakeland challenges his readership to carry on this programmatic vision of aggiornamento through a critical appropriation of the Council’s teachings. He models this vocation by offering specific suggestions as to how the Church should proceed in relation to the central ecclesiological questions raised by Lumen Gentium. Lakeland is a creative interpreter of the conciliar texts, and his conclusions are in no way cookie-cutter responses. Sometimes Lakeland calls for maintaining a balance between two ideas that stand in tension. For instance, with regard to the tension between papal primacy and conciliarism, Lakeland argues that Lumen Gentium “tried very hard to put both pope and Council in a suitably balanced relationship under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The unfinished business of Lumen Gentium is to strive to keep that delicate balance alive” (xxvi). In other instances, though, Lakeland asserts that the unfinished business involves prioritizing one thread of the document’s teaching over another. Regarding the ministry of the laity, for example, Lakeland argues that theologians should accord greater weight to Lumen Gentium’s emphasis on the baptismal priesthood of all believers than they do to those sections of the document that revert to a “pyramidal understanding of the Church” (63). In this latter case, then, the goal is not to keep a balance alive, but instead to emphasize one facet of Lumen Gentium’s teaching over and against a different facet perceived to be less helpful.

A Council That Will Never End offers an important contribution to ongoing debates over the meaning of Vatican II, and Lakeland is entirely correct, in my opinion, about the need for clarification on issues that were left ambiguous at the Council. Certainly, Vatican II was not the first Church council that relied on compromise to reach conclusive decisions on disputed matters. The fact that compromises were made, in other words, in no way diminishes the authority of the documents that were promulgated. Furthermore, any pronouncement by ecclesiastical authorities, whether by the pope or by an ecumenical council, is inevitably going to raise new questions that need to be answered, so we should not be altogether surprised by the vigorous debates that have broken out since the Council’s conclusion. Nevertheless, given the importance of conciliar statements to directing the course of the Church, they should be held to some minimum standard of clarity and precision. In light of the fact that the “battle for meaning” commenced at Vatican II shows no signs of abating, one wonders whether the conciliar texts, at least in certain areas, fail to meet this standard. Thus, even though I disagree with a number of Lakeland’s specific conclusions, I second his call for a renewed treatment of some of the key issues that were debated at the Council. Hopefully, his book will help kick start just such a conversation.