Donald NORWOOD, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015, pp.xxi+263. $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8028-7210-4. Reviewed by Alice LAFFEY, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA 01610.

            Neither an expert on Karl Barth nor on Vatican II, I nevertheless volunteered to review this monograph because I, a Roman Catholic, studied at a Presbyterian Seminary with Karl’s son, Markus, a NT scholar who produced the Anchor Bible’s two-volume commentary on Ephesians, shortly after Vatican II (1969-73).  Informally immersed in and shaped by both Vatican II theology and Barthian theology, I had been told by Vatican II to “return to the sources,” i.e., Scripture, and by Barthian theology, to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” That formation has influenced much of my life. I was curious to see where Norwood’s monograph would take me.  I was not disappointed.

The title of the volume is a natural for Norwood; both he and Barth were/are members of the Reformed Church.  Reading about Vatican II from a Reformer’s (better identifier than Protestant) perspective, one can learn a great deal about the role and importance of the “observers” at the Council. Just as Christ may not have been intending to found a religion but, rather, to reform Judaism, Norwood contends that the reformers€”Luther, Wesley, Zwingli and the others--were not intending to break with Rome but to reform Rome.  What needed reforming, and what continues to be in need of reform?   What had been and continue to be obstacles to Church unity?  How successful was Vatican II in reforming Rome?  What role did Barth’s theology play in the development of the theology of Vatican II--even if Barth was unable to attend because of illness?   

After a brief introduction Norwood’s volume is divided into seven chapters: 1) Why Reform? Why Rome? Why Barth? 2) Reforming Rome: Continuing the Reformation; 3) Responding to Vatican II: Part 1; 4) Responding to Vatican II: Part 2; 5) Reforming or Converting Karl Barth: Roman Catholic Critics; 6) Differences that Still Divide? and 7)  The Rediscovery of Unity. Each of these chapters is further divided.

The volume is a lively combination of traditional research (pertinent quotations that articulate Barth’s theology and the relevant theology of Roman Catholic theologians in their historical settings, how the theologies overlapped and how they differed) and insights into the ecumenical conversations and exchanges between them.  For Barth, the Reformation was only the beginning and didn’t “end;” certainly it didn’t end exactly where the Reformers had intended.  Moreover, since the Reformation there had developed additional challenges to reform and Church unity:  the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the Pope’s infallibility (Vatican I, 1870) and the doctrine of the Assumption (1950). 

Barth was more interested in Christ than the Church and sought Christ as the Church’s central focus. He did not object to Church authority by any means (including the origin and development of the World Council of Churches) and saw great advantages in a unifying voice, but he found teaching that was not based in Scripture to be suspect. While he affirmed the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, he also strongly affirmed the importance of preaching (the Scriptures and their contemporary relevance).

When Barth recovered from his illness, he visited the Vatican€”after the Council.  He received a warm welcome; the meeting was cordial in every way.  Although Barth disagreed with some of Vatican II’s direction, he saw the Council as a brave and important step in Church reform. Most interested in the documents on Revelation (Dei Verbum) and the Church (Lumen Gentium), Barth praised the Council’s renewed emphasis on the Bible.  Though not in total agreement with wording and some of the implications of the Decree on the Church, he saw the shift to the “people of God” language, that is, a greater emphasis on the community€”as opposed to the Papacy€”as more authentic and as helpful for renewal and reunion. 

My mind could not help racing, as I read the book, to Pope Francis’ efforts to dismantle Vatican I, not by pronouncements, maybe not even deliberately, but in fact by his manner and actions.  While other Popes have asked for the prayers of the faithful, Francis has admitted that he doesn’t have all the answers and has even created a group of Cardinals to serve as consultors.  He has been very reluctant to judge, acknowledging that there is much he doesn’t know (e.g., the Eucharist for divorced and re-married Catholics, forgiveness for those having had an abortion).  He is not only reforming the expectations and behaviors of Roman Catholics and Protestants throughout the world, and reforming the Curia, he is, in the largest possible sense, “Reforming Rome.” If Barth were alive today€”Professor Norwood, what do you think?€”would he rejoice that Church unity may not be far away?