Gerald O’COLLINS. The Second Vatican Council: Message and Meaning. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. xiv + 225. $24.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8311-8. Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541

          The Second Vatican Council: Message and Meaning is another of Gerald O’Collins’ insightful volumes examining key aspects of the council, which include Living Vatican II: The 21st Council for the 21st Century (2006), The Second Vatican Council on Other Religions (2013) and The Spirituality of the Second Vatican Council (2014). It is marked by O’Collins’ characteristic lucidity, irenic tone and sense of organization – explaining what he is going to do, doing it, and summarizing what he has done, typically with precisely enumerated points: e.g. five characteristics of manualist theology (5-7); twelve ways Sacrosanctum Concilium set the agenda for subsequent conciliar documents (61-88); five modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy (89-92).

The rather general subtitle, Message and Meaning, is somewhat misleading in that the author is not intending to provide a comprehensive summary of all the council documents or to synthesize the meaning of Vatican II in toto. In particular, relatively little attention is paid to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Rather his aim is to focus on certain key themes and approaches as exemplified principally in five of the sixteen official texts promulgated by the council: Ad Gentes, Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, Nostra Aetate and Sacrosanctum Concilium, with significant but less sustained attention to Perfectae Caritatis and Dignitatis Humanae (see 206). Six of the book’s nine chapters, along with the appendix, have been published previously, which at times leads to a certain amount of repetition or overlap, but the individual pieces have been arranged to present a coherently developed progression.

The opening chapter focuses on the movement for ressourcement at Vatican II, the retrieval of significant primary materials from the Christian tradition as integral expressions of that tradition rather than simply as sources of proof texts to buttress dogmatic positions arrived at by other means. It then demonstrates how this approach has had a transformative effect on the understanding and presentation of Catholic doctrine on revelation (in Dei Verbum), on the church (in Lumen Gentium) and on the revelatory dimension of all history (in Ad Gentes). Originally written for a collection of articles on ressourcement, this chapter does not explicitly consider the category of aggiornamento, or updating, but this concept is considered at length in the following chapter, “Does the Second Vatican Council Represent Continuity or Discontinuity?” Here the author rejects the simplistic dichotomy of mutually exclusive alternatives in favor of a synthesis of “inherited tradition and contemporary experience” (30), the complementarity of ressourcement and aggiornamento – exemplified in the Constitution on the Liturgy and the Declaration on Religious Freedom, as well as in Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate. O’Collins points out elements of both continuity and discontinuity with the past in the teaching of Vatican II, endorses Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on the Church’s retention of its authentic identity in the midst of change and Cardinal Newman’s insight that substantial identity of a living organism requires change for continued vitality.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the liturgical dimension of the conciliar program. The first endorses and expands upon Massimo Faggioli’s proposal that the first document promulgated, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, provides the “hermeneutical key” for subsequent conciliar teaching on such key themes as the centrality of the paschal mystery, the sacramental nature of salvation and revelation, collegiality, dialogue and the church as the people of God. The following chapter explores the conciliar teaching on the liturgical presence of Christ in the person of the minister, in the Eucharistic elements, in sacramental rites generally, in the preached word and in the assembled community, drawing on later documents including Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes to supplement Sacrosanctum Concilium, and proposing ten aspects of presence as potentially contributing to a renewed theological interest in this conciliar theme which O’Collins finds largely undeveloped in post-conciliar sacramental theology.

The two following chapters consider the positive evaluation of other religious traditions in conciliar teaching. Chapter 5 draws not only on Nostra Aetate but on Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes to highlight the implicit and explicit teaching of Vatican II on the universal scope of revelation and salvation through the Word of God already present in creation and become flesh in the person of Jesus, source of “truth and grace” for all humanity, not exclusively for Christian believers. Chapter 6, “Implementing Nostra Aetate,” highlights Pope John Paul II’s creative elaboration of this decree and suggests three themes found in the declaration meriting further development: the complementarity of the revelatory and salvific dimensions of Christ’s incarnation and redemption; the role of Christ as universal revealer; and the implications of Christ’s identity as Wisdom for the affirmation of “all that is true and holy” in other religious traditions, concluding that explicit acceptance of Christianity by non-Christians should be recognized as primarily in continuity with their previous faith commitment.

Chapter 7, “Dei Verbum and Revelation,” suggests that the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation be considered as having a certain primacy in relation to the other three constitutions, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, as divine revelation is the fundamental basis for ecclesiology, liturgy, pastoral theology and all other aspects of Christian faith. O’Collins finds the conciliar teaching on revelation to consist in six key elements: it is primarily divine self-disclosure, both salvific and sacramental, God’s personal self-communication, culminating in the paschal mystery, having present and future as well as past dimensions, and intrinsically including the human response of faith. He also points out the increasing post-conciliar acceptance of the category of experience as integral to revelation, particularly in the work of John Paul II, and notes that the teaching of Dei Verbum is supplemented by that of other documents on the topics of the concrete human condition as the context for divine revelation, the credibility of revelation, the extension of revelation beyond the boundaries of Christianity, and revelation as addressing “the signs of the times.”

The penultimate chapter develops this theme of revelation in the context of O’Collins’ broader project of renewing fundamental theology, showing how the themes of divine self-revelation, human openness to revelation, the credibility of revelation and the transmission of the message of revelation are addressed by Vatican II, which also contributes significantly to other dimensions of fundamental theology including eschatology, liturgical theology, ecumenism and the theological implications of religious pluralism. Finally O’Collins answers the question posed by the title of his final chapter – “Was the Teaching of Vatican II Nourished and Ruled by the Word of God?” – with a resoundingly positive response, as demonstrated particularly by Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium, resulting both in a reaffirmation of the centrality of scripture in the life of the church and in its liturgy, and in the highlighting of “previously neglected scriptural witness” (203) contributing to the theological affirmation of the right to religious freedom, to increased focus on the intrinsic dignity of all humans created in the divine image, and to a more holistic appreciation of broad scriptural themes beyond attention to texts and passages read in isolation. He finds room for further development in the relative infrequency of citation of Old Testament resources to enrich understanding of such key conciliar themes as the identity of the church as the people of God and the universal call to holiness.

In his brief “Concluding Reflections,” O’Collins explains the choice of his subtitle as “a further call to action against those who misinterpret what the Council has taught” (207), singling out Ralph Martin’s 2012 book Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization as so narrowly selective a reading of conciliar teaching as to seriously misrepresent the primary emphasis on the universal salvific will of God that marks the “message and meaning” of Vatican II. Acknowledging that concluding his work not with a general summary but with this brief but incisive critique may seem strange, O’Collins points out that Martin’s book is endorsed by four cardinals and issued by a major religious publisher (albeit a non-Catholic one – Eerdmans), thus “highlight[ing] the need to examine what Vatican II ‘actually’ did teach and so to reclaim that teaching” (210) – the author’s final words in the text proper.

A brief Appendix entitled “The Reform of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” originally published in The Tablet two weeks after Gerhard Müller was appointed prefect of the Vatican doctrinal office in early July 2012, expresses O’Collins’ hope that the “hermeneutic of reform” proposed by Pope Benedict XVI as the framework for interpreting the council might be creatively applied to the CDF, in particular by implementing the principle of subsidiarity in adjudicating doctrinal matters, by developing more transparent procedures respecting the rights of those accused of doctrinal aberrations to a fair hearing, by including theologians from a broad spectrum in the work of the congregation and regularly changing its personnel, by authorizing and publishing the texts of its own advisory bodies, the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and by “positively promoting theology that would be both creatively faithful and pastorally effective in the multicultural and fast-changing world of today” (214). It is evident that O’Collins believes that this (as yet unrealized) set of reforms would clearly extend the legacy of Vatican II into the heart of the institutional structure of the contemporary church.

Gerald O’Collins has provided in this volume a stimulating series of reflections on many of the most important themes of the Second Vatican Council that are of particular significance for ongoing renewal of the church. If not every relevant text is cited – for example the unquoted statement in Gaudium et Spes 22 that “we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every human being the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” is certainly among the most powerful conciliar texts supporting his point about the universal scope of salvation in Christ – his careful reading of major documents, and his clear analysis of central themes that frequently connect these documents in ways that provide a broad perspective on the teaching of the council as a whole, are not only a fitting celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the council but an incentive to an intellectual and pastoral recommitment to the vision of Vatican II. Though he does not mention Pope Francis in the book, the cover photograph of a crowd in St. Peter’s Square prominently holding up a banner of the “Fratello Papa” is a powerful if implicit link between the material found within and the challenging proclamation of hope and joy in the gospel emanating from Rome today.