Richard R. GAILLARDETZ. An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis and the Renewal of Catholicism. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. 172. $19.95 pb. ISBN0-385-49693-1. Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618.


In the fifty years since the close of the Second Vatican Council many attempts have been made to offer a synthetic treatment of its teachings; this book contributes to such literature, by drawing together the conciliar teachings into a clear ecclesiological vision, which seeks church renewal and reform. As its guiding metaphor, the book employs Hermann Pottmeyer’s image of Vatican II as “an unfinished building site” (xiii). The metaphor aids Gaillardetz in historically contextualizing the council and promoting the idea that the response to Vatican II represented “the beginnings of a new ‘basilica’”—i.e., a “new theological, sacramental and pastoral form” (xiv).

Chapter 1 provides a historical context for considering what is new about the form of church established at Vatican II. Keeping with his architectonic metaphor, Gaillardetz refers to the preconciliar, “hierocratic” form of the church as an ancient “basilica”, one that was supported by five “pillars”: 1) “a propositional theology of revelation”; 2) “a papo-centric church leadership structure;” 3) “sacral priesthood”; 4) “a mechanistic theology of grace and sacraments”; and 5) “a confrontational attitude toward the world.” These pillars set up an inadequate foundation for Catholic practice, theology and discipline, according to Gaillardetz, and the council documents will rebuild them consciously.

It is not just the documents themselves, but also the dynamics of the council, for Gaillardetz, that resist the ancient hierocratic form. These dynamics are the subject of chapter 2. Specifically, Gaillardetz highlights the way the council was conducted, in reading “the signs of the times” and fostering a “community of discernment.” He also mentions the council’s pastoral vision of doctrine, the “catholicity of dialogue”, and a commitment to “humble learning” as dynamics that sketch out an alternative form of church (45-47).

Chapter 3 outlines seven “pillars”, or conciliar contributions from the documents themselves, that support this new ecclesial form: 1) “kerygmatic and Trinitarian theology of revelation”; 2) “dialogical engagement”’; 3) “the priority of baptism”; 4) “the renewed theology of the Holy Spirit”; 5) “episcopal collegiality”; 6) the missionary nature of the church; and 7) “the pilgrim church”. While drawing attention to these particular conciliar teachings as significant is not original, their place in Gaillardetz’s overall argument is. His synthetic interpretation illustrates how these pillars provide a unified theological narrative that lays the foundation for a comprehensive program of ecclesial reform.

The next two chapters offer two complementary interpretive frameworks, which seek to draw together the council’s contributions into a coherent, synthetic, and integrated vision. Chapter 4 demonstrates that one major organizing principle of conciliar teaching is the ecclesial virtue of humility. Relatedly, Chapter 5 shows how the conciliar documents recover pneumatology in such a way that encourages a shift from competitive to non-competitive ecclesial relationships, namely, those between Pope and bishops, the Magisterium and the faithful, baptismal charisms and church office, and different spheres of Christian activity.

Chapter 6 offers a different kind of synthetic interpretation of the council by considering how Pope Francis’ inspiration and leadership promote a fresh reception of conciliar teaching and carry forward four specific teachings in particular: a missiological vision of the church; a listening church; ecclesial subsidiarity; and a pastoral orientation of doctrine.
Drawing from the three synthetic conciliar readings laid out in Chapters 4-6, Chapter 7 offers reflections on directions for ecclesial implicit in the council’s ecclesiology. In particular, Gaillardetz explores the council’s themes of ecclesial humility and non-competitive relationships as two avenues for renewal. He illustrates how the model of a humble, yet magnanimous Catholic identity might look concretely in the lives of the faithful, by providing examples of how one might wrestle with the Catholic tradition with integrity. Finally, Gaillardetz reflects on Pope Francis’ “ecclesial examination of conscience” and “disciplining of power” as two final directives that would transform ecclesiastical structures in way that is faithful to the ecclesial vision of Vatican II.

An Unfinished Council goes beyond another synthetic account of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, by offering a program for renewal for the contemporary church. Gaillardetz reminds us, fifty years after the close of the council, that much work is left to be done. He encourages his readers to receive the council in the manner of Pope Francis, reminding us all—undergraduates, church historians, theologians and pastors—that we have a role to play in church reform.