Monday 6 June 2016

Review of Donald Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II

Donald W. Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (Eerdmans, 2015)

This is a timely book. Indeed as Donald Norward had been hatching it long before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, it is a prophetic book. Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, states: “In its pilgrimage on earth Christ summons the church to continual reformation, of which it is always in need, in so far as it is an institution of human beings here on earth.” Yet after nearly fifty years this promising declaration seemed, to many an ecumenical Simeon, to have become a forlorn hope. Then, suddenly, habemus papam whose agenda actually includes – “reforming Rome.” (Well, at least the Roman Curia!)

At 232 pages of text Reforming Rome is not a long book, but its 25-page bibliography is suggestive of its compact comprehensiveness. It is hugely instructive and illuminating about Vatican II, not only in terms of input and output, but also as an event. That is, it not only provides a description and analysis of the Council’s work, it also gives a vivid sense of the Council as a kind of huge ecclesial gala for gift-exchange, as much about relationships as ideas. How delightfully Norwood weaves into his narrative snippets of the personal interactions of members and guests, before and after the Council as well as during it. Thus Vatican II becomes a model for the way to do our ecumenism today: unity-through-friendship. Which doesn’t mean that we must always be nice to each other, let alone agree with each other, but it does mean that we will always have each other’s backs.

Enter the ever polemical Karl Barth. From the first volume of his Church Dogmatics when he (in?)famously declared that the analogia entis, the ontological foundation for doing natural theology, is “the invention of Antichrist,” Barth was always up for a theological punch-up with Rome. Until the (school) bell, that is, when many of his Catholic interlocutors became beloved companions (particularly the two Hanses, Urs von Balthasar and Küng). Indeed for all his tenacious cross-examination of the Council’s documents – he lamented the failure of Nostra Aetate “to set forth an explicit confession of guilt” for the Church’s historic anti-Semitism; dubbed Dignitatis Humanae a “monstrosity”; and remained underwhelmed by even the moderated Mariology of Lumen Gentium – Barth was a dedicated evangelist for Vatican II, convinced in his dotage that there were now no “irreconcilable differences” to block the eschatological not-yet of unity from becoming ever more realised.

Other areas of contemporary as well as historical interest covered by Norwood – “The past is not dead; it is not even past,” wrote William Faulkner – include the excellent section devoted to the question of women (Barth told Rome that it still has work to do; women told Barth that he still has work to do too!); an update on why the doctrine of justification by faith should no longer be considered a church-dividing issue (though in my view the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith might be even more of an ecumenical game-changer had insights from the “New Perspectives on Paul” on the ecclesiological import of the doctrine informed the biblical studies done by its working party); and the parts that touch on polity, hierarchy, and the purple elephant that won’t leave the building, i.e., episcopacy (Barth, I sense, would support the ecumenical consensus about the threefold ministry, as long as there are laocratic checks and balances to the exercise of episcopal authority).

Reforming Rome is a must-read for anyone interested in Vatican II, in Karl Barth, and for all engaged in current ecumenical discussions, not least for the contagiousness of the author’s unquenchable enthusiasm for visible unity. In the book’s acknowledgements, Donald Norwood writes that “without the support of my lovely wife Margaret, I could not write another word.” To which uxorial praise I would only add: Margaret, stay healthy!

First published in the Society for Ecumenical Studies Journal

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Great piece Kim!

I think there is a growing movement right now that feels almost palpable for ecumenical developments in the next decade or two.

Many Christians want to be united and be as the apostles were.

I think that attitude of "I am right and everyone else is just not very well informed" has pretty much disappeared with everyone seeing how incredible rich the different theological and liturgical traditions are. Witnessing the earnest character of a lot of these communities for witnessing to Gods love also does something to the hard heart.

I think there is a yearning for unity in which a drawing out of the content of the gospel and christian tradition can be done in one Church rather than having to start a new denomination every time.

It will take time but with Theologians like Barth reworking ideas on election and more people being exposed to the empirical theology of the east (Starting with theoria) I think more and more there will be an amazement about just how great theology and the study of orthodoxy is and will be something we rejoice in and not something we let divide us.

Plus I think most Christians now want to get back to focusing on the poor and those alienated and not trash the other as a heretic and willfully promoting evil lol

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