Sunday, 26th May 2024

Review – The Coelian

The book, Faith, Word and Culture, consists, in the main, of papers presented at a conference held at the Irish College, Rome, marking both the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Council and the College’s seventy-fifth year on the Coelian hill. It is a fascinating mix of essays dealing with issues such as the salvific nature of other religions, Scripture in the church after Vatican II, the Irish experience of that council, post-conciliar sacramental theology and the doctrine of God. The papers are by people eminent in their field: Gavin D’Costa, Daniel Madigan SJ, Joseph Fitzmyer SJ, Gerald O’Collins SJ, Dermot Lane, Raphael Gallagher CSsR, Liam Bergin, Clare McGovern RSM, and Nicholas Lash.

One is dealing with exercises in interpretation and reading brings with it no quietus – a good thing I would suggest. Passionate discussion of the Council is evidence that not all is received and settled even if some were to wish it so.

A strength of theology à la Anglaise is its clarity of thought and expression. D’Costa, in his article entitled ‘Vatican II and the Status of Other Religions as Salvific Structures’, begins by setting out what precisely the relevant documents of the Council do say and then raises the question of the their silence on the ‘issue of non-Christian religions, per se, as vehicles of salvation’. By clearing the ground he prevents glib answers, but the interpretation he gives to the silence is extremely cautious. I would argue far too cautious in light of the process leading up the documents and the way they have been received.

Madigan in his response rightly asks whether one can speak of religious structures as salvific: Is any religion per se a vehicle of salvation? I share with Madigan doubts about the usefulness of speaking about ‘religions’ generically; I would wonder if that concept, born in the  seventeenth century, obfuscates more than it clarifies.

I must also say that when I read people writing about the human experience of the numinous apart from religion the shade of Descartes appears in my mind’s eye: Does anyone still think that we have experiences within ourselves before we seek to express them in language?

Fitzmyer, to whom O’Collins pays tribute in his response, traces a fascinating history: The Church travelled a great distance between the Unigenitus Dei Filius of Clement XI, which condemned amongst other things the proposition that the ‘reading of Scripture is for everybody’, and Dei Verbum. He outlines key points on the Council’s teaching on Scripture and he raises the question of how deeply the approach of the constitution has affected the way we live our Christian lives and do theology; an uncomfortably challenging presentation. Lash reminds us, in his article, that the theologian was Magister in Sacra Pagina, ‘a master of the Sacred Page’ – not a description of the theological craft which springs immediately to mind these days.

Lane’s article and the responses by Raphael and McGovern focus on the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II in the Irish church. Lane’s pencilled outline of the position of the Irish hierarchy vis-à-vis the Council is fascinating. Their establishing commissions whose brief corresponded to particular documents is both innovative and yet curiously hide-bound. He proceeds to set forth the challenges facing the contemporary Church and touches on some ways to address these. The suggestions will not surprise most thoughtful people, but there is no alternative to most and we never know where the path will lead us: Might not more openness and collaboration lead us somewhere new and surprising? Gallagher in his response takes a different tack: He raises the very real question of the divide between church teaching and human experience and also asks whether the Irish church has become too inwardly focused.
Bergin’s article, which could almost be a response to the gauntlet thrown down by Fitzmyer, is on sacramental theology since Vatican II and discusses among other things the relationship between sacraments, Scripture – the word being integral to sacrament – and salvation history, and the relationship between past, present and future in sacrament. One is immersed through the sacramental celebration in the history of God’s relating to the people he calls to him, a history which is orientated to its eschatological fulfilment. It is a theology which breathes the air of Scripture and shows that it gains by it. On a personal note, I was delighted to see the reprise of Casel’s Mysteriengegenwart.

The final article is by Professor Nicholas Lash of Cambridge, the finest theologian in Britain and with few peers worldwide. Lash brings a great precision to his thought and his discussion of the doctrine of God, though not easy to follow, would, I hazard, bring relief to anyone willing to take the time to think it through. God is God, not a god, and Christianity is a ‘school’ where we learn this through the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a bald summary which does not do justice to the article. Is the doctrine of God worth thinking about? St Thomas quoting St Hilary tells us that it is: ‘’He who reverently pursues the Boundless, even though he will never attain it, will himself advance by pushing forward in his pursuit.’ [In Boeth. De Trin. Ia 2.1  ad 7].

In the introduction to his paper D’Costa reminisces about the hospitality his family and he have enjoyed in the College. This book is a tribute to the Irish College tradition of hospitality: the opportunity given to many to learn, discuss and teach. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the life of the Church post-Vatican II.

Review by Fr Sean Fernandez, Diocese of Perth, Australia