“The greatest theological event in the Western Hemisphere in our times.” Thus the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C. S. C., president of the University of Notre Dame, acclaimed the International Conference on the Theological Issues of Vatican II, held on the South Bend, Indiana, campus March 20–26.

There leading Catholic theologians who had worked on the constitutions, decrees, and declarations of the recently concluded Second Vatican Council met with 350 foremost Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish theologians to study the meaning of the council’s final statements. Simultaneous translation of major addresses into French and German (by United Nations translators) was provided for European scholars.

The tone of the conference was that of the “open door” Catholicism that emerged triumphant (but not triumphalistic) at the council.

The council’s most important document was Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, and the conference used nearly two days and several of the best theologians to discuss its eight chapters.

Canon Charles Moeller, recently appointed undersecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office), said council fathers had refused to identify the institutional Catholic Church with the Mystical Body of Christ. Two words repeatedly described as the most important in the whole document define the Church as a society that “subsists in” rather than “is” the Roman Catholic Church. This subtlety makes possible the full-fledged entry of Catholicism into the mainstream of the ecumenical movement, an entry that was clearly evident at Notre Dame.

Catholic Boom, Protestant Spasm

While Vatican II produces a “theological boom” for Roman Catholics, Protestantism enters a theological slump, in the view of Dr. Albert C. Outler, a Methodist leader at the Notre Dame theological conference.

In the “aftermath of a time of titans,” he said, Protestants have the “death of God hullabaloo,” which is “a noisy spasm of theological colic.” Outler also suggested Protestants have reached the end of sola scriptura as their authority. The Church, he said, has become the matrix of truth as well as redemption.

Marked proof of the tremendous variety within Catholicism today emerged in discussion of the people of God and the hierarchical structures of the Church. The well-known French Dominican Yves Congar stressed the recovery of a more dynamic view of the Church as the elect people of God and gradual elimination of a view with juridical overtones. In contrast, Bishop Carlo Colombo of Italy provoked widespread reaction with his somewhat wooden, traditional exposition of the hierarchical offices of priest, bishop, and pope as relatively independent from the people of God.

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Youthful Lutheran George A. Lindbeck, a Yale professor, criticized “irresponsible use of Scripture” in treatment of episcopacy and primacy and of the Virgin Mary. He said there were better Catholic ways of discussing many Vatican Council topics.

Among the most moving and “Protestant” papers were one on the laity by Congar and one on holiness in the Church by Bernard Häring. German Redemptorist who is a visiting professor of theology at Brown University. Vatican II has been called the council of the laity because it clearly emphasized that the laity as the people of God is, above all, the Church. “I am not saying this because I am speaking in the United States,” Congar said. “I am saying it because it is true.”

The open revolt against legalism is a dominant characteristic of the young American Catholic today. Häring said holiness stems from the Holy Spirit, who delivers men from a false legalism and allows a “dangerous” variety of charismatic gifts: a legalistic stress on ascetic self-perfection is less dangerous only because it is “close to the graveyard.” Several theologians protested that it is hard for laymen to appreciate such an emphasis on love, grace, and the Holy Spirit when they are regularly confronted with a whole battery of laws.

The conference frequently echoed the clash between traditional Greek philosophical categories and a revival of biblical categories, as in the debate over static dogmatic absolutes and the relativism of history and sociology, and over the opposition of an ascetic otherworldliness to a “passionate devotion to this world.” Secularization was welcomed as a great opportunity for Christianity rather than a threat. The Syllabus of Errors mentality of Pius IX is clearly a thing of the past.

On revelation, the Abbot of Downside, Christopher Butler, said it is a combination of word and deed. Similarly, Passionist Father Barnabas Ahern said that “the I-and-Thou dialogue of living faith … means more than merely intellectual assent to doctrinal truth.” Insisting on the “truly historical value of the saving realities of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection,” he also said “the history of Jesus, like salvation history in the Old Testament, differs from history in the modern sense of the word.”

He described biblical faith as “the people of God responding to his voice with the self-committal of living faith,” and he proposed “soteriological inerrancy” to avoid defining biblical inerrancy in a merely negative way.

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Dr. Paul Minear of Yale made a deep impression by pleading for a concept of divine revelation and inerrancy that stressed more “the life-giving act of God” than the “objectified concept.” Minear’s “Protestant view” of the revelation schema referred to the “intricate complex of problems” centering in what he called the “quadrilateral” of revelation, Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium.

Minear criticized Vatican II for encouraging “an accent on the words rather than the life-giving fellowship with God on the ‘deposit’ of Jesus’ teaching rather than the living presence of the Crucified Lord.” His questions focused on what one listener called the danger of “creedless spirituality.” Minear replied he would reject both the Scylla of non-verbal spirituality and the Charybdis of highly verbal dogmatics, but his suggestion that “faith conveys its own certitude and is not based on a prior certainty” seemed not to eliminate a non-verbal spirituality.

The man responsible for much of the work on Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Rev. Godfrey Diekmann of the Benedictine Major Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota, discussed possibilities for joint celebration of the Eucharist with non-Catholic Christians. Although Diekmann maintains that the sacrament is a sign of unity achieved, several other Roman Catholics said that in the New Testament it is also a means of achieving united public declaration of a shared faith. Diekmann replied that central questions of the visibility of the Church and ecclesiastical orders also are crucially involved.

A full house greeted the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S. J., of Woodstock (Maryland) College, as he discussed the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Seeming tired and worn out from his years of work and suffering for this cause, Murray lamented that the church took a step forward that had long ago been taken by the rest of the civilized world. In a press conference, he said the next step will be freedom within the church, especially for priests whose vows of obedience have been abused by the hierarchy.

German Jesuit Karl Rahner, probably the most widely respected Roman theologian, spoke of the impact that “a pluralistic, scientific, technically-oriented society” will make on future Christian theology. Unless the Church wants to become a “historical relic of the sociological past,” Rahner said, it must formulate a theology of atheism, a Christology that embraces all humanity, and an ecclesiology that “aims at union and not at a more and more subtle justification of the separation of the churches.”

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The conference concluded with an analysis of the impact of Vatican II on the theologies of various Christian traditions. The Rev. John Meyendorff of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary gave a speech that bristled with the hurt of nine centuries of separation, but was also able to conclude that “Vatican II has begun a new era.”

The Notre Dame conference brought together the greatest “constellation of theologians” America has ever seen. To confront the modern world, Roman Catholicism unquestionably has let in the fresh air of biblical thought. At the same time it feels the impact of historical relativism. If it does not do so already, Catholicism will soon contain almost as broad a spectrum of theological outlook as Protestantism. The result for the ecumenical movement will clearly be increasing cooperation and perhaps even union.

Conference Sidelights

Anglican Bishop John Robinson dropped in on Notre Dame’s big theological conclave last month. The controversial churchman had no official part on the program but made an unscheduled appearance and brought a brief greeting.

The conference itself got under way with the announcement that Notre Dame plans to establish a new graduate school of theology and a new institute for advanced religious studies.

The conference was held in the university’s newly opened Center for Continuing Education, built with a grant of $1,543,000 from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Twenty top religious scholars were awarded honorary doctorates in a special ceremony.

Bishop Robinson Veers

In a panel confrontation with American theologians at Wabash College last month, Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson yawed and rolled on several facets of his “new theology.” Robinson indicated he has now abandoned the term “ground of being” as too subject to misunderstanding. He said he believes in supernaturalism after all (although he still proceeded to define this largely in terms of Tillich’s antisupernatural transcendence!).

On the panel with the controversial English bishop, author of the best-selling Honest to God, were Professor J. V. Langmead Casserly of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary; Professor David H. Kelsey of Yale Divinity School; Editor Carl F. H. Henry of CHRISTIANITY TODAY; and Professor Martin E. Marty of Chicago Divinity School, moderator.

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“It would be helpful if you would define supernaturalism the way other people do,” Dr. Langmead Casserly counseled Robinson. In another appearance on the Crawfordsville, Indiana, campus, Robinson said he is not committed to Tillich’s ontology: “on the whole I’m veering away from it.”

Henry expressed “great relief” that Robinson now avoids the “ground of being” formulation, and asked whether in abandoning this notion the bishop “now returns to the supernatural, self-revealed God of the Bible, or has some other alternative to offer as the object of Christian worship.”

In a luncheon with Episcopal clergymen, Bishop Robinson said that while he considers the “death of God” phenomenon “a bubble that will soon burst,” he thinks “this is the kind of protest we should listen to.” But he said Altizer’s view is “heretical, and difficult to square with anything I find in the New Testament.”

The bishop was less ambivalent when he turned from theology to interpret ecumenical trends in Britain. Ecumenical conversations are in the last phase before intercommunion between Anglicans and Methodists, he reported.

The method of union is still debatable, Robinson said, and none will be perfect. Enthusiasm has now passed from “top ecumaniacs” to the level of the pew, hastened by the conviction that “if we don’t live together we shall hang separately.”

“There’s going to be a hell of a row from a lot of people if things get held up,” he said.

Robinson stressed the “remarkable change from a generation ago when two sides existed in the Church of England, one looking hopefully toward Roman Catholics and the other toward Protestants.” With the exception of Baptists, he said, there is “a real chance of further merger in Britain in the next generation and a new open front toward the Roman Catholics.”

Asked about Anglican “establishment” in England, he remarked that “establishment is a bastion we should not batter against, but sooner or later it will fall.” Robinson added that he does not want to see “disestablishment for its own sake” and “dreads the Church of England becoming a sect,” but thinks a strategic stance similar to that of the Church of Scotland would not be unwelcome.

The “new development,” Robinson reported, is that “for the first time the real opposition to union is being led by the low church rather than the high church,” with evangelicals in the ecumenical movement and conservatives in the free churches standing together against episcopacy.

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“This won’t stop it going through,” he said, and “it won’t seriously split the Church of England, but it may leave divisions in its wake.”

Robinson was highly critical of the reading habits of his fellow British clergymen. “On the whole the clergy of the Church of England do not read, and have not read since they left theological college, and are dying on their feet.” He conceded, however, that “some real dialogue” is going on.

Robinson expressed real doubt that the “new Reformation” will be “born in song or whether we shall be a ‘hymnsinging generation’ at all. We are in a transient culture, and we shouldn’t expect new hymns to last for a century. It will be enough if they last for a few years.”

American theologians generally found Robinson disappointingly ambivalent and evasive of “long term” responses, and his continuing failure to state his criterion of religious truth raised the question whether, as Langmead Casserly put it, “the Bishop had done his homework.”

But Robinson replayed his now routine remarks: “So much of our God-language has become irrelevant to the deep chords of our spirit that we must strive to make these words become resonant again with depth of meaning.”


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