The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II

Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine

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Thomas G. Guarino
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The literature regarding the interpretation and reception of Vatican II is vast and ever-growing. In The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II, Thomas G. Guarino provides a welcome addition that focuses on unexplored issues, opens new avenues for conversation and research, and introduces readers to the essential work of Gérard Philips, one of the key members of Vatican II's theological commission whose work is not available in English.

Guarino takes seriously Pope Benedict XVI's famous contention that people should approach the council starting from a "hermeneutic of reform"—that is, recognizing that Vatican II was "a combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels" (21). Accordingly, the author explores the theological principles that lie behind the different conciliar texts to show that they contain genuine revisions of previous teachings without ever disrupting the material continuity of the deposit of faith.

Guarino begins the book by reflecting on Vincent of Lérin's distinction between profectus, an organic and homogenous progress that does not alter prior doctrinal achievements, and permutatio, the introduction of novelties that betray God's eternal self-revelation. Critics of Vatican II accuse it of advancing several corruptions of the faith, while the council fathers themselves conceived their work simply as an attempt to "speak the ancient Christian faith in an intelligible, ecumenical, and pastoral way" (35). Such an evolution in the language used to express unchanging doctrines and commitments is a well-documented practice in the Christian tradition and, according to Guarino, its admissibility is mostly recognized as uncontroversial. At the same time, though, the author emphasizes that scholars of the council need to be upfront about the change of theological approach and the reversal of some antecedent church teachings that happened at Vatican II. Guarino argues that the attempt to mask these transformations is one of main weaknesses of the conciliar documents and that recognizing them is the way to show that the council was a proper development of the Christian tradition, rather than an abandonment of doctrinal landmarks.

Regarding the council's theological approach, Guarino makes a compelling case that Vatican II's most significant shift was the move from a posture that emphasized Catholicism's distinctiveness over and against other Christian churches, religions, and contemporary society to one that focused on analogical and participatory thinking instead. Rather than condemning everything outside of the Catholic church as fraught with errors, "Vatican II took the more difficult but far more fruitful path of insisting on Catholicism's uniqueness even while acknowledging the strong links of truth and faith that bind Catholics to all others" (29). Guarino demonstrates that while the council decided to use existential and personalist language, the council fathers relied on the scholastic ideas of analogy and participation to develop teachings that would emphasize reciprocity, mutuality, and dialogue with others without in any way denying the distinctiveness of Catholicism. Vatican II's teachings about the laity's role, Mary's intercessory office, the connection between the Catholic church and other Christian churches, and the relationship with Judaism and world religions all employ analogical reasoning to shed light on different facets of revelation that previous theological formulations left unexplored.

The other important issue that Guarino tackles is the presence of revisions of previous magisterial teachings in some of the council's texts. Rather than denying that changes exist, the author describes them as "part of the process of development, wherein the church gradually reaches a conclusion that it judges to be more in harmony with the gospel" (129, emphasis original). According to Guarino, there are two reasons such reversals do not constitute corruptions of the faith. First, they were all rooted in the council's use of "ressourcement thinking" (64), which goes back to the sources of the Christian tradition—namely, scripture and the writings of the church fathers. Ressourcement allowed the council fathers to "develop, expand, and extend church teaching even while preserving earlier ecclesial affirmations" (64). Second, Guarino argues that "the reversal of ordinary teaching must be distinguished from the reversal of fundamental doctrinal landmarks" (131).

While the latter is always forbidden because it breaks the material continuity of the faith, the former is part of the church's life and of the normal development of its theological tradition. Referring to Karl Rahner and Francis A. Sullivan's work, Guarino draws a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary teachings of the church. Not every teaching of the magisterium is infallible, as there are different degrees of authority and certitude in what the church teaches. Therefore, the Catholic faithful owe religious assent to the church's ordinary teachings, but such formulations can be partial and narrow at times, and thus might need reform. On matters such as the relationship between the primacy of the pope and collegiality, the sources of revelation, and religious freedom, the council used ressourcement thinking to supplement and, in a few instances, supplant reformable church teachings.

Guarino's investigation of the analogical and participatory thinking implicit in the conciliar documents is outstanding and is one of the book's most significant achievements. Guarino's description of the role these principles play in some of Vatican II's most important teachings is excellent as well. Furthermore, the author is to be commended for pointing out the possible limits of and dangers connected to the council's heavy use of analogical reasoning and for carefully engaging with other interpreters of the council. Finally, Guarino also provides a clear and thorough exploration of ressourcement thinking's influence on the deliberations of Vatican II. Instead, what is missing is a more precise articulation of the criteria that theologians use to discriminate between ordinary and extraordinary magisterial teachings, especially given how much hinges on such distinction. The book is also a bit repetitive at times, as a few quotes from Vincent of Lérin, Pope John XXIII, Yves Congar, and Gérard Philips appear almost in every chapter, together with some of the author's same statements.

These are only minor flaws, though. The book distinguishes itself for its clarity, nuance, and charitable but firm engagement with alternative voices in the field. Guarino's work will be instrumental in undergraduate and graduate courses on Vatican II, and I would highly recommend it to all scholars interested in the council's reception and interpretation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alessandro Rovati is Department Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas G. Guarino is Professor of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, and co-chair of the initiative Evangelicals and Catholics Together.


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