Karl Barth and Vatican II

By the Rev. Mark Michael

“Deep theological engagement that’s not too politically correct” was the stated goal for an international group of Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians who gathered Sept. 22-24 at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. “Ad Limina Apostolorum: Vatican II and the Future of Protestant-Catholic Ecumenism” commemorated 20th-century theologian Karl Barth’s visit to the Vatican in the immediate aftermath of the groundbreaking council.

Conference organizer Bruce McCormack of Princeton Theological Seminary said Barth arrived by train at Rome’s Termini Station 50 years ago, and the conference represented a “continuation of that discussion.”

The conference continued a series of exchanges between Princeton’s Center for Barth Studies, which McCormack leads, and the Dominican House’s Thomistic Institute. McCormack recently taught a class on the theologies of Barth and Thomas Aquinas with the Rev. Thomas Joseph White, OP of the Thomastic Institute.

“The goal is to have a deep theological engagement that’s not too politically correct that allows Catholics and Protestants to really speak their differences and engage with each other constructively without hiding from those differences, and also in a friendly spirit to feed each other as brothers and sisters baptized in Christ and to seek some grounds for common unity,” White said. “Ecumenism needs to take confessional heritage seriously and not to run from it or obscure it.”

Barth published Ad Limina Apostolorum: An Appraisal of Vatican II (John Knox Press, 1968; Wipf and Stock, 2016) as a record of the meeting. The book contained the appreciative but probing questions he had posed to senior clerics about the council’s documents.

The conference’s 12 speakers considered themes related to five of Vatican II’s most significant documents:

  • Dei verbum (on divine revelation)
  • Lumen gentium (on the church)
  • Nostrae aetate (on the church’s relationship with non-Christian religions)
  • Gaudium et spes (on the church in the modern world)
  • Unitatis redintegratio (on ecumenism)

A Protestant and a Roman Catholic theologian responded to each document. The Thomistic Institute has posted the conference’s sessions through Soundcloud.

Some lecturers engaged at length with Barth’s critique. Christoph Schwöbel of the University of Tübingen outlined the ways in which Barth disagreed with the council fathers about Christ’s mode of the presence in the Church. Those differences have strong implications for their divergent understandings of sacraments and the ordained ministry. The Rev. Richard Schenk, OP, of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt praised Barth’s questions about the council’s interpretation of earlier Church history as “accurate, loyal, and irenic,” a guide to continued ecumenical engagement.

By contrast, the two speakers who considered Dei verbum, Lewis Ayres of Durham University and the Rev. Katherine Sonderegger of Virginia Theological Seminary, developed relatively minor and neglected parts of the document in the light of Barth’s concerns. Ayres focused his attention on the document’s short chapter on tradition, highlighting its sacramental character and the need for critical discernment when it is used as a source of revelation. Sonderegger’s lecture, “Holy Scripture as Mirror of God,” focused on Dei verbum’s use of this single scriptural image as a way to affirm the Bible’s dual character as authoritative and a fully human instrument.

Many of the conference’s Protestant speakers engaged with Barthian thought as well as the theological vision of Vatican II to address areas of mutual concern. Princeton Theological Seminary’s John Bowlin examined the engagement with natural law in Gaudium et Spes and a Presbyterian Confession shaped by Barthian theology to chart an account of human dignity that avoids the pitfalls of secular rights language. McCormack’s lecture drew on Barth’s thought and Roman Catholic teaching about interfaith dialogue to probe whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Many of the Roman Catholic speakers used their lectures to make points about the contested interpretations of Vatican II within their church. White said Barth was particularly helpful for Roman Catholics in the way he “problematizes certain readings of Vatican II that could be overly utopian or insufficiently sensitive to the healthy Augustinian pessimism that comes out of the Western tradition.”

Duke Divinity School’s Reinhard Hütter began his lecture by joking: “I am not an ecumenist or the son of an ecumenist.” He focused on justifying the council’s ecumenism decree as a legitimate development of Roman Catholic doctrine according to John Henry Newman’s seven tests as a safeguard against those who saw its teaching primarily in terms of “rupture” with past patterns and emphases.

Protestants at the conference objected that presentations on Martin Luther and George Lindbeck engaged in caricatures.

The conference’s final lecture, offered by Reformed theologian Hans Boersma of Regent College on the council’s ecumenism decree, reflected a growing Protestant frustration. Boersma argued that despite its use of encouraging ecumenical language, the decree maintained that the Roman Catholic Church’s substantial unity was not impaired by its schism with Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

He said Roman Catholicism’s unchangeable doctrine left no real ground for compromise that would make any concession to Protestant claims: “It strains credulity that brothers and sisters in Christ who love and care for one another must either continue in their divided paths or accept that the uniquely Roman representations of certain doctrines are essential to Christian unity.”

Sonderegger, the conference’s only Anglican presenter, said she believed this kind of frank theological engagement could play a role in working toward church unity.

“The documents of Vatican II are wonderfully generative for talking about doctrine, for ethics, for public theology, for the relation of Scripture and tradition, for historical questions,” she said. “This conference showed how these documents are not only generative of all these questions but they have now entered into ecumenical dialogue, which I think is wonderfully rich for our own self-reflection as Anglicans.”

Barth, she said, had an exemplary desire “to work as a theologian of the whole church, to read as broadly as possible, to raise questions we need to hear and to do that in a way that fosters the discipleship of communions in their search to be faithful to Christ.”

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