Almost as soon as Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convoke a general council which would be oriented toward Christian reunion, Catholic theologians in Europe began discussing among themselves, and with their Protestant colleagues, how the coming council could contribute to that goal. As a result of these discussions several books have already been published, embodying not simply the opinions of individuals but the fruits of co-operative study.
None of these books, in my judgment, is more worthy of attention than Hans Kung's The Council, Reform and Reunion. The author, a young Swiss priest who teaches at Tubingen in Germany, is thoroughly familiar with the points at issue in the current dialogue with Protestantism. The key to reunion, as he sees it, lies in a renovation of the Church according to the gospel. Such a renewal, he points out, is not simply a matter of good administration or moral effort; it must be a supernatural work done in obedience to Christ, the Lord of the Church.
The opening chapters of this book, which treat of the necessity and possibility of reform, present the author's ideas on worldliness and sin in the Church. In his emphasis on these distressing facts, Kung seems to minimize unduly the effects of grace. Notwithstanding her constant need for purification, tbe Church remains at all times a great and manifest sign of holiness and beneficence.
The later chapters, in which the author discusses concrete measures that might be adopted by the Second Vatican Council, will be the most avidly read. In all probability the council will center its attention on the nature of the episcopal office, thus complementing the work of the First Vatican Council, which concentrated on papal primacy.
But what authority can be given to bishops which they do not presently exercise? As Kung points out, the modern diocese is not, and cannot suitably he made, an autonomous unit. But he thinks that the authority of national and continental bishops' conferences ought to be strengthened. In this way the Church's proclamation of the gospel, her liturgy and her discipline could be adapted to the needs of various peoples. Other reforms, touching on the Mass, the breviary, marriage courts, prohibition of books, etc., could be most suitably effected by regional authorities of this kind rather than by the Holy See. Many of Kung's recommendations, such as those regarding the vernacular in the liturgy, the Index and married deacons, have often been voiced before.
Ruthlessly frank, Kung protests sharply against various current practices in the Church: the Vatican bureaucracy, the predominance of Italian bishops (290, as against Germany's 26), "Marian maximalism" and superstition in popular devotions. It is well that such criticisms should be voiced, for they represent the responsible judgment of not only a significant portion of Catholics but also the overwhelming majority of non-Catholics.
Kung's recommendations for decentralization, while deserving serious consideration, are not free from difficulties. Many would fear that the diffusion of power for which the author pleads might result in a multiplication of laws, which he would deplore. Roman centralization, whatever its defects, has at least held in check the tendency of lower authorities to introduce too many local laws and usages. It has also assured that the needs of the universal Church should prevail over any particular interests. In the rapidly shrinking world of our day, centralization is daily becoming more feasible, and perhaps also more imperative.
Kung seems to address himself primarily to the bishops and theologians making plans for the coming council. But he writes with such verve and clarity that his work will reach a far wider audience. Even if it makes little impact on the council, this book will have a great and salutary influence on the way in which many readers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, look on the contemporary situation of the Church and the prospects for reunion.
The translation is accurate and highly idiomatic. But one regrets that the footnotes had to be relegated to the ends of chapters and that a disproportionate number of foreign names and references have been mangled by the printer.