The National Catholic Review

Ladislas Orsy is a sly fox. He is also a distinguished Jesuit who was in Rome throughout the Second Vatican Council and who has made it his life mission as both theologian and canonist to stay faithful to the council’s call to conversion. As he puts it in this new collection of essays written over the last 10 years, no one who has not undergone this process of conversion can appropriate the message of Vatican II. The language of conversion recalls that other distinguished Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, to whose influence Orsy pays lavish praise in the acknowledgments. The book is dedicated, no surprise, to the memory of John XXIII, the “pope who made you feel like a person.” But if these warning signs encourage anyone to dismiss Orsy’s new book as just another liberal call to follow the spirit rather than the letter of the council, it would be a big mistake to give in to the temptation.

Having been around a long time, Orsy practices the rituals and rhetoric of Roman debate exceedingly well and would have made a good diplomat. The insights he “proposes for debate,” he says, are “precious but fragile.” They are not the truth, but they are “attempts to reach the truth”—a fitting modesty that his intellectual adversaries might do well to emulate. In an extended exchange of essays on “definitive doctrine” with Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal, the only sparring partner actually named in the book, both Orsy and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dance around each other in compliments and qualifications enough to make those of us who would like the gloves to come off a bit impatient. But for my money, Orsy gets the better of this theological gavotte and remains more even-tempered. Like Congar before him, he wants change but practices patience.

Elegant courtesies or not, Orsy’s insights may be precious, but they are certainly not fragile. He raises many critically important questions in an irenic but forceful manner, some of them along fairly well-trodden paths, on the importance of the Trinitarian character of communion, the need to find ways for bishops to practice effective and not merely affective collegiality, and the importance of the authority of episcopal conferences.

As we might expect, however, it is when engaging canon law that Orsy is both most creative and most insistent. He scrutinizes the 1983 Code of Canon Law’s equation of the power of governance with jurisdiction, which he characterizes as an innovation with little or no justification in the tradition. Because this change in canon law is a merely disciplinary action, it can be changed, he argues, and he seems to think it should be changed. It was not the practice of the church in the past and it precludes, among other important issues, any serious role for laypeople in church leadership.

Then in several chapters he points out forcefully the distinction between doctrine and law-giving. The former is guaranteed the assistance of the Spirit to preserve doctrinal truth in the church, including infallibility. But law-giving is about prudence, and prudence is not guaranteed by the Spirit. In one especially trenchant chapter he takes on the current rules and procedures for the examination of doctrines (the process for investigating suspect opinion among theologians), concluding that they do not serve the cause of justice and adding that the penalty of automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) is an anachronism that should be abolished.

Finally, in two of the last three chapters he turns to the 1998 amendments to canon law promulgated in Ad Tuendam Fidem, which introduced a new category of teaching, “definitive doctrine,” which is to be held as irreformable, if not infallible. This, he says, demands study and reflection because although it is a novelty, it is one promulgated by the magisterium. But it raises a very serious question: “How can a point of teaching not guaranteed by the Spirit (as infallible definitions are) be irreformable?” It is this last and critical question that he debates at length with Cardinal Ratzinger in an exchange originally published in the German Jesuit monthly Stimmen der Zeit and available here in English for the first time.

Orsy will undoubtedly insist on the tentative nature of his insights. And, of course, all theological insight is open to change. Unlike “definitive doctrine,” at least according to Cardinal Ratzinger, it is not irreformable. Newman is often quoted and haunts every page of the text. But in some ways the great value of Receiving the Council is to be found less in its particular judgments on things and more in the spirit in which they are proposed. Theological debate of the kind Orsy practices is always a matter of reading between the lines. It is decorous, even precious, and hardly a contact sport; but it may be that if the Vatican is the dancing partner you want, then to get on its card you have to be willing to learn steps that might sometimes seem distinctly old-fashioned. Orsy, of course, is very adept at these steps and reading this book is an education in how to be indirectly direct.

Though Ladislas Orsy is now getting on in years, his insight and wisdom are as strong as ever; and we hope to cherish them for many years to come. But if, in the end, this collection turns out to be his last book, it is a fitting tribute to the man and his work, in which one phrase he quotes rings out loudly throughout: “in all things, charity.”

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., Professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His latest book is Church: Living Communion (Liturgical Press, 2009).