The National Catholic Review

In his brief foreword to Ghislain Lafont’s Imagining the Catholic Church, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., calls attention to something that makes Lafont’s voice different from other voices speaking today about the church: Father Lafont does not think in words, sentences and paragraphs, but in centuries.

Although concerned with doctrine and tradition, Imagining the Catholic Church is not steeped in Vatican anxiety over orthodoxy. Although attentive to contemporary experiences and intellectual currents, it does not assume the tone of an academic argument. It neither highlights nor ignores the administrative concerns of bishops. It responds to but does not canonize the everyday experiences of pastoral agents. Above all, Lafont, a French Benedictine priest and theologian, reflects on the church from the silence of the monastery. He meditates on the long view. He thinks in centuries.

Lafont rightly gives primary attention to the most important ecclesial event of our age, the Second Vatican Council. But he does not simply analyze the conciliar documents or the dominant interpretations of the meaning or spirit of the council. The church cannot spin its self-understanding on the loom of reason alone. Hence, ecclesiology must not reduce access to the church’s essence to analysis, regardless of whether the analysis is patristic, medieval or modern, regardless of whether the starting point is church doctrine or contemporary experience. Ecclesiology, the disciplined effort to think about the church, needs to be rooted in memoryhistorical and sacramental memory.

Here, then, is Lafont’s first accomplishment. He remembers the church’s story, a story that spans the centuries. He thinks in centuries in order to construct an ecclesiology that views the future from the firm ground of memory. His second accomplishment follows directly from the first. Lafont imagines a new form of the church beginning from Vatican II, but without falling into either a Vatican II fundamentalism or a minimalizing interpretation that would disfigure the courageous vision of that great council.

Imagining the Catholic Church is divided into two main parts that correspond to these two accomplishments. Lafont devotes the first (and shorter) part to a diagnosis of the crisis presently facing the church, a crisis that involves not only the church but the whole of Western culture. In particular, he pays due attention to the end of the Constantinian era, with its penchant for neoplatonic and hierarchical forms of thought, and the end of modernity, with its secular confidence in progress and science. Lafont concludes that models of church based principally on hierarchy as well as alternative models derived from modernity cannot equip the Christian movement with the resources it needs to fruitfully engage the future. In this light, he poses his defining question: how will the Church for its part contribute to clearing the way for a new beginning?

Lafont’s provisional answer to this question unfolds in the second part of the book, Vatican II: Toward a New Form of the Church. Before directly examining the ecclesiology behind the conciliar documents, he recognizes the fact and the significance of the council’s shift from a predominantly propositional to a primarily narrative understanding of truth. From his nuanced investigation of this shift, the author moves to his constructive proposal with its emphasis on sacrament and Spirit. Lafont insists that the gift of the Spirit includes a capacity to perceive, at the heart of the Christian tradition and in its openness to the further developments of a culture, the necessary solution to any problems that might arise. In other words, we can say that doctrine is found in the act of giving witness and not vice versa, or that understanding is given in faith and action and not the opposite.

In subsequent chapters, Lafont addresses three crucial issues in systematic ecclesiology: the differences among various vocations to holiness; the church’s mission and forms of ministry; and the exercise of authority in the church. Lafont’s approach remains careful, measured and challenging to ideologically-driven interpretations of Vatican II. His courage and balance spring from a genuine faith in the Spirit-guided church. This allows him to argue, for example, that in areas like sexuality, family life, economics, politics and social justice, the voice of the laity must be given a certain priority. At the same time, this claim must not be pressed so as to deprive the ecclesiastical magisterium of its right to indicate the general lines that emerge directly from the Gospel and that have been reaffirmed again and again by Christian tradition. Above all, an ecclesial faith grounded in historical memory frees the church to respond to Vatican II with an aggressive rather than a defensive fidelity, to paraphrase Johann Baptist Metz. It allows and impels the whole church to recover the capacity to dream.

Imagining the Catholic Church first appeared in French in 1995. John Burkhard’s English translation now makes the book available to a wider audience in the United States. A serious essay in ecclesiology, it should not be approached as an easy read or an introduction to the church’s self-understanding. At the same time, this book satisfies and rewards the careful reader on a variety of levels. It is, therefore, an important resource not only for theologians and bishops, pastoral leaders and religious, but for anyone who, to borrow a poignant image from Etty Hillusum, is called to live as a thinking heart in our church.

Kevin F. Burke, S.J., is an associate professor of systematic theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.