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Kenneth L. WoodwardMarch 31, 2022

The Rev. Joseph Komonchak is widely acknowledged as the country’s leading ecclesiologist. An emeritus professor of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America, where he taught for 32 years, he is the English-language editor of the five-volume The History of Vatican II. But in the tradition of the luminous ecclesiologist John Henry Newman, Father Komonchak’s preferred form of writing is the essay.

A priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Father Komonchak was educated at its seminaries and at the Gregorian University in Rome and received his doctorate from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His focus on ecclesiology began by accident, not design. His first teaching assignment was to teach the subject to a class of first-year seminarians. In 2015, the Catholic Theological Society of America presented him with its highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award, for distinguished achievement in theology.

This interview took place at Father Komonchak’s home, a onetime chicken farm he shares with his brother, Andrew, and two large and insistently affectionate dogs in Bloomingburg, N.Y., not far from where he was born 82 years ago. His personal library is likely the largest in the village, which lacks a public library of its own. His most treasured possession: a complete set of Cardinal Newman’s essays, sermons and letters.

"There is no separate church called a universal church. There is a church which is Catholic and whose web of relationships—founded in faith, hope and charity—is worldwide."


Kenneth Woodward: Someone once said that it takes 50 years to implement an ecumenical council. It has been 56 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, yet it seems to me that Catholics are still fighting over how to interpret what the council did and meant.

Joseph Komonchak: Over the decades, we’ve had three basic interpretations. The progressive interpretation works within a “before the council/after the council” framework that gives bad marks to everything before the council and wonderful marks to everything after the council. Working with the same dichotomous framework, we’ve had traditionalists like [Archbishop Marcel] Lefebvre idealizing the church of Pius IX through Pius XII, with its rejection of modernity, and deploring what happened at the council and afterwards.

Is there a synthesis?

Well, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger [now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI] wanted to settle the interpretation question by proposing that the council be understood as providing reform within continuity: “Yes, there were differences, but that was the fault of the progressives who went too far, and of the media”—that sort of thing. I don’t agree with that either, because he is making what the council was dependent upon the intentions of some of the protagonists. I don’t think you can do that. So I wound up not agreeing with any one of the three interpretations.

So how do you interpret Vatican II?

I use three terms: experience, text and event. The experience is the set of incidents, encounters, initiatives and decisions that took place between the day that Pope John XXIII announced the council until the day that Paul VI brought it to an end. So experience is basically “what happened” at Vatican II.

I remember that the head of the American Catholic hierarchy at the time was Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit—Iron John, they called him when he was a seminary dean. A lot of us noticed a very, very different John Dearden who came out of the council from the John Dearden who went in. He himself said it was the greatest experience of his life. Are you limiting “experience” to the experience of the participants in the council?

No. I would also say part of the experience of the council was how it was observed, not only by the Protestant observers, but by how it was covered in The New York Times, Time or Newsweek or wherever else. Plus, the reaction of Catholics back home and all around the world while the council was going on was transformative in some way.

"How local churches and their bishops respond to Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality will give some indication of how ready we are for a Vatican III."

You cast a wide net. And what do you mean by “text”?

It’s simple. Text refers to the 16 documents that were produced in the course of those four sessions. They can be found in a moderately sized paperback book and provide a way, if somebody says to you that Vatican II taught such and such, that you can say, “All right, show me in the documents where it said that.” So in a sense they have a fixed nature, although they need to be interpreted.

And “event”?

“Event” points to the impact of the council, as seen in a large historical context. I don’t think there were many bishops at Vatican II who might be called revolutionaries; they certainly weren’t expecting revolution. They were in favor of some significant reforms, but the impact of the council on the church at large went far beyond what they could have predicted—and often enough went far beyond what they would have wanted to happen.

How so?

Like the collapse of the Catholic subculture—the Catholicism that you and I knew growing up. That disappeared very, very fast—within a decade and a half after Vatican II.

Or became vestigial.

Yes. As the French sociologist Émile Poulat said, the Catholic Church changed more in the 10 years after Vatican II than it had in the previous 100 years—which was true. You see it in the internal life of the church, in the way we worship, in the decline of devotions, in the decline of vocations and in any number of other changes, both positive and negative, that have taken place. So, the event points to the question of, “Why did it happen that what was intended to be a reform within continuity became, in so many places and in so many respects, revolutionary?” Say what you will about change within continuity, but that is manifestly not all that took place.

In a different vein, you have written this about Vatican II: “I think the council can be seen as the particular moment in which the Catholic Church became conscious of its responsibility for its own self-realization and eagerly accepted the challenge.” What do you mean by “self-realization”?

When John XXIII called the council, he gave it a task of self-reflection: first of all, for a spiritual renewal of the church; secondly, for the church to review its pastoral practices, its language, its relationships with others in order to be a more effective instrument of Christ in the world. On both accounts, you have a self-examination going on, the sort of thing that an individual might do on a serious retreat, saying, “I need to take stock of my life, what I’m doing, etc.” In effect, John XXIII was calling the Catholic Church to undertake at the council responsibility for who the church is and what the church is and what the church should be, what it should say, what it should do.

Well, that makes it sound less existential than the way it sounded to me when I read it.

The language gets some people nervous because if you read my ecclesiological essays, you will see that I am constantly insisting that you do not have a church without people—without, that is, the faith, hope and charity of the church’s members, who by God’s grace make the church come to be. In other words, there’s a human contribution. My emphasis is always that the church exists only in concrete communities of believers. And that means that we enter into the self-realization of the church.

"As the French sociologist Émile Poulat said, the Catholic Church changed more in the 10 years after Vatican II than it had in the previous 100 years."

In your essays, you work less with images or models of the church than with theological descriptions like this one: “All that exists and could be called the church, at least on earth, is a community of sinners gathered out of their alienation and division by the Gospel and grace of reconciliation, struggling to be faithful to those gifts.” Yet at Mass, Catholics recite a creed which says, “I believe in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church.” In what sense can the church of sinners be called holy?

It is holy by virtue of the gifts of God, the holy word of God, the holy grace of God, in faith, hope and charity. These are all gifts of God. It is holy also in holy people. You have the Gospel, you have the sacraments, you have the Eucharist, etc.; all of those are holy gifts. That wonderfully ambiguous phrase, “the communion of saints,” the “communio sanctorum,” can mean either a fellowship or community in the holy gifts of God, or it can mean fellowship with the holy people of God. Because “sanctorum” can be either masculine plural [in Latin, meaning “holy people”], or neuter plural [ “holy things”].

St. Augustine loved to quote two texts that are relevant here. One is from 1 John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And the other one is what the church prays every day: “Forgive us our debts.” So we have debts to be forgiven every day. The day that we are going to be a church without spot or wrinkle, as Ephesians says, will come only at the end.

Well, how important are churches and ecclesiastical structures and communities?

I certainly believe, as Vatican II stated, that there are non-Catholic Christians who enjoy the grace of God—who are in the state of grace and holy people. The council stated that “the fullness of the means of salvation”—that is, beliefs, sacraments, structures, ministries—can be found only in the Catholic Church. It’s on the level of the aids to salvation that the difference lies.

But on Judgment Day, what’s going to be most important is whether we are living in the grace of God, whether we are leading generous and holy lives. And the council said that Catholics will be judged more severely because of the aids they were blessed with.

In another essay, you warn against twin dangers: abstracting the church from history, as if it lived outside of time, and reifying the church as if it were to be identified with the hierarchy, especially with the pope and his Curia in Rome. Are these still dangers, or have we muted them?

Oh, no, they’re still dangerous. I wrote that only five years ago or so. The language issue especially bothers me, using the word church to refer to the hierarchy or the clergy. The secular media regularly does, especially when reporting on the sex abuse scandal. But you see it in church media, too.

Later on, you propose thinking of the various forms that assemblies of Christians take—parishes, dioceses, synods and so forth—as “concrete universals.” What do you mean by that term?

I mean this: I think the Catholic Church as a totality exists concretely in local churches. There is no separate church called a universal church. There is a church which is Catholic and whose web of relationships—founded in faith, hope and charity—is worldwide. So in that respect it is universal, but it is also very concrete. It consists of all of these people.

You’ve been concerned with developing a theology of the local church. You argue that catholicity—lower case—is not simply variety or diversity—James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody”—but “a whole that interrelates and integrates”: two verbs. Then you go on to observe that “particular cultures make a community a local church, but it is the word and grace of God, received in faith, hope and love, that make a community a local church.” I like that, but how does that differ from the ecclesiology of, say, the congregationalist churches?

The congregationalist churches, at least in the American experience, tend to be jealously independent.

Baptist congregations even more so.

Whereas our congregations have a powerful sense of their communion with other congregations in a worldwide fellowship. And this includes structures of ministry: a ministry of unity within a local community, and then a ministry of unity among the communities of communities—the bishop—and then there is a universal minister of unity, the bishop of Rome.

"In some respects 'Gaudium et Spes' is dated. If you look at the kinds of problems it addresses, the perspectives of, let’s say, Latin America, hardly enter into it."

I was thinking just of the papacy, Rome as a ministry of unity. But you’re saying that on every level of the church, there’s a ministry of unity. That might have also been what the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler was pointing to when at the close of Vatican II, where he was an observer, he said: “Ken, deep down, we Protestants distrust the structures we’ve created, whereas for Catholics, Holy Mother the Church is always, dammit, Holy-Mother-the-Church.” Meaning, however much Catholics might criticize church structures—“This diocese is inactive, the bishops are all wrong, the pope and the curia are evil”—there is still a basic trust that the structures are valid and will always be there.

And that they always have been there, yes. But I think we Catholics could use a good dose of congregationalism! [The French Catholic theologian] Louis Bouyer said that after the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost, St. Peter didn’t rush off to Rome to establish a bureaucracy. And that the church was, in fact, local communities replicating themselves when people went out from them and founded new communities. Bouyer used the metaphor of “cutting and grafting” to describe it.

Didn’t Vatican II address the relationship between the local church and the church universal?

Yes. In “Lumen Gentium,” it says the Catholic Church exists “in and from local churches.” So the so-called universal church exists—and I would say also functions—only in and from local churches, by which the council fathers meant dioceses. So the universal church is a communion of diocesan communities. And you could argue that a diocese is a communion of parochial communities, parishes.

In all these definitions and conversations so far about the local church, you haven’t included the sharing of the Eucharistic meal.

That is interesting, because 30 years ago somebody else pointed that out to me and I thought I had repaired it. I agree with a statement attributed to the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac: “The church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the church.”

Vatican II inspired the development of indigenous liturgies as a way of anchoring the church more deeply in the local church and its culture, especially in Africa and Asia. How well has that worked out, in your judgment?

When I first started working on the theology of the local church, I tended to make local culture the chief feature that would define the local character of a local church. But then a couple of experiences made me rethink that assumption. The first one occurred when I was brought in as an outside expert to the theological advisory committee of the Asian Bishops’ Conference. We were talking about local cultures when a priest from Singapore spoke up and said: “I can’t relate to all of this because Singapore does not have a single culture. Singapore has several cultures, some of them existing side by side, some of them in various kinds of interrelationships. So what you are saying here is that there is a single culture in which the church would embody itself. But in Singapore, that doesn’t work.”

And the second?

The other experience was seeing a photograph of a bishop blessing bodies during the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. If there’s one thing that that poor country did not need, it was a church that was more Hutu or more Tutsi. It needed a church in which the differences between those two cultural traditions were transcended—transcended in the knowledge of the blessings brought to us by Christ.

So I moved from thinking that local culture is what makes a church local to realizing that the key that determines a church’s local character is historical. What is the historical moment? And what is the challenge that needs to be met by these people who are existing right here and now? In the midst of what historical challenge are people making the decision of faith?

That’s a major change.

You can’t abstract the local church from the historical moment. So if you are asked today, “What is the great challenge of the contemporary moment that the church has to address?,” your first question must be: “Where are you talking about? Who are you talking about?” Because we have one set of challenges here in the United States, and the people in Mali have others.

How can the local church play an integrative role, as you say it should, in this overheated political moment in our history? It seems the only option for pastors is not to mention political issues at all.

Or to preach on it, and to preach on the divisiveness, and to call people to start listening to one another and talking to one another. That would be a responsibility on the part of a pastor.

Does Joe Komonchak do that on Sundays?

I have done it, but it’s difficult because you do have people for whom political commitments are more important than their faith commitment. When I preached on biblical texts on welcoming the stranger and the immigrant, I was berated for bringing politics into the pulpit by speaking against Trump.

The challenge is to get people talking to one another. You have to ask them to do a self-examination, to ask: “Do you even listen to the other side? Can you listen to the other side without disdain?” And I personally find it very difficult to do that myself.

This is an appropriate moment to go back to “Gaudium et Spes” [the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”]. What did that highly consequential document mean by “the modern world,” and what were the chief characteristics of that world? It seems to me that beginning with the events of 1968, here and in Europe, the modern world as the council fathers imagined it changed rapidly and dramatically, at least in the West. Do these changes make “Gaudium et Spes” outdated in that regard?

Well, I would say that the modern world in the horizon of the chief protagonists at Vatican II largely meant the world of the industrialized democracies of the North Atlantic—Western Europe and the United States—and outposts like Australia. The future John Paul II [Archbishop Karol Wojtyla] at a certain point in the council pointed out that there were at least two modern worlds, the world of the North Atlantic and the world of Eastern Europe, the world under Communist domination. And then other people began saying, “No, there’s a third world,” located basically in the Southern Hemisphere.

Yes, but those views all seem very dated.

In some respects “Gaudium et Spes” is dated. If you look at the kinds of problems it addresses, the perspectives of, let’s say, Latin America, hardly enter into it. So that was an important point that Wojtyla wanted to make, but it didn’t have a tremendous amount of influence on “Gaudium et Spes.” Still, that document is a serious analysis of modernity, and I don’t believe in post-modernity. I think we are still in the middle of modernity.

"The first stage of the synodal path is for the bishops to do a kind of sounding out of their people. But I don’t know of many bishops who have taken that seriously."

How so?

I think of modernity as the result of a set of transformations, embedded in the social, political, economic and technological revolutions that have occurred since the French Revolution—including the cultural one that relativizes everything so that there is no master narrative. We may accept that there is no master narrative; but if I look at the engines that transformed traditional society into modern society, most of them are still powerful, especially in science and technology. That’s why I don’t think the reign of modernity is over.

Throughout your ecclesiology, you emphasize the importance of the laity. You write that “lay Christians in particular cannot be solely passive beneficiaries but are protagonists of the church’s social doctrines at the vital moment of its implementation.” If that is so, what defense can be made of Catholic politicians who support and advance abortion rights, which is so clearly contrary to the social teachings of the church since at least the second century? (Editor's note: An essay in America on this topic by Kenneth Woodward is available here.)

The people who are threatening Catholic politicians with denying them Communion are often ignoring the complexity of political existence and ignoring what St. Thomas Aquinas taught, that the closer you come to the concrete moral situation, the less certain you can be.

Can you spell that out?

I would say that a Catholic ought to believe that abortion, at least at a certain stage, is the taking of a human life. That’s one moral judgment. Another is whether that moral judgment should be implemented in secular law. The third is: Is this the secular law that should be implemented?

Also, it’s one thing to ask those questions when a majority of people are Catholic, another when Catholics are a minority. So all of those questions come in, and the farther down you come to the actual question of “this bill in Congress,” the more room there is for disagreement. And so I don’t think that that judgment is clear enough to be imposing canonical sanctions.

Pope Francis has called for a church-wide process called synodality. What do you understand by that word?

It’s a term that has come to the fore in the last 10 years or so. Right after the council, the equivalent term would have been “co-responsibility.”

Co-responsibility—I haven’t heard that term in half a century.

It means that we are all responsible together for what the church is or becomes. All the members of the church have a role to play in determining what the church is and what the church says and what the church does. Right after the council there was some effort to create institutional forms of co-responsibility, like parish and diocesan councils, but they have been allowed to atrophy.

How many parishes in the United States have parish councils? And do they have anything to do? How many diocesan councils have ever been asked to consider anything really serious? Even the bishops’ conferences have had their competencies restricted.

"I think one of the important things is to give more competencies to local episcopal conferences to make decisions."

But we have had several synods of bishops—I covered some of them in Rome.

For the first 15 or so years after the council, the Synod of Bishops appeared to be a genuine instrument for exercising co-responsibility. For example, the Synod of Bishops in 1971 put out an important statement, “Justice in the World,” and later there was a good one on evangelization. But eventually the synods changed character, and the choice of theme was always made by Rome. Maybe there was some consultation with some bishops, but if so, we never heard about it.

Secondly, there really was no debate among members. You wrote your speech, I wrote my speech; I gave mine, you gave yours. My speech didn’t necessarily have anything to do with your speech. So there was no real conversation. The only conversation happened when the bishops broke into smaller groups.

But they reported back from those small groups.

Yes. But finally they were told what they could and could not recommend to the pope. It was understood going in that it was an advisory body, but certain topics were simply taken off the agenda: “You cannot discuss that, you cannot recommend this.” What value does an advisory body have if it is told what it may and may not advise?

Why was this done?

Because they didn’t want to put the pope in the position of having to say “no” to a synod. They didn’t want to embarrass him. To make a recommendation to the pope publicly is to pressure him, and you can’t be seen as pressuring the pope—he should be absolutely free. Eventually the Synod of Bishops became a kind of privy council, so it too has atrophied. So all of those instruments for a genuine co-responsibility on the level of the entire church—of the parish, of the diocese, etc.—have been allowed to disappear.

What about the regional conferences of bishops? Africa? Asia? These seem to be more substantive.

Yes, they seem to have retained a certain amount of independence and authority. But I can’t speak very confidently about that. I have to say that under Pope Francis, despite all the talk about synodality, I haven’t seen noticeable improvements in the structure and functioning of the synods. After all, there are bureaucracies in Rome on the left as well as the right wanting to perpetuate themselves.

From what I’ve read of the German experience, the “Synodal Path” gives me pause. That is partly because I don’t see in it any way to sound out lay Catholics apart from those deeply committed to one cause or another. Recent polls show that two-thirds of American Catholics were unaware that Pope Francis had further curtailed the celebration of the Tridentine Mass—a reflection of the fact that most Catholics have little idea of what’s going on inside the church. So who is going to be selected to represent “the church”? Movement types? Special interest groups? The same two dozen people in every parish who are really involved in it?

The first stage of the synodal path is for the bishops to do a kind of sounding out of their people. But I don’t know of many bishops who have taken that seriously. But let’s say the local bishop were to send out a questionnaire on 25 topics, asking what you think the church should do or say about this or that or these things. You’re going to have the splits: You’re going to have EWTN Catholics and you’re going to have The National Catholic Reporter Catholics. So whom and what do you choose?

But apart from a survey, how do you sound out the laity?

You might be able to do it if you divided your diocese into deaneries and asked each parish to elect some people to go to a larger meeting and then discuss it and have opportunities for input. But that needs to be prepared in advance. As long as it gives people the opportunity to speak up, you can say, “Well, you didn’t take advantage of it.”

Any other recommendations?

I also think one of the important things is to give more competencies to local episcopal conferences to make decisions. You don’t need to have a worldwide regulation on everything, and you should give more opportunities for local bishops to make decisions. And that too has been very much restricted. It took something like eight years for two or three Roman dicasteries to decide whether or not girls could be altar servers. And then they passed a regulation that is supposed to apply everywhere from Alaska to Zululand!

Pope Francis has said this synodal process is not a democracy, this is not vox populi. He wants to listen for the will of the Holy Spirit in these things. I remember covering two conferences once in the same week. One was a woman-church meeting in Canada, with liturgies for the onset of menopause and after an abortion, etc. The other was a Pentecostal group, Women Aglow. You could not find two more different groups; they both invoked the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit gave two totally different responses. So I don’t know of a pedagogy by which a group can discern the will of the Holy Spirit—do you?

I think rather often the Holy Spirit is invoked as an excuse for a lack of reasons for, or a refusal to provide reasons for your position.

Final question. At the German synod, we heard, as we’ve often heard in the past, a call for a Third Vatican Council. Given all the work you’ve done on Vatican II, do you think the church is ready for Vatican III?

Councils don’t just fall down from heaven. They have to be prepared, theologically and spiritually—not to mention that a future council would be meeting in a world, or worlds, quite different from the one Vatican II addressed. How local churches and their bishops respond to Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality will give some indication of how ready we are for a Vatican III. 

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