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Book Reviews


Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II

Norwood, Donald W. Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015) xxi+263. $35.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Marjorie Corbman (February 02, 2016)



In Reforming Rome, Norwood offers a valuable contribution to existing research on the relationship between Barthian theology and movements for reform within the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, exemplified best by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). While other recent works on this theme have focused on the nuances of the theological conversations (and divergences) between Barth and Catholic figures, most notably Benjamin Dahlke in Karl Barth, Catholic Renewal and Vatican II (2012) and the contributors to Bruce L. McCormack’s and Thomas Joseph White, OP’s Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (2013), Norwood gives special attention to the context of the ecumenical movement as a framework for interpreting Barth’s responses to the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Norwood, as a minister of the United Reformed Church who has himself been involved in ecumenical efforts, makes a compelling case for the enduring significance of the conversation between Barth and his Catholic contemporaries for the pursuit of church unity.

The book contains seven chapters: 1) “Why Rome? Why Reform? Why Barth?”, an argument for the continued importance of these three loci of the book for ecumenical dialogue; 2) “Reforming Rome: Continuing the Reformation,” a description of the necessity for continued “reform” in achieving church unity; 3) “Responding to Vatican II, Part 1,” an examination of Barth’s responses to two integral documents produced by the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) and Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church); 4) “Responding to Vatican II, Part 2,” a discussion of Barth’s understanding of Church authority, papal power, and the meaning and mission of the Christian community; 5) “Reforming or Converting Karl Barth: Roman Catholic Critics,” an overview of the varied Catholic critiques of Barth and Barthian approaches; 6) “Differences That Still Divide?”, a look towards the remaining points of division between church communities in light of the conversations of Barth and his Catholic colleagues; and 7) “The Rediscovery of Unity,” a call for Christians today to enact the act of solidarity, unity, respectful challenge, and “exchange of gifts” found in the event of interdenominational gathering in Vatican II.

Norwood describes himself as approaching the task of writing the book as a Protestant minister who had “fallen in love with the Council” through studying its documents, reading the reports of those who were present, and meeting those who attended its sessions (200). Norwood seems struck especially by the spontaneity and openness of the Council, springing evidently from Pope Saint John XXIII’s experience of prayer that allowed the Catholic Church to welcome so forthrightly the voices of its Protestant critics to its own process of discernment. One of the loudest of these voices, Norwood persuasively demonstrates, was Barth’s, though he was unable to attend the Council in person.

In examining Barth’s own responses to the Council, the influence Barthian theology likely had on some of the Council documents (especially on Dei Verbum), and correspondence between Barth and Catholic thinkers, Norwood establishes the importance of viewing Barth as a crucial conversation partner for the Catholic Church in the periods before, during, and following the Council. Norwood’s work is most convincing and gripping when illustrating the importance of Barth’s relationships with individual Catholic scholars, particularly in his descriptions of his friendship with both Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Küng, but also with most of the major figures of Catholic thought in the twentieth century, including Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI).

Cataloging with detail Barth’s dialogues with these Catholic scholars, all of whom apart from von Balthasar were present at the Vatican II sessions as periti (theological experts), Norwood depicts the middle of the twentieth century as a watershed moment in ecumenical dialogue and efforts due in part to the clear sense that emerged of the need for the Church to respond in a unified way to the unique moral challenges of the time. While in the centuries between the Reformation and the twentieth century (as Norwood cites Barth stating), Catholics and Protestants no longer spoke to but only about each other, the Second World War brought many Catholics and Protestants together into bonds of “common resistance to Hitler” (51).

In portraying the source of ecumenical progress as shared prayer, action, and “friendship” (50), Norwood gives texture to a more theoretical discussion of the common points and diverging positions of Reformed and Catholic theology. More importantly for Norwood’s purposes, the model of communal sharing and respect seen in the Council and the period in which it occurred serves as a necessary example for anyone concerned with church unity today. Before theological differences can be resolved, participants in dialogue must be willing to engage in what he, referencing the Catholic theologian Margaret O’Gara, terms “ecumenical gift exchange”—a practice of generosity and respect acknowledging that unfamiliar traditions have gifts to offer to one’s own (213-4).

It is this framework of “gift exchange” that guides Norwood’s most interesting argument, going beyond historical examination of Barth’s engagement with Vatican II to posit that the Second Vatican Council itself bore out Barth’s vision of the Church as an “event,” a gathering-together, even though this ecclesiological image was not emphasized in the Council documents themselves. While Vatican II largely presented the Church as an already-given entity (though its images of what that entity is, of course, radically departed from the previous near-total identification of the Church with its hierarchical institutional structure), the Council, Norwood says, was a Spirit-inspired event, an image of a “New Pentecost” that in itself complemented more static understandings of Christian community (74-5).

One of Barth’s “gifts” to the pursuit of church unity, Norwood shows, was an uncompromising commitment to the importance of the “ministry of the community,” not separated into categories of hierarchy and laity, but rather that of all called by Christ to the same tasks of praise, proclamation, healing, and prophetic action (109-111). Norwood relies on Timothy J. Gorringe’s Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (1999) to interpret Barth’s “rejection of all patterns of domination in the church” as connected with Barth’s larger project of opposing any unjust power (103-4). At the same time, Norwood demonstrates that Barth was willing to learn from Catholic examples (both contemporaneously and historically) about the power of the unified voice and action that comes with the more centralized authority of the Catholic Church. Barth’s Reformed skepticism of hierarchical power is not necessarily incompatible with respect for the Church as a unified body, but, rather, that both theological emphases have much to offer the other.

One of the repeated strands of Norwood’s book is a disappointed reflection on the lack of progress both ecumenically and within the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. A major aspect of this lack of progress highlighted by Norwood is the lack of resolution between claims of “papal primacy and episcopal collegiality” (218-219). It is a shame that this book was completed just as such significant change was beginning to occur on the Catholic front; it would have been fascinating to read Norwood’s application of Barth’s thought to Pope Francis’ recent movements towards decentralization and collegiality within the Catholic Church. Francis’ call in 2014 to those participating in the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to “speak with parrhesia [boldness] and listen with humility,” especially, seems to resonate with the same spirit of challenge and friendship Norwood values in Barth and his Catholic conversation partners.

Reforming Rome will be of interest to both Protestants and Catholics concerned with the pursuit of church unity. Written in an accessible (even pastoral) style, it will be helpful both for theologians and for interested general readership. The main weakness of the volume is a tendency for the author to repeat himself, circling around to many of the same points and citations, which can be distracting at times to the reader. However, on the whole this is a comprehensive, well-researched, and lovingly-written contribution to Barth studies as well as (more importantly) to reconciliation and understanding between Protestant and Catholic communities.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.