In his article “The Risks of History” (May 3), George Dennis O’Brien unfortunately risks promoting the facile disjunction of “pastoral” and “doctrinal” that has bedeviled much of post–Vatican II theology and practice. Already in 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the council’s close, the Extraordinary Synod had cautioned: “It is not licit to separate the pastoral character from the doctrinal vigor of the documents.”

O’Brien contends that Vatican II was an “explicitly pastoral” council. True enough, if one also admits that it was an explicitly dogmatic council as well. Indeed, two of its four constitutions self-identify as “Dogmatic Constitutions”: one on the church (Lumen gentium) and one on divine revelation (Dei verbum).

Undergirding much of O’Brien’s analysis is the view of the distinguished church historian John O’Malley that “the council’s aim was not to declare doctrine, but to persuade.” But surely the theologian may rightfully press upon the historian the crucial question: Persuade about what? And I think the conciliar response is patent: to persuade about the Good News who is Jesus Christ, “the Light of the nations,” “the mediator and fullness of God’s revelatory Word.” The council’s prime aim, therefore, was and remains to evangelize, to proclaim and share its faith in and love of Jesus Christ.

Happily, O’Brien forthrightly confesses his faith that “Jesus lives on as the eternal host at the table of fellowship, as we acknowledge his real presence in bread and wine.” Had he pursued these promising insights, he would have found ample resources to transcend the specious opposition of pastoral and doctrinal. For absent this Christological and Eucharistic foundation, the church will only founder, both pastorally and theologically.

A not unimportant postscript: the dogmatic teaching that “Jesus Christ is truly man and truly God” stems from the Council of Chalcedon, not Nicaea (as the article asserts).

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli
Bronx, N.Y.



Fr. Imbelli largely bypasses the main issue in my article. Suppose Cardinal Parolin is correct and the church is undergoing a paradigm change. What exactly is a paradigm change? How might it affect church thought and practice? By ignoring the paradigm questions, Imbelli seems to end up with George Weigel: the Catholic Church doesn’t do paradigm shift.

In my article I cite John O’Malley’s short list of basic church categories: doctrine, theology, spirituality, and pastorality. Any description of the church would probably include at least these four factors. How are they related? O’Malley suggests that they are not independent. Vatican II “dissolved the boundaries separating them and restored them to a coherence...that they lost in the thirteenth century.” Rather than independent aspects of Catholic life, Vatican II affirmed their interdependence. A paradigm analysis would go one step further and claim that one or the other of the four is the basic governing principle. If one accepts the framework of a basic paradigm, my article suggests that Vatican II offered a “pastoral” paradigm to govern how we understand doctrine, prayer, and sacrament. Rather than doctrine determining pastoral strategy, building the beloved community tests the meaning of doctrine. There are other possible paradigm claims. One of most venerable is lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. If you can’t pray it, you can’t believe it.

Imbelli argues strenuously that Vatican II was as much a doctrinal council as a pastoral council. True enough. All councils are doctrinal in the sense that they proclaim a teaching even if—paradoxically—the doctrinal teaching is that doctrines are tested by their pastoral or prayerful efficacy.

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Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: View Contents
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