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  • Essence, Concept, or History:What Is at Stake in a Dispute over the COGD
  • Alberto Melloni (bio)

Since the beginning of the institute founded in Bologna by Giuseppe Dossetti1 in 1953 and directed by Giuseppe Alberigo for fifty years before the latter passed away in 2007, the history of councils was and is at the core of the institute’s research.2 This is not by chance. From the theological point of view of Dossetti, councils are the places for providing the long-awaited, profound renewal of Catholicism (according to the famous adage “in the Pope there is more authority, in the Council more grace”3). From the historical point of view of Alberigo, councils are the places where the reciprocated immanence between Christianity and history is more relevant: because they are instances of ecclesiastical life, not an abstract essence—and even less an essence derived from “a genuinely Catholic concept of the Church.” Places where the real development of ideas and passions, fears and tricks, bureaucracy and hopes become effective.

Editio critica

An edition of the councils was among the first projects of the Bologna institute. It was published in October 1962 with no less than Hubert Jedin4 [End Page 578] as consultant and a group of young scholars as editors, with the title Conciliorum œcumenicorum decreta. It was a piece of historical research that could have raised in scholars like Walter Brandmüller the same question that has troubled the cardinal since 2007, when the first volume of the revised and reshaped edition of that work was issued with the title Conciliorum œcumenicorum generaliumque decreta (COGD): what were the “criteria” adopted by the young and unknown scholars of councils, at that time working under Jedin’s auspices?5 How could they alter a “list” (which was a very fluid one, indeed) that originated with St. Robert Bellarmine and was transformed into a semi-doctrinal issue by those who, ignoring the depth and the meaning of a 2000-year debate, considered it as having deviated (if the language of Brandmüller may be used once again) from a “genuinely Catholic concept of the Church”?

What can be considered a reproach to the COD volume, which was received as a gift by John XXIII,6 can be imputed to the COGD program too: namely the new critical edition, edited with the concurrences of specialists [End Page 579] from all over the world by the foundation that is the last institutional form of Dossetti’s institute, published by Brepols in the Corpus Christianorum. The new COGD, which offers only the decisions or decrees of the councils in seven tomes,7 is in fact a work of the historian dealing with historical events that have a different status from time to time within each tradition and a different type of acknowledgment within different confessional borders; in the fluctuating variety of conceptions and receptions, however, they offer the evidence of the common conciliar engagement of the churches.8

Something before History

Walter Brandmüller’s position is different and respectable: he belongs to a school that considers the historian theologically blind and crippled—at least when dealing with councils; so only a confessional approach can tell him or her what is the object that the historian is entitled to “dissect” with critical tools. For Brandmüller’s essentialism, the COGD’s decision to follow the different traditions of the churches and the consensus doctorum is “anything but plausible”; and the historical criteria—to study and edit the conciliar history of the Churches “wie es eigentlich gewesen”—appears to him as a lack of criteria.

Other people, much more versed in theology, think exactly the opposite: the recent works of Christoph Théobald on the Second Vatican Council are good examples of how a fresh theological approach can benefit from historical study.9 Other historians, like John O’Malley, proved that a genuine historical approach is not a threat to the Church, when it helps the Church to revise the concepts that are offered by a “fixed” hermeneutic of what is presumed to be the unchangeable.10

On one point we all do agree: the COGD program, started by Alberigo as an...


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