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  • A Gordian Knot
  • Richard Schenk O.P.

From Plutarch's defense of Alexander1 down to Leibniz2 and Sartre, there has long been a well-founded disdain for the "abrupt, rather barbaric fashion of cutting Gordian knots rather than trying to untie them."3 To untangle the dogwood fibers of the famous knot that had immobilized the wagon dedicated to God and had been left in front of the royal residence at Gordium would require, we are told, first identifying where the fibers begin and to where they all lead, which is not at all evident even to a persistent outside observer. The Christian theology of non-Christian religions before and after the Second Vatican Council is a paradigm of such a Gordian knot. In his new study, Vatican II: Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Gavin D'Costa has succeeded in unravelling many, but by no means all, of the threads preventing a well-reasoned advance in the Catholic theology of religions.

D'Costa begins with a convincing critique of those who would cut Vatican II itself in two by their allowing as normative only texts in continuity or only texts in discontinuity with pre-conciliar theological or magisterial teachings. Somewhat less lucidly, D'Costa identifies [End Page 301] three (actually four) general misinterpretations of the Council that fail in one way or another to be genuinely synthetic:

1. Those who, while claiming to be historical, emphasize the discontinuity or even rupture at the Council and embrace it alone are D'Costa's type 1, although he might well have noted that the decision to respect only one side of the historically established diversity within the conciliar agreements is—to use D'Costa's terms—not historically but theologically motivated.4

2. Those who bewail that the Council (or its post-conciliar papal reception) did not change enough in the timely fashion needed to be of use today are D'Costa's "type 4," the type he did not elaborate further, despite the fact that some of the loudest voices calling for a new aggressive factionalism and a return to the active battle-lines of the 1960s and 1970s in theological and ecclesial institutions and for a well-orchestrated Vatican III (an acknowledgement of their disappointment in the real Vatican II and its reception) are arguably of this type5, which shares common ground with his type 1.

3. Those who, while considering themselves theological, claim that neither councils nor popes legitimately can change or introduce doctrines are D'Costa's "type 2," and those who say that the Council acknowledged this fact (and thus merely reformulated established positions for pastoral purposes) are a subset, "type 2a." [End Page 302]

4. Finally, those who complain that the Council did not acknowledge this, making the Council and its papal development non-normative at best, or even illegitimate, form the subset "type 2b."

D'Costa is most convincing on the principles of his interpretation when he aligns himself with a "hermeneutic of reform" that he labels his "type 3" as the only sensible direction of interpretative strategies, an intentional synthesis of moments of continuity and discontinuity somewhat along the lines of Pope Benedict XVI's suggestions in 2005 for a hermeneutic of reform in reading and developing the conciliar documents. Unlike Benedict and his best readers, including Cardinal Kurt Koch,6 D'Costa identifies an interpretative strategy that sees in the Council merely a synthesis between doctrinal continuity and non-doctrinal, cultural-contextual discontinuity: "This type argue(s) that there is doctrinal continuity, and many forms of discontinuity—but never regarding authoritative doctrinal teachings. These discontinuous elements are related to the reform of the Church, or the Church operating in new contexts and conditions" (D'Costa, 17). But this sounds closer to D'Costa's type 2a. His intention in portraying it as the all-too-faint beginning of a genuine alternative seems to be his understandable insistence on excluding the possibility of licit contradictions at the more profound levels of genuine expressions of faith, even while—with Ratzinger/Benedict and Koch—openly insisting on the necessity of true doctrinal development...


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pp. 301-307
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