Renewal Within Tradition

Edited by Father Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering

Oxford University Press, $29.95 (paperback)

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Editor’s note: This is the second of three Register "book picks" on the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition is the most scholarly book of the Register’s Vatican II picks.


One of the hallmarks of Benedict XVI’s pontificate was his insistence on the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council through the lens he called "the hermeneutic of continuity." This means that, rather than seeing Vatican II as a "rupture and discontinuity" with the previous history of the Church, the Council should be seen as continuing and advancing that Tradition.

No more complete treatment of Pope Benedict’s hermeneutic in action can be found than in Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, edited by the renowned theologians Father Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering. Rather than simply asserting continuity in theory, the book addresses every document of the Council — the four constitutions, the nine decrees and the three declarations — demonstrating the essential link of each to Tradition.

The book begins with Pope Benedict posing and offering answers to the questions: "What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What in the acceptance of the Council was good, and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done?"

Thus, he lays out his vision of the two opposing interpretations or hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council. Benedict writes: "On the one hand, there is an interpretation I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of mass media and also one trend of modern theology. On the other hand, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject — Church — that the Lord has given to us. She is the subject that increases in time and develops yet remains the same, the one subject of the journeying people of God."

In their introduction, Lamb and Levering allow Benedict’s own words to set the tone for the rest of the book: "In contrast to [a] ‘liberal or conservative’ reading of Vatican II as a power struggle, then, the present volume seeks to make a modest contribution to what Pope Benedict XVI calls a hermeneutic of reform in continuity with the two millennial traditions of Catholic thought and wisdom."

Contributors to the volume are "dedicated to the renewal of Catholic theology in light of Vatican II." They include many eminent bishops and theologians, such as the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, Cardinal Francis George, Father Richard John Neuhaus (the late founder of First Things) and Dominican Father Romanus Cessario (senior editor of Magnificat). The key themes of the Council can be found especially in the two essays on each of the four constitutions of the Council, dealing with the Church, Revelation, Liturgy and the Church in the Modern World.

Of particular note is French Dominican Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole’s chapter on "The Universal Call to Holiness," which hits on a crucial topic within Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church: the call of each of us to be saints. Father La Soujeole writes: "Our religion is not a religion of heroes, but of saints, that is to say, humble men and women who, each day, allow themselves to be loved by Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, walk — slowly or quickly … toward the destination of hope … God himself" (52).

Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand Vatican II more deeply. The hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity that Pope Benedict opposed seemed to have won the day in the decades after the Council. Vatican II was seen incorrectly as an innovating departure from Catholic Tradition and more akin to a revolution than a genuine reform.

Despite this misunderstanding, the popes since Vatican II have consistently pointed out the Council’s continuity with Tradition. And this book comes at a crucial moment of renewal in the Church and bolsters the proper understanding of the Council.

It should be noted that the book is a work of scholarship. This does not mean that it is inaccessible, but, rather, that the reader should be prepared for a serious and careful read. The effort will be rewarded with a thoroughly illuminating and instructive presentation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

R. Jared Staudt writes from

Denver. He is an assistant professor of theology

and catechesis at the Augustine Institute.