Book Reviews – January 2024

Ecclesial Exegesis: A Synthesis of Ancient and Modern Approaches to Scripture. By Gregory Vall. Reviewed by D. Malachi Walker. (skip to review)

God’s Call is Everywhere: A Global Analysis of Contemporary Religious Vocations for Women. By Patricia Wittberg, Mary L. Gautier, Gemma Simmonds, with Nathalie Becquart. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

To the Ends of the Earth. By Mark McCann. Reviewed by Aaron Martin. (skip to review)

Confession of a Catholic Worker: Our Current Moment of Christian Witness. By Larry S. Chapp. Reviewed by K.E. Colombini. (skip to review)

Models of the Church. By Avery Cardinal Dulles. Reviewed by Aaron Salvan. (skip to review)

Ecclesial Exegesis – Gregory Vall

Vall, Gregory. Ecclesial Exegesis: A Synthesis of Ancient and Modern Approaches to Scripture. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2022. 362 pages.

Reviewed by D. Malachi Walker.

Ecclesial Exegesis, written by Gregory Vall (Department Chair and Professor of Sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in Louisiana), acts as a development of a “Method C” exegesis. In 1988 Joseph Ratzinger gave his famous “Erasmus lecture,” in which he called for a “Method C” exegesis. While “Method A,” the exegesis of the church fathers and medievals, has much to offer and is very fruitful, it is imperfect. “Method B,” modern exegesis, offers fruitful exegesis, but is also very imperfect. Ratzinger’s original proposal was to combine both ancient and modern methods of criticism and interpretation in such a way as to incorporate the positives of what both sides have to offer, and to leave behind what is problematic. This new method is called “Method C.” Although Ratzinger’s recommendation has hardly been implemented to date, Vall’s Ecclesial Exegesis stands as a formidable way forward, and will offer help to both teacher and student.

Vall’s book is mainly “exegetical-inductive” (14). His first chapter, “Psalm 22: A Case Study in Method C,” acts as a summation of his book. In it he draws the lineaments of early church and medieval exegesis of Psalm 22 (23–27), followed by modern methods (27–30). Ancient interpretations of Psalm 22 focus on its connection to Jesus, specifically his death on the cross to the point that some denied its original context (24). Modern methods, in a desire to see Old Testament texts in their original context and milieu, are quick to see the psalm as a prayer of lament within the “anawim” piety of Exilic and Post-Exilic Israel. Unfortunately, modern methods are also quick to sever the relationship between Jesus and Psalm 22 (30). Vall’s contention is that Psalm 22 does have both an original context and a fulfillment in the person of Christ (33–40). Jesus prayed Psalm 22 on the cross not only as a devout Israelite, but as the one who brings the “anawim” piety to its culmination and perfection through his own enactment of the passion. Thus, Psalm 22 does not act as a mouthpiece for Christ, stripped of its historical context. God gradually revealed himself throughout history, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection fulfilled and completed God’s revelation in the Old Testament.

Most chapters (apart from chapter 3 and 6, which are more theoretical) are well-grounded attempts to exegetically discover this synthesis between ancient and modern methods. Chapter 2, “Yahweh’s Repentance and the Immutability of the Divine Will,” discusses how the doctrine of the immutability of God’s both illumines and is illuminated by Old Testament presentations of God as sometimes changing his mind or repenting of actions (43–71). The difficulties lie both on the dogmatic level (i.e., in comparison with the catholic formulation of the divine will) and the intra-canonical level because passages such as Num 23:19 states that God does not repent (44). Vall goes through Gen 6:5–6, Ex 32–34, and 1 Sam 15 in order to show that God both remains steadfast to his promises and foreshadows his eventual and definitive treatment of sin (71).

Chapter 3 (“Two Trajectories in the Reception of Dei Verbum”) discuss how to correctly implement the Vatican II document on divine revelation in the life of the church (73-120). Some scholars have hailed Dei Verbum as a blank check for modern methods of biblical criticism and are wary of any return to interpretations found in the church fathers, an approach which Vall dubs the “Brown-Fitzmyer” trajectory, after its two leading proponents, Fr. Raymond Brown and Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer (74–75). Vall contrasts this approach with what he calls the Ratzinger-Benedict trajectory, which holds that “the historical-critical method must be taken up into a new hermeneutical synthesis” in order to be faithful to Vatican II (75). Vall then goes on to elaborate how these two trajectories have developed from the 1960s to the present day.

Vall’s book, unsurprisingly, deals extensively with the Old Testament, although chapters 8 and 9 (“Psalms and Christ Event in the Epistle to the Hebrews” and “The Goods of Grace and Glory: Filial Adoption in Romans 8,” respectively) focus on the New Testament. Ecclesial Exegesis helps to propel the conversation forward about correct interpretation of scripture given the wide gap between those who uncritically adopt modern methods of criticism and those who stay within the realm of the church fathers.

Unfortunately, it is not often that one can find the work of biblical scholars to be spiritually fruitful. Vall, however, has successfully engaged with a variety of interpreters in a way that hits the mark for Vatican II’s vision of how to do solid biblical exegesis in a thoroughly prayerful and spiritually rewarding way. His ability to both appreciate and critique all forms of criticism is a very important strength, and one of the best aspects of his book.

For those who are dissatisfied with the current dichotomy found in biblical studies between a Method A exegesis and a Method B, this book will find an important place in one’s library. One should not expect this book to solve all exegetical problems, especially because of its inductive approach. But one will find several examples of an increasingly precise approach to Method C exegesis: an exegesis that is faithful both to the church in its ecclesial context and to the data given through modern and ancient methods.

D. Malachi Walker was born and raised in Nashville, TN. He received his Bachelor of Arts from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH and his Master of Arts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Jerusalem, Israel. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.

God’s Call is Everywhere – Patricia Wittberg, Mary L. Gautier, Gemma Simmonds

Patricia Wittberg, Mary L. Gautier, Gemma Simmonds, with Nathalie Becquart. God’s Call is Everywhere: A Global Analysis of Contemporary Religious Vocations for Women. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2023. 222 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

There were a total of 608, 958 women religious around the world in 2021, which represents a 1.7% percent decrease from the prior year and is consistent with a gradual decrease from the zenith of religious life in the 1970s (viii–ix). To place this figure in greater perspective, there were a total of 407, 872 priests (both diocesan and religious) at the same point in time, which represents a 0.57% drop over the previous year. The downtick of women religious is markedly starker in the United States, where 83% of religious members were over the age of 70 and only 4% were younger than the age of 49 in 2019 (14). Most religious institutes in the United States report that they have had no new entrants within the past 15 years and, for those religious institutes that have had entrants, the initial formation period retention rate ranges from about 50% to 80% (13). These sobering statistics are all the more surprising knowing that the highest percentage of Catholic females is found in North America (53%).1 Rather than settling for a pessimistic perspective or moribund mentality, the authors of this book focus on the glimmers of fresh life that continue to emerge. They maintain that while the number of new entrants “may be small, the quality is perhaps stronger than ever” (xiv). The authors examine qualitative data and quantitative information from new members, congregational leaders, and vocation recruiters in selected countries around the world to answer the question of whether women are still feeling the call to religious life and what can be done to increase member numbers and to enhance the quality of religious life.

This eye-opening work is essentially a meta-analysis of extant national studies in a total of ten countries. The questions posed and the methodologies employed varied from country to country. Nevertheless, the approaches were sufficiently similar to allow for fruitful comparison and meaningful insights. The book is divided into two main sections: the global North (namely, Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States from 2000 to 2017) and the global South (namely, Mexico, India, and Kenya from 2009 to 2017). A limitation is the lopsided focus on the global North. Even within treatment of the global North, there are loud absences in terms of countries excluded from consideration. For instance, Italy is the country with the largest number of religious women and Poland is among the most Catholic of countries in Europe percentagewise. The inclusion of data from places such as Italy and Poland would have benefitted the analysis of women religious in the global North. Similarly, Brazil is the country with the most Catholics in the world but is not part of the book. The only African country is Kenya, even though the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest number of Catholics.2 India is included, but the Philippines — the country with the most Catholics in Asia — is left out. In a certain sense, the subtitle of the book is a misnomer. Instead of “global,” a more accurate term might be “multinational.”

Throughout each chapter, the question of whether women are still being called to religious life is answered with a resounding “Yes.” More than 80% of the respondents from every country cite that they were attracted “very much” to religious life as a response to a call from God (20). The new members are also universally attracted to living life in a religious community, although the respondents also acknowledge the attendant challenges of living communally in shared space (203). The problematic aspects of living communally are exacerbated by significant age gaps between the new, younger sisters and the more experienced, older sisters. Younger sisters must learn to limit or remove social media from their life, assume an attitude of docility and obedience, and in some countries, including Mexico and Kenya, learn fluency in the English language over their mother tongue; older sisters must adjust to the experience of greater diversity.

In terms of initial exposure and recruitment, items that did not help prospective entrants discern include newspaper or magazine articles, CDs, and DVDs. Sisters said that spiritual direction, retreats, visits to communities or live-in experiences were the most beneficial for discernment (23). Young women are now prioritizing in-person, live events over virtual, recorded, or in-print media. In India, for example, sisters are providing space for the youth to get involved in parish activities, and are known for communicating effectively with youth via Whatsapp group and YouTube videos (162 and 163).

The research on Kenya underscores the economic and social inequalities experienced by women in country: of the 407 new entrants into religious life of the entrance class of 2017, 52% completed high school or less (172), they have an average of 9 siblings (171), 98% answered that their mother was Catholic at the time they entered religious life (169), and 89% said “very much” that what attracted them to the Church was a desire to be of service. These statistics are in stark contrast to the American new entrants. In 2019, the new American sisters responded that 91% were raised Catholic, at least 8 in 10 had some postsecondary education before entering and many had careers, and more than 75% said they were attracted to religious life by their desire for prayer and spiritual growth.

The chapter about Mexico, once a stronghold of Catholic culture, focuses on the negative media portrayal the church has had in the country in recent years, including women religious who are portrayed as “walled away” (208). Interestingly, positive fictionalized accounts are overly idealistic and also pose an obstacle to entering and remaining in religious life because expectations are unrealistically high. The book states that in Mexico, “the consecrated way of life is now perceived as socially alien” (140). According to a Latinobarometro survey, the percentage of women in Mexico who consider themselves “very devout” are 7.1% for ages 15–25, 8.9% for ages 26–40 and ages 41–60, and 10.3% for ages 60+. The percentage of women who consider themselves “not devout” at all are 11.8% for ages 15–25, 15.8% for ages 26–40, 11.7% for ages 41–60 and 6% for ages 61+ (142). In short, young women are less likely to consider religious life as a vocational option because they are less devout.

According to research done by Falco, Hernandez, and Lyva in 2021, the average age of women in Mexican religious congregations is 62 years old (143). Of those surveyed, 27% of institutes reported that more than half of their members are 50+. 7% of the sisters are age 30 or younger and 20% are age 80 or older.

The statistics and data reiterate the same theme throughout each chapter and universally in each country: in the face of ebbing interest, formators and vocation ministers must meet and interact with young people, as well as sisters of all generational cohorts, so that “their attitudes, routines, and customs” may not be an insurmountable barrier “to attracting the next generation of young women to religious life, or to retaining any who do enter” (209). “It is incumbent upon religious institutes today to engage in mutual dialogue with enquirers and new entrants” (210), living out tradition and charism, but also adapting and changing appropriately with the times.

In the face of such tectonic shifts in society and religious communities, it would be natural to ask “why join?” According to new entrants who took such a countercultural risk, the main attractions religious life offers are: spirituality, mission, prayer life, and community life (177). It is also easier to recognize the factors that cause women not to join: not knowing that religious life exists, the institute’s age gap between current members and those discerning, inadequate formation programs, and the discerners’ fear of firm commitment, unresolved immaturity, family resistance, or mental health issues. In the U.S., there are also difficulties with immigration and student loan debt from college. To ameliorate some of these obstacles, the book suggests — among other strategies — having a full-time vocation director and the possibility of inter-congregational novitiates for women who hear and heed the call to religious life.

What makes this book such an important and timely read is that women of the Church around the world recognize that there is a serious challenge with fostering vocations to religious life, and they are making others aware of the issue and are offering remedies in a positive and constructive way. In addition to numerical data, the book uses direct quotes from interviews and surveys from new members so that readers can listen and understand first-hand from the women who commit themselves to living this lifestyle characterized by poverty, chastity, and obedience for the sake of building up the Church. This book is recommended principally but not exclusively for “every member of a religious institute, particularly for congregational leaders and those responsible for formation programs, because it provides important materials for personal and communal reflection” (vii). The book conveys a treasure-trove of information, but it would have benefitted from a wider scope of countries studied and a concluding chapter on Pope Francis’ recent (2018) legislation Vultum Dei Quarere and its implementing instruction Cor Orans, which made some important changes to the formation of new entrants — in particular, extending the formation period (for better or worse). Although this book is not a bundle of uplifting news, it does offer an honest and accurate appraisal of the situation, which allows for well-informed planning and effective recruitment strategies. The authors strike a nice balance between numerical data and transcripts of semi-structured interviews, which results in an easily digestible text and offers a well-rounded appreciation for the reality on the ground in convents in several countries around the globe.

Christopher Siuzdak serves as Book Review Editor for the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, in addition to other roles and responsibilities.

To the Ends of the Earth – Mark McCann

McCann, Mark C. To the Ends of the Earth. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2019. 4 vols. 620 pages.

Reviewed by Aaron Martin.

For several years, I gathered with a group of men in the months leading up to Easter to participate in the Exodus 90 program. What started as small gatherings of men who wanted a “long Lent,” full of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity, has morphed into a global movement. It now includes men’s groups and women’s groups, and has extended beyond Lent to encompass the entire Church year.

Exodus 90 tapped into something often missing from such programs for men. Men like structure. Men perform better when they are encouraged and held accountable by others. Men want to have a challenge they need to meet. Exodus 90 met those needs by focusing on spiritual growth, physical challenge, and community. Mark McCann’s four-volume set of devotions for men accomplishes a similar goal. To the Ends of the Earth provides 40 weeks of devotions, discussion topics, and individual exercises that are ideal for a men’s group or for individual reflection.

McCann divides the books into four themes: Character, Witness, Action, and Legacy. Each theme is further divided into 10 study topics. These themes speak to what is integral to being a man and how we build a solid foundation for a distinctly male spirituality. First we develop a foundation of character rooted in Christ, which allows us to act virtuously in the world, and to be a witness for Christ to others through our words and actions. Finally, the deep and abiding union with Jesus that develops is the legacy we leave for our family, community, and the Church that, we hope, extends far beyond our lifetimes.

Each daily meditation is structured with a passage from Scripture, a brief reflection, a question for personal reflection, and a Scripture verse to keep in mind throughout the day. These meditations — probably a 15-minute exercise — help structure your entire day and provide common language and themes for group discussions. Those optional group discussions have additional questions dedicated to the group meeting, and there is an additional option for individual journaling.

Some people think that a deep spiritual life is the result of a massive conversion, a mountaintop experience, or specific divine insight. Such experiences may be the beginning of a spiritual life, but mountaintop experiences are not sustainable. Rather, a deep spiritual life must be cultivated and worked at daily. Brief periods of prayer and reflection add up and, over time, bear great fruit. McCann’s series of short meditations underscores that reality and focuses on the daily routine of short period of prayer. It is easy for a man to fit 15 minutes of structured prayer even into an already busy routine. Everything is laid out; it just takes some effort.

And the result is worth the effort. Men have something to offer their families and the world. McCann seeks to awaken men to this God-given call. He also wants men to appreciate the unique gifts they bring to the table in developing a deeper spiritual life, and gives them a structure and method to follow. The program provides men with the tools needed to produce well-formed men who boldly step into action for the Church and their families. Wherever a man is in his spiritual journey, he will find something useful in these pages.

Aaron Martin, JD, PhL, and his wife, Jenny, live in Phoenix, AZ with their four children. Aaron owns his own law practice and serves in various ways in the Diocese of Phoenix.

Confession of a Catholic Worker – Larry S. Chapp

Chapp, Larry S. Confession of a Catholic Worker: Our Current Moment of Christian Witness. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2023. 223 pages.

Reviewed by K.E. Colombini.

Perhaps the highest compliment one can make about this book is that it is the sort readers would want to read with a pencil. Marking up a good book is one of the best ways to retain its content mentally, and Dr. Larry Chapp’s book is deep in insight.

His primary argument is that we live in a time where we are called to Christian witness, as the subtitle states, and he focuses on an idea coined by the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, using the German term Ernstfall. In short, as he defines it, “the Ernstfall is a conscious choice, for or against Christ, in a moment of existential and eschatological crisis that will make it plain to us what it is we are choosing.”

Volumes have been written about the significant moral crisis facing the world today, a crisis which seems to be expanding extraordinarily each year. It is interesting to note that Balthasar saw this and talked about the Ernstfall back in 1966, in his book The Moment of Christian Witness. We’ve had nearly a half century of Ernstfall.

As a German word, it more closely approximates “emergency”; Im Ernstfall in German means, “in case of emergency,” for example. The word is a typical Teutonic compound for “serious situation.” In my German-English dictionary, it is ironic that the word also comes out in English as “actual life.”

If we are in such a crisis, Chapp is clear about whom we can count on to muddle things up even more. The Church has become professionalized and clericalized to such an extent that the laity languish. He pulls no punches here, nor in his opposition to both Catholic extremes, traditionalist and progressives alike. Although he saves more disdain for the latter, he has no patience for “hypertraditionalists” who “freeze-frame postmedieval Catholicism” and have no appreciation for the solid work of Balthasar and his colleagues.

Balthasar is half the story, however; the book’s main title hints at another great personality, one from the Catholic Worker movement Chapp has embraced — no, not that one, but Peter Maurin. While much has been written of Dorothy Day, it is Maurin who has Chapp’s deepest respect. He begins by quoting one of Maurin’s “Easy Essay” poems from the Catholic Worker newspaper.

If the Catholic Church
is not today
the dominant social force,
it is because Catholic scholars
have taken the dynamite
of the Church,
have wrapped it up
in nice phraseology,
placed it in a hermetic container
and sat on the lid.

What does this sound like? Just recently, Bishop Robert Barron, whom Chapp also respects, caught criticism in the National Catholic Reporter for alleging (rightfully) that his generation got a “dumbed down” Catholicism and it has been a pastoral disaster. The National Catholic Reporter, by the way, once ran an opinion article opposed to canonization for Dorothy Day. Chapp takes Day’s famous quip — “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily” — and stresses the opposite. She wanted to be much more than what moderns think of saints. She and Maurin both understood the universal call to holiness long before Vatican II discovered it, he notes.

In Maurin, Chapp found something he did not see in Day, and it is an ideal shared by many to this day, the value of simply rural life. “The system of the modern world is doubly oppressive insofar as it not only destroys every traditional agrarian culture it meets but also suffocates the ability to imagine that things could be otherwise.”

Get and read this important book. Don’t forget to grab a pencil or highlighter. And if parts make you uncomfortable, all the better.

A former journalist, St. Louis-based writer K.E. Colombini has been published in First ThingsNational Catholic Register, the American Conservative and elsewhere.

Models of the Church – Avery Cardinal Dulles

Dulles, Avery. Models of the Church. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978. 216 pages.

Reviewed by Aaron Jason Salvan.

The question of how the Church ought to be envisioned was revisited particularly following the Second Vatican Council and its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. In the aftermath of its release, differing images of the Church were drawn from either the text of the document itself or its supposed spirit. It became apparent that the pyramidal, hierarchical model with the Pope at the top, the clergy in the middle, and the laity at the bottom, so triumphantly favored by the Church following its ascent to prominence, could no longer be adequate or sustainable in the modern world.

Avery Cardinal Dulles in Models of the Church enumerates and discusses the different models of the Church that he identifies in the aftermath of the Council.3 In identifying different models and exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each, Dulles shows the necessity of the interplay that must occur within the models. One model alone could not suffice for the mystery of the Church that he seeks to describe.

In this review, I explore Dulles’ methodology prior to enumerating the models that he describes. The revisiting of Dulles’ near-classical text of ecclesiology finds new significance in light of the present-day discussion about the synodal character of the Church. A brief excursus on the subject will thus be offered toward the end of this paper.

As Dulles explores in his methodological chapter, it is not sufficient to present the Church as a monolith. As has already been mentioned, the top-down hierarchical model is not one that encompasses the entirety of the reality of the Church. In looking at the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium,4 one finds that there are several images of the Church. These images are drawn heavily and primarily from salvation history. The privileged image, however, is that of the Church as “the people of God.”5 Indeed, the entire second chapter is written under this heading. As there are numerous images that the document presents so too does Dulles enumerate various models that come from within the Catholic Church and her separated brethren. In doing so, Dulles’ presentation of models, instead of a model, acknowledges the vastness of the mystery of the Church.

Dulles is taking inspiration here from the use of models in other disciplines, such as the physical and social sciences (27). The use of a model implies that, while the particular model may not comprehensively explain the object of study at hand, it does allow for the object to be studied in a limited but fruitful way. A truth about the object of study comes through because of the use of the model. It is useful to apply this to the study of the Church because it allows the observer to look into a chosen facet of the Church. From this, the study can then proceed so as to determine the consequences and ramifications of a particular model (29). Since a particular model can only demonstrate one particular facet of the Church, then it would be inadequate to insist on only one particular model. Dulles warns his readers of this in saying, “We must recognize that our own favorite paradigms, however excellent, do not solve all questions. Much harm is done by imperialistically seeking to impose some one model as the definitive one” (36).

It is to be noted that Dulles is enumerating and describing models of the Church based on existing scholarship. He is not necessarily proposing the models themselves, but is describing and categorizing what may already be existing writings on the Church. In such cases, his contribution is his work in placing these different works within a particular category or model. In doing so, there is the possibility of juxtaposing similar views and placing them under a broader category. One may speak of his work then as a systematic review of ecclesiological scholarship. This is what makes his work particularly important for he surveys a variety of works, presents them succinctly, then compares them effectively.

Dulles lists the following models of the Church: institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, servant, and, in an updated edition of his work, community of disciples. The institutional model traces its roots in the late Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation and held significant influence up until the 1950s (45–47). While its top-down structuring gives the appearance of an imposing monolithic society — indeed, even a perfect society — such a model obscures the real difficulties of living in an imperfect society with members who bear the wages of original sin. Its failure can be seen in attitudes that led to the clerical sex abuse scandals in instances when the welfare of the institution was placed above the wellbeing of suffering individuals. While the institutional model may be accused of worldliness, the model of the Church of mystical communion places the emphasis on its divine origin and destination. It draws inspiration from biblical images of the “people of God” and emphasizes their gathering as the work of the Holy Spirit (59). In this way, the Church is seen beyond the institutional borders for it recognizes the work of grace beyond such borders. On the other hand, the model of the Church as sacrament is able to hold the first two models together. As a sacrament, the visible reality of the Church expresses her interior in which grace operates (70–73). In this way, the earthly and heavenly are given their respective importance.

Dulles also describes the model of the Church as herald in which the proclamation of the Word, especially of the kerygma, takes a privileged position (81–93). This model is particularly in force in Protestant communities who emphasize the preaching of the Word. One criticism about it, however, is its tendency to neglect action in the building up of the earthly society (92). Another model, that of the Church as servant, fills this gap by drawing attention to the role of the Church “in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” (106). Here, the Church takes an active role in the development of the world and the betterment of the human condition, especially the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized. This, however, may devolve into purely human action. The Church cannot be reduced to another non-governmental organization.

Finally, in a later edition of the work, Dulles adds the discipleship model. It recognizes the diversity of persons in the Church of the New Testament with each disciple contributing to the community as one who walked with Jesus, spread his image and awaits his return in glory (200–201). It emphasizes both the importance of the community and the individual disciple’s role within it. This image has a strong scriptural foundation and has a particular openness to the experience of the individual believer. Nonetheless, Dulles again emphasizes that this “is only one perspective on the Church” (213). Indeed, the models have to be understood in relationship with the other models. It is only in this way that the Church’s self-understanding can deepen.

Dulles’ work on the models of the Church is worth revisiting especially now during the process of the Church’s Synod on Synodality. As this paper was being written, the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops released two documents: a “Letter to the People of God” and the Synthesis Report of the assembly. In brief, the Synthesis Report describes synodality thus: “Synodality can be understood as the walk of Christians with Christ toward the Kingdom, together with all humanity . . . Its orientation is towards mission, and its practice involves gathering in assembly at each level of ecclesial life.”6 This greater participation was evident in the drafting of the document with the participation of “non-bishops,” such as priests, religious, and laity. While it is no secret that Councils have always made use of periti or experts who are not necessarily bishops, they were not part of the voting process, which is reserved to bishops. Hence, this may well be the first General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in which the synthesis report was voted on by non-bishops. Further, it is one in which the vote of a bishop carries the same weight as any other participant in the assembly. This particular instance is an example of a departure from the institutional model of the Church that Dulles describes. At the same time, it could be taken to be an actualization of the model of the Church as a community of disciples. Dulles, says, the “community of disciples, however, has the advantages of being closer to our experience and of suggesting directions for appropriate renewal” (213). The synodal model, as it is being elucidated, places great value on human experience and accompaniment. Indeed, the Synthesis Report calls for exploring means for change to make the accompaniment possible.

In a community of disciples, the shepherds must make decisions. What does governance look like in a synodal Church? If a greater participation of the faithful is desired at all levels, then it could result in a multiplicity of advisors in several advisory bodies at different levels. When a decision needs to be made and enacted, however, it must be done by a particular person. Ultimately, this may lead to the decision having to be made at the top. At the very top remains the Holy Father. To do so, however, would mean that the Church would have regressed to a top-down institutional model once more, only this time, there would be broader layers at each step. Now, while much is to be seen in the coming years how the synodal model takes shape in practice, it is worth considering how this would lead to the desired renewal without devolving into a hierarchy of consultors and consultations. Perhaps it may simply call for a streamlining of participation in the structures already in place.

In the example above, it becomes clear why Dulles insists on the complementarity of the models. He says, “Our method must therefore be to harmonize the models in such a way that their differences become complementary rather than mutually repugnant” (203). Indeed, the models have to be understood, evaluated, and, to the extent possible, enacted together for each expresses a particular facet that the other may fail to do so. As such, Dulles’ Models of the Church remains particularly valuable in the study of ecclesiology, especially today as the Church continues to deepen its self-understanding.

Aaron Salvan is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York studying at Saint Joseph’s Seminary and College, Dunwoodie. He completed his STB from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

  1. Gina A. Zurlo, Women in World Christianity: Building and Sustaining a Global Movement (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2023), 160.
  2. Zurlo, Women in World Christianity, 162.
  3. Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978). Henceforth cited parenthetically in the text by page number.
  4. Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964. (Vatican City: Holy See, 1965).
  5. Lumen Gentium, §9.
  6. Luke Coppen, “Synod Report Proposes Ways to Foster Synodal Church,” The Pillar, October 28, 2023.
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