Ladislas Orsy’s new book, Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates

The last several years have seen the publication of a number of books offering appraisals of the ongoing importance of the Second Vatican Council. Many of these works present the achievement and lasting influence of the Council from a particular point of view; Melissa Wildes’ sociological analysis of the Council’s impact on religious change comes to mind. Historian John O’Malley’s recent tome, What Happened at Vatican II? provides a general overview of the council’s importance as an event that forever changed the self-understanding of the Church, while Paulist Press’s Rediscovering Vatican II series examines the different documents of the council and speaks of their relevance for today. The opening of a new website in January by theologians from Italy among whom are Cardinals Carlo Maria Martini and Roberto Tucci titled Viva il Concilio underscores the continued importance of the work of the Council.

This latest book by Ladislas Orsy is the one of the few volumes that deals with the ongoing relevance of Vatican II from the perspective of both canon law and theology. In this collection of previously published articles and conferences, Fr. Orsy, a distinguished professor of law at Georgetown University, discusses the important contribution that canon law must make for an overall appreciation of the Council and the reception of its teachings by the Church of the twenty-first century.

For many, this perspective on the council will be a new approach. Orsy acknowledges as much. In a footnote in the chapter that deals with his approach to Canon Law he frames the issue.

A reasonable and legitimate question: Why is there throughout the Catholic Church so much aversion to canon law? A tentative answer: because our people, blessed with a sense of faith, instinctively sense that some (many?) of our laws are not in the service of values of higher order. (p. 81).

This questioning spirit informs the chapters of the book. Eschewing a kind of uncritical positivism toward the legal system of the Church, he offers what he considers the best definition of canon law derived by its purpose: “A system of structures and norms to secure freedom for the people so that they can receive, without impediment, the gifts of the Spirit” (pp. 78-79). It is through this theological lens that the ten chapters of the volume examines the notion of “communio,” the role of national Bishops’ Conferences, the role of lay people in the Church, ecumenism, the idea of “reception” of laws, Canon Law after the Council, justice in the Church, the notion of “definitive doctrine” and the ecclesial vocation of Canon lawyers.

His first essay sets the tone for the other chapters. It is titled: “In Praise of Communio.”  Orsy speaks of communio as the basic and most profound way to envision the church. Invoking the relations of the divine persons within the Trinity, he notes that “in this divine ‘model’ mysterious as it is, we find the clue for achieving some comprehension of how the church is communio” (5).  He invites the reader to engage with him in an act of imagination in order to answer the question “In the church what are, and what should be, the external structures and norms to express, to promote, and to sustain the internal bond of communio?” The rest of the book could be said to be an extended reflection on the various aspects of this question.

It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with Orsy’s writings that he offers a mixed assessment of recent papal and curial documents that deal with matters of ecclesiastical law and structure. The ninth chapter is devoted to a fascinating debate occasioned by an article written by Orsy in the German journal Stimmen der Zeit critical of the 1998 motu proprio of John Paul II, Ad tuendam fidem as well as the commentary on this document supplied by Cardinal Ratzinger, the then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It is to Orsy’s credit that the back and forth of their debate is included in the book. Both points of view are given regarding the question of the legitimacy of what some regard as a novelty announced by the motu proprio of “definitive doctrine” i.e., teachings of the Church not included in the creed, nor proclaimed infallibly, but nonetheless considered an unchangeable part of revelation. Though he disagreed with much of what Orsy had to say, Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed that Orsy’s contribution to this debate was “happily written in an objective tone and without polemic” (p. 121). In this, both Orsy and Ratzinger offer us all a model of how disagreement within the church need not include intemperate disparagement and ad hominem attacks.

At the heart of Orsy’s critique of much of recent papal and curial teaching is a different emphasis in interpreting the nature of Vatican II. Orsy is of the opinion that the Council was an event that called for a conversion—a change of direction—that launched the Church on a path of decentralization and a new encouragement of plural forms and local responsibility within the one communio that is the Church. Some may be tempted to see in this book what Pope Benedict has criticized in his talk about the reception of Vatican II to the Roman Curia in December of 2005 as a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” with the pre-conciliar Church. Interestingly, however, Orsy’s chapter on “Stability and Development in Canon Law,” draws criteria for recognizing genuine development versus destructive changes from Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine; criteria that emphasize continuity and harmonious progress from older forms to newer forms. He is basically in agreement that there is a need to view the new directions brought by the Council from the optic favored by Pope Benedict-a “hermeneutic of the reform”- that considers these changes as an “organic development” that did not alter the Church’s fundamental nature. The difference between Orsy and the Pope would be in the question of emphasis and direction. Clearly Orsy sees the centralization of the last decade as inconsistent with the teaching of the Council.

I once heard someone describe canon law as “the dark side of the Good News.” This book, however, gives lie to such an assertion. While not everyone will necessary reach the same conclusions as Fr. Orsy, his theologically informed, historically nuanced presentation of ecclesiastical law demonstrates its vital importance in the process of Church’s ongoing reception of the Spirit’s work at the Council.

Mark R. Francis, csv
Pontificio Istituto Liturgico di Sant’Anselmo

Ladislas Orsy, Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier / Liturgical Press, 2009. Pp 162. Pbk $29.95 ISBN 978-0-8146-5377-7.


  1. . . . the best definition of canon law . . . : “A system of structures and norms to secure freedom for the people so that they can receive, without impediment, the gifts of the Spirit”

    Yes, indeed.

  2. My first experience of canon law was in the month before I was received into the Catholic Church: I read the 1985 commentary on the code of canon law from cover to cover to make sure there was not something I couldn’t live with.
    Once a canon lawyer said to me that canon law is like the skeleton of the body. He meant it gives the mystical body of Christ structure and shape, I suppose. But it made me think that if this was true, then breaking canon law is less like breaking a civil law and going to pay a fine in court. It’s more like breaking a bone: you can’t move as well.

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