Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (according to D.W. Norwood)

Over the course of many posts that I have written on Roman Catholicism, Reformation, and Karl Barth — and especially on all three combined — it has sometimes been asked (or disputed), by Catholics and Protestants alike, if these subjects really have anything to do with each other. What point is there in talking about reforming Roman Catholicism? With its view of the authority of its tradition, what chance could there ever be of change? How is Karl Barth relevant to this? Even if he is relevant, what kind of reforming influence could someone outside the Catholic Church, a Protestant no less, possibly have? I have come across no better response to these questions than that which Donald W. Norwood provides in the introduction to his book entitled Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II. In what follows, Norwood addresses each of these questions in turn: Why reform? Why Barth? How a Protestant influence on the Catholic Church?

Why Reform?

At different times the answer has been painfully obvious but at other times the mere mention of reform was enough to get a Roman Catholic theologian into trouble. The Holy Office would not allow Yves Congar’s epoch-making book True and False Reform in the Church to be reprinted or translated, and Congar himself was banished and prevented from writing for a time. But in the providence of God the future Pope John XXIII read the book and 9780802872104asked himself: “A reform of the Church; is such a thing really possible?” Traditionalists would ask “is such a thing really necessary?”

At the end of the fourteenth century it was obvious that the church needed reforming. In the Great Schism, which began in 1378 and was not resolved until 1415, there were at first two rival claimants to the Papacy, on in Rome and the other in Avignon and later a third elected at Pisa. The Council of Constance was convened to deal with the crisis. The conviction had been growing that the only way to reform the church and the papacy was to call a Council. There was talk of the need to reform the church “in head and members.” It was said then, and is still being said today, that too much power is centralized in Rome.

If, as Roman Catholics claim, Peter was the first bishop of Rome though not officially listed as the first pope, he too needed reforming. The Gospels make no secret of this. Later in a famous incident at Antioch, Paul would confront Peter “to his face” because, in Paul’s view, Peter was clearly in the wrong giving in to the so-called Judaizers and not sharing table fellowship with Gentiles…. The story would continue to be aired, however, whenever there was discussion of infallibility. Peter and his successors might be wrong….

Partly for historical reasons associated with conciliarism and the Reformation, “reform” remains a controversial issue for many, though not all, Roman Catholics. As noted earlier, Pope John XXIII’s gut reaction to Congar’s book on reform was to ask “is such a thing possible?” Possibly to calm the fears of traditionalists who would automatically reject all talk of “reform,” he chose to speak of the Council’s work as aggiornamento, a lovely Italian word that tends to be translated according to the whims of the Council’s interpreters! He would be pleased to read in a Council document published after his death and quoted by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995) that “Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need.” To such an admission, churches in the Reformed tradition would respond with a cheer…ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda!

Why Barth?

According to Pope Pius XII, Barth was the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. This judgment is often quoted, but…nobody seems to know where and when the pope said this. Suffice to say, it remains repeatable because perfectly plausible. Nor was Pius the only pope to appreciate Barth. It was obvious to Barth on his visit to Rome that Pope Paul VI had read some of his books…. Pope Benedict in his Commentary on Vatican II acknowledges Barth’s influence on documents about Divine Revelation and the Church in the Modern World. Unlike the sixteenth-century Reformers who were confronted by popes who were for the most part theologically illiterate and inaccessible, Barth would have been able to have a serious theological discussion with Pius XII and his successors and did so with Paul VI and with Joseph Ratzinger, once a theology professor in Germany, later Pope Benedict XVI….

The best answer to the question “why Barth?” is given by Hans urs von Balthasar:

We must choose Barth for our partner because in him Protestantism has found for the first time its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can only be reached by going back to its roots, its deepest sources: to Calvin and Luther…. We have in Barth, then, two crucial features: the most thorough and penetrating display of the Protestant view and the closest rapprochement with the Catholic….

Not surprisingly, Barth was quite pleased with von Balthasar’s account, not only because of the obvious compliments but because I think Barth should be seen as a “catholic” theologian, in the fullest sense of the word, as one hoping to write theology for the whole church, not just a small part of it like his own Reformed tradition. His great expositor and leading English translator, Thomas Torrance, once remarked “that if anyone in our day is to be honoured as Doctor Ecclesiae Universalis, it must surely be Karl Barth.”…. So for more conservative Roman Catholics or…Protestants, and any tempted to dismiss Barth, the short answer to the question Why listen to Barth? is that Barth is still speaking to us. Listen to what he has to say before you disagree with him!…

How Can One Who Is Not a Roman Catholic Assist the Reform of Rome?

A short answer might be “with great difficulty!” But a longer and more carefully considered reply is that for most of the the twentieth century and, perhaps, still today it can be harder for a Roman Catholic theologian to promote reform. Rome resents dissent. Her bishops and theologians are expected to toe the line. Prior to Vatican II and continued in the long reign of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, most of Rome’s more radical and ecumenical theologians were at one time silenced or forced into exile…. Dissent was karl_barthnot possible within the Roman Catholic communion. It could not be prevented outside. No one, not even Hitler, could silence Karl Barth! And as I have noted already, a lot of prominent Roman Catholics including four popes, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, came to appreciate that this “separated brother” had a gospel to proclaim. They listened.

What is more, by the time of Vatican II Rome was actually asking non-Roman Catholic theologians like Barth to contribute to the process that Pope John called aggiornamento…. A very distinguished group of non-Roman Catholic participant observers and Roman Catholic experts were actually being asked to help Roman Catholic bishops from all over the world take counsel together in the processes of bringing the church up to date, being reformed and renewed and moved toward the restoration of unity. Only those “inside” the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed, only the hierarchy of the pope and the bishops could decide what teachings or “reforms” should be promulgated and hopefully implemented, but those “outside” were being asked for their opinions. They helped the Roman Catholic Church to change.[1]

So to recapitulate: Why reform? Because Roman Catholicism needs reformation as much today as it did in the sixteenth century (to say nothing of the centuries prior!). Those wanting to be faithful to the legacy of the Reformers cannot neglect to hope, pray, and work for this without betraying the very tradition that they purport to preserve. Why Barth? Because he occupies a unique place among Catholic and Protestant theologians alike in that he is regarded by many on both sides of the divide as one of the greatest doctors of the church universal and, for this reason, as the precursor of a way for rapprochement where possible and reform where necessary. How a Protestant influence on Catholicism? Because sparking reform (specifically theological reform) from the inside of the Catholic Church is extremely difficult (if not impossible), but inspiring reform from the outside is not inconceivable, as Barth’s noted impact on Vatican II illustrates.

This is why I have written on these topics, and it is why I will continue to do so.


[1] Donald W. Norwood, Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2015), pp.6-7, 11-12, 14-15, 23-24.

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