Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II

Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II

Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II

Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II


Few people realize that Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century's greatest Protestant theologians, was among a select group of non-Catholic guests who were invited to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to assist in the reform and renewal of the Roman Catholic Church. In Reforming Rome Donald Norwood offers the first book-length study of Barth's involvement with Vatican II and his significant impact on the reform of the Catholic Church.

Norwood examines Barth's critical engagement with the Roman Catholic Church from his time at the (Catholic) University of Munster to his connection with Vatican II, his conversations with Pope Paul VI, and seminars and interviews he gave about the Council afterward. On the basis of extensive research, Norwood amplifies Barth's own very brief account of Vatican II.

Barth himself often felt that he was better understood by Roman Catholics such as Hans Küng, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger than he was by his own Reformed colleagues. This study, written by a fellow Reformed theologian, helps us to see why.


As a Catholic child in Glasgow at the time of the Second Vatican Council, the full meaning of the event passed over my head. That is not to say I was unaware of this significant happening. Catholicism was at the very heart of our family life, and at home, church, and school we were made deeply aware that something important was taking place in Rome and that it was auguring great change in the Church. My parents were enthusiasts for Pope John xxiii and welcomed his modernizing instincts. As dwellers in a city cruelly divided by sectarianism, they were very ready and willing to embrace ecumenism. They had watched families fall apart over inter-faith marriage and seen friends barred from mass and communion because they had married out. My parents and teachers were hoping for real change, imagining this was an opportunity to melt the hostilities of Protestants, who were just as hard line as their Catholic neighbors and, being the Scottish establishment, were able to discriminate against Catholics in jobs and services.

The Council was to address relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world, and while today it may not seem to have gone very far in that direction, at the time the changes seemed very significant to everyone in my community. Suddenly the mass was different; the priest no longer spoke in Latin. He faced the congregation, and the parishioners were more active participants. Prayers were revised, and some very unattractive references to other religions were abandoned. It was made clear that Jews were no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians. There was recognition that disparate faiths had a common belief in God, and there was a swing away from biblical literalism. the theological conception that the Church was the eternal home of the saved and that outside the Church there was no . . .

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