Review: Scanning the Signs of the Times: French Dominicans in the Twentieth Centure

Scanning the Signs of the Times: French Dominicans in the Twentieth CenturyScanning the Signs of the Times: French Dominicans in the Twentieth Century by Paul Philibert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With a title drawing on paragraph 4 of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, from the Second Vatican Council, this text examines the life of seven French Dominicans during the twentieth century. In doing so it becomes clear that the aggiornamento of Vatican II didn’t simply appear but was, rather, the result of developments in the life of the Church over the preceding decades, and to which process the French Dominicans who are the subject of this book made some very significant contributions.

Each chapter presents a brief biography of its subject along with a survey of their theological/philosophical work. The contextualisation of their contribution through the inclusion of biographical data makes plain their contributions were not just a series of abstract constructions but the result of a real engagement with Christian believers, the People of God, through genuine and serious pastoral engagement.

Perhaps the most enlightening comments come from the last few paragraphs of the text:

Perhaps this is the way to summarise the theme of attention to the signs of the times for our seven Dominicans. None of them was content to imagine the church as as institution fixed forever in laws and custom, to consider it a divine monarchy with a hierarchical bureaucracy, or to accept that its fundamental attitude has to be nostalgia for a perfect past. Motivated by intellectual honesty, theological rigor, pastoral compassion, and creative vision, they re-imagined the church according to the charter of the Scriptures and the ancient theology of the patristic ages as a living spiritual organism embracing all the baptised as peers in the Body of Christ. They saw all the faithful as sharing a vocation to offer potent witness in society to the kingdom of God. Their challenging initiatives met with obstacles from ecclesiastical authorities haunted by an idealised past.

Their central insights were powerful. Sertillanges recognized that arid rationalism would no longer speak to the hearts of twentieth-century people. Chenu understood that Christian theology could flourish in the culture only as a message for the whole of humanity. Congar appreciated that the church had to understand and act as what it really is – a people of God alive in every part. Lebret saw that the economy had to be part of the church’s pastoral concern, since it was there that human lives thrive or flounder. Loew understood that the world of workers was a spiritual universe that required authentic, sensitive pastoral attention. Liege recognized that the twentieth century needed informed, creative, adult laity who could be evangelizers in the context of their professional milieu. Couturier envisage a church where living art and Christian imagination would become mutually enhancing cultural partners. They read these signs and invented pastoral responses that still enliven our ecclesial life.

These French Dominicans faced the changes in the world about them and they read the hunger of their contemporaries for a fuller Christian life. Imagination and creativity led them to respond. Their stories still remain powerfully encouraging.

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