At 640 pages, this book is a magnum opus. A translation of a French text published in 2006, it is an exhaustive study of various aspects of ecclesiology. The work has its origins in the author's teaching of Dominican students in Toulouse and at the University of Fribourg. The author situates his work explicitly as a project in ressourcement, so the chapters approach their respective themes by way of analysis of texts from Scripture, the Fathers and later sources, and official teaching at Vatican II and beyond. Especially in its first half, however, the dominant source for the work is the theology of Thomas Aquinas.
The book sets itself deliberately to construct a “theology” of the church, so it has a strong grounding in God's Trinitarian revelation. While the title highlights the church's mystery, that principal theme is developed via engagement with the church as “body of Christ,” “temple of the Spirit,” and “people of God.”
While the scholarship in the book is impressive in its detail, it is also selective and dated in many of its references—for a book written in 2006, there is little interchange with sources from the preceding two decades, even when addressing “contemporary” issues. Generally, the text engages with a narrow band of theological writing. Beyond official documents, the author relies principally on Dominican sources, but this means largely Thomas Aquinas. Yves Congar is cited relatively often and generally with appreciation, but Congar is also subject at times to some less than favorable critiques; Edward Schillebeeckx and Jean-Marie Tillard feature rarely, and are treated with more caution than enthusiasm; Gustavo Gutiérrez appears not at all.
In many ways, the use of Vatican II notwithstanding, this book, including in the “speculative” section in its second half, reads like an old-fashioned textbook. While that assessment might make it appealing to some readers, my judgment would be that this book has less to offer than many ecclesiologies currently available. The author's commitment to a theology of the church is admirable, but the book delivers an abstract portrayal of the church, one that could imply a division between “theology” and “life.” Absent from its 640 pages is any engagement with the church's place in history or with the social/economic/political factors that influence every context in which “the church” must come about, and in which God's Spirit is operative. Other contemporary works in ecclesiology may themselves be far from flawless, but they have the virtue, lacking in Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, of underscoring ecclesiology's connection to lived ecclesial faith. Joseph Komonchak proposes that a criterion to use when evaluating descriptions of “the church” is to ask who's included in the particular description. The portrait of the church given in Introduction to the Mystery of the Church is certainly detailed and noteworthy in its intricacy, but its relationship to the lives of members of the church is not easily ascertainable.
The absence of “mission” as a category for ecclesiology highlights the abstract approach that pervades the book. Similarly, the discussion of texts from Gaudium et Spes covers less than a page, while Ad Gentes and Nostra Aetate receive no attention, despite the fact that the book has an extensive section on “no salvation outside the church.” Lumen Gentium’s article 12, a text significant for its description of the prophetic charism of all the baptized, is mentioned, but its ecclesiological significance is not discussed in depth. In addition, Lumen Gentium’s reference in article 8 to the church as semper purificanda does not appear in the book's very short commentary on “reform.”
As this review has noted a few times, Introduction to the Mystery of the Church is vast in its scope. While the author's attention to detail can certainly be affirmed, what is less evident is how this book might serve the self-understanding of all those who form the church and are integral to the realization of its mission in the present day.