June 15th, 2007

Vatican/St. Peter's

Theological Notebook: The Death of One of the Great Vatican II Scholars: Giuseppe Alberigo

A retroactive obituary posting:
Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 by Alberto Melloni

Giuseppe Alberigo (1926-2007) passed away in Bologna on June 15 at the age of 81. He was one of the great masters of church history--the discipline he taught in the University of Bologna for thirty years after his teacher training in the University of Modena and in the University of Florence--on the international scene as well as in the Italian milieu, where the state of religious studies was particularly poor in the early fifties. In this situation the young Alberigo (he took his degree in law at the Catholic University of Milan just after World War II) met Giuseppe Dossetti (1913-1996). The former vice-secretary of the Christian Democratic Party was on the eve of radical change and was looking for new fellows to start a new life: Dossetti thought that his political project was useless and weak in a situation which was "catastrophic" for the world as well as "critical" for the Church. Therefore, he suggested to a group of young and untrained scholars a move to Bologna (because Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro was archbishop there) in order to start a research community of prayer and study devoted to the historical exploration of the forgotten issue of church reform, which in the last years of Pius XII seemed very far away. Alberigo and his wife Angelina were among the enthusiastic founders of the "Centro documentazione," where intellectual and spiritual rigor went together. There he started his historical training with the two scholars that Dossetti saw as the most useful for his research on the Council of Trent, and in this way he became acquainted with Hubert Jedin (1900-1980), whose history of the Council of Trent was considered "proscribed merchandise" ("venduta sottobanco") in the Catholic bookshops in Rome, and then with Delio Cantimori (1904-1966), then professor in Florence, whose Eretici italiani del Cinquecento is a masterpiece of a truly historical approach to truly theological issues.

These three--Dossetti, Jedin, Cantimori--are the masters who developed Alberigo's method: their influence is vivid in his major books (devoted to the participation of the Italian bishops at the Council of Trent in 1959, the doctrine of collegial power of the bishops in the universal Church in 1964, the cardinalate in 1969, and the ecclesiology of conciliarism in 1981). However, his approach evolved from these studies and became more and more specifically his own: he was convinced that Christianity was historically understandable only for those who acknowledge its historical nature, its doctrinal structures, and its institutional process. Under these premises church history became not only a way to practice a pure and poor erudition, but also an active part of the process of Church reform, which always needs to explore a Tradition (with an uppercase T, as Congar wrote) in order to criticize and reform the sacred traditions (with a lowercase t) that originated in the clash between Church and modernity.

This approach remained the marker of the Bologna Institute, where he remained a true leader after the distinction between the monastic community and the research community in the late fifties. And there, in "Via San Vitale 114," Vatican II arrived like an undreamed dream, and the young scholars trained by Dossetti in conciliar history (in 1962 they offered the volume Conciliorum œcumenicorum decreta to John XXIII, which Alberigo started to re-edit in the Corpus Christianorum in his last years) became a think tank for Cardinal Lercaro, for Dossetti himself as informal peritus, for many bishops and theologians who discovered the institute and its increasingly magnificent library as a place for study and hope.…