An expository summary of the theological and pastoral texts of the Council Vatican II is a more complicated venture in the 2000’s than it might have been in, say, 1970. In this century, an author may lay out the Council’s key thrusts by drawing heavily upon the texts themselves and the primary intents of the bishops as they voted in assembly. This is the approach of “Keys to the Council”  and the authors have put forward the Council’s highlights in a reasonably attainable fashion for study and discussion.
However, the further one gets from the close of the Council in 1965, nearly sixty years ago, an author is faced with an added challenge: the Council documents have taken on a life of their own, or more specifically, a few have bloomed, others wilted, and yet others still live in that place once consigned to unbaptized babies. In this age it is impossible to write about the decrees of the Council in their infancy without a word about how they advanced or decayed into middle age, and how their parents either overindulged them or neglected them altogether. In short, can one disclose the documents without a commentary on their reception?
I believe that a working answer is yes, given that the state of adult education is such in the United States that very few adults can even recognize the documents by name [e.g., Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium] let alone identify the Council’s concerns regarding the Eucharistic celebration, the nature of the Church, or divine Revelation. If one is starting from ground zero—as a student or a teacher—it is best to start with a crisp and pristine summary as the one offered here.
“Keys to the Council” is divided into about twenty brief chapters, each headed by a selection from a major Conciliar text. The authors’ selection is eclectic in that it leans toward matters of ecclesiology or the nature of the Church. There are six chapters on Lumen Gentium, three on Gaudium et Spes, and one on Christus Dominus [the role of bishops], totaling a significant collective commentary on the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium [on the liturgy] has two entries, Dei Verbum [on Divine Revelation] has two, and Nostra Aetate [on non-Christian religions] has one. Richard R. Gaillardetz, one of the two contributing editors, has devoted much of his career writing on the nature of the Church, which may explain his emphasis upon the identity and structure of the Church here.
The expositions are generally lucid and comprehensive, providing, when possible, some historical feel for the “pre” and “post” Vatican II understandings of the issues at hand. For example, discussion of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Church in this work evolves from the pre-Conciliar emphasis upon the legal definition of Church structure and the Sacrament of Orders to the post-Conciliar pneumatic or Spirit-filled understanding of Christ’s presence in the Church and world today. The authors explain the use of the “Ressourcement” method by theologians, the attempt to recover the original thinking and practice of the ancient Church fathers and communities. The idea of recovering the ancient origins of faith and practice was a prime interest of the Council. There are throughout the book very useful inclusions of definitions of terms which may be unfamiliar to the novice adult student of theology—such as neo-Scholasticism, magisterium, dogma, infallibility, etc.
Speaking from my anecdotal experience, I see present-day interest in this work coming from those who are engaging in their Synodal processes and the reform program of Pope Francis. The recently completed first phase of the synodal consultation has interested some grassroots among Catholics to delve more deeply into the life of the Church. Granted, less than half of one percent of U.S. Catholics actively engaged in the synod discussions, but many of those who did get involved are motivated to pursue discussion and, more importantly, the principles behind Francis’s reform of the Church. They will be looking for texts and their parochial mentors will be seeking out resources.
In this context, “Keys to the Council” is a useful work. It does not overwhelm the reader/student with the immense content of the Council—close to one thousand pages of material—but provides a focus on the texts of the Council’s vision of the life of the Church, which is probably the best place to begin for a baptized Catholic on the road to an adult understanding of the Catholic life. I would say, though, that this text needs to be taught as well as read, meaning that there is plenty of conciliar material here which needs the academic/professional counsel of background and, as I noted above, something of an informed “state-of-the-union” on why the Council has not produced all the fruits of its promise.
I should note here that Gaillardetz authored another Vatican II study, “An Unfinished Council”  a few years after our text under review. To cite one reviewer of the 2015 work, Gaillardetz “has given us a compelling account of the work that still needs to be done.” While it may be tempting to jump ahead to such speculation, it would seem wise to begin at the source with an analysis of what the Council actually taught—and where its original implementation succeeded and failed. Consequently, I would recommend reading these books in the order they were written—and better still, in a guided reading/study format.