Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jean Danielou, and a Modern World in Crisis

How the retired pontiff and his "scandalous" hero addressed false interpretations of Vatican II and "a false conception of freedom"

Rome, Italy (CNA/EWTN News).- Theological giants Benedict XVI and one of his heroes – the controversial Cardinal Jean Danielou – have been hailed for illuminating through their respective works the ever-relevant answer to a modern world in crisis: Jesus Christ.

“If you want to be modern, you have to look at Jesus,” Rome-based theology professor Father Giulio Masparo told CNA Feb. 13.

And through the writings of the late French cardinal in particular, he noted, the Christian claim in today’s world is infinitely superior “than what you can find by thinking that everything is relative.”  

Fr. Masparo, a professor in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, helped to organize a Feb. 12-13 conference titled: “Study days: Danielou-Ratzinger before the Mystery of History.”

Held at the University of Santa Croce, the conference explored the great continuity between Cardinal Danielou and Benedict XVI, who are both known for placing a historical frame around their theological writings.

Originally from Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Cardinal Danielou was a Jesuit, and is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He is known for his clarity in explaining profound concepts in a comprehensible way for the unlearned reader.

Danielou was highly criticized following the Second Vatican Council, a false interpretation of which he faulted for the crisis in religious life and the increase in secularization which ensued.

In a controversial interview with Vatican Radio in 1972, the cardinal stressed that “Vatican II declared that human values must be taken seriously. It never said that we should enter into a secularized world in the sense that the religious dimension would no longer be present in society.”

“It is in the name of a false secularization that men and women are renouncing their habits, abandoning their works in order to take their places in secular institutions, substituting social and political activities for the worship of God,” he said.

Cardinal Danielou also faulted “a false conception of freedom” that devalued religious constitutions and “an erroneous conception of the changing of man and the Church” for many of the crisis that unfolded after the Vatican council.

However, despite the criticism directed at the French cardinal, then-Bishop Josef Ratzinger was an avid supporter of Danielou, and placed great value on his stance and writings.

The two maintain numerous similarities in their theological writings, beginning with their historical gaze at theology, their emphasis on scripture and turning to the Church Fathers.

Danielou and now-retired pope Benedict XVI, or “Father Benedict” as he wishes to be called, also place a great emphasis on the liturgy and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of mission.

“In one word I can say that for them the meaning of our world is Christ,” Fr. Masparo said.

For them, “if you read the Gospel, if you pray, if you go to church and receive the sacraments, your sight changes and you are able to see that below the surface there is the presence of God, of Jesus Christ not only in the time we are living but also within the matter we are living with,” the priest said.

Because of the emphasis that both place on the relationship between being and history, they are “very modern” in the sense that they address one of the key concerns in contemporary society.

In the midst of a world in crisis where man is searching and can’t seem to find what he is looking for, Danielou and Benedict XVI step into the middle of “this puzzle” with the answers provided by scripture, which are enlightened by the Church Fathers.

“What they wrote is wonderful and I think it can show a way out of this crisis situation that we are living in now,” Fr. Masparo said, noting how both dug into the past with the goal of finding meaning for their present time.

One contemporary issue the theologians can shed light on is that of homosexuality, the priest said, pointing specifically to Cardinal Daneilou – whose brother, Alain, was a prominent Buddhist and gay author.

“This is the typical point where we can see the crisis of our time because we are not able to manage differences. We have tried to find a solution saying ‘ok, we have no differences,’ but you always have differences,” Fr. Masparo explained.

“If you have homosexuality, you have to manage the difference between homosexual and heterosexual. You cannot erase all the differences.”

Both of the theologians found the solution to the problem of differences by looking to the way Jesus dealt with them in the Gospels, the priest noted, saying that before doing anything else Christ accepted the people who came to him.

Cardinal Danielou embodied this in the way that he encountered his brother. After finding out that Alain was same-sex attracted, his shocked family threw him out, and they went through a lot of suffering, the priest observed.

However, Cardinal Danielou had the opposite reaction and dedicated his life to praying for his brother, and accepted his different ideas while remaining open to him. Alain, Fr. Masparo said, “recognized this love of his brother.”

“We are living in the world where everybody has the perception that they must change in order to be ‘right,’ (but) Jesus’ answer is that you are right just as you are, because you are mine, because I created you,” the priest explained.

Jesus Christ, he said, “told us to love everybody, so I think it’s a big problem now when we are talking about Catholicism that the topics of homosexuality (and) abortion are just moral topics.”

Although we are all sinners, we are all “right” by nature because we have been created in the image of God, he noted, and stressed that because of this a homosexual person can never be considered a problem.

In the priest’s view, the problem lies with today’s gay rights movement at large, as he believes it reduces the individual to a definition. “Life is more complex.”

“We have to learn from each other and at the same time to keep our ideas,” Fr. Masparo said, adding that we have been given the freedom to maintain different beliefs, which must be accepted with respect for the other person.

Each person has the freedom to believe there is a wrong way of doing things and to promote a different method, he said, stressing that the Church, in her teachings, “is not imposing a behavior on anybody.”

People, the priest said, should believe what they want, but emphasized that “there is a truth,” and history will tell who was right and who was wrong.

One of the reasons why Cardinal Jean Denielou is so little known outside the French Catholic circles is because he died suddenly, of a heart attack, while visiting the house of a prostitute. The fact was used by the French secular press to imply the “hypocrisy” of the Jesuit’s moral life.

Alain, as famous an author in the Agnostic circles as his brother was in the Catholic one, wrote after the death of the French Cardinal:

“His death and the scandal provoked by it, when he had become one of the leading figures of the Church, was a sort of posthumous vendetta, one of those favors that the gods bestow on those whom they love. If he had died just a little while sooner or later, or if he had been visiting a lady of the sixteenth arrondissement (an expensive neighborhood in Paris) under the pretext of works of charity, instead of bringing the revenue of his theological writings to a poor and needy woman, there would have been no scandal.”

“Jean had always dedicated himself to disregarded people. For a certain period he had celebrated a Mass for the sake of homosexuals. He tried to help prisoners, criminals, troubled young people, prostitutes. I deeply admired this ending of life similar to that of the martyrs, whose fragrance rises to heaven amid the opprobrium and sarcasm of the crowd.”

According to Vatican analyst Sandro Magister, since 2012, when the first conference on Jean Danielou was held in Rome, “the quarantine has ended for this Cardinal.”

Related on CWR: “Jean Daniélou and Humanity’s True Vocation” (August 20, 2013)

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