Jean Cardinal Daniélou, vindicated. And shown to be a prophet.

I hesitate a bit to use the word “vindicated”, not because it isn’t appropriate here, but because it doesn’t seem to me that Jean Cardinal Daniélou was a man with any interest in vindication—not for himself, at least. Daniélou might not be a familiar name to most Catholics today, but he was one of greatest twentieth-century Catholic scholars, as I noted in this Ignatius Insight essay a few years ago:

Although not as well-known today as his fellow Jesuit Henri de Lubac and theological contemporary Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Daniélou occupies a key place (no pun intended) intwentieth-century Catholic theology, recognized for his dialogue with other world religions, his writings on the Church Fathers and Scripture, and his insights into the nature of divine revelation and Tradition. Trained in philology––the study of classical languages––and theology, Daniélou was a professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris and a vital member of the controversial “New Theology”, orressourcement, movement. His first works were scholarly studies of the theologies of St. Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, and the Jewish thinker Philo. His History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea is considered a classic in patristic scholarship. … 

Recognized for his balanced and insightful examinations of world religions–especially Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism–and for his penetrating analysis of modern culture, Danielou was called to be a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. There he was consulted on Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, a work that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, also worked on. In 1969 Daniélou was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

But when Daniélou died in 1974, it was under strange and murky circumstances, in the apartment of a known prostitute. Sandro Magister writes, in a piece posted today:

“Windows open on the mystery”: this is the title of the conference with which, two days ago, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross broke the silence on one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, the French Jesuit Jean Daniélou, made a cardinal by Paul VI in 1969.

A silence that lasted almost forty years, and began with his passing away in 1974.

In effect, the memory of Daniélou is today reduced, for many, to the mystery of his death by heart attack, one May afternoon, at the home of a prostitute on the fourth floor of Rue Dulong 56 in Paris.

The truth, Magister reports, is that Daniélou, a man of great humility and charity, was there to help the woman of ill repute:

Mimì Santoni, the prostitute, saw him fall to his knees with his face on the floor before he breathed his last. And to her “it was a good death, for a cardinal.” He had gone to bring her money to pay for a lawyer capable of getting her husband out of prison. It was the last of his works of charity carried out in secret, on behalf of despised persons in need of help and forgiveness.

The Jesuits conducted exhaustive investigations to discover the truth. They ascertained his innocence. But they also shrouded the case in a silence that did not dispel the suspicions.

The rupture between Daniélou and his other Jesuit confreres in Paris and the rest of France was in effect the true origin of the neglect that fell upon this great theologian and cardinal.

A rupture that preceded his death by at least two years.

That rupture was due to Daniélou’s strong criticisms of various abuses and forms of “decadence” that had infiltrated some religious orders following the Council. Magister includes a section from the interview given to Vatican Radio on October 23, 1972; it is worth reading in whole, but here is an excerpt:

Q: But do you see any remedies for overcoming this crisis?

A: I think that the only and urgent solution is that of stopping the false stances taken in a certain number of institutes. For this it is necessary to stop all of the experimentation and all of the decisions contrary to the directives of the Council; to warn against the books, magazines, conferences in which these erroneous conceptions are being put into circulation; to restore in their integrity the practice of the constitutions with the adaptations requested by the Council. Wherever this appears impossible, it seems to me that those religious cannot be denied who want to be faithful to the constitutions of their order and to the directives of Vatican II, and to establish distinct communities. Religious superiors are bound to respect this desire.

These communities must be authorized to have houses of formation. Experience will demonstrate if the vocations are more numerous in the houses of strict observance or in the houses of mitigated observance. In case the superiors oppose these legitimate requests, recourse to the supreme pontiff is certainly authorized.

Religious life is called to a grandiose future in technological society; the more this is developed, the more it will make felt the need for the manifestation of God. This is precisely the aim of religious life, but in order to carry out its mission it must rediscover its authentic meaning and break radically with a secularization that is destroying it in its essence and preventing it from attracting vocations.

One doesn’t know whether to marvel at Daniélou’s prophetic perception (that is, proclaiming the truth in the light of profound wisdom and God’s word), or that is has taken four decades—and counting—to address the problems he saw and identified so readily forty years ago.

Daniélou continues to be one of my favorite theologians, a gifted scholar who wrote numerous accessible and timeless works, as I noted in my essay, “Jean Daniélou and the ‘Master-Key to Christian Theology'”:

For all of his scholarly brilliance, Daniélou was equally impressive in his ability to convey complex and subtle theological truths to a wide readership through a number of popular works. These included books on liturgy, patristics, prayer, creation, revelation, Scripture and tradition, and the theology of history. In God And The Ways of Knowing he examines the relationship between pagan beliefs, philosophy, and Christian theology. The Advent of Salvation is a comparative study of non-Christian religions and Christianity, similar to his Holy Pagans of the Old Testament. The Scriptural roots of the liturgy and sacraments, especially as developed by the Church Fathers, are masterfully explored in The Bible and The Liturgy, while the inner life of prayer and its cosmic consequences are taken up in Prayer: The Mission of the Church.

Read more.

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.