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Cardinal Etchegaray, Henri de Lubac, and Vatican II

What is still very much the needful thing today is the de Lubac attitude.

Left: Cardinal Roger Etchegaray in an Aug. 15, 2006, photo. (CNS photo/Norbert Schiller); right: Henri de Lubac, S.J., in an undated photo. (Wikipedia)

Last week, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray passed away. Perhaps his was not a household name, but this very decent man made a substantive contribution to the life of the Church, serving in a number of different capacities over the years and collaborating closely with St. Pope John Paul II. I had the privilege of meeting him in the mid 1990s when he visited Mundelein Seminary, where I was serving as professor of theology. The Cardinal wanted to address the community, but his English was a bit shaky, so I translated for him. But I recall that his smile and evident joy in the Lord needed no translation whatsoever.

The first time I ever laid eyes on Roger Etchegaray was some years before that, on an extraordinary day in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris: the funeral of the legendary theologian Henri de Lubac. A third-year doctoral student at the time, I had made my way to Notre Dame, hoping against hope that I might be able to participate in the funeral Mass. As I approached the door, I was stopped by a security agent who asked, “Est-ce que vous êtes membre de la famille? (Are you a member of the family?)” “Non,” I responded. Then he inquired, “Est-ce que vous êtes theologien? (Are you a theologian?)” With some trepidation, I said, “Oui,” and he promptly directed me to a prime position near the front of the Cathedral. To the tolling of the deepest bells in the Cathedral, the simple wooden coffin of de Lubac was wheeled down the middle aisle. I noticed, as it passed by my position, that it was topped by de Lubac’s red cardinal’s biretta.

At the close of the Mass, Cardinal Etchegaray rose to speak on behalf of the Pope. He read a beautiful tribute from John Paul II, and then he shared the following anecdote. Soon after his election to the papacy, John Paul came to Paris for a pastoral visit. He made a special stop at the Institut Catholique de Paris to meet with theologians and other Catholic academics. After his formal remarks, Etchegaray continued, John Paul II looked up and said, “Où est le pere de Lubac? (Where is Fr. de Lubac?)” The young Karol Wojtyla had worked closely with de Lubac during Vatican II, specifically in the composition of the great conciliar document Gaudium et Spes. De Lubac stepped forward and, Etchegaray told us, Pope John Paul bowed his head to the distinguished theologian. Then, turning to the coffin, Etchegaray said, “Encore une fois, au nom du pape, j’incline la tête devant le pere de Lubac (Once more, in the name of the Pope, I bow my head before Fr. de Lubac).”

This is much more than a charming story, for upon John Paul’s reverence for Henri de Lubac hangs a very interesting tale of continuing relevance to our time. De Lubac was the most prominent proponent of what came to be called la nouvelle theologie (the new theology). Departing from the strict and rather rationalist Thomism that dominated Catholic intellectual life in the first half of the twentieth century, de Lubac and his colleagues turned with enthusiasm to the Scriptures and to the marvelous and multifaceted works of the Church Fathers.

This return to the “sources” of the faith produced a theology that was spiritually informed, ecumenically generous, and intellectually rich—and it got de Lubac in considerable hot water with the academic and ecclesial establishment of that time. At the very height of his powers, throughout the 1950s, he was silenced, prohibited from teaching, speaking, or publishing. Rehabilitated by Pope John XXIII, de Lubac played a pivotal role at Vatican II, decisively influencing many of its major documents. It is altogether correct to say that this champion of the reforming Second Vatican Council was no friend of pre-conciliar Catholic conservatism.

However, in the years immediately following the Council, Henri de Lubac became impatient with the Catholic liberalism, led by such figures as Hans Küng, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx, which was pushing past the texts of Vatican II, accommodating itself far too readily with the environing culture, and losing its mooring in classical Christianity. And so, along with his colleagues Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, he founded the theological journal Communio, which was meant as a counterweight to the journal Concilium, which published the works of the leading liberals.

It was this Communio school, this middle path between both a conservative and liberal rejection of Vatican II, that John Paul II enthusiastically embraced. If you seek clear evidence that the Polish Pope favored this approach, look no further than the Catechism of 1992, which is filled with the spirit of the nouvelle theologie, and to the fact that John Paul specially honored the three founders of Communio, making Joseph Ratzinger head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and naming both de Lubac and Balthasar Cardinals.

Are both left-wing and right-wing rejections of Vatican II on display today? Just go on the Catholic new media space and you’ll find the question readily answered. What is still very much the needful thing is the de Lubac attitude: deep commitment to the texts of Vatican II, openness to ecumenical conversation, a willingness to dialogue with the culture (without caving in to it), reverence for the tradition without a stifling traditionalism.

Perhaps I might invite you to muse on that gesture and those words of Cardinal Etchegaray that I took in many years ago: “Once more, in the name of the Pope, I bow my head before Fr. de Lubac.”


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About Bishop Robert Barron 165 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

14 Comments

  1. “What is still very much the needful thing is the de Lubac attitude: deep commitment to the texts of Vatican II, openness to ecumenical conversation, a willingness to dialogue with the culture (without caving in to it), reverence for the tradition without a stifling traditionalism.”

    Yes, waiter! Please bring us more of why we’re in this mess today…what got it all started! With an extra side order of the Bromance approach (which is also “marvelous”)…vs Thomas.

    Be careful with “tradition” please! It should be regarded as something like the spice level chosen for dishes ordered in an Indian restaurant. We need some kind of coded checklist or even tradition-ometer to measure how much “tradition.”

    • Exactly right, Joseph. Bishop Barron, who should actually and more accurately be known as Bishop Barren, is a lifetime careerist shill and shameless publicity hound for the once creeping and now vaunting infallibilism of Vatican II, an explicitly pastoral council that defined of itself absolutely nothing of faith or morals. For anyone who is not willfully blind, its novelties of the absolutism of individual conscience and relativism of moral precepts, the anthropocentrism of man-as-center of-the-universe, unlimited and self-defined religious freedom, truth-be-damned ecumenism, perpetual and pointless dialogue with every type of schismatic, heretic, apostate, and atheist, and a historically illiterate and ideologically secular liturgical modernism have produced an American Church that has squandered $4 Billion on the sins and crimes of its armies of clerical homosexuals and has rendered churches across Western and Eastern Europe as dusty museums for North American and Asian tourists. De Lubac, Kueng, Rahner, and Schillebeeckx, to name only a few, were all rightly and justly condemned under Pius XII as the blind and corrupt heterodox guides they were and remain. Cardinal Etchegaray has been notorious for decades for his bitter hatred of Tradition and as implacable despiser of the traditional Latin liturgy as well as the SSPX. To attempt to reposition De Lubac as a Vatican II meliorist seeking a via media is historically false and theologically incompetent. Catholic World Report should be ashamed to publish this sort of facile and dishonest nonsense nearly 55 years after the cataclysm De Lubac helped to create.

  2. I believe that Bishop Barron may be well intended, but his choice of “the middle” theme recalls the same theme from very rotten sources.

    McCarrick, the abusive sociopathic fraud, always talked about “staying in the middle between conservatives and liberals.”

    Talking like that is parroting McCarrick.

    It has “the mind of McCarrick.”

    It is the ambiguity of the McCarrick Establishment.

    Try something Catholic instead.

    • As recently as four years ago, I would’ve read this piece and nodded in agreement. But no longer: under this pope, the “via media” has now been shown to be a dead end and its legitimacy is fast crumbling away.

  3. I have to agree with Joseph. The “New Theology” was already producing disaster after disaster even before Vatican 2. We need to stop being cheerleaders for that wasted effort, and start living in the real world.

  4. The very fact that it was called the “the new theology” ought to have set off warning bells, implying as it does a wholesale rejection of what had gone before.

    “Departing from the strict and rather rationalist Thomism that dominated Catholic intellectual life in the first half of the twentieth century, de Lubac and his colleagues turned with enthusiasm to the Scriptures and to the marvelous and multifaceted works of the Church Fathers.”

    Mmmm, yes, because strict Thomism utterly precludes reading the Scriptures and the works of the Church Fathers? I am not a theologian or an expert on any of this, but the way Bishop Barron phrases that seems to indicate that de Lubac and his colleagues turned away from Thomism, instead of adding to it; and that implies a rejection of it, as I mentioned above. I can’t think that rejecting St. Thomas Aquinas’ work is a good thing.

    “This return to the “sources” of the faith produced a theology that was spiritually informed, ecumenically generous, and intellectually rich”

    So, everybody who came before “the new theology” was spiritually uninformed, “ecumenically” selfish, and intellectually impoverished? Nothing like temporal snobbishness.

    “However, in the years immediately following the Council, Henri de Lubac became impatient with the Catholic liberalism, led by such figures as Hans Küng, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx, which was pushing past the texts of Vatican II,”

    In other words, he helped open the floodgates and then was impatient when destructive floodwaters came pouring in.

    • “So, everybody who came before “the new theology” was spiritually uninformed, “ecumenically” selfish, and intellectually impoverished? Nothing like temporal snobbishness.”

      But that’s not what Bishop Barron wrote, is it?

      “In other words, he helped open the floodgates and then was impatient when destructive floodwaters came pouring in.”

      A very bad reading of what was written and what actually happened. How much de Lubac have you actually read?

      I was drawn to the Catholic Church, in large part, by reading St. Thomas AND de Lubac, von Balthasar, Danielou, Bouyer, Ratzinger (along with Newman, the Fathers, Chesterton, etc). But I was never attracted to Rahner, Küng, and the Concilium crowd, even though I read a fair amount of it. There are many reasons, but a huge one for me is that the while the ressourcement theologians were critical of many aspects of neo-Thomism, they did not capitulate to secularism and modernism. Rather, they provided incisive and rich responses (that’s the very short answer as I don’t have time for a longer one).

      • ““So, everybody who came before “the new theology” was spiritually uninformed, “ecumenically” selfish, and intellectually impoverished? Nothing like temporal snobbishness.”

        “But that’s not what Bishop Barron wrote, is it?”

        No, I quoted what he said before I analyzed what it meant. He wrote ““This return to the “sources” of the faith produced a theology that was spiritually informed, ecumenically generous, and intellectually rich.” He didn’t write that theology was more informed, more generous, richer; and that means that he was denying that those attributes existed before.

        “A very bad reading of what was written and what actually happened. How much de Lubac have you actually read?”

        None. I’m judging by what happened as a result of “the new theology,” and it isn’t pretty.

        “But I was never attracted to Rahner, Küng, and the Concilium crowd, even though I read a fair amount of it.”

        That’s good.

        • “None. I’m judging by what happened as a result of “the new theology,” and it isn’t pretty.”

          There was a splintering amongst the ressourcement theologians (who didn’t care for the term “new theology”, and for good reason: it wasn’t really new at all) following the Council, into the Communio group (Ratzinger, Bouyer, de Lubac, von Balthasar) and Concilium group (Küng, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, etc). It’s essential to understanding what happened. See my May 2017 interview with Tracey Rowland for a good intro to it.

          • One of the problems with understanding Vatican II is the pervasive misunderstanding of Vatican I and the situation it was attempting to address: the rise of the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age in the early 19th century. The widespread belief that all the problems of the modern Church began with Vatican II fails to take into account longstanding problems with the “new things” that used the Council as a springboard to publicize dissent that already existed, but had been suppressed (although not eliminated) by papal action since Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos in 1832. The massive confusion of Catholic social teaching with the “new things” has been ongoing from the beginning, with both liberals and conservatives damning the other side as heretics and dissenters, muffling and distorting the truths expressed by the popes and commentators like Chesterton and Sheen.

  5. The best of Ressourcement was a reminder that there is more to Latin theology than neo-scholasticism and its manuals, and that Latins should become reacquainted with the sources of Latin theology, scripture, the Fathers, the liturgy. Some would prefer to attribute certitude the to one version or another of the Thomistic synthesis, but that desire is misplaced.

  6. “It is altogether correct to say that this champion of the reforming Second Vatican Council was no friend of pre-conciliar Catholic conservatism”

    “Pre-conciliar Catholic conservatism” really needs to be defined. AS history show, DeLubac’s name is easily invoked for some things to which he might take exception.

  7. Bishop Barron again demonstrates that his is a profound blindness. The Church is collapsing due to Vatican II and the New Theology of de Lubac, Chenu, Kung, Ratzinger, and Rahner. It was a catastrophe for the Church. He cannot see reality because he is mis-educated in the modernist principles that dominate today’s seminaries and Churches. I am old enough to have seen the entire collapse of the Church, from solid dogma and priestly discipline to chaos and confusion. Lord, save us from these wolves in sheep’s clothing!

  8. We (the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice) gave a seminar on the role of private property in capital to deal with global poverty at the Vatican in 1992 hosted by Cardinal Silvestrini, and on which Cardinal Etchegaray commented favorably. A few years later (April 11, 1995), he again commented, this time on the book we developed out of the seminar proceedings, which I co-edited with the late Fr. John H. Miller, C.S.C., S.T.D., then head of the Central Bureau of the Catholic Central Union of America in St. Louis, MO. As his Eminence wrote to us after reading the book, “Curing World Poverty: The New Role of Property” (1994), “I trust this book will be read and studied by many since it offers a number of interesting proposals which might make a contribution to a more equitable economic system.”

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