Paradoxes of faith in service to the supreme Paradox

Henri de Lubac, S.J., understood the human predicament, the grandeur of God’s love, and the beauty of the Church with extraordinary clarity and fidelity.

Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991), in an undated photo.

Over the 33 years since its publication, I’ve quoted one particular text many times. Paradoxes of Faith (Ignatius Press) is a collection of thoughts by Henri Sonier de Lubac.  Brief and simple, yet enormously rich, it’s a treasure house of Christian wisdom.  And that should surprise no one.  Lubac (1896-1991), a French Jesuit, ranks as one of the great religious thinkers of the last century.  He was a prodigious author, a major influence on the Second Vatican Council, and a theologian revered by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.  But Paradoxes of Faith is not for the scholarly few.  It’s a text for Everyman: the kind of book a reader can pick up, browse for spiritual refreshment, put down, and return to again and again.

The man behind the book is worth noting.  Seen as a progressive in his youth, Lubac was active in the “spiritual resistance” to the Nazi occupation of France and its Vichy puppet regime.  He spent much of World War II in hiding.  The novelty of his thought drew distrust and criticism as insufficiently neo-Thomist in the 1950s, and his work was sharply restricted by his Jesuit superiors for several years.  He was also a friend of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and, to Rome’s annoyance, a strong defender of his controversial fellow Jesuit.

Nonetheless, Pope John XXIII appointed Lubac to the preparatory commission for Vatican II.  He then served as a peritus, or theological expert, at the council, where he helped to shape both of its constitutions on the Church, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. As a result, time has been rightly generous to Lubac’s legacy.  His books The Splendor of the Church, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, and Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, all available from Ignatius Press, have enduring beauty and power.

And yet the most curious events of the great man’s life occurred after Vatican II.  I met and interviewed Lubac at his home in Paris in 1985, thanks to mutual friends at the French edition of the international theological journal Communio. He lived on the city’s Left Bank at 42 rue de Grenelle in the 7th arrondissement: a large Jesuit house where he was transferred after John Paul II named him a cardinal in 1983.  I remember four things vividly about the afternoon I spent with Lubac: his white hair, his frayed black suit, his kindness, and his modesty.  He was utterly unimpressed with himself.  As it turned out, his Jesuit brothers were even less impressed, though far less excusably.

The reason for Lubac’s chilly treatment by his Paris community after Vatican II was simple:  He opposed the growing substitution of the word “universal” for “Catholic” in Church discussions, and he had an open distrust of sociology and psychoanalysis.  Along with theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean Danielou, and Louis Bouyer, he also criticized the theological journal Concilium for not being adequately faithful to the true meaning of Vatican II.  Lubac had a personal hand in launching the French edition of Communio, with its first issue released in September 1975.  He took an active part in board meetings, suggested writers, reviewed articles, asked for corrections and improvements, etc.  Later, as his strength ebbed, Communio executive committee meetings moved to his residence at the time, a small apartment on the rue de Sèvres.

As Communio veterans recount, Lubac’s Jesuit leaders in Paris viewed him, with exquisite irony, as an old conservative bore, still immersed in the Church Fathers and medieval scholasticism, and uninterested in the social sciences. When the first issue of Communio appeared, his house superior declined to circulate it on the grounds that it was “not in line with our [local community’s] pastoral strategy.”

In the words of one of Lubac’s surviving Communio colleagues, things got steadily worse.  When John Paul named Lubac to the College of Cardinals in 1983, lay friends were forced to purchase his red cassock and related garb, because his superiors felt that any money spent on Lubac’s honors would be redirected from the poor. They also resisted paying for Lubac’s return flight from Rome, but eventually relented.  Lubac then admitted to a Communio colleague that he also needed, but couldn’t afford, a decent black suit for his Rome investiture trip.  His entire wardrobe consisted of two pairs of trousers, one non-matching jacket, a few shirts, and minimal underwear which he washed himself.  As one lay friend recalls, “I had to threaten the provincial to reveal to the press how they treated the old man. So he sent the community’s bursar to Lubac’s flat, and he examined his wardrobe. He decided that one of the two pairs of trousers was still good enough and that buying just one new jacket would suffice.”

On the brighter side, Lubac enjoyed a close and very fruitful friendship with Hans Urs von Balthasar, who’d been Lubac’s pupil in Lyons and whom he deeply admired. He often told Communio friends that he himself was just a simple student of the Catholic Tradition, whereas Balthasar was a genius.  Lubac was also a friend and admirer of Karol Wojtyla. When he arrived in Paris in 1974, he immediately pressed for the launching of a Polish edition of Communio, under the leadership of the young Polish bishop – Wojtyla – whom he’d met at the council.  He kept repeating, said one colleague, that he’d never met anyone with such intellectual acumen, spiritual strength, and pastoral foresight.  “We only politely listened,” said the friend, “until John Paul II proved how right Lubac had been.”

Lubac could be harsh toward his fellow Jesuits and the Society’s evolution in the 20th century. He felt that a grave mistake had been made after World War II when the Society (in his view) decided that the challenge of the future was Marxism – which, he complained, had led to investing their best young men in the philosophy of Hegel and his posterity.  This meant giving up the centuries-old Jesuit strategy of educating elites to be more sensitive and committed to the poor; the poor who must be helped, but often cannot help themselves, at least intellectually. He also strongly disagreed with any interpretation of Vatican II as breaking away from a supposedly “sterile” Catholic past to embrace modernity uncritically.

The question remains whether Lubac was more painfully misunderstood before or after Vatican II.  At least some of his lay Paris friends would argue that his situation was worse after it.  Lubac’s mistreatment by his Jesuit brothers was not openly vulgar or brutal. It was just hypocritical and mean-spirited. Lubac stressed to friends privately that he himself had never really changed. But the times and prevailing wind had.  Thus, some of the very same conformists (or their clones) who had once hailed him as “boldly progressive” and “adventurous,” now dismissed him as “fearfully conservative” and “outmoded.”

In the end of course, Lubac’s patience in the face of mistreatment – first by Rome, and later by his Jesuit brothers – simply magnifies the immense integrity of the man and his service to the Church.  He understood the human predicament, the grandeur of God’s love, and the beauty of the Church with extraordinary clarity and fidelity.  Which is why, as I said at the start of these brief comments, I return to Paradoxes of Faith so often.

My dictionary defines a paradox as a seeming absurdity or impossible contradiction that somehow turns out to be true.  Each of us has hard days when words like “absurdity” and “contradiction” seem to capture the essence of a faithful Christian life.  But as Lubac knew from experience, and better than most, “Remember, after all, that the Gospel is full of paradoxes, that man is himself a living paradox, and that according to the Fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the supreme Paradox.”

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About Francis X. Maier 9 Articles
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.


    • I can testify that he did, and regularly. I can also say something else. He was often ill as a result from injuries he sustained at Verdun as a a medic. (Jesuit novices–he was one at the time, were conscripted in non-combat roles.) When he was bedridden, he asked me to help him get to the chapel so he could celebrate Mass. I remember him painfully changing from his slippers to shoes as he said it would not be reverent to celebrate Mass in slippers. I also remember later, when he was a Cardinal, and I visited him in his apartment–which had its own chapel–after an overnight fight from the US. I asked if I could say Mass in chapel. He graciously agreed…and then served my Mass on his knees!

      • Fr. Fessio: Is it certain that de Lubac was a medic during WW I? I have looked at Georges Chantraine’s biography, vol. I, and don’t see anything about that. And he certainly can’t be said to have been serving in “a non-combat role.” In his letters home at the time, he spared his family descriptions of the worst of his experiences, but later texts speak of the horrors he endured, how close he came to death on more than one occasion. Chantraine (I, 658) gives this summary: “Henri saw deaths, walked over corpses, used one of them to defend himself; he had to fire at the enemy.” It would not be surprising if, in addition to his physical wounds, he also suffered from PTSD in later years and decades.

  1. A friend and defender of Teilhard. That is very troubling right off the bat. His influence at the Second Vatican Council is hardly worthy of praise as the Council has wrought confusion and emptied parishes, doubt in the Real Presence, etc.

  2. Vatican II needs to be forgotten. There was a pride in the people of that time, including the popes, that they had the ability to change the world with their ideas and plans as if those who came before knew nothing. It was a Catholic Enlightenment, and Revolution much like the French had. It has been a disaster because it relied too heavily on the pride of man to overcome evil and not on God. Every time I hear Paul VI talk I hear a man who was very proud of his ideas. Not humble. Outwardly he made appearances of humility, but his ideas and those of council sound more like they were trying to build a new tower to God and all who came before were unenlightened. Just like when I hear the modern song at Mass, “Let US build a City of God!” Huh?? Us? Where is our reliance on God’s assistance? Sure we work, but it is God who does the action. Also, when I hear the accounts of the opening of the council and the completely disgusting treatment by those bishops who shouted down one of the old cardinals and laughed about it, I get a sick feeling. They shut off his microphone and basically took over the council. Sorry, this is not something to brag about. This was an immediate bad sign, and the pope should have made an immediate correction. Think about it, our own bishops mistreating a senior cardinal in such a manner is disgraceful. This sounds more like a meeting of the Soviets and not supposed Christian leaders. Scrap Vatican II. JPII and Benedict both tried to fix it without success and now we are back to worshiping some vague spirit of the council. And it ain’t the Holy Spirit we are worshipping.

    • “Vatican II needs to be forgotten. There was a pride in the people of that time…”

      Unlike our time, thank goodness.

      • Vatican II was not infallible. We should have a honest conversation about it. I favor Bishop Schneider’s thoughts on reforming it in his book “Christus Vincit” as a starting point. Archbishop Vigano’s argument on abandoning has merit as well. Pope Francis has muddied the waters even more.

    • Please at least browse some of the works of Fr. de Lubac mentioned by Fran Maier. You will find rich fare there, deeply Catholic and traditional. Your opinions about the Council, which certainly are not those of Pope St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict, have no application to Fr. de Lubac as a person, nor to his magnificent writings.

      • I understand what you are saying, but the article states he had some influence on the documents of VII. That’s why I brought up VII. As far as JPII and Benedict, who I much admire, but now looking back, it seems as though their attempted corrections of the application of the council, has been a failure, and we are now back to the 1970s on steroids, with the idea of a break with Catholic Teaching and a new church being born after the council. I am in agreement with Archbishop Vigano, the council needs to be forgotten or at least corrected. It has led the abysmal state of the church today of two churches existing within one. My great hope for the renewal of the church within my lifetime with JPII and Benedict, ended in great disappointment when Benedict abandoned us to wolves. It seems as though the great apostasy foretold is upon us, which started before VII, was written into the DNA of VII and nows has fully bloomed in this papacy. I believe God sent Our Lady to the humble people of Fatima to show us and tell us how to prevent this tragedy, but nobody listened because they no longer believed in the possibility of the supernatural. Respectfully submitted.

  3. Why no examples of the Cardinal’s thoughts, understandings, and yes, paradoxes of the Faith? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, maybe, maybe not, but Something Happened. I already sensed this in the late 1960s as a non Catholic in a parochial high school. The strong desire to become Catholic was extinguished by 1970. I would not enter the Church until Easter Vigil 2009.

  4. In his “The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin” (1962), de Lubac wrote, “Just as they [Matteo Ricci, and lesser known Jesuits Robert de Nobili, and Alexander do Rhodes] wanted to win distant civilizations for Christ, so he [de Chardin] wanted to win this new continent, the modern world of science” [to establish not a concordance, but a ‘coherence’ between religion and science].

    But not a real scientist, and criticized as a theologian, Chardin seems to have resorted to poetry, and de Lubac was swept along by his friend of thirty years, and his worthy, difficult and still unfulfilled intention. In his footnotes, de Lubac asserts that Chardin remained always strongly opposed to monism and pantheism: “No doctrine is more strongly opposed than his to this sort of ‘perpetual evolution’.”

    But, in the appendix to his “Trojan Horse and the City of God” (1967), Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote this account: “After a lively discussion [a 1951 dinner gathering with scholars] in which I ventured a criticism of his ideas, I had an opportunity to speak to Teilhard privately. When our talk touched on St. Augustine, he exclaimed violently: ‘Don’t mention that unfortunate man; he spoiled everything by introducing the supernatural.’ This remark confirmed the impression I had gained of the crass naturalism of his views, but it also struck me in another way: The criticism of St. Augustine—the greatest of the Fathers of the Church—betrayed Teilhard’s lack of a genuine sense of intellectual and spiritual grandeur.”

    • My comment is confined to de Lubac’s book on de Chardin where he tries mightily to hold Chardin in the camp. As for the few other writings I have read (especially “The Splendor of the Church”) I agree totally with Fr. Fessio: ” You will find rich fare there, deeply Catholic and traditional.”

  5. Maier’s article ending with de Lubac declaring the greatest paradox as the incarnation caught my interest. The reason is that the paradox of union between the divine and human is for us a mystery realized in the Person of Christ through faith, not reason. Reason follows with a limited comprehension of the mystery. Aquinas’ anthropology is a unity of matter and the spiritual unlike the Thomistic school that prescribed to a dualism of the physical and the spirit. Jeff Mirus’ ‘Henri de Lubac’s fascinating notes on Vat II’ attributes correction of that philosophical theological misleading premise to de Lubac. “It was actually de Lubac himself who struck the death blow to this naturalist error, and he did it partly through bypassing the schoolmen and going back to St. Thomas himself. De Lubac insisted (rightly) that the natural order must be understood not as a separate order but as a part of the overall order created by God, that is, as a component or aspect of a single supernatural order. Thus human nature is not in its essence cut off from grace; it is not isolated in a fundamentally different order of being. Rather, human nature has been created and formed such that each person who possesses it tends toward God, depends upon and is designed for receptivity to grace, and finds fulfillment in Divine union” (Mirus). Having scant knowledge of de Lubac comments by Fr Fessio who knew him personally I believe studied under him painted an image of a fascinating [combat medic at Verdun], holy man, intellectually gifted and humble. Apparently de Lubac understood Aquinas better than most. St Thomas ascribed all the natural appetites as ordained by God toward a good end, and the reasoned inclinations of those appetites inclined toward their due end. All human acts are ordained, when rightly reasoned to the ultimate end which is God. John Paul II repeats this in Veritatis Splendor. My thanks to the editors.

  6. This is an interesting discussion. I appreciate Fr. Fessio’s comments. Let me provide a glancing insight. In the summer of 1965 as an incoming freshman I attended summer school at Creighton Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school in Omaha and my alma mater. I took a course “introduction to Physical Science” taught by a young Jesuit scholastic, Mr. Novak. I do not know what has become of him. Each morning of the course he would present each member of the class with a mimeographed quote or paragraph from a book of Teilhard de Chardin. I particularly remember the Divine Milieu. After a summer of reading these passages, a 13 year old would appropriately come away thinking that Teilhard de Chardin must somehow be an important theologian. I have not read de Lubac. However, sitting on the shelf in front of me I have the three books of de Chardin that I have read through: The Divine Milieu, The Future of Man, and the Phenomenon of Man. The Diving Milieu has many lovely passages. Today as a scientist and physician, an orthodox Catholic, I think de Chardin had some deep sense of the Spirit working in the Catholic soul as it moves through the world, moving the world. He says, “The Christian…is at once the most attached and the most detached of men.” He ways a visionary with a high view of mankind. I do not endorse all his work. I write here in part to point out that in 1965 in Omaha, Nebraska, the initiation of an education at a Jesuit high school included a regular diet of Teilhard de Chardin–not any of the Catholic writers from the 20 preceding centuries. The Jesuits in France may have had little room for de Lubac and de Chardin, but manifestly Jesuits elsewhere had taken them up. But what strikes me in retrospect was that our formation in those years began with de Chardin and not with foundational writers. The Church was getting off the rails at that time, and it included an unfortunate view of formation separated from the classics. I offer this only as an insight to those times. The roots of our problems must antedate 1965.

  7. This may seem like quibbling.
    I notice that Fr. Fessio refers to de Lubac. Mr. Maier, no slouch as far as I can tell, calls him Lubac. Which is it?
    (Hint: Don’t call me Gilberta Houtven).

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