A few months ago, I interviewed the patristics scholar, Dr. Lewis Ayres. Dr. Ayres is understandably very favorably disposed towards the school of modern theology that has come to be known as “ressourcement” theology. However, in his view, the original ressourcement thinkers – theologians including Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Romano Guardini, among others – were regrettably only marginally successful at recentering and reforming Catholic theology via a “return to the sources” of Scripture and the Fathers. Part of the blame for this resides with the incompleteness of the original project itself.
In his 1967 book, The Church: Paradox and Mystery, now republished by Ignatius Press, Henri de Lubac agrees with this assessment. He states:
These overly quick reflections … are meant … as an urgent invitation to help carry out, with great resolve, an extensive research project. Although much work has already been done in this camp – work too little known or popularized among the Christian masses – it has so far reached neither the breadth nor, often, the boldness desirable. The alliance of the critical spirit with the religious spirit is always a sign of Christian renewal. (202)
To a great extent de Lubac’s call for a great research project to carry forward the theological gains of the Council and the ressourcement theology that animated it was short-circuited and never developed with the robust vigor that he envisioned. De Lubac was aware this was happening already in 1967 and his book can therefore be read as an attempt to remind his readers what it was that the Council actually said and taught, especially with regard to the nature of the Church, her evangelizing mission, and the Christian task in the world of today. It was also to critique those theologies which were exploding onto the scene at that time, and which were threatening to scuttle the entire conciliar project via a radical progressive revisionism.
De Lubac knew acutely that in the immediate aftermath of the Council, the ressourcement project was being eclipsed by the confluence of various schools of progressive Catholic theology and the cultural tsunami of the Sixties. And like so many of his fellow ressourcement thinkers – men who were instrumental in bringing about the theological renewal that led to the Council and who were actively involved in the Council as periti – de Lubac lamented what was happening in the Church. He was unsparing, and often quite sharp, in his denunciation of the theological guild that had apparently lost its mind, if not its faith. And he did so knowing that, as he puts it:
Such remarks … risk getting their author classified in some infamous category. He will be treated as “conservative” or “reactionary” or “fundamentalist” or simply “outdated” – so many words can be diverted from their meaning and misapplied. It is none the less certain that the whole future of the Church … depends today on an energetic awakening of the faith. To free the Christian conscience from a morbid negativism, of a neurasthenia that gnaws at her, of an inferiority complex that paralyzes her, of a network of ambiguities that stifles her, is to set the first requirement of the renewal to which the Church aspires. (190-191)
Psychology, sociology, and Marxist political theory were in, and the Church Fathers were out. The great debate that ensued was, therefore, a debate about the “sources” for doing theology. De Lubac was unsparing in his criticism of those theologies that ignored the Christocentric focus of the Council, especially, the context of the proper sources for doing theology, the Christocentric renewal of the theology of Revelation developed in Dei Verbum. And what is significant is that so much of the progressive theological agenda was grounded in a false notion of the nature and grace relation, where nature is overly supernaturalized from the get-go, leading to the notion that the sources of special Revelation are multi-focal, global, and deeply subjectivist in the “experience” of individuals.
Thus, the loci for Revelation are no longer confined to Scripture and Tradition in a privileged manner; Christ himself is relativized as just one “savior figure” among many. It is clearly galling to de Lubac that his own studies in the theology of nature and grace, with its emphasis on paradox and the mystery of the divine humanity of Christ as the model, should be so summarily dismissed in favor of such ersatz and kitschy theologies that simply wanted to bless the prevailing Zeitgeist as a movement of the Holy Spirit.
Along these same lines, this book further criticisizes the misuse of the conciliar term “the people of God”, the misuse of the conciliar teachings on ecumenism, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and the liturgy. As de Lubac states:
And similar observations could be made with respect to the constitution on the liturgy, at times sacrilegiously violated, or the decrees on ecumenism, on the religious life, etc.! What miserable realities, what degradations, going so far as perversion, are sometimes hidden under the lie of the word ‘renewal’! (194)
Ignatius Press has done us a tremendous service in republishing this text since so many of the same debates that de Lubac notes are still going on today, and with a renewed pitch and punch. One great value of this text therefore is that it is like a time capsule allowing us to look backward, like the James Webb telescope peering at the universe’s first light, and to see one of the most important ressourcement theologians of the century reacting to the revolution going on in the Church a mere two years after the closing of the Council.
This is important since it gives vivid testimony to the fact that the theologians who were most formative of the conciliar theology recognized almost immediately that what came after were horrific distortions of the Council and not its development.
But I would be remiss if I give the impression that the book is one long lament about the current state of theology. It is not, and the first half of the book is a detailed analysis of Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium in particular, even if de Lubac still has one eye on the conciliar texts and one eye on their distortion in contemporary theology. Throughout it all, de Lubac is at pains to get to the essence of the conciliar teachings in order to show how they represent a retrieval of the broader tradition of the Church, especially in light of the Fathers and the renewal of scriptural theology.
The guiding light of it all is the renewed Christological concentration. De Lubac’s discussion of the Church as paradox and mystery is rooted in the fact the Church is the Body and Bride of Christ, and the eschatological in-breaking of the Kingdom. Thus, her “mystery” is nothing other than the mystery of the Incarnation as such, the grand and shocking truth that God has become a man and dwelt among us. The Infinite has become the finite while remaining Infinite. The world is more itself precisely as world the more eccentric to itself it becomes and the more concentric to Christ it is. This points to the grand paradox of nature and grace, where the natural end of creation is completion in Christ, even as that natural end cannot be achieved by nature as such, requiring, as Aquinas says, assistance from a “friend” to reach its goal, and in this case that friend is God.
De Lubac thus ties all the Council’s texts to this grand paradox of nature and grace wherein the Church seeks a reinvigorated evangelization through an engagement with the world that is neither simply a blessing of the Zeitgeist nor a retreat into the facile nostrums of fortress Catholicism. The Church was made for the world, and the Church’s entire institutional structure is a merely provisional reality that will one day pass away. Nevertheless, following the fathers, de Lubac also notes the Council affirms that the Church is also the very presence of the Kingdom since she is the sacrament of Christ himself. This is the paradox at the heart of the Church, which is also her deep mystery—and it is the dissolution of the paradox of nature and grace in the post-conciliar debates that was creating division and confusion.
It is by now a tired and shopworn trope, but it remains true and bears repeating: the impasse between traditionalists and progressives is precisely the impasse the Council sought to resolve in the higher synthesis of ressourcement theology. And for de Lubac, it was to the great shame of the theological guild that it refused this moment, that it did not recognize the moment of its visitation, and opted instead to pursue accommodation with the anti-Gospel ethos of modernity.
Nor is this an anti-intellectualist rant from de Lubac but rather a cri de couer for professional theologians; they must remember that the focus of their scholarship should never be the academy as such, but rather service to the faith of the Church. As de Lubac himself notes, in an appendix at the end of the book, which was a lecture he gave at Saint Louis University in 1969:
Speaking before this noble assembly … I know I have not spoken as a scholar, as some might have expected. Perhaps this deserves a word of apology. Yet I know that I have spoken as a theologian. Is it not necessary, when the gravity of the hour demands it, for the theologian to be able to suspend for a moment his historical investigations, his constructions, and his personal research – to which he would, moreover, be wrong at any time to attach an excessive importance – in order to remember that his entire existence as a theologian and all the authority that this profession has earned him are founded above all on the task he received to defend and illustrate the faith of the Church. (206)
These are the last lines in the book, but they could just as easily have been the first, since they act as a theological epigraph sitting above the entire text which is an extended meditation on the paradox and mystery of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, and the manner in which this Christological mystery is the essential core of the Church as well. Thus, all theology within the Church must be marked by a methodology appropriate to this Christological object, which de Lubac thinks requires the coming together of both the critical and the contemplative forms of reason, which he further takes to be the transformative revolution in thought introduced by the Christian evangel. In this regard, de Lubac’s approach to theological methodology mirrors that of his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, who once famously opined that all truly Christian theology must begin and end as a theology “on one’s knees” in prayer.
Furthermore, unless theology grounds its critical function in a contemplative posture, it risks losing sight of the mystery at the heart of the Church – the mystery of Christ’s divinized humanity made truly present to history through the ongoing mediation of the Church. In so losing sight of this mystery, theology can actually degenerate into a kind of tyranny that sees nothing but obscurity and error in the Church’s various doctrinal and moral constructions. And which even seeks to nullify the Icon of God that is Christ through the use of purely secular forms of historical research, the net effect of which is the undermining of that Icon as a late construction of the Church now superimposed on a putative “historical Jesus” whose reality is anybody’s guess.
Herein lies the ultimate importance of this text. It is a meditation on how Vatican II sought to ground the Church’s dogmatic structure in a Christological concentration, which was itself a renewed attempt to encounter the living Christ. In other words, the “historical Jesus” is the “Jesus of faith” and the Church’s creedal affirmations and her sacraments actually provide us with access to the real Jesus of Nazareth, the real Christ, in a manner that far surpasses the feeble academic historical “reconstructions” of the so-called “scientific exegetes.”
And in so retrieving the full paradox and mystery of the Lord, the Council was also retrieving the Church herself.
The Church: Paradox and Mystery
By Henri de Lubac.
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 219 pages
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