Yves Congar (1904-95)
A Roman Catholic Dominican priest, Congar did most of his important work
in France during a time of great change. He began his ministry in a social
atmosphere derived from conflict between the French State and the Roman Church.
It was in the latter part of the 19th century that supporters of
the French Third Republic intensified conflict with Roman Catholics.
Their stance was anti-clerical, a social position originally deriving its power
from the French revolution of 1789. The Church had then been closely identified
with the monarchy and suffered accordingly. In 1905 legislation was passed to
ensure the separation of Church and State in constitutional law. At the same
time, support of public funds was withdrawn from the Roman Church, and church
buildings became the property of the State. Parish finances were brought under
State supervision. This negative action by the French State was probably in
response to the attack on liberalism and science initiated by Pope Pius X. In
1903 he had seemed to extend the principle of papal infallibility to political
affairs by writing that
... the Sovereign Pontiff, invested by Almighty God with the supreme
magistrature, has no right to remove political affairs from the sphere of faith
and morals. 
Many Catholics, faced by the State's determined opposition to papal
initiatives, looked back for legitimisation to the anti-Protestant position of
the Council of Trent (1545-63). Their bulwark was traditional Catholicism. In
short, through defending itself against an anti-clerical State, the Roman Church
attempted to retain legitimacy by reverting to essentially medieval origins.
Some of Congar's childhood friends were Jewish and some Protestant. This
may have stimulated his later openness to ecumenism in which he differed from
many of his contemporaries.
It was then usual for young men who wished to be ordained to offer
themselves at an early age. Congar was only 17 when he entered a Carmelite
seminary in Paris - although he had at first thought he might become a medical
He was introduced to the works of Thomas Aquinas and eventually joined the
Dominican Order in 1925, perhaps drawn by their attention to Aquinas at the
time. One of his Dominican superiors helped stimulate Congar's move towards
ecumenism, as did his attendance at the Faith and Order Conference in 1927 at
Lausanne. Congar's thesis for his internal Dominican qualification was on the
unity of the Church.
Congar was ordained priest in 1930. By the early 1930s a number of French
Roman Catholic theologians were beginning to find ways out of the social
cul-de-sac they found themselves in as a result of State sanctions. In the
previous decades religious orders had needed to be licensed by the State.
Congar's order (and others) had consequently shifted their headquarters
overseas. The French Benedictines had gone as far as to move their entire
library out of France.
He did not hold a university post but studied in a seminary context, at
the Dominican study-centre in Belgium. He began lecturing there and as a
result became familiar with various modernist thinkers who had developed
Christian thought around the turn of the century. But, as D F Ford writes,
his ecumenical contacts were "... simply punctuations of a domestic round of
study and teaching, set within an austere monastic and liturgical framework"
Congar's monastic life continued until the outbreak of the Second World
War when he became a military chaplain. He did not support the Vichy
Government and spent most of the war years as a prisoner of war in the harsh
security of the Colditz prison camp.
Congar became familiar with the work of a loose group of Roman Catholics
whose concern was to rescue the Church from what they thought of as a blind
alley, closed to anything new.
The new approach came to be called ""ressourcement" - the
"rediscovery" or "retrieval" of the resources of the past 2 000 years. In
this view, teaching had been distorted and sometimes destroyed by the
excessive emphasis since the Council of Trent on the total authority of the
Ressourcement was not, however, a coherent movement but a loose coming
together of theologians who had reached similar conclusions. They looked back to
times during which Christianity had been expressed with (in their view)
particular intensity. It was essentially an attempt to rediscover a real or
imagined purity of faith by going back to the early centuries of Christianity.
This emphasis was also to be found in England during the 1930s, epitomised by an
attempt to return to primitive (therefore pure) forms of liturgy.
Rather than attempting to radically change the nature of the way we
understand being Christian, ressourcement theologians (amongst whom were
the like of Hans Kung, Karl Rahner and Henri De Lubac) sought to modify it while
keeping to its essentials. They failed, in my opinion, to realise that any
reforms gained by being more traditional - in the sense of going back to
origins - would ensure an eventual reversion to the very position with which
they felt uncomfortable. Central to the failure was an unwillingness to
acknowledge that merely tinkering with the engine of the Church was
insufficient. Repairing a Model-T Ford doesn't make it suitable for cruising
modern motorways. Nor does modifying traditional doctrine make Christian
teaching compatible with modern science and its analytic offshoots.
Nevertheless, their brave sallies into the future did result in liturgical
reforms, in temporary moves towards non-supremacist ecumenism and in some
enhancement of lay leadership in the top-heavy Roman Catholic Church. The
clerical element was important in attempts to stem the incoming tide of modern
thought. In Germany during the 1930s, for example, 40 million Protestants were
served by 16 000 pastors. Only 20 million Roman Catholics were cared for by 20
For Congar, ressourcement meant an attempt to apply the methods of
historical research to the Church and its theology. But he thought that one
should not throw out the baby with the bathwater - the dimension of a faith
response to God's grace should not be dismissed. In this he was no doubt
influenced by a period spent earlier studying Lutheran teaching in
Germany. He seems to have felt considerable sympathy with the work of Karl
Barth and the latter's emphasis on a triumph of faith over reason.
Unfortunately the ressourcement approach matured too early to
recognise fully the roots of its failure in the world which followed the
renewal of the 1960s. Congar had no doubt hoped that an inward-looking
Church might renew itself if true Christianity as "once and for all
delivered to the saints" could be brought back to it.
As it turned out, after World War II his ecumenical contacts, his travels
abroad, and the broader focus of his writings brought him to the attention
of the mainstream Roman Catholic hierarchy. In 1947 an article about the
Roman Catholic Church in relation to the newborn World Council of Churches
was banned by the Vatican.
In harmony with his position about the laity, he published in the early
1950s a number of articles supporting the adventurous worker-priest movement
in France. For this he was exiled first to Jerusalem and then to England and
was forbidden to teach. He did not return to France until 1955.
His pioneering thinking (pioneering, that is, in relation to conservative
French Catholicism) was recognised when Pope John 23rd appointed him
"theological consultor" to the committee preparing for the Second Vatican
Council. He helped work on many of the Council's major documents.
The somewhat more liberal nature of the papal hierarchy after the Second
Vatican Council enabled Congar to contribute to a number of initiatives. He
was a member of the Catholic-Lutheran commission. During these latter years,
Congar retreated somewhat from his earlier position, complaining that
openness to novelty, as he put it, tended to be used by some as "proposals
of rupture". He was made a Cardinal in 1994 just before he died.
In order to open up the rigid situation in relation to the growing
ecumenical movement, Congar researched the background of the Church's
East/West schism. He restated old ideas of the Church in order to give
others material to work out ways for the Catholic Church to participate in
the ecumenical movement. As far as he was concerned the Catholic Church was
seriously alienated from French culture by a damaging legalism. This, he
thought, was a distortion of the truth and presented to the world a false
vision of Jesus as Messiah.
He thought also that the Church should pay greater attention to the
experiences of ordinary Catholic Christians. The priesthood, he thought,
should define itself in terms of the laity, rather than the other way
around. In a clerically-dominated organisation such as the Roman Catholic
Church, this sort of line naturally drew attention and disapproval.
So that Catholics could be freed from a priest-focused ministry, Congar
researched the Church's origins. His aim was to restore the laity to its
rightful role as it had been originally - as primary agents of Christian
ministry, rather than being passive subjects on whose behalf priests
practised the "true" ministry.
Each one of us for his own little world, all of us for the world at large
� The whole Church is sacramental and missionary, and so is each Christian
is his degree
History shows, he maintained, that historical context tends to modify the
experience of people. There might be less of a case for an unchanging, constant
set of truths than the official Roman Catholic position of the time proposed. In
True and False Reform in the Church, published after World War II, he
suggested structural reforms which would allow the Church to respond and adapt
to society's needs and priorities. Few, if any, of these reforms have been
implemented, which may account for the now rapid decline in the 21st century of
the Roman Catholic Church as a social force impacting directly either on
government or on European populations as a whole.
In a similar vein, Congar wrote in the late 1950s that "�to try to keep the
faithful in a sort of Catholic ghetto � is a positively fantastic idea". He
commends Popes who have called on Catholics "�again and again boldly to take
their part in world affairs". The Church would do so most effectively if it was
the laity who took on the role of bridge between Church and society. This
mediating role wasn't the job of a priestly hierarchy but of ordinary
As Ford puts it, Congar held that
The laity are responsible for the interchange between the two great
histories, sacred and profane. By relating the world to the church, they provide
the Kingdom of God with its earthly material.
Congar writes elsewhere in reference to a representative role for the laos
of the Church that it is "� a representative minority that is spiritually
responsible for the final destiny of all". Such a position is compatible with
the possibility that God is not limited to the Church. God acts through his
creation, and the Church is an organisation dedicated to co-operating with God
in that action.
Similarly, he revisited the doctrine and history of the Holy Spirit,
producing in the late 1970s a 3-volume work entitled I Believe in the
Holy Spirit which was much-studied during his life.
The emphasis of his work turned on a distinction between the Holy Spirit as
speaking to and through the Church's hierarchy alone, and the Holy Spirit as the
giver of new life to all Christians. It also dealt with the then controversial
"Charismatic Renewal" sweeping through the Catholic Church, and with the
doctrinal impasse regarding the Holy Spirit between Catholics and Orthodox
hierarchies. As the world moves into the 21st century, there is a budding
recognition (probably linked to increasing globalisation) that the Holy Spirit
is not only not "owned" by the Roman Catholic Church, but is not the possession
of Christianity at large. Nevertheless, Congar's views have helped a generation
of Christians broaden their perceptions considerably.
Congar's work was not a systematic production of a body of doctrine. So
perhaps he can't be reproached for not having perceived that the Roman Catholic
hierarchy might later use his material to maintain rather than moderate the
essentials of traditional doctrine.
In later life he didn't perceive clearly the degree to which, in Europe and
Britain at least, the Church has alienated itself from the bulk of society (or,
as the Roman Catholic hierarchy might put it, society has alienated itself from
the Church). In the final resort, Congar took his position within the Church
looking outwards into society. In effect, he seems to have thought of the Church
as "in" with God, and the rest of humanity as somehow deficient in this respect.
One example of this is to be found in his The Wide World, My Parish.
He notes that the questions he's dealing with in the book
... are raised in Christian terms, and their answers are outlined
in Christian terms, starting from Christian
premises (his italics).
He balances his stance by giving due credit to the open-mindedness of
It seems to me that the root of Congar's ultimate position lies in the
way he thought about revelation. In the Wide World he deals with
ordinary teachings such as purgatory and hell, freedom and choice, the
resurrection and salvation outside the Church. But by his own admission, all
these answers are derived directly from God via the teaching of the Church.
The Church is the vessel into which the "unction" of the Spirit is
poured. As a result, the Church provides "... the nourishing and educative
milieu of faith" through which its teachings are determined. Strictly
speaking this teaching is absolute on one hand, but on the other it is "...
the permanence of a past in a present in whose heart the future is being
prepared". In Tradition and Traditions (1963) Congar argues that the
Church expresses the essential revelation in differing ways throughout the
ages. At the centre of God's revelation stands the figure of Jesus.
It seems to me, however, that if one believes that God has spoken,
directly or indirectly, to humankind one is caught in a dead-end street. If
God's revelation changes only in our understanding of it, how can we say
that we know what the revelation is? What fundamental revelation is stated
one way in the year 400 and another in the year 1400? If we know that
revelation, why not state it once and for always?
For the proclaimed possessor of absolute truth, negotiation of difference is
necessarily one-way. An increasing number of Christians today think that
Christianity is only one among many ways of understanding God. It follows that
the Church's teachings are a chosen means of expressing our understanding
of the world. If chosen, they can change with new understanding.
Congar, in contrast, describes God as "the beginning and the end". In
other words, nothing that comes from God is incomplete. If that's the case,
then what is revealed to us by God must be complete and truthful. Congar
... for Christians, there is a real history of salvation [and it is] to
Christians that we have to apply the idea of being the dynamic representative
minority that is spiritually responsible for the final destiny of all.
Those final words are increasingly unacceptable to those who are in direct
contact with other faiths and who perceive the irreconcilable conflicts which
must arise from any absolutist position. In my view, Christians have a hard
enough time living according to the precepts of Jesus, without worrying too much
about those whose convictions derive from a different source.
Congar has nevertheless been a considerable influence, perhaps because much
of his work has been about the Church ("ecclesiology") in a time of great change
in the 1960s, followed by a conservative backlash towards the end of the 20th
century. He seems to have helped many move to a more inclusive notion of
Christianity. In an age which demands the greater coherence of differing
communities, his vision of many Christian communities relating to the (Roman
Catholic) Church as parts relating to the whole has been stimulating.
The relationship of the Church as a whole (in all its parts) to "the world"
has been less successful, in my view. A certain unity-in-difference between
parts of the Church exists. But that same unity-in-difference doesn't extend
between Christians and non-Christians in Congar's thinking.
This isn't surprising. If revelation is the source of an absolute and
ultimate truth, and if it comes to us through the Church(es), then the role of
non-Christians in any transformation or "conversion" is to listen and change.
Strictly speaking, it isn't possible for "the world" to direct and correct God's
Ford summarises Congar's outlook with a neat but descriptive phrase - he was
"prophetic yet traditional".
Congar was able, through a personal openness and generosity, to relate
positively to Christians outside the Roman Catholic fold. The same generous
spirit protected him somewhat from clerical arrogance. True priesthood was, he
affirmed, not the province of a cult but of a converted people of God.
Congar cannot be said, however, to have been in close touch with the more
radical elements of Christian change in the second half of the 20th century. His
thought was both coherent and adventurous - but only within the overall and
rather narrow context of traditional patristic teachings.
He did not realise, I think, that he had failed to provide a truly
far-reaching theory of knowledge to back up his analysis of the roots of the
Christian way of life. This has prevented his work being more than peripherally
useful to those who seek to bring Jesus of Nazareth to contemporary Western
 Quote from A History of Christianity, Paul
Johnson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
 The Modern Theologians, Volume I, 1989