Henri de Lubac (1896-1991)
The early life of Lubac was set in the atmosphere of intense
Church-State conflict (see Yves Congar). Lubac's
Catholicism, was not published until 1938. It included an apparently
innocent assertion that the desire for a vision of God is at the heart of
every person and that this vision is a free gift of God .
If this is the nature of God's relationship with us, then it follows
that Christianity has an intensely social aspect since it embraces and
expands into every aspect of the lives of all. Lubac's main purpose was to
correct what he saw as the Roman Catholic tendency to withdraw into narrow
piety - or at best be satisfied with a socially useful role in the greater
whole of culture. Salvation for him was essentially a social phenomenon.
Lubac was widely read, and to that extent could be said to have been an
early influence in what, after the Second World War, became a push to move
Christians more into radical social action. This push was at its most
extreme in so-called "Liberation Theology" which tended to see Jesus
primarily as one who frees us from social, economic and political
He joined the Society of Jesus in 1913 and studied in its houses in
Jersey and Fourviere. He obtained his doctorate in theology at the
Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained in 1927. He was forced to
leave Lyon during the German occupation because of his activities with the
Lubac, like Congar, used historical data and references to demonstrate
his points. He thought history shows clearly that the Church at its best
addresses every aspect of human life. If salvation has been promised to
individuals, he thought that this inevitably implies potential salvation
at a social level as well.
In his later writing, Lubac expanded this theme to address the
anti-Church secularism of the Third Republic in France. The State's
position was, he thought, merely a mirror-image of an equally mistaken
supernaturalist religion on the part of Christians. This supernaturalism
resulted in an empty shell of cultic rituals and barren observance, and
gave rise to individualistic piety.
Conflict between Church and State in France was, he maintained, not so
much the fault of atheists but of theologians. They had, in effect,
betrayed the patristic conception of nature as a unified whole directed
beyond itself by God's grace to a supernatural destiny. In its place they
had put a stark distinction between nature and grace. It was hardly
surprising that as a result what is "merely" human tended to be
downgraded. We might today remark that it accounts for a Christian
tendency to think of, for example, politics as corrupt and of sexuality as
He went further in his The Supernatural (1946) and was ordered
by the Vatican to stop publication when doctrinal objections were raised.
The dualism of grace-versus-nature, he thought, had been invented by Roman
Catholics as a protection against Protestant and humanist ideas. Out of
that dualism had sprung the self-made "enemies" labelled as deism
and atheism. The Church had, in effect, spawned its own detractors:
... for about three centuries ... many could see salvation only in a
complete severance between the natural and the supernatural ... the
supernatural, deprived of its links with nature, tended to be understood
by some as a mere "super-nature", a "double" of nature ... after such a
complete separation what misgivings could the supernatural cause to
naturalism? For the latter no longer found it at any point in its path,
and could shut itself up in a corresponding isolation ...
There is and has been a tendency amongst Christian theologians and
ecclesiastics over the ages to assume that current formulations of
teaching represent some sort of absolute truth, a final word, a closing
pronouncement. In doing so, they fail to see or deliberately ignore the
currents in and changes to doctrine over the ages. Lubac's great strength
lay in exposing errors in this respect by working simply as an historian
So, for example, he showed conclusively that the "firm and final"
teachings of his day about the nature of the Church and the Eucharist had
changed radically from earlier eras - contrary to the official line that
current Roman Catholic doctrine presents eternal truth for all. In fact,
he said, a desire to defend Catholic teaching had caused theologians to
distort the original teaching about the Eucharist by employing
pseudo-rational methods. They had thus mistakenly come up with the
doctrine of transubstantiation.
This error meant that theologians of his day should, he thought,
seriously rethink the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church.
The Eucharist had originally been thought of as the mystical body
of Christ. The term "body of Christ" was properly reserved only for the
Church, following Paul's original lead (1 Corinthians 12.13). What had
happened, de Lubac thought, was that the term "body" migrated in the 12th
century to refer to the Church instead of the Eucharist. As a result the
balance tended to shift from the Church to an isolated, individual piety
and liturgical ceremony.
We should note that the Roman Catholic Church of Lubac's time was still
dominated by neo-Thomism. At the same time the official Church was
intensely fearful of the perplexing challenges of modernism - as many
parts of it still are today. Lubac's approach to tradition and the
Eucharist was considered shocking by many at the time (1944) and was
quickly attacked. But he was saved from the full force of official
retribution by the distractions of World War II.
His emphasis on change as a normal and natural aspect of Christianity
(that is, what is theologically known by some as "God's grace" operating
in the world) helped open up the Roman Church somewhat to ecumenism. This
movement was gradually stifled in later years, and by the end of the 20th
century had more or less ceased between Roman Catholics and other
Christians at official level. (Though in some places a grass-roots unity
is slowly being forged at local level out of necessity.)
In stressing grace, Lubac had to overcome the notion that God's action
is alien from everything natural, and particularly from human
nature. The result of this way of regarding the world was that what is
natural tended to be downgraded or even demeaned in relation to the
so-called spiritual. Ironically, though, Lubac later became troubled by
what he saw as a tendency to secularise important aspects of humanity in
the 1960s. He thought that just as the Roman Church had retreated into a
"spiritual" lager at the turn of the 19th
century, so it now tended to exalt the immanent. This sort of imbalance
was not what the Church should strive for.
In all this Lubac suffered considerable ongoing harassment from fellow
Society of Jesus theologians - considerably more than his contemporary,
Yves Congar, had to endure. He was never summonsed to the Vatican to
explain his views. But who knows how much of what he expressed was
dictated by considerations of prudence - or even how much of what he
really thought was censored because of a need to survive? Not very much,
if some of his writing is any indication.
He became increasingly troubled by what he perceived as openness to the
world in Vatican II, which he thought ran the risk of turning into an
acceptance of secular humanism. In a 1969 address he linked unity of the
Roman Catholic Church directly to a personal love for Christ. It is wrong
to suppose that the Church and individual faith can be juxtaposed. The
Church runs the risk of collapse when criticised from within, and
... when each one takes as his mission to criticize everything, when
each one sets out to rewrite dogma and morality according to his own
wishes, the Church disintegrates.
Those whose messing around with individualistic theology weakens the
... insult all those who hold on to what their faith requires of them
as Christians. Inasmuch as it depends on them, they ruin the Church. A
Church in which this form of disorder exists and where such morals are
accepted is doomed, for it cannot be efficacious; it will have no
missionary zeal, no ecumenical force.
These are strong words, hardly representative of one who is prepared to
criticise the Church at a level deeper than its own inward-looking
concerns. On the whole, de Lubac tended to be cautious in his approach.
Typical were his two books on Teilhard de Chardin in which his broadly
sympathetic judgement was tempered by sharp criticism of de Chardin's
attachment to science in general and physics in particular.
De Lubac was summoned to take part in the earlier stages of the Second
Vatican Council. Despite his earlier views, de Lubac falls into a group of
theologians who resisted what they saw as a tendency of the Council to
give in to secular (atheist) views of Jesus. Those who sought to connect
with post-Enlightenment thinking were opposed by those who thought that
the Church needed not radical change but renewal. The latter was best
served by recovering the true spirit of Christian tradition.
Significantly, in the light of events following Vatican II, those who
followed this line included Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger and
Karol Wojtyla (now John Paul II). Renewal implied ditching individualism
and autonomy and returning to a patristic view of authority. If de Lubac
had joined forces with Karl Rahner and Hans Kung his elevation to Cardinal
Deacon in 1983 would have been unlikely.
 My limited access to information on de Lubac has led me
to depend very heavily in this summary on French Theology: Yves Congar
and Henri de Lubac, by Fergus Kerr, OP, in The Modern Theologians,