Henri de Lubac, SJ

About a year ago, a man from San Antonio sent me a short letter. “Back in the summer of 1982, I was sent to Lyon, France, as punishment for what had been a tumultuous freshman year at a Jesuit high school, after which I was asked not to return (incidentally, not because of grades),” he wrote. “I was to spend thirty-five days doing the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola with a family friend, Fr. Henri de Lubac. ‘Fr. Henri’ and I had a wonderful time and he helped me out a lot. We talked about his time in the French resistance in WWII, among other things.” What a punishment! “Fr. Henri,” or Henri de Lubac, SJ (1896–1991), was one of the preeminent Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. In 1983, one year after my correspondent’s encounter with de Lubac, Pope John Paul II would make him a cardinal deacon, a largely honorary position, recognizing his vast theological contributions and holiness of life. It is fitting that de Lubac guided this man to discover God’s will during his difficult youth. Spiritual discernment and spiritual resistance were characteristic of de Lubac’s Jesuit vocation and personal mission.

Four decades earlier, de Lubac was involved in the effort to guide the church’s response to anti-Semitic racism in German-controlled France. In 1940 Germany invaded the north of France and exercised de facto authority over the Vichy government in southern France. De Lubac had been assigned to Lyon, a center of the French resistance against Nazism in the Vichy-controlled zone libre. It became a refuge for exiles from German-occupied Paris—artists, Communists, intellectuals, and everyday people caught up in the war—who from there fought back against Nazism. From 1940 to 1944, the dark years of German occupation, de Lubac became a figure in the “spiritual resistance.” He was part of a loose network of Catholic lay people, bishops, and priests who risked everything to guide the church during this crisis. Spiritual resistance was the name given to these unarmed efforts—prayer, preaching, organizing, and writing—to resist Nazi ideology, but spiritual did not mean it was passive. De Lubac did not think of resistance as primarily a political activity extraneous to Christian identity. Instead, he saw it as a spiritual activity coextensive with the vocation of the Christian Church and inextricable from what it means to be a Christian.

The theological foundations for de Lubac’s anti-racism were outlined in his 1938 book Catholicism. There he argued that God sought to heal the divisions among the human race caused by sin and to regather human beings into a true unity. The church is the communio sanctorum, both the means to the unity of the human race and the visible sign of that unity, albeit incomplete this side of eternity. Racism, therefore, is not merely a moral failure. It strikes at the foundation of Christian doctrine.

Early on in the German occupation, de Lubac spoke out openly against Nazism. A series of lectures at the Catholic University of Lyon in 1940 gave de Lubac “an opportunity to attack racism,” drawing from the Christian notion of a common human origin and a common human destiny. In these lectures, de Lubac interpreted Nazism religiously and theologically as anti-Christian at its very root. For de Lubac, anti-Semitism is fundamentally theological, for its chief characteristic is the rejection of the God of the Jews and of the Bible. The hatred toward Judaism found in atheist humanism—Auguste Comte, Action Française, Louis Ménard, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Alfred Rosenberg—is principally an attack on the idea of God: “What it blames [Judaism] for, then, is what is most incontestable as well as most spiritual in the Bible”—that, is for “its very transcendence.” European anti-Semites did not reject God’s favor toward a particular people, the Jews. They rejected a God who dispelled the ancient myths and who transcends the universe. They desired a return to the gods of nation and blood. “When we speak of ‘neopaganism,’ that is not a polemical expression,” he explained: “In a renewed form, it is indeed the ancient pagan ideal that is waking to reject Christ.” This amounted to “nothing less than the definitive apostasy of Europe.” Reflecting on those lectures, he wrote, “In my naïveté, I still believed at that time that I was expressing the common sentiment of a very large part, if not all, of French Catholicism. I will also admit that if I had been able to foresee in concrete terms what was going to take place in the course of the following four years, I too would have undoubtedly been afraid and ‘given way by a timid flight.’”

When de Lubac’s open opposition to anti-Semitism became more dangerous, he turned to publishing underground journals, including Cahiers du Témoignage chrétien. The clandestine literature published during the occupation was referred to as témoignage (witness). Témoignage was not seen as merely an account of events but as an intentional, active participation in the events described, as a testimony to the truth silenced by the Vichy and German authorities.

De Lubac knew that being a witness to the truth was dangerous and could lead to martyrdom. One day, returning to Lyon on a trip, de Lubac was informed by an anonymous source that there were orders from the Gestapo for his arrest. “I was able to leave again in time,” he wrote, “without even passing through the house, thereby just barely escaping the net that shortly after picked up Louis Richard [a Sulpician priest and theologian] at the university seminary in order to deport him.” Under threat of arrest, de Lubac stayed in various religious houses, carrying in a satchel stacks of notecards that would later be organized into books.


Racism, therefore, is not merely a moral failure. It strikes at the foundation of Christian doctrine.

The church’s response to racism and anti-Semitism during those dark years was tepid. The Catholic clergy had been initially passive in response to the denaturalization law of 1940, which revoked the French citizenship of Jews, and the anti-Semitic statutes of October 1940, which mobilized Vichy-controlled France to find and expel foreign-born Jews. In a letter dated April 25, 1941, de Lubac wrote to his superiors in the Jesuit order to convince them to act. He claimed that Hitler’s war was first of all an “anti-Christian revolution” and the “brutal return” to neopaganism. In addition to underscoring this unfolding human calamity and the appearance of concentration camps in France, he described a slow imposition of the “cult of the state” leading to a “collective apostasy.”

The occupiers were waging an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign aimed at influencing lay Catholics, while also attempting to dissuade religious superiors and bishops from speaking out. Religious leaders were pressured to avoid “political Catholicism”—that is, inserting the church into the political sphere. De Lubac accused the French church, particularly the clergy, of passively accepting the anti-Semitism of the Vichy government. This is why de Lubac presented anti-Semitism as an essentially religious problem. “The anti-Semitism of today was unknown to our fathers; besides its degrading effect on those who abandon themselves to it, it is anti-Christian,” he wrote. “It is against the Bible, against the Gospel as well as the Old Testament.” De Lubac firmly set his plea to resist anti-Semitism within the Christian’s baptismal call to resist the “tricks of the adversary.” For de Lubac, the war was not merely political; it was a war for the soul of the French church.

On June 2, 1941, the Vichy government passed a new series of anti-Semitic statutes that restricted the number of Jews in certain professions and prohibited their employment in public service. In addition, it expanded the racial definition of Jew, making a greater number of people subject to the statutes. De Lubac drafted the Chaine Declaration with Abbé Joseph Chaine, Louis Richard, and Joseph Bonsirven, SJ, openly opposing the statutes on legal and theological grounds. First, they argued, the statutes overturned the legal precedent in France to avoid discrimination on the basis of religion. Second, the statutes embodied a denial of God’s calling of the Jewish people and God’s blessing of them. For the writers of the Chaine Declaration, the integrity of the church was at stake: “the blessing promised to Abraham’s descendants is still upon them.” They disseminated the Declaration on June 16. The force of their arguments prompted the French Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops to issue their own declaration of opposition to the statutes on July 24. The statements were clear and public warnings by the French clergy prohibiting the use of baptismal and marriage records in the identification of Jews.

De Lubac had a vivid sense that this political struggle was part of the struggle between good and evil. In 1941, he audaciously gave a lecture at the École des cadres d’Uriage, a school near Grenoble founded by the Vichy government. De Lubac interpreted the occupation as a spiritual crisis:

Man is isolated, uprooted, ‘disconcerted.’ He is asphyxiated: it is as if emptiness had been formed in him by an air pump…. There is, at the innermost part of his consciousness, a metaphysical despair. It was of this hunger and this thirst that the prophet Amos once spoke: absolute hunger and thirst. Hunger and thirst that, in many cases, do not even know themselves to be such but that leave on the deepest palate a taste of death…. [S]ubstitute faiths fill this tragic void…. Inevitably something like a great call for air is produced in his inner void, which opens him to the invasion of new positive forces, whatever they might be.

The moral and spiritual void in France left the French susceptible to the invasion of dangerous new faiths—and active collaboration with Hitler after his invasion of their country. For decades prior to the rise of Nazism, French Catholicism had been co-opted by a nationalist ideology. Action Française, a nationalist party that repudiated the French revolutionary legacy and sought a return to monarchy and social hierarchy, leveraged popular resentment toward French laïcité and captured the allegiance of the majority of French Catholics from 1910 to 1920. Charles Maurras, a principal figure in Action Française, though he was agnostic, sought the restoration of the monarchy and of Catholicism as a state religion. Maurras was for most of his life an agnostic who believed that Catholicism was necessary for social order in a unity of state, culture, and race—a unity that he called intégrisme. In 1926 Pope Pius XI condemned Action Française for making religion merely a means to political ends. But by then the hearts of many French Catholics had already been prepared for ethno-nationalism.


Theologically understood, racism is more than a sin. It constitutes a heresy that undermines the very identity of the church.

Passivity in the face of ethno-nationalism is a danger for today’s church as it was for the French church of the 1940s. Though in immensely different circumstances, we live under a campaign of dehumanization and are caught up in the political mechanisms of imprisonment and death. Like Charles Maurras, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (who happens to be Catholic) has become the spokesman for a religious nationalism that preserves a shared culture, religion, and race. In his 2014 remarks to the Human Dignity Institute’s conference at the Vatican, Bannon explained that the West must recover its religious vision to overcome its present and future challenges. With regard to Islam, he explained, “our forefathers…did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places.... It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.” However, when Bannon speaks of saving the religious vision of the Christian West, he is not speaking of God or of personal conversion, but instead of the recovery of an ethnos, a people, and its Christian religious heritage. His is a vision that borrows from the Christian faith while falsifying it. Despite Bannon’s departure from the White House, his ethno-nationalist vision has been preserved in ideology and policy.

The ascendency of this vision, along with concurrent growth of white supremacist groups in the United States, requires discernment and action from the church. But racism has often been subject to misdiagnosis among Catholics. In response to last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one person was killed and nineteen injured, some bishops initially framed the problem as a political one, over which there may be many opinions. As the facts in Charlottesville became better understood, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston rightly named the problem—“the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism”—and called the church to “stand against every form of oppression.” Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, however, provided the better diagnosis: “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.” He ended on a pessimistic, though perhaps more realistic, note: “We need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.” In the wake of Charlottesville, the USCCB formed an ad hoc committee against racism that is working to discern a response to racism in the American context.

Theologically understood, racism is more than a sin. It constitutes a heresy that undermines the very identity of the church. Taking form in ideology and systemic exclusion, racism threatens to co-opt Christianity because it offers a powerful anti-Christian narrative about who we are as human beings while invoking Europe’s “Christian heritage.” We should be alarmed not only at the physical violence racism provokes, but also at the signs of the re-animated gods of nation and blood. As de Lubac recognized in the 1940s, unless the church embodies visibly what its doctrine proclaims it to be—the visible site of the reunification of a humanity divided by sin—it fails to be authentically catholic.

Joseph S. Flipper is Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Ethics and Social Justice Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He served as a Fullbrw at the Pointifica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. He is author of Between Apocalypse and Eschaton: History and Eternity in Henri de Lubac (2015). 

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Published in the October 5, 2018 issue: View Contents
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