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.