The Catholics of this country have fallen into habit with their religion, to the point that they no longer worry about knowing if it’s true or false, or if they really believe it or not; and this kind of mechanical faith accompanies them unto death.

—Julien Green (“Theophile Delaporte”)


So sighed the Franco-American writer Julien Green in 1924, lamenting the spiritual complacency of the adoptive country he had fought for in World War I. An exiled American from the South, prone to romanticizing the Confederacy and troubled by his homosexuality, Green had converted to Catholicism at sixteen; he longed keenly for an ancient social unity, and France had supplied him with a fading antiquity and a cherished national defeat much like the South’s. Yet “unto death” French Catholics—solipsistic, complacent, bored—failed to supply his spiritual needs. Secularization in his view had spread from a political arrangement to a disease of the Christian soul. Did French Catholics even believe in Green’s longed-for church and savior?

The limitations of a “mechanical faith” also troubled a young, nobly-born French Catholic priest-scholar and wounded war veteran just a few years older than Julien Green. Henri de Lubac (1896–1991) would eventually soar beyond his research in early Christian and medieval theology to take on the reanimation of Catholicism itself, becoming a major force behind the Second Vatican Council. Two decades after his death, this theologian—whose thought guided two of the great constitutions of the council—is often identified with the ressourcement of Catholic theology and viewed as a herald of the church’s belatedness in engaging with modernity. This view rests first on de Lubac’s early critique of the long-dominant Thomist construal of nature and grace, and second on his effort to investigate and revive the theology—particularly the scriptural exegesis—of early Christian authors, in an attempt to call forth a fuller sense of the mysteries of the church and its sacred writings. I would argue, however, that to regard de Lubac as a reformer eager to engage the modern world is to misunderstand him.

De Lubac’s career, which included his removal from his teaching position for alleged doctrinal error and restrictions on his writing in the 1950s, followed by vindication at the council and elevation to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II in 1983, touched on many of the great theological controversies of his era. His influence on younger theologians was enormous. And when de Lubac, one of the recognized theological giants of the Second Vatican Council, came to express grave concerns about how the council’s reforms were being carried out, his doubts were seen as a harbinger of, and a justification for, the retrenchment that would follow under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The seeds of de Lubac’s disillusionment, however, are not to be found in the turmoil that followed the council but at the very beginning of the past century in his rejection of what he found to be a fragmented, depersonalized, and deeply alienating modern world. De Lubac’s refusal to come fully to terms with modernity in his theological work is a legacy that continues to inhibit the church’s efforts at renewal.

It is in this light that de Lubac’s contribution to Vatican II displays a certain ambiguity. While other theologians had already engaged the demands of the Enlightenment, de Lubac preferred a premodern patrimony. He never seemed to doubt the existence of a consensus patrum (“agreement of the fathers [of the church]”) and thus failed to see how the Second Vatican Council had inherited an illusion from its predecessor, Vatican I. With its defense of tradition and authority against innovation and dissension, Vatican I had invoked the same consensus patrum to fight nineteenth-century political and intellectual innovations, to uphold church authority against the secular world, and, in its triumphant final paragraph, to assert papal infallibility. The problem was, of course, that the consensus patrum existed only ex post facto, a creation made possible by eliminating dissident opinion from the historical record and constructing unanimity.

In his 2008 book What Happened at Vatican II, de Lubac’s younger confrère John W. O’Malley, SJ, describes how de Lubac’s work both inspired and guided the council. De Lubac’s revival of patristic literature—both as a tradition and as a remedy for the ailments of the church—predated Vatican II by more than forty years; his work had been targeted as “new theology” inimical to Catholic doctrine by Pius XII in Humani generis (1950), and his presence as a formerly silenced and now vindicated theologian encouraged a younger generation clustering around the council. O’Malley shows how the “adaptation of patristic outlook and language [then] became widespread among younger theologians in Europe.” The cardinal archbishop of Cologne, Joseph Frings, urged freeing the conciliar documents from the wooden, scholastic language of standard theological handbooks and letting them “speak instead the vital language of Scripture and the Church Fathers.” Frings’s ghostwriter, O’Malley reveals, was the future Benedict XVI, the promising theologian Joseph Ratzinger.

Sixteen centuries of ecumenical consultations—from Nicaea in 325 to Vatican II (1962–65)—disclose a startling similarity of rhetoric, reflecting the Greco-Roman legal and rhetorical tradition of their origin, yet one thing distinguishes the decrees of all other councils from those of Vatican II: their affinity for condemnation. While making doctrinal, pastoral, and ecclesiastical assertions, the decrees from Nicaea to Vatican I also functioned as documents of discipline, busily imposing condemnations. Vatican I, for instance, contains eighteen canons after its constitution On the Faith, and each says, of the holder of a particular objectionable doctrine, anathema sit: “let him be accursed.” Not Vatican II: its rhetoric is not judicial, but epideictic, inspirational in the ancient style. After fighting bitterly behind the scenes, the council’s authors voted in the end for documents that no longer cursed but instead invited dialogue between Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, Jews, and even nonbelievers. De Lubac and the ressourcement theologians had won on a ticket of patristic revival. The generously exploratory, prescholastic, liturgically and biblically inspired patristic sources had apparently defeated the scholasticism of the past four hundred years of Catholic retrenchment, and a new kind of discourse suddenly became available to theologians and laypeople.

Here is where the ambiguity enters. Neither de Lubac nor Ratzinger foresaw the unintended results of the council, after which their version of ancient patristic thought became, first, a means for various kinds of liberalization, then an instrument of conservative reaction, and finally an auxiliary of restorationism. Yet in seeking to revive an apparently lively, less problematic, even mythologically archaic form of language and liturgical life, the council fathers, inspired by the work of de Lubac and others, unwittingly set in motion a powerful engine of nostalgia for a continuously unified community that never was. This nostalgia lies behind some unconvincing appeals to early Christian attitudes as a source for John Paul II’s theology of the body and the recourse to patristic exegesis as a stay against the allegedly subversive effects of the historical-critical method of scriptural interpretation.

The Second Vatican Council also differed from previous ecumenical councils in that it was convened not to address a heresy or a schism, but to address the church itself. In announcing the council, Pope John XXIII had cited “the need to reaffirm doctrine and discipline.” He also mentioned two other aims: “the enlightenment, edification and joy of the entire Christian people”; and the extension of “a renewed cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated communities to participate with us in this quest for unity and grace, for which so many souls long in all parts of the world.” These words constituted an admission that the church itself had in some way become a problem; indeed, the work of many Roman Catholic theologians in the decades before the council, while defending and extolling the church, was preoccupied with the question of how to make the church appeal to mid-twentieth-century humanity. Henri de Lubac was among the most influential of these apologetic and evangelizing theologians.

It is important to view de Lubac’s theology in the context of Catholic culture in early twentieth-century France. While his writings, particularly his early ones, sound the themes of modern personalism and even anticipate some elements of existentialism, those writings do not engage the vexed questions of the day apart from atheism. The implications of Darwin’s works for Christians in general, and for Catholic teachings in particular, are left untouched. Nor do the historical studies of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries find a considered response. Louis Duchesne, for instance, finished his Early History of the Christian Church in 1905, but its emphasis on the fractious struggles among early Christian groups did not alter de Lubac’s largely harmonized presentation of early Christian theological themes.

Instead, de Lubac’s approach extends, albeit in a different mode, that of Leo XIII, particularly as expressed in Rerum novarum (1891) and Providentissimus Deus (1893). In effect this approach rests upon a mythology of the “patristic age,” in which the catholica, the divinely-given bond uniting Christianity, is already present in Scripture and early doctrine. This approach allows the fruits of critical biblical exegesis to be avoided entirely. Its scriptural exegesis communicates the symbols and truth of the Incarnation, and its theology communicates again—once it comes into view from behind the neoscholastic accretions—the joyful and poignant desire for God implanted into all human beings. De Lubac sounds this note in his influential 1938 book Catholicism: A Study of the Corporate Destiny of Mankind, when he writes of the Bible and its interpretation among favorite patristic exegetes: “There soon rings out everywhere the triumphal hymn, whose first notes we heard in St. Irenaeus, then in Clement and Origen, in Hilary and in Ambrose. Now-opened eyes saw the gospel everywhere in the law, and the church everywhere in Israel.”

Such a view of the energizing effects of patristic literature may have had a broad appeal for many French Catholics in the uncertain and even dire period between the wars. Although de Lubac’s “nouvelle théologie,” as hostile neo-Thomists in France and Rome called it, did not gain its full audience until after World War II, numerous publications were already carrying its theological message of patristic restoration to a wide audience—not to clerics alone, but to all the French laity. Many of de Lubac’s works, had they been written in the first centuries of Mediterranean Christianity, could have been described as protreptic—hortatory rhetoric in the service of conversion. Their mild and hopeful tone is repeated in the two documents of Vatican II over which they seem to have had the most influence: Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes.

What is crucial to understand is that de Lubac’s early works presuppose a catholica that cannot be demonstrated to have existed, since early Christianity arose among small congregations riven by intense argument—as anyone can discover in its earliest documents, the letters of Paul. For example, de Lubac’s evocation stifles the voices of the third-century controversy that guided Origen’s exegesis. It overlooks Irenaeus’s catalogue of rebutted heresies. He ignores the cultures of early Christianity that were neither Greek nor Latin, and fails to account for the mutual borrowing among pagans and Christians. Where are the outbursts of apocalyptic fervor or the burgeoning collections of canon laws? What about the aggravations of, and growing restrictions upon, female Christians? Most hauntingly, de Lubac fails to mention Jews as contending claimants to the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. This last elision is especially mysterious in light of de Lubac’s theory of human unity—and later, under the Vichy government, his courageous criticism of anti-Semitism.

From our perspective today, de Lubac appears as one of those who sought a refuge from the corrosive modernity of the twentieth century. Like his English contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien, he turned to a reconstructed, dramatic, and heroic antiquity—one already known to be an imaginary antiquity—for the literary sources of a true and noble way of life. A kind of heroism is drawn from the literature of the early church, and its combative asceticism may have inspired de Lubac’s participation in the Resistance during World War II, when he understood the opposition to Nazi racism and deportation of Jews as a form of spiritual combat. In theology, de Lubac seemed early on to prefer a Christianity that, like Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, calls forth a nobility of thought and action for the purposes of inspiration. As the theologian Fergus Kerr has noted, “in a way de Lubac re-created a whole premodern Catholic sensibility which he wanted to inhabit.”

To make that observation is not to diminish the grandeur, the “primeval forest” (as Hans Urs von Balthasar called it), of de Lubac’s work, but rather to point out that it did not acknowledge the clash that has always accompanied public Christian discourse. Had it done so, its influence might have been felt in a more realistic way when incorporated into the documents of an ecumenical council charged with aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”). De Lubac himself abjured a return to the past. Yet his reading of early Christian documents may have misled the young theologians who expected it to rejuvenate the modern church. The promise of an organic, unified church, one that could draw in the greater world as its lost relation, may have depended upon the wish for a restored unity that had already been fractured in the Western schism from the East in 1054 and again in the sixteenth century, when national churches replaced the loosely-connected regions of the medieval church. The unitary world of the imagined patristic catholica had depended almost entirely upon the political and cultural unity brought by the later Roman Empire, and had been spread by the church that empire made its own. The conclusive termination of that Empire’s successors came in 1918, with the dismemberment of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the brutal end of the Russian imperial family. Because de Lubac never fully absorbed the historicist view of Christianity, it may have been impossible for him to recognize that the original source of theological unity lay in the rhetoric of the empire. Balthasar wrote that de Lubac “exposed himself to the attacks of a tutiorist scholastic theology, armed with nothing but the historical and theological truth.” This description overlooks the ways in which de Lubac and others turned from these pressing questions and, though combating reactionary forces in the church, ultimately engaged in a re-mythologizing without having truly come to terms with the prior demythologization of the modernists.

De Lubac’s response to the historical investigations of Duchene—or to the investigations of Protestant historians—was in effect to update the recommendations of Providentissimus Deus, to return to the investigation of the fathers of the church and connect them with the biblical text in order to find the resources for the rejuvenation of the Catholic tradition. The fact that this made him unpopular with the right wing in France, and particularly with the strict Thomists among the Jesuits in Rome—as evidenced, ultimately, by the 1950 encyclical Humani generis—does not diminish the conservatism of de Lubac’s effort. A closer examination of Catholicism, the book that made his name, will demonstrate the point.

According to Joseph Komonchak, de Lubac long sought to surmount a “separated theology” that reinforced the notion of “a church closed in upon itself, alienated from the larger world, unable and even unwilling to undertake to redeem it.” His effort to find a way forward by embracing a distant past might seem similar to the efforts of Renaissance humanists and Protestant reformers to recover the structure and attitude of the Christian community as it existed before the church became the papal-dominated, unevangelical institution they believed it had become. In fact, it was quite different. De Lubac wanted to refresh the church with forgotten fathers, not just use their ideas as a means of measuring the church’s misdirection. He meant his work to be read by all believers, not merely theologians-in-training, reaching beyond the world of academic conferences and demonstrating the unity of witnesses, in the common tradition, to what Catholicism really meant. In 1988, writing in the introduction to a fiftieth-anniversary edition of Catholicism, Ratzinger recalled his excitement at encountering the book in the 1950s. “It fascinated theologians in the ’50s everywhere,” he remarked, “and [de Lubac’s] fundamental insights quickly became the common patrimony of theological reflection.” De Lubac, the future pope continued,

makes visible to us in a new way the fundamental institution of Christian faith.... He shows how the idea of community and universality, rooted in the trinitarian concept of God, permeates and shapes all the individual elements of faith’s content. The idea of the Catholic, the all-embracing, the inner unity of I and Thou and the key that opens the door to the proper understanding of the whole.... [De Lubac] lets the voice of the fathers of our faith speak so that we hear the voice of the origin in all its freshness and astonishing relevance.

One might object that de Lubac at least implicitly recognized that the faith has mothers as well, since he included in the appendix to Catholicism a quotation from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. Yet she is the exception that proves the rule. Indeed, one of the characteristics of this and other representative works of the “patristic revival” that followed the council is their studied avoidance of any mention of women, children, or other representatives of social difference, in favor of a monosexual “mankind” to whom the appeal of the fathers is made, and from whom it allegedly sprang.

This point opens up a general observation about de Lubac’s book. Though written during a period when feminism was being hotly debated in France—a consequence both of the high proportion of widows and single women after the Great War and of the consequent movement of women into the workforce—Catholicism directs its call elsewhere, to members of male religious orders and to lay male Catholics who might recognize in themselves the nobility of mankind as sketched by the fathers of the church. And overall the appeal to the fathers of the church as a source of refreshment to their latter-day descendants has indeed been made mostly by male scholars and theologians. For them, though, de Lubac’s Catholicism proposed a view of the church that was inclusive and unifying, while stirring up enthusiasm for patristic theology not as mere archaeology, but as a source of renewal. Further, the book contains in a nutshell the major themes of de Lubac’s later works—which had a tremendous impact upon a younger generation and set the stage for at least three constitutions of the council. So it is worth looking at Catholicism again, both in view of its subsequent impact and as a construction placed upon the theological ideas of early Christianity. How does Catholicism represent patristic thought, and precisely what does it revive?

Catholicism, de Lubac writes, is “addressed to believers who are concerned to have a better understanding of the faith by which they live.” Steering clear of ethics and of recent history and its complications, the book turns to demonstrating what its author calls Catholicism’s “social character.” To that end, de Lubac attempts to take an old form of theological statement—from the fundamental theology that he himself taught—and infuse it with new content that provides an answer to disoriented postwar mankind and its quest for meaning. This shift allows de Lubac to identify a specific modern ill—individualism, for instance—and then prescribe a premodern antidote for it: unity rediscovered in the fathers.

The subject matter of the book’s appendix is the catholica, the unity of faith, as evidenced in a collection of texts ranging from antiquity to modernity. However, this collection of excerpts concedes nothing to history. It is so utterly decontextualized that the differences among genre, intention, setting, and even vocabulary are erased. Including ancient, medieval, and modern European authors, and spanning the Greek East and Latin West up to the schism of 1054, the appendix constitutes a kind of fictive document in which all the quotations use a symbolic or figurative interpretation of biblical texts and omit the more awkward examples of literal interpretation. It is an example of the remedial use of patristic and medieval allegorical interpretation—and great hope was placed on the potential of this cure for the diagnosed ills of modernity. De Lubac shows himself to have been inspired by the rhetoric of certain early Christian preachers and biblical interpreters; in the following decades, such rhetoric, as John O’Malley has shown, proved influential at the Second Vatican Council as well. It remains to be seen whether that rhetoric has had the hoped-for medicinal effect on subsequent generations.

As noted, O’Malley has described the rhetoric of the conciliar documents as epideictic, and has traced the origin of their style, and much of their content, to the pioneers of la nouvelle théologie in the first half of the twentieth century. Of these men, themselves dependent upon earlier explorers of forgotten patristic sources, de Lubac remains notable for his eloquent descriptions of those sources and his evocative call to human unity and fellowship against darker—irreligious or nontheistic—appeals to European humanity made in the 1940s. He wrote glowingly of a rediscovered world, and of the wealth that could be restored to Europe and to the church. His portrayal of patristic unity helped supplant an exhausted scholasticism even as it appealed to a European church in search of theological revival after the destruction of the Second World War. Yet de Lubac reported selectively the world of the Patrologia, and chose not to portray its shadows and omissions.

And so a historian would exercise caution in judging the long-term effects of this revival for the Roman Catholic Church. Nicholas Boyle has written to defend—against its right-wing detractors—the continuing usefulness of Gaudium et spes, a document informed by de Lubac’s work in Catholicism and elsewhere. Yet the historian can also point out that more than one of ressourcement’s own architects came to regret the effects of the very council their work helped to stimulate, as patristic “inspiration” was left far behind and some of ressourcement’s defenders (including Pope Benedict) began to emphasize the “hermeneutic of continuity.” Perhaps de Lubac’s fabrication and deployment of a patristic theology failed the renewal it envisioned because it was, in the end, too harmonious—unable or unwilling to give space to the discordant elements that have inhabited Christianity from its beginnings.


This essay is adapted from After Vatican II: Trajectories and Hermeneutics, edited by James L. Heft with John O’Malley and published by Eerdmans.

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Robin Darling Young teaches church history at the Catholic University of America.

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Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: View Contents
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