Journet’s Blind Spot

Why a Great Theologian Feared Vatican II

On Saturday mornings, Charles Journet, (more commonly known simply as Abbé Journet) would take the train from Fribourg to Geneva to teach a course on church history. He would usually stay overnight in Geneva and celebrate the 11 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church—until the local bishop put a stop to that. Although some people came from far away to listen to Journet’s hour-long sermons, the locals of the parish found that his Masses were much too long and complained about it. If Journet was hurt by the bishop’s decision, he didn’t let it show. In fact he seemed oblivious to whatever concerned only himself. In those years just before the Second Vatican Council, Journet was among the most prominent intellectuals in the church, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he presented himself; there wasn’t a self-important bone in his body. He was the founding editor of the review Nova et Vetera, which was recognized as one of the better theological journals, and he was a close friend of the famous philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raïssa. Journet was in his seventies when I first met him. He was one of several professors of dogmatic theology at the seminary of Fribourg, but he interacted very little with his colleagues and didn’t make much of an impression on most of his students. He was very hard of hearing and that contributed to his isolation.

Abbé Journet would always arrive promptly for our classes, even when the weather was bad. A thin wisp of a man, he was bald, wore very thick glasses, and spoke with a delightful sing-song Swiss accent. He was still quite spry and would begin the classes by reciting the Veni Creator on his knees. There were only about twenty of us in the class but it was obvious that he had carefully prepared his material. I was impressed by the intensity of his delivery; he put himself heart and soul into what he was trying to communicate. Often he would pause and say with a naïve and authentic wonderment: “Isn’t that beautiful, isn’t that marvelous?” And, coming from him, it usually was.

He spoke of simple things with great depth and penetration. His history of the church was bathed in the light of his central intuition: The church is holy, pure, without sin, and its boundaries pass through our hearts. Whatever is pure in us, in all of human history, belongs to the church; whatever is sordid remains outside of it. It is impossible to love God without also loving the church, for the two are united as a bride to her bridegroom. Our own membership in the church militant is partial and fragile and, ultimately, a mystery. The hierarchical structure of the church is a gift of God, and this too should be loved and respected. The corollary is that whenever we use the church’s authority to prophesy in our own name and justify our own ambitions, we have nothing to do with the true church of Christ. But even such abuses would eventually lead to a greater good and a purer truth.

I’m very grateful for all I received from Abbé Journet. Later on I would read his great work The Church of the Incarnate Word—his unfinished magnum opus, which I found luminous. We had only one private meeting and that was in Toulouse. He was staying in a small cottage not far from where Jacques Maritain lived. I can’t recall why I was invited to have tea with him on an Easter Sunday afternoon. It had rained heavily that morning and the grass around his cottage was still very wet. I arrived on my bike, a bit late, pedaling furiously. Approaching the cottage, I slammed on the brakes, but they failed: I crashed into the door of Journet’s cottage at full speed. As I sat there, contemplating the ruins of my bike, I heard a sing-song voice from within the cottage: “Come right in!” The partially deaf Abbé Journet thought I had simply knocked on the door. I don’t recall much of the ensuing conversation except that he had a hard time deciphering my accent. I’d talk about one thing for a while and then he’d talk about something else.

When Paul VI named Abbé Journet a cardinal, everyone was stunned. Abbé who? He wasn’t a bishop; he wasn’t even a pastor. He was hardly known outside a small circle, and his own bishop barely tolerated him. No one was more stunned than Journet himself. It took nearly a week to convince him that he had to accept. It was Maritain who finally persuaded him that this was not a personal honor but a way of honoring St. Thomas Aquinas and the neo-scholastic movement. Paul VI also had to reassure Abbé Journet (as he insisted on being called even after he was named cardinal) that he could continue to teach at Fribourg and would need to get dressed up in red only for very official ceremonies.

Vatican II was now in progress. I didn’t follow the council very closely. I was in Latin America, facing other challenges, discovering, to my great disappointment, just how closely the Catholic hierarchy had come to identify itself with brutal political regimes. I was in Chile when the Pinochet coup took place; I saw the dirty war in Argentina and the “cocaine coup” in Bolivia. In almost all the conflicts in Latin America, most bishops supported the dictatorships du jour. I heard a few rumors about Abbé Journet being a wet blanket at the council. I later learned that these rumors were quite true—that Journet was agonizing about the changes that were taking place. There was evidently a side of him that had not been apparent in the classroom. Journet’s reservations at the council struck me as ironic. It was the very principles I learned from him that opened me up to all sorts of new possibilities, giving me a sense of great freedom even as they anchored and broadened my love for the church. Nothing noble and holy was a stranger to the church; no truth, however partial, was alien to it, for all that was good was the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was the life of the church. Yet for Abbé Journet, it became apparent, all that was not pure truth was dangerous. There was an intolerance for any sort of “deviation,” for any questioning of the church’s structures or hierarchical authority. Abbé Journet seemed locked into a formula. He was very suspicious of the ecumenical movement in all its forms. He refused to have anything to do with Taizé or any other group devoted to dialogue. Part of this is understandable. He grew up in a Switzerland, where Catholics were often a persecuted minority, and his earliest publications were apologetical works. These controversies of his younger days seemed to have marked him definitively. He was critical of modern theologians—of Rahner, Zendel, Congar, and, of course, Hans Küng.

In retrospect, I think Journet’s strengths were his weaknesses. He loved the Truth with passion—not as something he possessed but as Someone who possessed him as he was, with own his personality and idiosyncracies. There’s an old Thomistic axiom, “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient”: each person’s particular character colors his or her perceptions, and character is partly the effect of circumstance. Abbé Journet was an intellectual and a loner, a seminary professor during most of his active life. His milieu was a clerical milieu, which was still linked to the upper classes of society. Journet’s “apostolate” consisted mainly in preaching retreats to nuns and groups of people who were cultivated and well-to-do. This is not to imply that he was on the side of the rich and powerful. His personal poverty was extreme and authentic; he preached and lived the evangelical virtues. He was not afraid to oppose the Swiss government and even his own bishop during World War II for their discreet collaboration with the Nazis in the name of “national interest.” The only “power” he was interested in was the power of truth. But he was perhaps too quick to dismiss unfamiliar manifestations of the truth, which can offer itself to us under various disguises—as an ordinary traveler met on the road or a gardener at the tomb, as a humiliated prophet whom Pilate could not recognize. The title of the review Journet founded, Nova et Vetera (“Things Old and New”), evokes the Gospel parable of the scribe versed in the Kingdom of God and defines the program of the review. Abbé Journet did indeed bring forth new insights from old concepts, but he was less adept at bringing new insights to bear on old concepts, which is a different thing. Pope Leo XIII had given Thomism the church’s official endorsement in Aeterni Patris (1879), and Journet was worried about any development within the church that might threaten Thomism’s preeminence.

Journet, Maritain, and Paul VI formed a sort of troika of like-minded neo-Thomists who seemed to be overwhelmed by the scope and implications of the proposals of the council; they feared that things were spinning out of control. An old order was being abolished and there was genuine confusion and apprehension about what would replace it. Many lost their footing. Was this a valid excuse to rein things in? My own experience of Abbé Journet leads me to believe that the answer is not simple. What set St. Thomas apart was his ability to assimilate all forms of truth, whatever their source, and incorporate them into a dynamic synthesis. In this, he was continuing the works of the great fathers of the church, who incorporated the insights and categories of pagan philosophies and mysticism in their effort to better know and love the self-revealing God—and his ultimate revelation in the Incarnate Word. This is an ongoing process. Journet would not have denied this in theory, yet in practice he seemed to resist anything outside of his own theological scheme. Such rigidity risked making neo-Thomism irrelevant in the wake of the council. In contrast to this narrowness, we have John Paul II in the chapter titled “Why Divided?” in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

Why would the Holy Spirit have permitted so many different divisions and enmities among those who claim to be disciples of the same Gospel, disciples of the same Christ?... There are two possible answers to this question. The more negative one would see in these divisions the bitter fruit of sins committed by Christians. The more positive answer is inspired by trust in the One who is capable of bringing forth good from evil, from human weakness. Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ’s Gospel and in the redemption accomplished in Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise…. It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilizations. Wouldn’t such a way of looking at things be, in a certain sense, more consonant with the wisdom of God, with his goodness and providence?

The neo-Thomism of Journet and Maritain still has much to recommend it; it rescued the basic intuitions of St. Thomas from the shallow scholasticism that had obscured them, and those intuitions are as valuable today as they were before the council. But Journet was as suspicious of theological innovation—as ill-disposed toward the distinctive intuitions of the modern world—as the unreconstructed scholastics had been of the neo-Thomists. The same syndrome is visible among some of Journet’s theological descendents, but it is not irreversible. Thomism is adaptive and resourceful; it will always survive the anxieties and blind spots of rearguard Thomists.

Published in the December 20, 2013 issue: 

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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