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The Cardinal | Rudolf Voderholzer | From Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work

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On September 16, 1991, the international weekly newsmagazine Time reported:
Cardinal Henri de Lubac, one of the top theologians among the French Jesuits, died at the age of 95 in Paris. De Lubac was prohibited from teaching from 1946 to 1954 after the publication of his book Surnaturel. [1] Rehabilitated in 1958, he took part in the [Second Vatican] Council at the request of John XXIII. His relations with Rome then became even more intensive during the reign of John Paul II, who, during a visit to Paris in 1980, interrupted a speech that he was giving when he saw the priest and said, "I bow my head to Father de Lubac."
In 1983, the Pope appointed the then eighty-seven-year-old theologian a cardinal in recognition of his services in the field of theology. This honor, which Henri de Lubac dedicated to the Jesuit Order as a whole, was the last step in the rehabilitation of a man who for a time was suspected, even within the Church, of watering down the true faith with all sorts of "innovations" and who from 1950 to 1958—here the Time report is inaccurate—was dismissed from his teaching position on the basis of such suspicions and was forbidden to publish scholarly books on theology.

Henri de Lubac and Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope, were already acquainted from the days of the Second Vatican Council and held one another in high esteem. They had worked together on that "Schema 13" which eventually became known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes [2] (Joy and Hope). Even more than by his direct collaboration on the conciliar texts, de Lubac influenced the Council through the voluminous theological studies that he published in the years leading up to the Council, through which he had contributed to a renewal of theology based on the sources, that is, Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Essential preliminary work for both the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Del Verbum, which are the most important theological documents of the Council, was done in the writings of Henri de Lubac.

For his part, Henri de Lubac recognized, in his encounters with the learned Archbishop of Krakow, that he was dealing with an extraordinary individual. The two became friends and corresponded. De Lubac wrote a foreword to the French translation of Wojtyla's book Love and Responsibility, while Wojtyla commissioned a Polish translation of de Lubac's essay Églises particulières et Église universelle [Motherhood of the Churches]. In 1970 and 1971, Wojtyla invited de Lubac to Poland. Only de Lubac's illness kept him from carrying out his travel plans. De Lubac recalled that in familiar conversations he had repeatedly made the assertion: "After Paul VI, Wojtyla is my candidate."

"A Genius for Friendship"

Anyone who undertakes to make a biographical sketch of Henri de Lubac is obliged in the first place to refer to the Mémoire sur l'occasion de mes e'crits, [3] which he finally published in 1989 in the twilight years of his life; this "memorandum" is actually a report that he himself composed in several stages concerning the circumstances in which his writings originated. This book will always be an authoritative source for any in-depth study of the person and work of Henri de Lubac. During the years 1956 to 1957, de Lubac made notes about the first twenty years of his life, but he did not publish them. [4] An initial series of these memoirs has meanwhile been compiled from his literary remains, extensively annotated, and published by Georges Chantraine. De Lubac also recorded extensive memoirs of the years of World War II and the German occupation of France and published them in French in 1988. [5]

De Lubac always tried to keep his personal life in the background. This is true both of his writings and also of his autobiographical memoirs. He never thought of his theology as being original. It is one of the ironies in the history of theology that he, of all people, should be described by his opponents as the spokesman of a supposedly "new theology", the Nouvelle théologie. "In his writings he carried this attitude [of objectivity] to the point of self-effacement; many pages penned by him are nothing but a tissue of quotations, interwoven with comments. He renounced a speculative theological oeuvre so as to be like that 'scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven' who 'brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old' in extravagant abundance"—thus Xavier Tilliette described de Lubac's approach in an appreciation written on the occasion of the latter's eightieth birthday. [6]

The principal motive of his academic work was to put in the proper light the truth of the faith and the beauty and splendor of Tradition, along with the life's work of his friends. Father Gerd Haeffner said that he had "a genius for friendship". [7] Many pages of his retrospective are devoted to the memory of confreres and friends. Besides his own nearly forty volumes, de Lubac published almost as many books by friends posthumously, besides writing forewords and introductions and editing and annotating correspondence. Henri de Lubac published seven voluminous manuscripts by Father Yves de Montcheuil, S.J. (b. 1899), who was murdered by the Nazis in Grenoble in August 1944 shortly before the liberation of France. It is true that the manuscripts were almost ready to go to press, yet de Lubac singlehandedly saved them from oblivion. He devoted three books on a grand scale to the defense of his confrere and friend Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). It pained him that his plans to publish important works of Father Pierre Rousselot, S.J., [8] who died in World War I at the age of thirty-seven, repeatedly came to naught!

Whereas he published and publicized the works of others, this same service was done for him by Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), one of his close friends from their days together in Lyons- Fourvière. As early as 1947, von Balthasar translated de Lubac's first book, Catholicisme. [9] Then, in 1967, he began to publish the collected works of de Lubac in German. These were published by Johannes Verlag, the publishing house he himself had founded and directed. Thus almost all of the principal works are available in German, in a suitable translation, thanks to the stylistic brilliance of Hans Urs von Balthasar. An abridged version of the four-volume Exégèse médiévale, which Henri de Lubac himself prepared under the title L'Écriture dans la Tradition (1966), has recently appeared in English as Scripture in the Tradition. [10]

Although the most important writings of Henri de Lubac are thus accessible to the German-speaking reader, they are actually known in Germany [and in the English-speaking world] only by a limited circle of specialists—limited, when compared with the scope and significance of his work. Who, then, was Henri de Lubac? What are his most important works? When and in what connections where they produced? In what manner and through what insights did he prepare the way for the Second Vatican Council? What was his opinion of the postconciliar developments? On what theological topics does he have something of lasting value to say?


[1] De Lubac's controversial book Surnaturel: Études historiques (1946) unmasked the theory of natura pura as a theological construct from the modern period and thus presented a challenge to the foundations of the Neo-Scholastic theology taught in the schools. On this subject, see the detailed discussion, below, on pp. 63-64, 92, and 122-38.

[2] Conciliar texts, as well as other magisterial documents, are cited according to the words with which they begin in Latin: Lumen gentium, Dei Verbum, Gaudium et spes, etc. They can be found in Documents of Vatican II, ed. Austin P. Flannery (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975); or in the more recent edition, Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, ed. Austin P. Flannery (Northport, N.Y.: Costello; and Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1996).

[3] Henri de Lubac, Mémoire sur l'occasion de mes écrits (1989); English edition, At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances That Occasioned His Writings, trans. Anne Elizabeth Englund, Communio Books (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), here cited as ASC. This work contains autobiographical notes, along with a wealth of such material as book reviews, letters and diary entries.

[4] Henri de Lubac, "Mémoire sur mes vingt premieres années" I, Bulletin de l'Association Internationale Cardinal Henri de Lubac 1 (1998): 7-31.

[5] Henri de Lubac, Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940-1944, trans. Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990).

[6] Xavier Tilliette, "Henri de Lubac achtzigjährig", Internationale Katholische Zeitschrzft Communion (1976): 187f.

[7] Gerd Haeffner, "Henri de Lubac", in Stephan Pauly, ed., Theologen unserer Zeit, pp. 47-57.

[8] Pierre Rousselot, S.J. (1878-1915), professor for dogmatic theology in Paris. His doctoral thesis, L'Intellectualisme de saint Thomas, a milestone in the recovery of Thomas' original views, had a decisive influence on de Lubac's approach to theology. On Rousselot, see E. Kunz, Glaube, Gnade, Geschichte [Faith, grace, history] (1969).

[9] Henri de Lubac, Catholicisme: Les Aspects sociaux du dogme (1938). Translated into German by Hans Urs von Baithasar as Katholizismus als Gemeinschaft [Catholicism as community] (1943); a second edition of this translation appeared in 1970 with the modified title Glauben aus der Liebe [Faith out of love]. English edition: Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), here cited as Cath.

[10] Henri de Lubac, L'Écriture dans la Tradition (1966); English edition, Scripture in the Tradition, trans. Luke O'Neill (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000); German edition, Typologie, Allegorie, Geistiger Sinn, trans. Rudolf Voderhoizer (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1999).

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
The Tragic Misunderstanding of Atheist Humanism | From Chapter One of The Drama of Atheist Humanism | Henri de Lubac

Books by Henri de Lubac published by Ignatius Press:

History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen
At the Service of the Church: Henri de Lubac Reflects on the Circumstances that Occasioned His Writings
Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace

Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man
The Christian Faith

Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940-1944
The Drama of Atheist Humanism
More Paradoxes
The Motherhood of the Church
Paradoxes of Faith
The Splendor of the Church
Theology in History

Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991) was a French Jesuit and one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. De Lubac was ordained a priest on August 22, 1927, pursued further studies in Rome until 1929, and then became a faculty member at Catholic Faculties of Theology of Lyons, where he taught history of religions until 1961. His pupils included Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthasar. De Lubac was created cardinal deacon by Pope John Paul II on February 2, 1983 and received the red biretta and the deaconry of S. Maria in Domnica, February 2, 1983. He died on September 4, 1991, Paris and is buried in a tomb of the Society of Jesus at the Vaugirard cemetery in Paris. For more about his life and his books published by Ignatius Press, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page.

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