Yves-Marie Congar, O.P., was the 20th century’s leading Catholic ecumenical theologian and one of the most influential contributors to the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul recognized his outstanding service to the church when he named him a cardinal not long before he died in 1995 at the age of 91. In August 1914, Congar’s parish church in Sedan, France, was gutted by an incendiary bomb. At the invitation of the Protestant pastor, Catholics worshiped for the duration of the war in the Protestant chapel. Here the young Congar first experienced a call to the ordained priesthood. His adult ecumenical encounters were foreshadowed by the friendships he formed with Protestant and Jewish children. At the age of 13, he had theological discussions about the meaning of the Mass with the son of the Protestant pastor.
After taking the Dominican habit in 1925, Congar continued his formation at Le Saulchoir, the legendary house of studies then at Kain, in Belgium, where he was part of a dynamic learning community under the direction of Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. In an era when Catholic intellectual life continued to experience the chill that resulted from the measures taken against “modernists” under Pope Pius X, the “school of Le Saulchoir” sought to address the real problems posed by modern scholarship and pastoral experience. Here Congar received an excellent grounding in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, but he also developed an acute historical sense that was alien to the Baroque scholastic mentality dominant elsewhere at the time.
“My ecclesiological and ecumenical vocation came to me in 1929-1930,” he wrote. During a pre-ordination retreat, while meditating on Jesus’ priestly prayer for unity (John 17), Congar felt called to dedicate his life’s work to the goal of Christian unity. Before Vatican II, the official Catholic position regarding Christians of other traditions was that they, as “heretics” and “schismatics,” should acknowledge their errors and return to the mother church. Congar became convinced that the Roman Catholic Church must renew her own self-understanding: “My God, who made me understand from 1929-1930 that if the church changed her face, if she simply assumed her true face, if she was very simply the church, all would become possible on the path of unity.” His indefatigable historical investigations, coupled with his frequent personal meetings with Protestant and Orthodox Christian scholars, produced much fruit. In 1937 he published his first seminal work on principles for a Catholic ecumenism (translated as Divided Christendom: A Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion). Around the same time he launched the series of publications called Unam Sanctam, which championed the ressourcement—the “return to the sources”—that was intended to lay the theological foundations for achieving Christian unity.
Congar’s imprisonment by the Germans during the Second World War was the occasion for another significant grace: the permanent friendships he formed with his fellow inmates of diverse backgrounds. As a French officer, Congar was incarcerated for the duration of the war. After repeated attempts to escape, he was detained for 18 months in the forbidding fortresses of Colditz and Lübeck. There Congar kept up his resistance to the Nazis by holding informal conferences and conversations. While in prison, he was dismayed to learn that Rome had cracked down on Le Saulchoir and that Chenu had been ousted from his teaching assignment. The steely resolve he displayed in captivity was to serve him well during the period of Roman repression that awaited him after the war. He subsequently wrote, “My resistance can only consist in never abandoning my service of the truth.”
In the period immediately after the Second World War, the church in France was characterized by a remarkable élan that showed itself in new pastoral initiatives and theological ressourcement. Congar threw himself back into teaching, research and writing. In 1950 he published what many consider his most important work, Vrai et Fausse Réforme de l’Eglise (True and False Reform of the Church, of which an English translation is currently in preparation), which stressed that authentic reform should be characterized by the “primacy of charity.” Angelo Roncalli, then the Vatican nuncio to France, was seen reading and annotating the book. As Pope John XXIII, Roncalli would summon a council to renew and reform the church.
A mentality of suspicion toward the “new theology” prevailed, however, in the Holy Office. Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis, which warned against theological deviations. These included a false “irenicism” with respect to ecumenism. Soon various French theologians were ejected from their teaching positions and severely restricted in publishing. Congar and several of his Dominican confreres were among the targets of these Roman sanctions (see “Raid on the Dominicans: The Repression of 1954,” by Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P., in America, 2/5/94).
Though Congar’s ecumenical theology had been the object of criticism since the late 1930’s, Congar is said to have been targeted because of ties to the controversial “worker-priest” movement, which Congar said were actually quite minimal. His posthumously published journal records his anguish during these years: “As far as I myself am concerned, from the beginning of 1947 to the end of 1956 I knew nothing from that quarter [Rome] but an uninterrupted series of denunciations, warnings, restrictive or discriminatory measures and mistrustful interventions.”
Under pressure from the Holy Office, Roman censors blocked the republication and translation of some of his writings and left others in limbo. Some writings, however, were published, including Lay People in the Church. Between 1954 and 1956, Congar endured three periods of exile, which took him first to Jerusalem, then Rome and finally Cambridge, England. In his darkest hour, having been cut off from the primary areas of his scholarship and apostolate, Congar lamented that “practically, they have destroyed me. Now I know history...it is evident to me that Rome has ever sought and seeks one thing: the affirmation of its own authority.”
Archbishop Jean Weber of Strasbourg helped to bring about Congar’s return to France, and his home base for the next decade became the Dominican convent in Strasbourg. In the summer of 1960, Congar learned from a newspaper that he had been appointed a consultant to the preparatory commission for the recently announced ecumenical council. Congar had little influence on the preparatory schemas, which were markedly unecumenical and heedless of the ressourcement that he had been championing. The commission was dominated by curialists, who largely confined themselves to repackaging modern papal teaching.
At the beginning, Congar was very pessimistic, fearing that the council would be smothered in the arms of a Curia that sought to control the entire process. But Congar’s hopes soared when, during the first session, the bishops acted decisively to assume responsibility for the council. Another poignant moment occurred when he noted the presence of representatives from other Christian traditions who had been invited by the newly founded Secretariat for Christian Unity. Their very presence and reactions would help ensure the ecumenical progress that Pope John XXIII had set as one of the council’s primary goals.
Congar’s council journals preserve his unguarded reactions to many council participants. (He stipulated that his journal was not be published before the year 2000.) About the young archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, Congar is very positive, attributing to him “a prophetic power, amid calm, but in effect irresistible.” About his fellow theological expert Karl Rahner, S.J., he remarked: “He is magnificent, he is courageous, he is discerning and profound, but finally indiscreet.”
Congar’s vision of the church was largely vindicated by Vatican II. “All the things to which I gave quite special attention issued in the council: ecclesiology, ecumenism, reform of the church, the lay state, mission, ministries, collegiality, return to the sources and Tradition....” Indeed, Congar played an important role in the painstaking composition and editing of the most important conciliar documents, including the constitutions on the church and revelation; the constitution on the church in the modern world; the decrees on ecumenism, missions and the ministry and life of priests; and the declarations on non-Christian religions and religious freedom.
Congar was particularly proud of his contributions to Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” He had perseveringly worked to recover an understanding of the church as a “communion of churches,” in which the pilgrim people of God advances toward the perfect communion of God’s kingdom. This was in contrast to a one-sided, universalist, pyramidal view of the church in which the papal Curia had usurped what rightfully belonged to the whole church. While recognizing the essential role of the papacy in the life of the church, Congar firmly criticized the papal monarchism that had become dominant in the second millennium of the church’s history.
When the council ended, a large number of bishops congratulated and thanked him, saying in effect, “This was in good part your work.” But Congar was realistic about the postconciliar challenges. “Respecting many questions, the council remained incomplete,” he said. “It began a work which is not finished, whether it is a matter of collegiality, of the role of the laity, of missions and even of ecumenism.” In the years after the council, the question that constantly occupied him was: “How much diversity is compatible with the unity of communion?” Achieving church unity would not consist in imposing uniformity, he believed, but working to attain a “reconciled diversity.” He regretted that the church in the postconciliar era seemed to return to too narrow and rigid an existence. But one does not in one generation change an almost 1,000-year orientation. “It will take generations to nurture the seeds of understanding miraculously sown,” he wrote.
Congar spent the last years of his life dependent on intensive nursing care. When I briefly visited with him two years before his death, his desk was covered with scholarly materials, but his crippled condition severely limited his movements. In “Autumn Conversations,” he voiced the meaning of this last period of his life: “Withdrawn from active life, I am united to the mystical body of the Lord Jesus of which I have often spoken. I am united to it, day and night, by the prayer of one who has also known his share of suffering. I have a keen awareness of the vast dimensions of the mystical body. By and in the Holy Spirit I am present to its members, known (to me) and unknown. Ecumenism obviously plays a part in this. It is intercession, consolation, thanksgiving, as the Lord wills.”