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James T. KeaneApril 11, 2023
Henri de Lubac, S.J., in an undated photo (Wikimedia Commons)

A story that has circulated for many years at America involves an editorial dispute from years past over whether Bruce Springsteen should be identified as “the rock singer Bruce Springsteen” or if his fame might be great enough to spare him any label. One editor argued that readers could hardly be expected to know offhand who Springsteen was; another countered by arguing that “we don’t identify de Lubac as ‘the theologian Henri de Lubac’!”

“Well, that would be ridiculous,” replied the first editor. “Everyone knows who de Lubac is.”

The veracity of neither the story nor the ultimate assertion is something to which the faithful are obligated to give their assent, of course, but the first editor had a point: Henri de Lubac, S.J., if not a rock star of 20th-century Catholicism, was certainly one of its leading lights. “Together with Rahner, Lonergan, Murray, von Balthasar, Chenu and Congar, Henri de Lubac stood among the giants of the great theological revival that culminated in Vatican II,” wrote Avery Dulles, S.J., in an appreciation of de Lubac for America shortly after de Lubac’s death in 1991.

Avery Dulles: “Together with Rahner, Lonergan, Murray, von Balthasar, Chenu and Congar, Henri de Lubac stood among the giants of the great theological revival that culminated in Vatican II.”

De Lubac wasn’t always a favorite son of the church, but his fans in recent decades have included almost every pope since the Second Vatican Council. Retrieved from theological exile by Pope John XXIII in the run-up to the council, he was entrusted by Pope Paul VI with key roles at Vatican II and in its aftermath. Pope John Paul II cited de Lubac in the first encyclical of his papacy. Pope Benedict referred to de Lubac regularly in his academic works and quoted him in his encyclical “Spe Salvi.” Pope Francis called de Lubac one of his favorite theologians in 2013. And just last week in Rome, the French bishops voted in favor of opening his cause for sainthood.

De Lubac was born in Cambrai, France, in 1896, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1913. He served in the French army in World War I and was badly injured in 1917. After years of postwar study in England and France, he was ordained in 1927 and was later assigned to teach theology in Lyons, specializing in fundamental theology and comparative religion. His first book, Catholicism, was published in 1938.

During World War II, de Lubac founded (with Jean Daniélou, S.J.) Sources chrétiennes, a collection of patristic texts and translations, and served as coeditor of a series of Cahiers du Témoignage chrétien. Because he wrote on the incompatibility of Christianity and anti-Semitism, he had to go into hiding several times to avoid arrest by the Nazi occupiers of France. His second major work, Corpus mysticum, a study of medieval ecclesiology, was released in 1944.

Shortly after the war’s end, he published Surnaturel (1946), a critical study of neoscholasticism that earned him some enemies among Thomistic theologians associated with Rome. De Lubac was wary of Catholic arguments that the church was losing adherents simply because it was misunderstood or caricatured by its opponents, and argued for greater study of church history and Scripture, among other fields. Stephen Bullivant offered this 1938 quote from de Lubac in a 2014 article for America:

If so many observers, who are not lacking in acumen or in religious spirit, are so grievously mistaken about the essence of Catholicism, is it not an indication that Catholics should make an effort to understand it better themselves?

He became associated with nouvelle théologie, a French intellectual movement that focused on, among other things, a “return to the sources” of Catholicism (to the supposed detriment of the study of Thomistic philosophy and theology) and the historical nature of the Catholic Church—an entity existing in and affected by human history. The former concept, ressourcement, is familiar to any scholar of Vatican II, and the latter was a primary conviction of Joseph Ratzinger, but they made de Lubac no friends in 1950.

De Lubac: "If so many observers are so grievously mistaken about the essence of Catholicism, is it not an indication that Catholics should make an effort to understand it better themselves?"

Hoping to derail accusations that the Jesuits were teaching modernist theology, the Jesuit General, John Baptist Janssens, ordered de Lubac and three other Jesuit professors to stop teaching and publishing. Someone had seen the writing on the wall: When the encyclical “Humani Generis” was released in 1950, de Lubac and his peers were not mentioned by name, but “false opinions which threaten to destroy the foundations of Catholic doctrine” certainly were.

During his theological exile, de Lubac devoted himself to topics of less interest to Rome and the theological academy, writing three books on Buddhism, among others. On the eve of Vatican II, his fortunes reversed again. Pope John XXIII appointed de Lubac to the preparatory “Doctrinal Commission” for the council. The Jesuits, too, asked him in 1960 to write in defense of his friend Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., whose writings were rumored to be next on the block for condemnation by Roman authorities. “Probably more than any other individual, de Lubac was responsible for warding off the impending condemnation,” Dulles later noted.

Vatican II returned de Lubac to theological prominence; serving as a peritus (theological expert) at the council, he influenced almost all the council’s important decrees, including “Dei Verbum,” “Gaudium et Spes,” “Ad Gentes” and “Nostra Aetate.” Like a number of prominent periti at Vatican II, de Lubac traveled widely afterward throughout Europe and the Americas (take that, Springsteen) to explain the council’s teachings and consequences.

In the ensuing decades he continued to publish in fields including Scripture, ecclesiology, pneumatology and historical theology, developing a reputation among many theologians and historians as a more traditional alternative to Karl Rahner, S.J., and other major figures from the council. In 1972, he co-founded with Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar and others the journal Communio, which reflected their thought on the council and its tumultuous aftermath.

De Lubac “was satisfied that Vatican II had overcome the narrowness of modern scholasticism, with its rationalistic tendencies,” wrote Dulles, who would follow de Lubac in 2001 as one of two great 20th-century scholars who were named cardinals but allowed to decline ordination as a bishop. “The council, he believed, had opened the way for a recovery of the true and ancient tradition in all its plenitude and variety.” However, in later years de Lubac became wary of how the teachings on Vatican II were being integrated into Catholic life: “The turmoil of the postconciliar period seemed to de Lubac to emanate from a spirit of worldly contention quite opposed to the Gospel.”

In addition, de Lubac’s experience with what he called the secular “replacement” religions of mid-century Europe, including Nazism, made him suspicious of political alliances between state and faith, argued Bill McCormick, S.J., in a 2022 America article: “Father De Lubac’s later arguments against trends in post-conciliar theology that offered the church as a servant to temporal progress were motivated by a concern about Christianity being subordinated to and replaced by just such religions.”

A testament to de Lubac’s theological acumen remains the way he is still cited in contemporary church discussions on everything from who should receive the Eucharist to how to evangelize religious nones to how to properly understand God’s relation to humanity. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal; the pontiff, who had become good friends with de Lubac at Vatican II, would later preside at his funeral in 1991.

“The sufferings of his long years of adversity, including two world wars and decades of great tension in the church, are still bearing fruit,” Dulles concluded in his 1991 encomium. “In the last few years, as his earthly life drew to a close, his disciples and admirers became more numerous and influential. De Lubac’s creative reappropriation of the ancient tradition has earned him a place of honor in a generation of theological giants.”

Avery Dulles: Henri de Lubac “was satisfied that Vatican II had overcome the narrowness of modern scholasticism, with its rationalistic tendencies."


Our poetry selection for this week is “Abundance,” by William J. Rewak. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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