Edward Schillebeeckx, R.I.P.

Somewhat unnoticed this past week in the U.S. media was the passing of Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. (1914-2009), a Dominican priest who advised the Dutch bishops at Vatican II and became a major figure in the Church’s efforts to implement the reforms of that Council in the decades that followed.  He died December 23 in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where he had lived and taught for half a century.  He was 95.  

“With his academic studies and pastoral books, he inspired a large reading public, both within and outside the Christian churches,” stated a press release from the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation.  “His erudition and eminent knowledge of the Christian tradition went hand in hand with a strong commitment to Church and society.  This theology was focused on human beings in the creation of a pre-eminently humane God, who object is human salvation:  Deus humanissimus.”


            Schillebeeckx is deservedly famous for his theological scholarship, which often stressed the pastoral and experiential elements of practice and belief (including Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1959), Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, and Christ: the Christian Experience in the Modern World in the 1970s, and Church: the Human Story of God in 1989, among many others), but also for his efforts to see the reforms of Vatican II carried out in the fractious decades following Vatican II.  In his obituary, the National Catholic Reporter noted that “[a]fter the council the Netherlands became the most progressive country in the world in implementing Vatican II initiatives, and Schillebeeckx, often behind the scenes, was at the center of this movement.” 

            Three times in the 1980s Schillebeeckx was questioned by officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over controversial issues in his writings including Christology and lay ministry in the Church, but neither he nor his writings were ever censured.

            Less well remembered about Schillebeeckx are his sociological studies and analysis of the Catholic Church in the United States in the late 1960s.  Like other prominent European theologians of the time (Hans Kung being the most famous example), Schillebeeckx came to the United States on several speaking tours in the years following Vatican II, traveling throughout the country and speaking to packed lecture halls at every stop.  Lecturing frequently on the theological underpinnings of the “priesthood of all believers,” Schillebeeckx also had the opportunity to speak with Catholics of every stripe during these junkets, and reported that his own observations were of an American Church deeply divided on many levels.  In an article in Catholic Mind from March 1968, he was quoted as saying “the discontent among American priests” was “indescribable.”  

            In his final years Schillebeeckx returned to his study of the sacraments, according to the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation, and was working on a book on religious rituals and their connection to the sacraments at the time of his death.

Jim Keane, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim McCrea
9 years 3 months ago
The church was blessed with the likes of giants like him during and after Vatican II.
The future will remain bleak until more giants (lay and clerical) can achieve the successes of people such as Edward Schillebeeckx.
"May the angels lead him into paradise,
May the martyrs welcome him and take him into the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem
May the choirs of angels welcome him where Lazarus is poor no longer.
May he find eternal rest."
David Pasinski
9 years 3 months ago
Reading Schillebeeckx' "Ministry" was so liberating for me.  I appreciate his Christology, but it was his eccelsiology that motivated my ministry.
Justin Melkus
9 years 2 months ago
I admittedly do not know much if anything about Mr. Schillbeeckx's theology, but if it is true that ''[a]fter the council the Netherlands became the most progressive country in the world in implementing Vatican II initiatives,'' and it is also true that the Catholic population in the Netherlands today has among the lowest Mass attendance figures, even by European standards, then what good have his reforms accomplished?
I personally accept the positions espoused by the Second Vatican Council, after all they are those of the Church, but it becomes a question of how and to what degree they were manifested.  The historical record seems clear that where the implementation of Vatican II's liturgical and pastoral reforms was most vociferous and radical (Netherlands, Quebec, Belgium, etc.) the church has been crippled to near extinction: very low Mass attendance (>4%), almost no ordinations (4 in Belgium last year compared to nearly 60 in 1959), etc.  Yet where its liturgical reforms were more cautiously and partially adopted, it seems the damage to the church by the secularization of society, though still severe, was not as bad, or at least was postponed.  This would include parts of the U.S., Italy, Spain, as well as in the developing world, and perhaps even Ireland (although the damage there from the current scandal will be severe indeed).  Also, those parts of the Church that are ''rolling back'' some of the liturgical and pastoral reforms seem anecdotally to be flourishing, (such as the growth and vitality of more traditional parishes, abbeys, monasteries, etc.), while those that continue to push radical reforms of liturgy and pastoral care seem to continue to wither as they offer less to contrast with what so many see as wrong with secular culture.
This hypothesis is not simply ''post hoc ergo propter hoc,'' as the evidence, anecdotally and otherwise, seems to bear this out.  Secularization is damaging the Church severely everywhere now, even in those counterexamples above, but it seems that the more radicalized realizations of Vatican II's reforms harried and intensified that damage.  In the context of the early-1960s, I don't think the Church could foresee the coming secular avalanche as Western culture abrubptly abandoned its Christian roots, but it must be concluded that the reforms of Vatican II, as they were carried out, left the Church ill-equipped to defend itself from such an onslaught.
I wonder what Rev. Schillbeeckx thought of the state of the Church in the Netherlands at the time of his death compared to before Vatican II, and whether he thought the more radical embodiments of the Vatican II reforms, which he was so responsible for carrying out, did more harm than good.
Joris Steverlynck-Gonnet
9 years 2 months ago
We are indebted to Schillbeeckx for the blessed Settimana Nera, in which Pope Paul VI kicked out a lot of things that had been included in the text of various Vatican II documents. Among them, a text that could be interpreted as eliminating de facto Papal inerrancy in matters of faith, which would have been transferred to the Assembly of Bishops. As we know, this was the most important addition of Vatican I to the deposit of our faith, declared Dogma.
The Vatican experts for the German and Netherlands bishops had written the text in such a way that it could be interpreted as said before, and in doubt the explanation about the way it was to be interpreted would devolve to the experts, who would opine in that way, and it being a Dogma, the Pope would have commited an apostasy. 
Many bishops had warned Paul VI about this danger, but he belonged to the liberal tendency in the first sessions of the Council, and would not believe his friends would do this to him. Accordingly, he ordered the text to be printed in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, which would make this text inerrant. But at the last moment, Schillbeeckx wrote an article in a Netherlands magazine, DE BAZIN, saying precisely that as one of the specialists who had written it, it had to be interpreted as transfering inerrancy from the Pope to the Episcopate. This magazine was hastily sent to the Pope, who when reading it struck the table and exclaimed: "They have deceived me!" .
From then on, the Pope stopped the printing, revised all documents one after the other, and made many changes that cleaned out liberal theses. Three years of working by the liberals went down the drain, and one of them wrote an article calling the Pope's decision "the black week" (La settimana nera). The majority of the Council Fathers, who had pushed systematically these theses, was furious, and when the Pope entered St. Peter to end the Third Session, there was no applause at all!
So, thanks to Schillebeeckx, the Church avoided having the first Pope in her history who might have committed apostacy.   
Joris Steverlynck-Gonnet
9 years 2 months ago
Jim McCrea
9 years 2 months ago
JPM:  it was FR Schillbeeckx, not MR Schillbeeckx.
Craig McKee
9 years 2 months ago
Upon learning of his death, I e-mailed an OP friend in Ireland, remarking how lucky Father Schillebeeckx is to be ''HOME for Christmas.'' A fitting tribute to his life and work is found in the pages of Pere Congar's Mon Journal du Concile (Paris, Cerf, 2002) entry for Sunday, 22 October 1962 (volume I, page 137):
''D'autre part, il existe dans l'Eglise un large groupe de theologiens vivants et qui ne se cantonnent pas dans les chapitres tout faits de la theologie d'ecole, mais s'efforcent de penser et d'eclairer les faits de la vie de l'Eglise. Ces theologiens sont assez nombreux.''
How the times have changed. In the words of the Medieval French poet Francois Villon:
''Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?''
9 years 2 months ago
WOW.  Did not know until I opened my AMERICA email.  Nothing I saw on TV or papers.  How sad as I know there are thousands of people who would want to know.
The day he was taken up to heaven I was completing an assignment for a Masters in Catholic Theology and I had several of his books spread out on my study table. A good tribute I would think. My community will pray for him via a Novena starting tomorrow.  By the way we are an Anglican/Orthodox Trinitarian community.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
I have not read anything by Schillebeeckx, and it seems, like Mary Daly, that he is just being brought to my attention by his death.
Just the titles of his books - Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Christ: the Christian Experience in the Modern World, and Church: the Human Story of God - intrigue me.
Something has happened to our understanding of what it is to be Catholic, and it sounds like Schillebeeckx has nailed it.  I look forward to reading him.


The latest from america

Jesus asks us to be generous with the poor. It’s one of the foundations of his public ministry: caring for the poor himself and asking his disciples to do so.
James Martin, S.J.March 25, 2019
Obedience is a way of following God and when the young Mary assented to God's plan with her "Yes" at the Annunciation, she gave us an example to follow: her obedience came from trust. Can we do the same with our faith?
Even in our relationships with family and friends, forgiveness can be hard to come by.
Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, Chile, the Vatican announced on March 23.
Gerard O’ConnellMarch 23, 2019