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Patrick GranfieldDecember 05, 2023
The Rev. Joseph Ratzinger with French Dominican Father Yves Congar during the Second Vatican Council in 1962. (CNS photo from KNA) 

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 6, 1967 edition of America under the title “Interview with Yves Congar.”

Fr. Congar, a theologian particularly noted for his work in ecclesiology, was a peritus at Vatican Council II and one of the framers of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. The distinguished French Dominican was interviewed recently by Patrick Granfield, O.S.B.

Q. You might begin by telling us something of your intellectual formation.

I attended the seminary at the Institut Catholique for three years, from 1921 to 1924. I was only 17—quite a young boy. At that time I came under the influence of some very strict Thomists. Abbé Lallenient, for example, who was and still is teaching at the Institut, is a saintly priest, but a narrow Thomist.

Yves Congar: "Tradition, as I understand it, is like the Church itself: it comes from the past but looks forward to the future and sets the stage for a new eschatology."

Q. Wasn’t Jacques Maritain at the Institut at that time?

Yes, he was. I have great admiration for Maritain and the role that he has played in the spiritual movement of the last 50 years. At times I have wondered if one ought not to distinguish in him two men. There is the Maritain who is the man of broad vision and who wrote about art, politics, the Jewish problem, etc. Then there is—I should say was—the Maritain who wrote Antimoderne and that rather bad book, The Three Reformers.

Q. Why bad?

As you are aware, it is about Luther, Descartes and Rousseau. Unfortunately, the book is a good example of an a priori method. I doubt that Maritain has read more than 30 pages of Luther. He has not really tried to understand the positive religious meaning of his desire for reform. Now, in my opinion, nothing serious will be done on the ecumenical level as long as—while still denying the errors, which I am the first to criticize—we do not recognize the profound religious intention of Luther and the Reform.

Q. Do you think that Maritain’s wife, Raïssa, influenced him at all?

They lived together an intense intellectual and spiritual life. I knew Raïssa, and I have a glowing memory of her—first at Versailles in 1921-22, then at Meudon. Although I was a young seminarian at the time, I was admitted to the monthly Sunday afternoon meetings. On these visits, Maritain would explain a text—not from St. Thomas, but from John of St. Thomas. It was all very orthodox, and men like Kant, Leibnitz or Hegel were always considered in a bad light because they failed to recognize a minute distinction that was made by St. Thomas in the ad tertium or ad quartum of some article.

Q. Your philosophical formation, then, gave no importance to the moderns.

I was brought up with a kind of contempt for all moderns. Everyone who had written after St. Thomas was rejected. Men like Blondel, Laberthonnière and Maréchal were considered as contributing nothing to philosophy. I have read nothing of Maréchal. Blondel and Laberthonnière have always interested me because of the contribution they have made to theology. I am convinced that in time Blondel’s importance will grow even greater. When I realized that these men had great minds and had much to say, I began reading them earnestly. But by that time it was too late. I can say that I had no real philosophical formation.

Yves Congar: "I am distressed when I see young clerics, sometimes even seminary professors, trying to invent a new synthesis from scratch—to meet the needs of modern man, as they say."

Q. But you did receive an excellent theological education.

I must insist that I believe in theology very, very, very strongly. I am convinced that theology is necessary in the present condition of the Church. At Le Saulchoir, where I studied theology from 1926 to 1931, the true notion of theology was that which Père Anibroise Gardeil explained in his book of 1909: Le Donné Révélé et la Théologie. This book should be translated into English. The very title of it is extremely important, for theology depends on le donné—the data of revelation. This includes the Scriptures, the Fathers, the liturgy. In a word, the whole tradition of the Church. Theology must always be related to le donné, for this is where it receives its life and criterion.

Q. Do you feel that you and Fr. Karl Rahner have a different theological method?

It is clear that his theology is different from mine. Fr. Rahner has a philosophical basis that I do not possess. His approach to theological and pastoral problems shows this quite clearly. He generally proceeds from concepts that he examines thoroughly and then specifies. Or he might examine the conditions that, a priori, render a problem accessible and soluble. Thus he is able to take a new look at a problem and hit upon an essential aspect of it in a new way. But he is also able to write an article on Catholic Action without citing one papal text.

Nevertheless, he does know history well, and the witness of tradition, and his Denzinger. I have great admiration for him and even, I may say, affection. I also admire his intellectual courage and his extraordinary human feeling, which, in the course of an extended discussion, shines through in a kindly but mischievous smile. He played an important role on the Theological Commission of the Council from the second session on, and everyone paid attention to what he said.

Q. You are considered to be a progressive or liberal theologian. Personally, do you feel that you are quite avant-garde?

Absolutely not. I hope that I am open-minded and that I recognize the problems of our time. But I am a man of tradition. This does not mean I am a conservative. Tradition, as I understand it, is like the Church itself: it comes from the past but looks forward to the future and sets the stage for a new eschatology.

It is in this sense that the Constitution on Divine Revelation speaks of it. Tradition is not constant and static; it grows and builds. I remember that Paul Claudel compared tradition to a man walking. In order to walk you must have one foot on the ground and one in the air. If you have both on the ground you don’t move; if you have both in the air you fall.

Tradition always tries to answer current problems; it grows and renews itself. Nothing is more foolish than to think that everything has been said in the past.

Q. Would you still insist that you are a Thomist?

It is true that I am a follower of St. Thomas. I owe to St. Thomas the best of all my work. Yet for me St. Thomas does not have to be slavishly followed. For instance, on specific points concerning the sacrament of orders or the nature of the episcopate, I disagree with St. Thomas. But that is insignificant. If St. Thomas lived today, he would know facts he did not know before.

For me, St. Thomas is a master of thought, and he can form the mind and the judgment. In all his writings he showed he had a great respect for the truth. He was a model of loyalty and intellectual honesty and looked for the truth wherever he could find it. He was not one merely to repeal conclusions that he formed once and for all. All his life he searched for new texts, and for new translations from the Greek or the Arabic. As a man of dialogue, he frequently entered into discussion with the “heretics” of his day. St. Thomas is the symbol of openmindedness, the genius of reality. We should remain faithful to his spirit.

Yves Congar: "In theology we must begin by studying St. Augustine and St. Thomas. These are the classics. They are not the terminal point, but the point of departure and the foundation for future work."

Q. Do you think St. Thomas should still be studied in seminaries?

You know that St. Thomas is mentioned explicitly in the decrees on the training of priests and on Christian education. In the case of the profane disciplines, autonomy of research is insisted upon, and St. Thomas is presented as one authority, though not the only one. In the case of the sacred sciences. St. Thomas is proposed as a master. This does not mean simply repetition and the exclusion of other theologians. Rather it means that we study under his guidance; we follow his spirit. I doubt that a better intellectual guide can be found.

I am distressed when I see young clerics, sometimes even seminary professors, trying to invent a new synthesis from scratch—to meet the needs of modern man, as they say. History has shown us that the first serious study of a subject consists in finding out what has been thought and created before us. If you are a musician, your first step is to study Bach and Mozart. So in theology we must begin by studying St. Augustine and St. Thomas. These are the classics. They are not the terminal point, but the point of departure and the foundation for future work,

Q. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing modern theology?

The most important work today is to show the unity between theology and anthropology. They are always related. My friend Rabbi Abraham Heschel sums it up nicely when he says: “The Bible is not a theology for man; it is an anthropology for God.” I believe that in fact it is both. I have quoted that sentence many times. It means that you cannot separate God and man. In the Bible the affirmations about God are linked to the affirmations about man. And why should this be so? Because the content of revelation is not God as He is Himself, exactly. God revealed Himself in the temporal revelation of the Incarnation and established a unique relation between Himself and man. Theologians like Rahner and Schillebeeckx might seem to be studying man more than God. But this is a false impression. They study God in the light of modern anthropology, and I agree completely with this approach.

Q. Isn’t this approach especially valuable for the problem of atheism?

Yes. It is a response to atheism. For many people today atheism is not the negation of God; it is the affirmation of man. But they wrongly reason that one cannot affirm man and his great role in the world without saying that God is dead. This is false, and we must show them why it is false.

Q. Could you tell me how you came to start the “Unam Sanctam” series?

At the beginning of 1935, I was asked to work on the results of a major investigation that the review La Vie Intellectuelle had pursued for three years on the present causes of unbelief. This led me to conclude that as far as this unbelief depended on us, it was caused by a poor presentation of the Church.

At that time, the Church was presented in a completely juridical way, sometimes even in a somewhat political way. I wanted to remedy this state of affairs. I decided to start a series of theological works that would examine a number of ecclesiological themes that were profoundly traditional but had become more or less overlooked—as the normal De Ecclesia tract showed. I sought to restore the genuine value of ecclesiology by viewing, as far as possible, the totality of Catholic doctrine and by using the rich resources of tradition and applying them to current problems in the Church. The series “Unam Sanctam” was announced in La Vie Intellectuelle on Nov. 25, 1935, and the first volume appeared in 1937 and was published by Editions du Cerf. I felt such a series would fill a genuine need and would give a solid and serious theological foundation to a movement that had begun under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “Unam Sanctam” looks at the mysterium ecclesiae from many different aspects, but always keeping in mind its organic unity.

Q. Do you think the “Unum Sunctam” series has come up to your expectations?

Yes. I would say so. The first volume, Chretiens désunis: Principes d’un oecuménisisme catholique, was written by me, and it was my first book. It was translated in 1938 under the title Divided Christendom. So far, 60 volumes have appeared, and among the authors are De Lubac, Batiffol, Bardy, Vonier, Bouyer, Hugo Rahner, Dumont, Leclercq and Le Guillou. Pope Paul alluded to the work done by myself and others in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam. There he pays tribute to “those scholars who, especially during the last years, with perfect docility to the teaching authority of the Church…have with great dedication undertaken many difficult and fruitful studies on the Church.”

Q. Looking over your life and your writings, what do you consider your greatest contribution to theology?

[Here Fr. Congar paused for a long time and became very pensive. Finally he went on in a very slow and deliberate way.] I have but one desire in my life: To fulfill God’s plan for me. I wish to take my place in the plan of God. My whole life has consisted in offering myself totally—bodily, mentally and spiritually—to the will of God. I have no plan for myself; I have only tried to do what God wanted of me. [Then he continued in a lighter vein.] Still, I haven’t done too badly. Without any merit on my part. I have been fortunate to have written accurately on several theological points that have proved decisive in the Church today; ecumenism, the laity, tradition and Church reform. But it was often difficult to advocate these views. Especially in the 1950’s…

Q. You suffered a lot for your opinions?

I will only say that I always did what I considered my duty, and nothing else. When I am convinced that something is true, then no one, not even a Pope, can make me deny it. To be sure, if the Pope or my superiors were to tell me I was mistaken, I would think seriously about it and consider their remarks in an attentive and docile way. For me truth is absolute. This is the main reason why I would not be a Communist.

During the war I had frequent conversations with Communists, and in Paris I have talked to some Marxists. I discovered that for them the truth is always changing. For them the truth is relative because it is only historical. This is the essence of dialectical materialism. But I believe what is true is always true.

Q. In your conversations with Marxists, did you ever feel that their theology could contribute something to the Church?

There is no doubt they have influenced the Church. One of the French Marxists once said that communism has produced that unknown thing—Christians. They forced us to be Christian. Not to be simply Catholic, in the sociological meaning of the word, but to be truly Christian. This means to believe in the gospel and to live according to the gospel.

Yves Congar: "My whole life has consisted in offering myself totally—bodily, mentally and spiritually—to the will of God. I have no plan for myself; I have only tried to do what God wanted of me."

Q. Can any comparison be made between the Communists’ notion of community and the Church’s understanding of the term?

The two realities are situated on different levels. Nevertheless there exists, in my opinion, a certain material correspondence between the end of history as the Communists see it and the end of history that we affirm will be realized in the kingdom of God. History seeks two things: First of all, it seeks the overcoming of all opposition between men, between classes, between nations, between man and the state, and between spirit and nature. This is precisely what the kingdom of God does. Secondly, history looks for integrity: the victory of life over illness and death, the victory of truth over ignorance, and the victory of justice over injustice.

Does not the prophet Isaiah tell us this? Human history and the kingdom of God have the same goals, but we know that human history cannot achieve these ends by itself. We know that the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit are needed. The Communists believe that these goals can be achieved by humanity, and this is where they differ from us. There are, of course, many other very serious points of divergence.

Q. Your ecclesiology has always exhibited an ecumenical dimension. Your doctoral dissertation, for example, was on the unity of the Church. Could you tell me something about the “ecumenical vocation” you received as a youth?

There were many circumstances that prepared me for ecumenical work. As a boy in Sedan, a small village in the Ardennes, I had many Jewish and Protestant friends whose parents were friends of my parents. In 1914, our church in Sedan was intentionally burned by the Germans. The Protestant pastor, M. Cosson, let the Catholics use a Protestant chapel in the suburbs of the city. For almost six years that was our church, and in that chapel I received or at least recognized my priestly vocation.

I am also grateful to our curé, Canon R. Tonnel, who preached so well, and to Canon D. Lallement, who taught me the beauty of the religious life. I also occasionally visited the Abbey of Saint-Wandrille, which was then in exile on the banks of the Semoye. My dear mother’s wonderful example cannot be overemphasized. She had a very broad vision of the Church and a deep sense of what the Church is.

In preparing for my priestly ordination, which took place on July 25, 1930, I became very much interested in the theology of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. I read Chap. 17 of St. John frequently. While meditating on this chapter, I recognized definitely a call to work so that all who believe in Christ may be one.

I am grateful that God has called me to do His will. My special Inspiration to work for Church unity cannot be understood apart from my interest in ecclesiology, or for that matter apart from my religious vocation. I must say that from the beginning I have had really only one vocation, which was at the same time priestly and religious, Dominican and Thomist, ecumenical and ecclesiological.

Q. Catholicity has been a favorite theme in your writing over the years. Do you see any development in this notion today?

Dogmatically speaking, the Church is catholic. But the structure of the Church needs to become more catholic.

I recall an incident at the end of Pius XII’s pontificate that brings this out. The Holy Office had permitted a few Catholic observers to attend an ecumenical meeting with a group from the World Council of Churches. Rome suggested that the meeting be held in Assisi. We notified our Protestant friends in Geneva, and they answered that it was too far to go. Now, these people are used to having their meetings everywhere; if we had said the meeting would be in London, Evanston or Ceylon, they would have asked when the next plane left. But for them Assisi was too close to Rome. They were fearful.

The Vatican Council itself was held in Rome and the conciliar commission scarcely worked outside of Rome. Practically, the Catholic Church has an imperial structure, not a world-wide structure. For me, this is one of the practical interests in the principle of collegiality. The Protestants at the Vatican Council often told us that it is useful that the Pope is the supreme power and that Rome is Rome; but they felt that the Church must have a structure more in accord with the structure of the world. We must rid ourselves of thinking of the Church in terms of the Roman Empire—a capital city with provinces. The Church must become more catholic and recognize the differences in nations, cultures and mentalities. Collegiality, I am confident, will do just that.

Q. The question of integrating the college of bishops with the supreme power of the Pope is widely discussed today by theologians. How do you approach this problem?

It is a question of integration and also of determining exactly what is the subject of supreme power in the Church. This cannot be adequately solved on the juridical level alone. As you know, there are several positions. I eliminate at the start what amounts to a pure pontifical monarchy. It does not have consistent support either in the New Testament or in Christian antiquity.

In recent years, some—such as Karl Rahner and Otto Semmelroth—have formulated the idea of a single power that is always collegial. Fr. Wilhelm Bertrams criticizes them by saying that if the supreme power is always that of the college, how then could the Pope be dependent on the college of bishops and yet still possess personally the “fullness of power.” Vatican I affirms papal supremacy, and the New Testament shows that Peter personally and independently of the other apostles received full pastoral power.

Bertrams then discusses the rather common explanation of two inadequately distinct subjects of supreme power. I have noticed that those who hold this view also say that there cannot exist a college without a head and that there can be no ecumenical council without the Pope. But they never make the complementary application, namely, that the Pope is inconceivable without the college, that is, without the rest of the bishops and the Church.

The Pope is always the head of the college and he always acts as such. Jimenez Urresti holds the thesis, which he supports with strong arguments, that the Pope is head of the Church because he is head of the college.

Yves Congar: "We must rid ourselves of thinking of the Church in terms of the Roman Empire—a capital city with provinces. The Church must become more catholic and recognize the differences in nations, cultures and mentalities."

Q. What do you think of Rahner’s position?

I wonder if the Rahner-Semmelroth thesis makes ample provision for the teaching of Vatican I? How can we say that every act of the Pope’s must be considered as an act of the college, since he is the head of the college? It seems to me that one must say that the Pope receives the supreme power from a source other than that of head of the college, although he always exercises this power as head of the college. For that reason I hold to the theory of two subjects inadequately distinct. The supreme power exists in both the Pope and the college of bishops, but in different ways. The Pope possesses real episcopal power over the whole Church (this is clear from Vatican I), not to administer the ordinary affairs of the dioceses but to intervene only in order that the unity of the Church may be preserved.

Q. Doesn’t Fr. Bertrams present the arguments for the two-subject theory in too juridical a framework?

Fr. Bertrams is a canonist, and he has not sufficiently considered the ontological aspects of the problem. The whole problem cannot be solved or even properly asked if we stay on the juridical level. In that category, we can only make affirmations of identity or subordination: relations “according to under and over.” We must go on to ontology. The Pope and his power are inseparable from the Church, from the apostolic succession of the college of bishops or college of apostles.

So far as power is concerned, the Pope has no superior; he is the head of the body of bishops. But we must not forget that he is bound to the Church, to its faith, outside of which there would be no Pope or power. In this sense, on the radical level of ontology, the Pope depends on the Church and has no power over it. Surely one cannot eliminate from ecclesiology the unanimously recognized theme of the possibility of a heretical or schismatic Pope. It might appear to be an unreal hypothesis, but it is a theme that is necessary in order to work out properly the position of the Pope in the over-all view of ecclesiology.

Q. What of the hypothesis of a complete disagreement between the Pope and an ecumenical council?

The hypothesis of an ecumenical conciliar assembly voting for a doctrine in a morally unanimous way, and of the Pope alone holding the contrary in such a way as to stop the assembly of the bishops, seems to me impossible to maintain. In any event, that is not the way Paul VI understood his interventions in the Council, according to a letter published in La Civiltà Cattolica.

There is a limit to the personal power possessed by the Pope that puts him over the assembly of the bishops and renders him independent of the college from a juridical point of view. This limit is communion in the faith. From an ontological point of view, the Pope is not over the Church or the college, but within the Church and the college. (The supra has the limit of the cum.) No analogy taken from the constitutions of human societies and no purely juridical formulation is adequate for the sui generis supernatural reality that is the Church. Rather, we must look for its model in the mystery of the Trinity, where we have perfect communion and circumincession of the Divine Persons.

To sum up, I would say that on the juridical level the title by which the Pope possesses supreme power is proper and personal to him. It is something different from the title of member—that is, head—of the college of bishops. It is independent of the college. But the reality that that is thus given is nothing other than that of head of the college and head of the Church. The Pope is inseparable from the college and the Church. He can no more be conceived of being independent of them than they can exist independent of him. Thus the exercise of the power of the Pope (received and possessed personally) is linked with the Church, although it is the power of the head of the Church and of the college.

Q. Some have said that you invented the term collegiality.

I know that Msgr. Latanzzi and others have said I started the discussion on collegiality. This is entirely false. I did, it is true, put the word “collegiality” into the theological vocabulary. But the context was quite different from that of bishops.

Q. What were you writing about?

When I was writing my book on the laity, which appeared in 1953, I found that in the tradition of the Church a communitarian structure always accompanied the hierarchic structure. I discovered that in the practical life of the Church decisions were always made in community. I found numerous texts in St. Cyprian and St. Leo, for instance, that insisted that a bishop is not given to a community against their will—nulli populo invito detur episcopus. It was in studying texts like this that I formulated the communitarian of the collegial idea. I even proposed to transíale the Orthodox term sobornost, to the degree that it is valid, as collegiality.

Q. The celibacy of the clergy is the subject of much discussion these days. What are your feelings on this problem?

The question is very difficult. Very difficult, indeed. There are two questions, and they should not be confused. One is the problem of ordaining married men, and the other is permitting priests to marry. In 20 years, I think, we will have a married clergy in the sense that the Church will ordain married men.

Q. Do you think the married diaconate is a step in that direction?

Two years ago the Council approved a married diaconate, but since that time nothing has happened. It shows that it is a difficult problem. But I am confident that soon some practical implementations of the Council’s approval of married deacons will take place. Last October, in Rome. I was invited to attend a small congress that dealt with the diaconate, in which I gave a talk on the various ministries in the Church. There is more than the priestly ministry. In fact, most of the true ministries in the Church are performed by laymen. Would it not be possible to consecrate laymen to read the lessons at Mass, to teach religion in our schools and to take care of the sick?

Yves Congar: "There is more than the priestly ministry. In fact, most of the true ministries in the Church are performed by laymen."

Q. You are not in favor of priests marrying after ordination?

No. I am quite opposed to it. There is no foundation for it in the tradition of the Church, not even of the Eastern Church. It has always been forbidden.

Q. Would you allow for any exceptions to this?

I see no reason why exceptions cannot be made. But they would be the extraordinary thing. We must not forget that priestly celibacy is a Church law and not a divine law. There is no theological difference between a married priest, as in the East, and an unmarried priest. Both are priests in the full sense. It was interesting at the Council to read some of the modi of the bishops. I was one of the redactors of the decree on priesthood, and many of the modi presented seemed to say that an unmarried priest was more a priest than a married priest. This is theologically not true, and the commission refused to go along.

I would say that permission may be occasionally given for priests to marry. Some men discover the question of sexuality after their ordination, when they are in their late thirties. At this time there is no honest exit from the priesthood. I think there should be some honest exit, either by reducing the priest to the lay state and allowing him to marry or, very rarely, by allowing him to remain a priest and function as a priest, at least in those places where Catholics would accept it. In nations like France, I think the latter would be difficult, although working people might accept it. But I don’t think that people in the small country villages would.

In any hypothesis, this could only be an exceptional thing. There are other ways of answering the difficult problems that celibacy at times brings us. We should look for more developed human maturity before ordination, more intense forms of common life, and other things like this. I pray that God may preserve the gift of religious and priestly chastity in His Church, in the midst of the aphrodisiac and hyper-sensualized world we live in.

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