I Read the Journal of Henri de Lubac

In recognition of his work, Pope St. John Paul II created de Lubac a cardinal in 1983.

(photo: Register Files)

If you’ve dipped a toe or two in the history of the Second Vatican Council, you’ll recognize the name Henri de Lubac. De Lubac was a highly influential theologian and voice of the council. He’s worth learning about to understand some of the transitions in 20th-century theological thought. But of course, the documents of Vatican II didn’t write themselves, and if we wish to understand the meaning and intentions of those Catholic documents, we ought to learn about the meanings and intentions of those Catholic thinkers.

As a French Jesuit who was a prominent and prolific writer, he was caught up in the nouvelle théologie or “the new theology” controversy surrounding colleges and theological circles in post-World War I France. His many commentaries on Thomistic theologians and his willingness to discuss the Church in the modern world — and perhaps his frankness about the former —invited a level of criticism that his superiors were uncomfortable with. And eventually he was relieved of his duties for “pernicious errors on essential points of dogma” and from 1950 onward, he was forbidden to publish works of theology.

No, this didn’t sit well with him. But he remained patient, and eventually, bit by bit, he had enjoyed a rehabilitation of sorts, even if the accusations and publications were not forgotten by his peers. So, then, it came as an “astonishing piece of news” that he was identified as a consultor to the Preparatory Theological Commission’s work in Vatican II, and might have a sizable amount of input on the final documents promulgated by the council.

I discovered much about this man in the recent publications from Ignatius Press, especially the Vatican Council Notebooks. Transcribed, redacted and translated to English, these two volumes are the wealth of private reflection and sometimes beamingly personal feelings of the consultor. More than 500 pages each, they are at first intimidating. But after a healthy introduction and about 60-80 pages into the journal, I felt like I was journeying from his residence in Fourvière to his daily meeting with various commissions, councils, private friends and speeches at colleges in Rome. He wrote copiously, as one might imagine for such a publication as this two-volume set, but also invitingly.

Buried not too deep in the text are his frustrations, his humor and his candid thoughts about others involved in the council. I can sense his annoyance when he persistently refers to certain persons as “theologians” — quotes and all. And he doesn’t fail to deliver a sensible explanation for this:

Everything essential, in this Theological Commission, is done by a small group of Roman theologians. Sometimes they argue among themselves, but on the bases of a common mentality, common reflexes. They know their field, but little more. One senses among them a certain indifference toward scripture, the Fathers, the Eastern Church; a lack of interest and of concern regarding current doctrines and spiritual trends contrary to the Christian Faith. They are, is seems, too sure of their superiority. ... This is the milieu of the Holy Office. ... The result is a small academic system, ultra-intellectualist without any great intellectuality [and] the Gospel is forces to fit this system.

Strong words. When reading his journal, I did sense at times a bit of saltiness for nearly 15 years of censure and disapproval from his academic peers. For me, the result of reading his notes was not just a good appreciation for the thoughts he poured into the Commission as consultor, but also a matter of his process of applying what I observed as near-expert communication skills. He tells of his moments of pause, waiting for the right time to make a comment, and moments of courage where he could not hold back even in the presence of his harshest opponents.

Perhaps this wasn’t the intention of the publication, but I learned a number of important takes on leadership, too. In the Notebooks, Henri de Lubac takes time to point out the strengths and weaknesses of those who orchestrated the entire council, such as Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. These and other moments are backed up by copious notes in the bottom margins to give the reader a historical or personal context of the subject matter and context of his writing.

One funny moment came when he explained a joke circulating that the council was working on two key changes to the Nicene Creed. With the new progressive government of Italy, “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ ... seated at the left hand of the Father,” and with the resurgence of Latin studies in Rome, “I believe in the Holy Spirit ... who has spoken in Latin through the prophets.” I chuckled out loud when I read that. And all of this he said should never be published! I’m glad that the editors and publishers of these journals didn’t yield to this wish of de Lubac.

After his long days were done with the Second Vatican Council, where he exerted influence on Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Gaudium et spes (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), arguably two of the most important documents to be promulgated, Pope Paul VI offered to make him a cardinal. After what surely required much thought and courage, de Lubac declined for personal reasons on his worthiness of becoming a bishop.

As the years went on, Henri de Lubac’s reputation emerged as a prominent conservative theologian and along with famous names such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, would found the influential conservative theological journal Communio in 1972. Eleven years later in 1983, he was again offered to join the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II, with the understanding that he would not have to become a bishop. The 87-year-old Jesuit agreed and became, in 1983, the first non-bishop cardinal since the 1962 rule requiring cardinals to be bishops had been in use.

I have a persistent interest in the documents and development of Vatican II, and now, I have a sizable curiosity about the leaders and influencers of the council as well. I learned much from the Ignatius Press Notebooks of de Lubac, but also from the recently published Henri de Lubac and the Shaping of Modern Theology by author David Grumett. I look forward to the day I can read, if possible, the notes of Ratzinger and others of the council. Until then, I will be skimming the wit and personalism of de Lubac’s personal notes.