Tuesday 6 June 2006

For the love of God (10): Why I love Henri de Lubac

A guest-post by Travis Ables

“If our nature is not at home with the supernatural, the supernatural is at home with our nature.” (Maurice Blondel, Letter on Apologetics)

Ben has asked that these posts bear upon the matter of love as much as that of the theologian in question. Accordingly we might thematize the eros of theology like this: first, theology is a task of and for the church; and second, it takes as the means toward its object the tradition of the church, the communio sanctorum. The latter has been by no means a given in modern theology. That it has become obligatory has many sources, but one of the most important is the movement we know as la nouvelle théologie—and Henri de Lubac must take first place among this movement’s luminaries. La nouvelle théologie marked a return to the sources, a return to the theological tradition of the church rather than a palimpsest reading constrained by the accretions of a school tradition.

The Mystery of the Supernatural, for example, must take precedence as one of the most important theological works of the twentieth century. Attacking the neo-Thomist reification of natura pura, de Lubac argues stridently for the true Thomist and Augustinian tradition: the natural is ineluctably and irresistibly drawn toward that which it has no capacity for. Nature can only be explained by the supernatural, which nonetheless remains wholly gratuitous as the gift of God. The paradox of the human being is that she is oriented toward a destiny for which she has no equipment, an act for which she has no capacity. Grace perfects nature—it is its crown and consummation, but it never ceases to be wholly grace.

It wasn’t until I began to read de Lubac that I understood the significance of the Catholic discussion of nature and grace. At issue here is the very essence of human being. Indeed, de Lubac’s brilliant recovery further authorizes a radical rethinking of the entire concept of nature as such—the laicized infinity of the natural order that is constitutive of modern thinking and has left us with little recourse to overcome the episteme that inevitably forces us toward Deism or an arbitrary supranaturalism.

Further, de Lubac has helped to bring theology back to its home in and for the church, so that theology conforms to its divine object and remains guided by what de Lubac’s student Jean-Yves Lacoste has called a “hermeneutic of restlessness”: the constant seeking of the life of the mind for the mystery of the supernatural, the quest for the understanding of faith that must be premised on the gift of faith.

Theology has not always understood what de Lubac had to remind his readers: “The whole of tradition tells us this: it is one of the forms of the fruitfulness of the mystery that it gives birth in [humanity’s] mind to a movement which can never end. To be afraid of it is a failure of faith.”


Fred said...

Well done!

De Lubac was a giant among theologians, discovering the valuable among a wide array of thinkers: Origen, Pico della Mirandola, Pascal, Teilhard -- and even Buddhism and Western atheism. His Catholicism reunited love of God with love of neighbor in an intensely dynamic way. Thumbing through his collection of essays, Theology in History, I could see so many of those themes that seemed new to the Church in the papacy of John Paul II, but were actually firmly grounded in the Christian tradition. His work was invaluable to Hans Urs von Balthasar and Luigi Giussani, and many others.

joel hunter said...


guanilo said...

Thanks, friends.

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

An excellent post!


Anonymous said...

a great post on important (but oft neglected) thinker.
a friend is posting on de lubac and milbank at

guanilo said...

Hey Cynthia! Josh - I linked to John's excellent series on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this tribute. It already helps me to make some connexions.

1. You can see where von Balthasar got his love of the Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, which von Balthasar, in turn, passed on to Marion.

2. You can also see where Radical Orthodoxy gets some of its gas, e.g. over the retrieval of traditions (its Augustinian Thomism) and its subversion of modernism, and over its deployment of the category of "participation" and its transcendence of the sacred/secular and faith/reason dualisms inherent in modernism (though has Radical Orthodoxy, not to mention some Communio Catholics, gotten cold feet about de Lubac's openness to the world?)

3. It strikes me that the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is a brilliant vehicle for de Lubac's insights, e.g. "God's Grandeur".

Are we on the same page?

Ap said...

"Attacking the neo-Thomist reification of natura pura, de Lubac argues stridently for the true Thomist and Augustinian tradition: the natural is ineluctably and irresistibly drawn toward that which it has no capacity for."

The nature/grace controversy is probably one of the exciting topics in theology the last century since it covers so many things. Balthasar saw that a mention of this debate was necessary when interacting with Barth, especially when it came to analogy. The question of what "revelation" means certainly overlaps the supernatural/natural distinction.

As for the "true Thomist" doctrine, I'm still an agnostic if de Lubac got it right. It's great that he started this debate, but we should not make a Cajetan out of him thinking that he got the right interpretation of Aquinas. McInerny believes that he misinterpreted Cajetan's doctrine on obedential potency. And Steve Long's article in the Thomist is very persuasive to me. So I think the debate continues.

Fred said...

has Radical Orthodoxy, not to mention some Communio Catholics, gotten cold feet about de Lubac's openness to the world?
Excellent question, Kim! Why not make this a post somewhere. I'd be interested to see what you mean: also, I wouldn't mind seeing a short list of Communio Catholics. I can think of a few off the top of my head -- David Schindler, Pope Benedict, Robin Darling Young...

Anonymous said...

Hi Deep Furrows,

I wouldn't mind seeing a short list of Communio Catholics (sometimes called "Identity Catholics") myself! The only actual names I could mention are von Balthasar, Ratzinger, de Lubac himself and, I presume, Marion). But there must be others from the way I have seen the term used to describe one of the two main "parties" in the post conciliar debates, "parties" associated with the two RC journals Communio and Concilium (e.g. Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Küng).

In his recent What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (2005) Timothy Radcliffe OP discusses the divisions in a chapter called "Root Shock".

guanilo said...

Kim - that is an excellent observation about RO. I haven't read Milbank's book on de Lubac, so I should withhold too much of a detailed comment; but I think the comment about 'openness to the world' is certainly appropriate. It's interesting that one of de Lubac's main sources, Maurice Blondel, saw modernity as an opportunity to regain the Catholic teaching on the natural and supernatural.

Apolonio: I concede that the debate is not closed with de Lubac's argument, but I will say that I think he's correct. Whatever one may say about Cajetan on the obediential potency (I'll not profess competence on that particular point), his genealogy of the nature pura is dead on, imho. That's certainly the case insofar as Aquinas is continuing in the Augustinian tradition. It's worth mentioning that Milbank might do well to attend to the rise of pure nature in Cajetan as a component of modernity alongside his attack on Scotus. And I entirely agree with your point on revelation and Balthasar's discussion with Barth.

I too could use a little clarification on Communio Catholics!

Fred said...

In addition to those listed above, I have culled the following names from the Communio index. My selections are personal and not meant to demarcate political boundaries, by any means. As highlights, these names are not meant to be comprehensive. Also, Communio tends to bring together a diverse group of folks.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete
Fr. Julián Carrón, President of Communion and Liberation (Fr. Luigi Giussani and CL gave Communion its start in Italy)
Cardinal Carlo Caffarra
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn
Cardinal Angelo Scola
Cardinal Marc Ouellet
Cardinal Walter Kasper
Fr. Massimo Camisasca (Fraternity of St. Charles Borremeo)
Fr. Jacques Servais of the Casa Balthasar house of formation in Rome
(president of the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr foundation)
Stratford Caldecott (Second Spring journal: Oxford, England)
Peter Casarella
David S. Crawford
Sr. Agnes Cunningham, SSCM
Marcellio D"Ambrosio
Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
Michael Figura
Fr. Raymond Gawronski SJ
Fr. Peter Henrici, S.J
James Hitchcock
Roch Kereszty
Janine Langan
Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis
Glenn W. Olsen
Michael Waldstein
Mark and Louise Zwick (Houston Catholic Worker)

For a complete list of authors connected with the English language edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, please see the author's index


Br. Nick, OP said...

A new book has been published that convincingly argues that de Lubac was very wrong on exactly the point your discussing. In Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace by Steven Long he argues that St. Thomas had a very clear notion of pure human nature and a proportional natural end. This book is well worth checking out for anyone interested in the topic. (http://www.amazon.com/Natura-Pura-Recovery-Doctrine-Philosophy/dp/0823231054/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287628299&sr=8-1)

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