Next month marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential theologians of the modern era, and a man whose life reads like an adventure story. Born into an ancient noble family, he served with distinction in the First World War and with heroism in the French Resistance in the Second, and went on to become a friend and mentor of one of the greatest popes in history.
Henri-Marie Joseph de Lubac was born in Cambrai in 1896, one of six children. He joined the Jesuits while still in his teens and in the normal way would have studied with them in France, but anti-Church laws passed in the 1900s meant that along with other young novices he began his training in the unlikely surroundings of St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex.
In 1914 circumstances changed again – on the outbreak of the Great War he immediately volunteered for the French army and for the next three years saw front-line service. A savage head wound in November 1917 would result in ill-health throughout the rest of his life. But it affected neither his intellect nor his determination to complete his training as a Jesuit, and he was ordained in 1927.
In the inter-war years, de Lubac was professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University in Lyon. His Second World War activities interrupted this – he had to go underground while working with the Resistance. He ran an influential underground journal, Témoignage Chrétien, which denounced the Nazis and also the Vichy regime in France, emphasising the incompatibility of these with Christian teaching.
But he is chiefly known for his contribution to an inspirational renewal of theology based on a return to the sources, the Scriptures and the Fathers – work which was to have a powerful and lasting impact, especially through the Second Vatican Council.
In the 1950s, he came under a cloud of suspicion of holding unorthodox opinions, and was sacked from his teaching post. But he was later vindicated, and during the Council he worked on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), forging a strong friendship with the young archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła.
De Lubac wrote an introduction to the French edition of Wojtyła’s book Love and Responsibility – the work that would play a major role in influencing Paul VI in writing Humanae Vitae.
De Lubac’s approach was always to emphasise the beauty and grandeur of tradition in the Church, and along with Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthasar – both of whom had been his pupils – he became known as part of the ressourcement school of theology, seeking always to nourish the Church from the richest sources.
Today, his writings are a must-read for any student of theology. They have also reached a much wider public through the work of Fr Joseph Fessio and Ignatius Press in San Francisco, the publishing house which first brought to the English-speaking world the works of Joseph Ratzinger.
The world of the 1890s into which de Lubac was born was utterly different from the one in which he achieved his greatest eminence – literally Eminence, as he was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983 – and today’s world is different again. But his writings have a freshness and vigour that a new generation is relishing in colleges and seminaries worldwide.
He opened up the wide riches of Catholic tradition, releasing theological study from the narrow confines into which it had become cramped, and showing the world that the Church offers something glorious, inspirational and challenging – an answer to the questions raised by people brought up on a diet of atheistic humanism.
I first encountered de Lubac in paperback form via Ignatius Press, but it was only following a late-in-life decision to study theology that I came fully to understand how much we all owe to this very remarkable man: a soldier, scholar and saintly hero described by colleagues as humble, courageous, generous and kind and with “a gift for friendship”. He is a model for today’s young priests to emulate, and a man to whom all Catholics today owe a debt of gratitude.
Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and journalist