Enigmatic de Lubac was quiet, but highly influential

July 22, 2013

The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac was, without a doubt, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century and at the Second Vatican Council.

De Lubac became friends with both Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger at the council and had a profound effect on their teaching, both before and after they were elected to the papacy. And when you hear Pope Francis declare, as he often does, that "spiritual worldliness" is the worst thing that can happen to the Church, know that that conviction was also de Lubac's primary concern.

Yet, de Lubac was an enigmatic figure. Although he received his doctorate in theology from the Jesuits' Gregorian University in Rome, he never studied there, and he never wrote a dissertation.

Not that he had any aversion to research and writing. De Lubac scoured the Fathers of the Church like a detective for insights that may have been overlooked or lost in the history of theology. He filled his books with quotations from obscure, even forgotten, figures and, to a significant extent, let them do his speaking for him.


De Lubac maintained that he had made no original contribution to theology; he merely chronicled insights from the tradition. Perhaps. But his was a selective and idiosyncratic reading of the history of theology, and it was pointed enough in its implications that he was banned from teaching for much of the 1950s.

Fr. Henri de Lubac

Fr. Henri de Lubac

He was the ressourcement (return to the sources) theologian par excellence. Many believed de Lubac was the target of Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, which challenged la nouvelle theologie. De Lubac denied that he held any of the condemned propositions.

The revolution that came from de Lubac's writings was a restatement of the relationship between nature and grace. The neoscholastic theology dominant until Vatican II held that the human person has both a natural and a supernatural destiny.


De Lubac maintained that the great Christian tradition showed that the human person can only be fulfilled supernaturally, through the gift of divine grace. To be human means to yearn for God. There is no human fulfillment without an explicit relationship with God.

De Lubac's views on grace and nature were highly influential at Vatican II and in much theology today, they can seem like unquestioned axioms.

His book, The Splendor of the Church, to no small extent, prefigures the final framework of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In the book, de Lubac unveils topics such as the Church as a mystery, a sacrament and a pilgrim, the priesthood of all the faithful and Mary as the mother of the Church.

In the upcoming issues of the WCR, this series of articles will turn its attention to the third session of Vatican II in 1964 where the main highlight was the approval of the Constitution on the Church in which de Lubac's ideas were so prominent.


Pope John XXIII named de Lubac an expert at the council and the theologian had a role in the drafting of major documents such as those on divine revelation, the Church and the Church in the modern world. How personally influential he was at the council - as opposed to the influence of the books he had written prior to Vatican II - is hard to say. Unlike say, Yves Congar, de Lubac was apparently not as outspoken an advocate for his views.

Pope Paul VI tried to make him a cardinal, but he rejected the offer because he would have had to become a bishop - something he saw as an abuse of the episcopal office. When that requirement was dropped for cardinals, he reluctantly accepted the red hat from Pope John Paul II.


De Lubac was a great champion of Vatican II, but he was not impressed with how the council was lived out in the decade after it concluded. He was critical of the liturgical experimentation that took place and had a jaundiced view of what he saw as the replacement of theology by sociology in the early post-Vatican II Church.

He died in 1991 when he was 95. Like several of the Vatican II theologians, he lived to a very old age.

(Information for this article came from Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians by Fergus Kerr and from de Lubac's The Splendor of the Church.)