Edward Schillebeeckx: In Search of the Kingdom of God
By John Bowden
Review Author: John F. Maguire
When in 1968 the aesthetician and social theorist Georg Lukacs let the world know that in his opinion the popularity of the Beatles was an obvious sign of Western decadence, he prompted many an indulgent half-smile in the West. Unfortunately, Lukacs, who I would say was more than half-right about the Beatles, was unable to sustain his critique of contemporary pop-aesthetics. In large measure this was because his exoteric atheism and neoteric Marxism lack what it takes to diagnose certain quasi-religious phenomena in our culture. In particular, Lukacs was unable to see (at least in the terms of his critical theory) that the British rock group ought to be ranked a long way down on the list of telling symptoms of decadence.
I want here to mention only one, more telling symptom: something caught by a remark made to the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by his nephew in 1968. “What the Beatles are to us,” said his nephew to Fr. Schillebeeckx, “you are for the Sisters who teach us.”
If only his nephew’s acknowledgment expressed an innocent fact! Given Schillebeeckx’s immense giftedness, such celebrity might well have been a fine thing — that is, had Schillebeeckx not broken with the Christological teachings of the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon; had he not, in successive dissociations, separated himself from the spirit of the Dominican tradition; had he not conspired to nurture a schismogenetic evolution in the Dutch Church; had he truly been a salutary influence on the teaching Sisters in the Netherlands (which to a degree implies: had these Sisters been a salutary influence on him).
But no. At least since 1966 Edward Schillebeeckx has been busy promoting a heterodox (the so-called “new Dutch”) Christology, a Christology which, behind certain equivocations, excludes the divinity of Jesus.
As Fr. Jean Galot has indicated,
the deficiency [in Schillebeeckx’s Christology] deals with the essential object of faith. Christianity is a religion of faith in Jesus, the Son of the Incarnated God. But in the minimum demands of the truth considered necessary to safeguard the faith, Schillebeeckx does not include the divinity of Jesus, confining himself to an acceptance of the salvific work of God in Jesus.
Schillebeeckx argues that the Redemption is accomplished “despite” Jesus’ death.
In the vision of Schillebeeckx, God, not Jesus, is the Savior. Jesus is a human being who has a unique relationship with God. He is the eschatological prophet. He is ultimately united with God, but He remains a human person. If Jesus is called a divine person, it is not done to affirm the traditional Christian belief of a pre-existent Son of God who is incarnated, but to show that Jesus, as a human person, is the expression of God Himself.
Schillebeeckx’s theology merges into a kind of neo-Antiochian denial of the Church’s constant teaching: that Jesus Christ is One Divine Person, with two natures, divine and human — natures hypostatically joined to each other in one Person.
In John Bowden’s book Edward Schillebeeckx, we have what Schillebeeckx calls a “pastoral-theological, evocative introduction” to his theological work. (Significantly, no mention is made of the Vatican’s “pastoral-theological” intent in investigating this work.) We find Bowden “evoking” rather than defending or clarifying Schillebeeckx (“one of the greatest theologians” of our day). In so doing, Bowden continually uses the universal ploy of all propagandists — namely, the suppressio veri, the failure to point out important considerations that would modify the impression of the presentation. For example, we are told that
even those who have followed the [Schillebeeckx] case fairly closely may be hard put to recall what the whole business was about, apart, perhaps, from a vague memory of denials that Jesus was the Son of God or that the resurrection was a real event.
Quite to the contrary, the central issue in the Schillebeeckx case is as plain and as memorable as Schillebeeckx’s own question: “Yes or no, do you accept Jesus as God?’”
Ironically, it will be those who read Bowden’s book on Schillebeeckx fairly closely who will be hard put to recall what this Vatican investigation business was about, that is, if they rely solely on Bowden’s presentation.
To his credit, Bowden presents Schillebeeckx’s life far more successfully than he does his theology. Edward Cornelis Florentius Alfons Schillebeeckx was born on November 12, 1914, in Antwerp, Belgium, the sixth of 14 children, nine boys and five girls. His father, Constant Johannes Schillebeeckx, was a well-to-do accountant, “fond of parties and very much a family man. Both he and his wife, Johanna Petronella (née Calis), clearly had high standards, but were understanding and approachable, giving each of their children a sense of individuality and in effect leaving them to bring one another up. The family was a very close one.” Interestingly,
Constant Johannes Schillebeeckx, who according to Edward was incapable of doing nothing, could not bring himself to retire until he was eighty-two, lived to be ninety-five and was obviously a major influence on Edward’s life. All his life Edward’s father proved a firm support. While the rest of the family did not really understand Edward’s books, and particularly after Vatican II came to see him as something of a renegade, his father read them all for as long as he was physically able, even including dictionary articles. He understood what he read and was behind it to the point of making a memorable comment. When the soundness of Edward’s writings was investigated for the first time, in 1968, his father was asked whether he wasn’t horrified that his son should be under investigation by the Pope. “I don’t know the Pope,” he replied, “but I do know our Edward and I trust him.” Everything that Edward says about his father makes it clear that Constant Johannes was his great inspiration: “an Old Testament patriarch in the best sense of the phrase.”
It was Constant Johannes who provided his son with “the most educative experience” of his novitiate.
Edward had written home about the deep impression made on him by the Dominican night office, from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m., while “people outside” were sleeping. His father replied in a down-to-earth way. “My boy, your mother and I have to get up three or four times a night [they had just had their 14th child] to calm a crying baby, and that is less romantic than your night office. Think about it: religion is not an emotional state but an attitude of service.” Edward was never, he said, so ashamed as when he read and reread this letter. Forty years later he was to say that its words were still engraved on his heart, that they had influenced his theological thinking and made him antipathetic to religious ideology.
But does it not appear here that this experience constituted a tragic turn in the religious formation of Fr. Schillebeeckx, I mean, as a Dominican? St. Thomas Aquinas, the most illustrious member of the Dominican community, taught that the contemplative life is generically more excellent than the active life; in the Summa the Angelic Doctor wrote:
Wherefore that which pertains more directly to the love of God is generically more meritorious than that which pertains directly to the love of our neighbor for God’s sake; for Augustine says (De Civ. Dei, xix 19) that the love of the Divine truth seeks a holy leisure, namely of the contemplative life…. On the other hand, the active life is more directly concerned with the love of neighbor, because it is busy about much serving (Luke x. 40).
Of course it may happen, St. Thomas points out, that one person may merit more by the works of the active life than another person by the works of the contemplative life. And of course “in a restricted sense and in a particular case” — say, when Edward visits his family — “one should prefer the active life” on account of the exigencies of the situation (a baby crying at night, etc.).
Tragically, it appears that Schillebeeckx does not appreciate that holy leisure, in itself, is more excellent than the honest toil of the active life.
Father and son, the Schillebeeckxs’ understanding of religion is (to borrow a term used in a different context by Georg Lukacs) einseitig — that is, one-sidedly activistic. There thus appears the danger of a monism of action; of “praxis.” We are told by Bowden that: “A Dutch journalist…commented that when Edward Schillebeeckx is talking about anything whatsoever, however informally, within five minutes he will have used the word ‘praxis’ three times or more.” This of course is a journalist’s exaggeration at Schillebeeckx’s expense; I have heard the personable and well-spoken Dominican speak informally at some length, and not use the term once. However, I do find that in his books the terms “praxis” and “orthopraxis” are used tendentiously — as if the traditional understanding of contemplation were ideologically defective. In this, he has moved away from the living tradition of the order of St. Dominic. Or so it seems —
About the time when Edward’s father was expressing his confidence in Edward vis-à-vis the Pope, the Prior of the Dominican monastery at Louvain where he once taught commented, “We don’t see him any more. He used to come a great deal when he was visiting his family in Belgium, but especially after Vatican II he went his own way: a step ahead of everyone else. When I see pictures of him I have to say, That’s not the Schillebeeckx we know.’”
When he was doing post-doctoral work at Le Saulchoir, the famous Dominican theological school just outside Paris, Fr. Edward — this was just after the War — was introduced by Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu to Albert Camus, “with whom he had many discussions,” according to Bowden. But I think that it should be added that this is the same Camus who, in a famous speech to the Dominicans at Latour-Maubourg in 1948, made the plea that, in a confused world, Christians…remain Christians; and Dominicans remain true Dominicans.
The Pope, from the point of view of the integrity of Catholic doctrine, is making the same plea.
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