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The Most Basic Things

A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace

By Henri de Lubac

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 308

Price: $10.95

Review Author: George William Rutler

The Rev. George William Rutler is Associate Pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Victory in New York City, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

In 1836 Lord Melbourne told bishops and other members of the House of Lords to ignore theological questions that had been brought to their attention: “They are upon points of extreme­ly recondite and difficult scholastic learning; very few of your lordships indeed have the means of forming any sound opinion on such extremely dif­ficult, abstruse, and obscure points such as these.”

Such might be the initial reaction to this book on the relationship between nature, the supernatur­al, and grace, but only because general perception for the moment has been sucked into a meretri­cious lapse, so that the attention of reason is not easily concentrated on the most basic things. The points Henri Cardinal de Lubac raises are so im­portant that people can easily dismiss them, as they would not dream of doing to smaller matters. The pebble in the shoe will always be more of a challenge than the Matterhorn.

Just as more books are written about losing weight than about weight itself, there is more talk now about unnatural things than about nature. Radical ecologists have even succeeded in making the love of nature an unnatural obsession. Then, any consideration of the supernatural will seem ri­diculous of course. For instance, the supremely im­portant statistic about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (being the association of infinity and finitude) has been treated like a mad scribble by the same observers who get very serious about how many children can be allowed to dance in a birth-control led nursery.

Cardinal de Lubac embarrasses us with a com­pliment, for he dignifies his readers by suggesting that they might be interested in what makes them significant. His first concern is to define “nature” to avoid both 19th-century eclecticism and modern existentialism which, in the words of Edgar Morin, produced an “anthropology narrowed down to a thin psychological streamer, floating like a flying carpet over the natural universe.” De Lubac is sat­isfied with a theological concept of nature as all that is not derivative from divine adoption. The valiant suffering and bliss of spiritual combat is rooted in the tension between nature’s inadequacy to offer man anything normative, and the impossi­bility of simply “struggling against nature.” The life of grace consists in welcoming nature in order to transform it. The venerability of the author, as he looks back with undiluted keenness upon the wreckage of Marxist and technocratic attempts to simulate such transformation, gives his words an added poignancy and exhilaration.

Contemporary naïveté in the face of creation is no less apparent in the poor way it deals with the “supernatural,” a word de Lubac contends appears only in late Latin theology, in fact not until Pope St. Pius V’s condemnation of Baius in 1567. And there it signifies not the divine order as a separate thing, but that order in its relationship to the hu­man order. It certainly is not abnormal. This is cru­cial for the sacramental vision and for avoiding de­ism and radical humanism.

The Pauline word “pneumatikos” is adequate to designate the supernatural since it marks Chris­tian anthropology’s central distinction between the spiritual and the psychic. But because of its ambi­guities, which have led to some forms of Protestant supranaturalism and literary surrealism, pneumatic diction is less wieldy than the plain word “supernatural” with all its pitfalls. It designates a different order, so it cannot be eliminated by scientific in­vestigation, as Renan had thought would happen in a passage de Lubac cites as prelude to the crude-ness of theological modernism.

To emphasize this economy, de Lubac insists vigorously on the insufficiency of any equation be­tween the authentically gratuitous “supernatural” and some kind of substantial “second nature” call­ed “supernature,” as Suarez and Scheeben would have had it. Newman appreciated this; and so did Karl Rahner, although he did so in what de Lubac with delicate reserve calls a “contorted” way. The Lutherans and Jansenists did not understand it at all. As Yves Congar wrote, their damaging idea of a supernature added to nature was unknown to the Latins and Greeks and great Scholastics; it remains the “malady of analysis and separation characteris­tic of the (late) Western mind.” In the great vision, the supernatural character of grace is its superiority to any created nature; but it is a new “accident” and in no sense a “supernature.” Few men have the audacious breadth of reference to defend this principle against anti-Aristotelian fanatics the way the Cardinal does, gracefully and concisely tracing the roots of this teaching to Origen and to the Gospel itself.

Had this catechism been available earlier, it could have calmed the voices of many critics who have not been assured by the author’s protestations of the supernatural order’s gratuitousness. I cannot see, for example, how Joseph Cardinal Siri would still contend, as he did in his critique Gethsemane, that de Lubac’s exegesis of Galatians 1:15,16 is less reli­able than the litmus of M.J. Lagrange. If de Lu­bac’s Le Mystère du Surnaturel did not clarify the ambiguities of his earlier text Surnaturel sufficient­ly, one would think that this little catechism does.

It is, however, unfortunate that the author persists in his (should we say, extravagant?) de­fense of Teilhard de Chardin on grace. If this is the generous salute of a grand gentleman or an old loy­alist, it is nonetheless a curiosity; so many citations of Teilhard give the impression that the author pro­tests too much. And, even if this is a brief work, the omission of an outline of the sacraments to il­lustrate the relationships he is defining is conspicuous.

But only a giant, and a very good one at that, would have the blessed daring to sum up dogma in veritable meditations on humility and ascesis. These sections are awesome, quite as the testimon­ials in the appendices are moving examples of what it is to love the Church through intellect and will. Of such is real theology, and not academic spiritu­alism. And of such is real prophecy: if there is something of an Elijah in the author casting about for an Elisha, one will benefit from the last pages as he glances past the trends and Küngs of this world and settles his gaze upon Cardinal Ratzinger who, the author says, “is no fool.”

That Pope John Paul II is, among other things, a poet, is well known. One of his most poet­ic acts has been to bestow the red hat on the aged Henri de Lubac, whose only diocese is a stack of books; it is part of the epic called Nature and Grace, the significance of which will become clear­er as the superficialities of scientism fade.


©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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