A journal of academic theology

March 2004 editorial

The year 2004 invites the worldwide Catholic theological community to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of four towering theologians all of whom were born in the year 1904: Yves Congar (d. 1995), Karl Rahner (d. 1984), Bernard Lonergan (d. 1984), and John Courtney Murray (d. 1967). In a number of international academic centers this year as well as at the June convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America there will be celebrations to mark the gift that these four men were and continue to be to the Church.

Born only 34 years after the closing of Vatican I, in different parts of the world–the Black Forest, the province of Qubec, the French Ardennes, and New York City–they practiced their ministries as priest-theologians and members of religious orders. They revitalized a Catholic theology that had become moribund despite occasional stirrings here and there.  All four studied seminary theology with the aid of Latin manuals. In the case of two, because of anticlerical conflicts within their own countries, they undertook their first study of theology as exiles outside of their own nations (in Valkenburg, the Netherlands, and at the relocated Le Saulchoir in Belgium).  All four lives were affected by the two world wars. Congar endured several years of imprisonment under the Germans during World War II;  Rahner, forced out of teaching at Innsbruck by the Nazis,  took refuge in parishes first in Vienna and then in rural Bavaria.

The early writings of all four were found to be suspect by the Vaticans Holy Office. These theologians were required in various ways not to publish on certain themes, or at least to submit to rigorous Roman pre-censorship. One theologian was unceremoniously forbidden to teach theology; another walked from the Gregorian University across St. Peters Square to the Vatican offices in order to defend his theses on the consciousness of Christ. Three of them eventually moved into university departments of theology where their focus was not on the training of future priests but professional theologians.  Ironically all four  theologians served as periti at Vatican II;  three were subsequently called upon to serve officially as  members of the popes International Theological Commission  although they eventually withdrew when they found its way of proceeding too plodding.

Murray died in a taxi cab traveling across New York City; Congaras a veteran–died at Les Invalides Hospital in Paris, after a long neurological illness, shortly after having been created a cardinal by John Paul II. Rahner died in a hospital in Innsbruck from where he wrote a letter to the bishops of Peru in defense of the orthodoxy of Gustavo Gutirrez. Lonergan died in the Jesuit assisted-living center in Pickering, Ontario, near Toronto. Murray did not live to experience  any of the postconciliar debates. His private correspondence before his death records pessimistic forebodings about the upcoming First Synod of Bishops scheduled to open on September 29, 1967, which he feared would turn out to be nothing more than a ballet. Congar lived for 30 years after the closing of Vatican II, but, though plagued with ill health including confinement to a wheelchair and eventually to a hospital bed, remained alert and continued to write. On several occasions at international meetings of the Istituto Paolo VI held in Brescia, Italy, I heard him voice his worries about the state of theology and the shakiness of ecclesiastical structures. He was not immune from flashes of impatience. Rahner spoke of a wintry season in the life of the Church. Lonergan groaned about those in the Church who suffered from undifferentiated consciousness.

I had the good fortune of knowing personally three of the four theologians (except for Murray who died while I was studying in Germany). In the 1970s I lived in the same community with Lonergan while he was teaching as the Charles Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at the Divinity School of Harvard University. I delighted in his cryptic and witty insights at the breakfast table.  In 1974, when the University of Chicago celebrated the 600th anniversary of the death of Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Lyons II, I was on hand  for the much anticipated meeting of Rahner and Lonergan in Chicago. There was considerable speculation about which common language they would use: German, English, French, Italian? In fact their exchanges took place in Latin!

It would be interesting to know the degree of familiarity each of the four theologians had for the writings of the others. Based on conversations and informal interviews, I estimate that Lonergan was quite familiar with the publications of Rahner and Congar. Murray, as editor of Theological Studies, knew Lonergans programmatic studies on grace and his Latin treatises on the Trinity which adumbrated the functional specialities of Method in Theology (1972).

When I shared a draft of this editorial with a Leuven colleague, it was pointed out to me that I had overlooked the fact that 1904 was also the year of birth of Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens whose courageous theological interventions at Vatican II were so crucial. Another gift to the Church indeed!

It makes no sense to compare these theologians or to assess them independently of others who were born shortly before or after them such as Chenu, de Lubac, Thils, Danilou,  Balthasar, or others. But it is helpful to reflect on the shift from the role of the priest-theologian to lay theologian (as Mary Ann Donovan notes in her lead article in this issue). The vocation of the theologian has remained the same, but their identity  has shifted. The setting for doing theology has moved,  and the level of ecumenical collaboration has multiplied.

The year 1904 was a year of grace for us. We fervently hope that this year, 2004, in cities such as Ho Chi Ming City, Baghdad, Vilnius, or Bogot, there will be born a new-age foursome whose voices will emerge in the decade of the 2050s to enliven the Church.

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