Yves Congar opened a door into theology's changing role

This story appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.
A personification of the Faculty of Theology is seen at the pedestal of a statue of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in Prague. (Wikimedia Commons/Joker Island)
A personification of the Faculty of Theology is seen at the pedestal of a statue of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in Prague. (Wikimedia Commons/Joker Island)

by Catherine E. Clifford

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

A History of Theology
by Yves Congar
Doubleday, 1968

I received one of the most important introductions to theology and to the world of one of the great theologians of the 20th century when I first opened the pages of Yves Congar's A History of Theology. It was never a "bestseller" and may not be counted among the major works in the Dominican theologian's impressive collection of writings. Yet it opened the door to a set of questions on the changing role of theology — its ability to reflect upon the experience of God and to speak to contemporary people in every moment of history and in widely divergent social contexts — that have occupied my study and teaching ever since.

I was in a fourth-year honors' seminar of an undergraduate program, having changed my major to religious studies just a year earlier. The program was offered through the collaboration and shared resources of Catholic, Anglican, Mennonite and United Church colleges. The Mennonite professor chairing the seminar asked me to prepare a presentation that would explain to my classmates — most of whom belonged to other Christian churches — how, since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic church could change so much yet remain the same church. Others followed these developments with rapt attention!

Not knowing quite how to respond to this challenge, I sought advice from one of my Catholic professors, who immediately referred me to A History of Theology.

A challenging read, A History of Theology is a revised and updated version of an article that Congar had published early in his career (1938-39) in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, titled "Théologie." Congar (1904-95), a French Catholic priest, was born at the beginning of the last century. He contributed perhaps more than any single theologian of the 20th century to the study of the church, including its structures and mission, called "ecclesiology." During Vatican II (1962-65), he served as an expert adviser to several key commissions, making direct and at times significant contributions to the official texts of the council.

In six well-documented chapters, A History of Theology examines the changing definitions and approaches of theology through history. It begins from pre-Christian times when theology — a reasoned reflection on God — was a work of the metaphysical philosopher, to the views of early Christian writers, through the Scholastic period of the Early and high Middle Ages, the 16th-century Reformation, and from the Early Modern period to the late 20th century.

Variously understood, theology's methods evolved from the scriptural commentary of the church fathers (sacra pagina), to the more systematic and speculative works of the medieval theologians (sacra doctrina), to increased specialization in modern times.

Readers today will be impressed by the dynamic and continuous evolution of theology. In the wake of Vatican II, Congar noted that "the theological situation, in fact, even the idea of theological endeavor" continued to evolve.

Congar deftly traces the historic shift in Western theology from an approach informed by the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and represented by the works of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, to the more positivist system of the Franciscan Duns Scotus at the turn of the 14th century. Where Thomas and his followers proposed a distinction and continuity between our knowledge of the world and knowledge of God, Scotus' approach considers the revelation of God as something quite extrinsic to the order of creation, standing in the Augustinian line with St. Bonaventure.

These developments, prefigured in the dramatic condemnations of the thought of Aristotle and Averroes at the University of Paris in 1270 and 1277, set the stage for the rise of nominalism and the decline of late medieval theology. Congar's perceptive discussion provides clues to persistent tensions that continue to manifest themselves in various currents of contemporary theology.

The medieval scholastics, in their quest for a coherent and logical system of thought, unwittingly made theology into an "instrument of specialists" that lost contact with the life of the church and the biblical tradition. In reaction, the 16th-century Reformers called for a return to the priority of sacred Scripture and a reflection more attuned to the daily struggles of ordinary Christians.

In the Early Modern period, both Catholicism and Protestantism were influenced by more pietistic movements centred on encounter with Christ. In an age of social upheaval, peasants and the working classes easily identified with the suffering Christ and empathized with his mother.

The theological renewal of the 20th century was driven by the pastoral concern to proclaim the Gospel to modern people and informed by a return to the Bible, to the early sources of the liturgy, and to theological insights of the earliest Christian writers.

In every age, theologians are concerned to engage with the intellectual currents of their time, and to inform the living faith of the community of believers as they encounter new questions. The living witness of the church, rooted in the same faith of the first followers of Jesus that is recorded for us in the Scriptures, is necessarily transposed into the vernacular of new cultures and engaged in dialogue with new scientific knowledge. The human community changes and develops through history. The church learns from the developments of science and culture, and — with the assistance of God's Spirit — can grow in its understanding of God's revelation.

In this way, we can speak of "development" in Christian doctrine — one that is more than a simple change in the language or expression of faith, but also involves a deeper penetration of the mystery of God and of God's boundless love for humankind.

While A History of Theology is not about Vatican II as such, it helped me to understand the council as a moment when the whole Catholic church undertook a comprehensive self-examination when confronted by the historic social, political and economic changes that were reshaping the human community. In a desire to proclaim the heart of the Gospel message to modern men and women, it sought to update church teaching, governance, liturgy, forms of ordained ministry and vowed religious life, and the witness of the lay faithful.

The perspective of history — or what we have come to call "historical consciousness" — led theologians and church leaders to understand that the church has adapted itself to changing social and cultural contexts and to the concrete pastoral needs of the people in every age.

Theology can never content itself to repeat blindly the formulas of the past. It has a critical and creative responsibility to appropriate the wisdom and meaning of faith in ways that will help contemporary people to encounter Christ and live as his disciples. Theology is charged with mediating the good news in ways that might inform the Christian community's response to new challenges and insights as they arise in human history.

As a creature of history whose ultimate purpose is to inform the practice of Christian living, nothing escapes theology's concern: economics, questions of social justice, concern for the poor and the marginalized. To accomplish this task, it must be in engaged in dialogue with other disciplines.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate just how significant and transformative it was to introduce an operative historical mindedness into theological reflection and into the life of the church. The earliest version of A History of Theology was penned in the same period that Marie-Dominique Chenu, then rector of the Dominican house of study, the Saulchoir, where Congar taught, delivered a programmatic lecture. That lecture sparked a controversy that stretched over more than two decades.

Speaking on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1936, Chenu reflected on the historical method that inspired the study and teaching of theology at the Saulchoir, an approach characterized by critics as a nouvelle théologie — a dangerous "innovation" and departure from an unchanging tradition. Chenu was largely inspired by the reflection of Thomas Aquinas, who carefully distinguished between the object of faith as such and the expression of faith, which is conditioned by a particular cultural context.

The Saulchoir taught the works of Aquinas, the "Angelic Doctor," prescribed by Pope Leo XXIII as the model for Catholic theology, but with an approach that was historically minded, not uncritical, and attuned to contemporary pastoral challenges.

In 1938, Chenu's religious superiors obliged him to subscribe to a number of theses that amounted to a retraction of his reflections, which soon appeared on the index of forbidden works. Shortly after, he was removed from his post as rector and the Saulchoir was closed.

Congar escaped censure during this period of the Second World War, when he served as an army chaplain and landed in a prisoner of war camp. But throughout the 1950s, he would be subject to suspicion, incomprehension and censure. Who knew that taking history seriously could be so costly, or considered such a dangerous undertaking?

The insights of Congar, Chenu and many others would only be widely received when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. Pope John saw Christ as the center of history. In the Incarnation, Christ entered into human history. The Risen Christ, through the Spirit, continues to act in and through the human community.

While there is both good and evil in the world, history is a graced reality and a "teacher of life" from which the church might learn. Indeed, John XXIII invited the bishops taking part in the Second Vatican Council to assume a renewed sense of responsibility for the mission of the church on what he called the eve of "a new era in the history of the world."

These themes are taken up in the council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, where the council calls upon all Christians, and indeed all people of goodwill, to assume their responsibilities as "artisans and authors of the culture of their community."

The vocation of humanity, in an age where we have developed the capacity to shape the world in which we live — dangerously taxing the resources of the Earth for future generations — is to act in accord with "our responsibility to our sisters and brothers and to history," Gaudium et Spes said. Today, the task of theology continues to be to reflect on that responsibility in the light of the Gospel.

Reading The History of Theology opened up a door into the world of theology. It led me to Congar's other groundbreaking works — Divided Christendom (1937), Lay People in the Church (1950), True and False Reform in the Church (1953), Tradition and Traditions (1960-63) — and his many studies in ecclesiology.

His example of persistent hard work in the face of great adversity and censure spoke to me of how the service of theology is sometimes met with great incomprehension. Shedding light on the hard truths of history and pointing the way to conversion brings the cross. When I am tempted to be impatient with the slow pace of progress, it is helpful to take the long view of history. Stepping back helps to bring things into perspective, to discern the movements of God's Spirit.

That first challenging conversation as an undergraduate student was the beginning of a long apprenticeship in the habits of dialogue. I have discovered many more ecumenical companions along the way. More than conversation partners, they are fellow pilgrims from whom I have received much.

The men and women with whom I had the privilege to study through my years of graduate school helped me to cultivate a passion for the church. Not because it is a perfect community, but precisely because the Spirit of God continues to work through this ragtag gathering of humanity, with all of its failings and weakness.

I strive to instill in my students today that same sense of confidence in the God of history and a love for the diversity of spiritual gifts that nourish and enrich God's pilgrim people.

[Catherine E. Clifford is professor of theology at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario. With Richard Gaillardetz, she wrote Keys to the Council : Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II.]

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