The Belgian-born Dutch Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, died Dec. 23 at the age of 95 in Nijmegen, Netherlands, where he lived and taught for more than five decades. He wrote well into his 90s.
He died of natural causes.
Precious Blood Fr. Robert Schreiter, considered the leading U.S. expert on Schillebeeckx, said his legacy will live on, principally for several major contributions. He was the first Catholic scholar to take seriously all the historical research on Jesus that had been done in the 19th and 20th centuries and present it in an intelligible way.
"Anyone who ignores that will not be taken seriously today," said Schreiter, a professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Schillebeeckx also pioneered the idea of examining "the historical backgrounds of what seemed to be infallible truths and relating their real meaning" in an intelligible way, he said. "He insisted that normal people ought to be able to see a measure of reasonableness in Catholic teaching and be able to link their experiences with the revelation traditions of the Christian faith."
From the time of his appointment to the theological faculty at Nijmegen in 1958, Schillebeeckx was a tireless advocate of a more pastoral, personal theology, one that would also take into consideration the experiences of people rather than base conclusions exclusively on abstract, intellectual concepts. His first major book, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, published in English in 1963, represented a serious attempt to apply this thinking to sacramental theology. It sharply challenged the more mechanistic approach to the sacraments as mere dispensers of grace and stressed them instead as interactive meetings with Jesus.
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With the appearance of some 75 new dissertations on Schillebeeckx's work in the past year, Schreiter said he believes Schillebeeckx's theology may be on the verge of a comeback. "Younger scholars are showing interest in his approach," said Schreiter, who said he is working with the Schillebeeckx Foundation in the Netherlands to produce an 11-volume English translation of all of the theologian's writings, including some that have never before been available in English. Among these is Schillebeeckx's 1984 Theological Testament, which Schreiter said is the best unified presentation of his overall thinking.
According to Schreiter, anyone interested in a sense of how the man approached his work should first read his sermons, three volumes of which are available in English. Schreiter himself had planned to visit Schillebeeckx at his home in Nijmegen in early January.
When plans for the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were announced, Schillebeeckx responded as coauthor of a statement, signed by the seven Dutch bishops, that anticipated virtually all the progressive changes that would come out of Vatican II on issues like liturgy, ecumenism and openness to other faiths and the encouragement of lay initiative. Although Schillebeeckx was not a peritus (expert) at the council, he worked closely with Utrecht Cardinal Bernard Alfrink and others to emphasize the collegial nature of the episcopacy, as a balance to papal infallibility pronounced at Vatican I (1869-70). The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church reflected his views on the subject. Also during the Second Vatican Council, Schillebeeckx joined with fellow theologians Hans Küng, Karl Rahner and Yves Congar in launching the theological journal Concilium.
After the council the Netherlands became the most progressive country in the world in implementing Vatican II initiatives, and Schillebeeckx, often behind the scenes, was at the center of this movement. Perhaps the most ambitious was the effort to form a Dutch National Pastoral Council, an ongoing body with 56 members (some clergy, some laity) elected by diocesan pastoral councils, and another 28 members chosen by the council itself.
Despite a lengthy, elaborate, nationwide preparation, the national pastoral council never got off the ground after the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy declared that members should be appointed by the bishops, not elected, and that the council should not have a permanent character and should not present itself as in any way representing the body of the faithful. The congregation said, "All believers have the right and duty to take an active part in the mission given to the church … but they do not have either the right or duty to give advice to the hierarchy in their exercise of their pastoral task."
Schillebeeckx's personalist thinking was very much a part of the New Dutch Catechism, which became a worldwide Catholic best-seller in the mid-1960s, but the book failed after the Vatican persuaded bishops not to grant an imprimatur to translations of the catechism and suggested much of its content was suspect.
Over the years, Schillebeeckx continued to produce volumes, largely on scripture, history and doctrine. His most influential work, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, was considered questionably orthodox by the Vatican in 1984 and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith summoned Schillebeeckx to Rome. The congregation questioned him again in 1985 regarding his views on the resurrection of Jesus and again the following year for his understanding of ministry in the church. But he was never officially charged or found guilty.
The international buzz that accompanied a booklet sent to all Catholic parishes in Holland in 2007 was not directly linked to Schillebeeckx, although it clearly contained his theological reasoning. The booklet, approved by the country's Dominican province, stated that, with the scarcity of priests today, Catholic parishes should begin selecting members who would preside over the Eucharist, as was the approved method in the early church. The Dominicans were aware that such a practice would be illegal, but they were undoubtedly basing their approach on something Schillebeeckx wrote in his 1980 book on ministry:
When I visited him in Nijmegen in 2007 I was impressed with his calm demeanor. It came, I think, from his confidence in God and in Christ. He knew the story was not over, though he was keenly aware of the hierarchical church today and had no misapprehensions about the direction in which it seemed to be heading. This is what he said in 1990:
[Robert McClory is an author and frequent contributor to NCR.]