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Back to the Well

Fáinche Ryan

Ressourcement. A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, edited by Gabriel Flynn and Paul D Murray, Oxford University Press, 583 pp, £22.14, ISBN: 978-0198702085.

Ressourcement offers us a thorough and expert review on what must certainly be deemed one of the most important movements in Catholic theology, which has far-reaching consequences and influence. It is a splendid volume, with thirty one chapters each written by a distinguished theologian. The work is organised in four parts as follows, Part One “The Ressourcement Movement: History and Context”; Part Two “Central Figures of the Ressourcement”; Part Three “Ressourcement as a Threefold Programme of Renewal”; Part Four “Ressourcement and ‘the Church in the Modern World’’’.

The work is preceded by an informative introduction from Dr Flynn and concludes with an extremely interesting epilogue by Dr McDade. In all the book comprises 583 pages and is splendidly produced by Oxford University Press.

Theology needs to be relevant to the Church in the world in which the People of God live. This was the key thought uniting the great variety of thinkers who comprised the movement known as ressourcement. They were clear: to be able to speak to the present, a creative recovery of the past was the way forward. Ressourcement theology took a dynamic view of tradition; for this reason theology must be historically informed.

Though not exclusively a French movement of renewal, the French Dominicans of Le Saulchoir (Paris), together with the French Jesuits from the seminary at Lyon-Fourvière, were foundational to the development and flourishing of ressourcement theology. Inspiration also came from the work of earlier theologians and philosophers such as the German Möhler, Newman in England, Gardeil, Rousselot and Blondel. The French poets Charles Péguy – who is deemed to have coined the term ressourcement ‑ and Paul Claudel were also influential.

An important impetus for the movement was the publication in 1904, by the French philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), of his work History and Dogma. This work, which was immensely controversial at the time, reinvigorated the concept of living tradition in Christian self-understanding:

Turned lovingly towards the past where its treasure lies, it [tradition] moves towards the future, where lies its conquest and its light. It has a humble sense of faithfully recovering even what it thus discovers. It does not have to innovate because it possesses its God and its all; but it has always to teach us something new because it transforms something of the lived implicit to the known explicit.

Blondel presented tradition as a living synthesis, which looked forward creatively and yet was constantly being nourished and taught anew by its rich inheritance. His thought was inspirational for French theology of the twentieth century.

Another important milestone which contributed to the new movement was the publication in 1943 of the book France, pays de mission? This text, written by the French priest Henri Godin and influenced by his involvement with the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (Young Christian Workers movement), served as a wakeup call to the French Church as it described the growing religious indifference in France. The magnitude of France’s dechristianisation was now public. Something needed to be done.

The Worker Priest movement was one pastoral initiative which held hope of reviving French Catholicism. It illustrated the necessity for a Church attentive to the needs of the people, for a theology not ruptured from life. Thought must not merely contemplate the world but transform it: this was one of the ideas permeating ressourcement theology.

As the introduction to the book makes clear, three interactive tributaries fed into the phenomenon that became the ressourcement movement. First was the extraordinarily creative movement for revisiting theological resources, for seeing the richness in the tradition, and this was in an interactive communication with two other movements of the time ‑ the liturgical movements and the development in scripture studies.

A renewal of liturgical theology began during the pontificate of Pius X, who lived from 1835 to 1914). The work of the Belgian liturgist Dom Lambert Beauduin (1873-1960), founder of the ecumenical monastery Chevetogne, was influential. Interestingly, in a comment which calls for some reflection, Gabriel Flynn remarks that it was in Germany during the “interwar period that the liturgical renewal blossomed when the church was forced, especially during the Nazi era, to renounce social action and to focus instead on the lively celebration of the divine mysteries”.

Catholic Biblical scholarship also witnessed great developments. This may be said to have begun in Germany during the interwar years and received official approbation with the appearance of the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII. Literary and historical critical methods were now sanctioned for use among scripture scholars in the Catholic tradition. Finally they could begin to catch up on the great work which had been done by Protestant scholars.

These three interactive movements shared a deep concern that theology must be focused on God, who is mystery. This was the common link which united the great diversity of theologians termed ressourcement. Theology must avoid the excessively rational, on this they all agreed. Human reason must be engaged not to capture this mystery in its conceptual network but rather to allow the mind to be opened to a mystery which precedes the mind. To this end theology must return to its sources (ad fontes) – liturgy, scripture, patristics ‑ and drink afresh from the old streams so the richness of the past may be enabled to transform the present. Theology was necessarily an historical pursuit, but not a static historicist one.

The movement attracted a great variety of thinkers and reformers, all of whom shared a desire to break with the historicism of the Catholic church’s immediate past, and a desire to open minds to the mystery that is God. Jean Daniélou (1905 – 1974), a French Jesuit, was a severe critic of what he perceived as the ossified neo-Thomism inherited by the theology of his time. Daniélou studied in Lyon, where he came into contact with Balthasar and de Lubac, two influential theologians of this new movement. In 1943 he took up a position at the Institut Catholique de Paris, where he wrote an article (1946) describing the kind of theology he deemed necessary to meet postwar challenges. The article severely critiqued scholasticism’s theology for being ruptured from life. Instead Daniélou advocated a theology entirely engaged in the building up of the body of Christ.

The Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu, Regent of Studies at Le Saulchoir (1932-1942) similarly decried the fragmentation of the theology he had inherited into the separate domains of speculative theology, spirituality and pastoral practice. Chenu was clear. The theologian was not to be cut off from daily life. His key contribution to the church and theology was his critique of a loss of the sense of God’s mystery from the rationalistic theology which had dominated theology since the seventeenth century. This desire to remember and to recover the transcendence of God, the mystery of the Divine is, as noted earlier, one of the key hallmarks of ressourcement theology.

Among the ressourcement theologians Yves Congar was a real luminary. A Dominican, he had been a student of Chenu. His work, Vraie et fausse rèforme dans l’Église, articulated his belief that the church reform called for by the ressourcement movement necessitated a move from “a less profound to a more profound tradition; a discovery of the most profound resources”.

His commitment to ressourcement is further illustrated in his work for ecumenism, especially with regard to relations with the Orthodox church. He believed it to be imperative for Christians to strive for unity, and thus seek to counteract the growing unbelief of an increasingly secular world. His readings of early Church writings and of scripture led him to see the church as the People of God and he wrote prolifically on this theme. For Congar the “return to the sources is more living than dialectical, immersed in pastoral and apostolic problems, centred on the human situation and the problem of the Church”.

Henri de Lubac SJ (1896-1991) was another theologian of fundamental importance. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Catholic Church : “De Lubac was one of the thinkers who created the intellectual climate that made possible the Second Vatican Council, largely by opening up the vast spiritual resources of the Catholic tradition which had been cramped by post-Tridentine ‘baroque’ theology.” It would be hard to find a better description of a ressourcement theologian.

Like Congar, de Lubac was concerned about the weakening of the sense of the sacred, of the mystery that God truly is. In his History in Theology he critiques the theology of the time as he sees its “dominant concern is less to seek an understanding of faith, to be nourished on mystery, than to respond to and oppose heresies”. Extremely critical of his neo-Scholastic inheritance de Lubac sought to move from the formal juridical theology which had become enshrined in the Catholic world of the nineteenth and twentieth century to a more prophetic tradition, properly Catholic, biblical and patristic. A central feature of the work of both Congar and de Lubac was their understanding of the need for a renewed ecclesiology. Their works Tradition and Traditions (Congar), Lay People in the Church (Congar) and The Splendour of the Church (de Lubac) served to pave the way for Vatican II’s constitution on the church Lumen Gentium.

The Mystery of the Supernatural, arguably De Lubac’s most famous work, is an exploration of the concepts of nature and natural desire. Here de Lubac set Aquinas against the Thomist tradition. Nature and grace are not to be separated. With Aquinas de Lubac argues that “grace perfects nature and contains the order of nature and that God is the author of natures … all natural and rational processes are subjected to divine grace, and nature is endowed with a desire for God intrinsic to its very being, not a desire that is arbitrary, fleeting, or superadded”. In other words, there is in reality no such thing as “pure nature”. This work provoked controversy, not least as people feared that it would undermine the teaching on the gratuity of grace. The Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange was one of De Lubac’s main opponents, claiming to be the authentic interpreter of Thomas Aquinas.

The controversies between interpreters of Aquinas became of prime importance. Several ressourcement theologians argued that neo-Scholastic and neo-Thomistic commentary had become confused with the work of St Thomas Aquinas. The return to the sources movement rejected manual commentaries on the work of Aquinas. Scholars like Congar and de Lubac argued that the text of Aquinas read in a proper historical reconstruction of the context in which they were being written by Aquinas and not in the static fixed system of the neo-Scholastics could become a powerful resource for the renewal of theology which they were seeking. This among other assertions inevitably led them into conflict with powerful authoritative voices.

One of de Lubac’s most enduring legacies is the Sources chrètiennes, a bilingual collection which sought to publish high quality translations of the Fathers in contemporary French. Both de Lubac and Daniélou were the general editors of what was to become a very influential venture. Commenting on the importance of this series de Lubac noted: “Each time, in our West, that Christian renewal has flourished, in the order of thought as in that of life (and the two are always connected), it has flourished under the sign of the Fathers.” Congar’s most significant contribution to the ressourcement movement remains the Unam Sanctam series launched in November 1935, whose goal was to revive forgotten themes in Catholic ecclesiology.

On all three fronts the liturgical movement, the scriptural movement and the return to the sources, opposition was inevitable. In respect to the critique of neo-Scholastic theology and in particular the de Lubac position on nature and grace the opposition was particularly fierce.

In 1946 Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange expressed the fears of many when, in a polemical article in the journal Angelicum, he ascribed the pejorative label of nouvelle théologie, “new theology”, to the movement. He claimed that the ressourcement theologians did not “return to the sources” but deviated from the long-standing theological tradition of the Catholic Church creating a nouvelle théologie closely linked to the previously condemned “modernism”, (by Pope Pius X, 1907). The unchanging truth of Catholic teaching was perceived as threatened. It was virtually inevitable then that, later that year, Pope Pius XII met with representatives of the Dominicans and Jesuits to voice concern regarding this threat to Catholic teaching.

The controversy about nature and grace culminated in 1950 in the publication of the enyclical letter Humani Generis. While no names appeared in the document, and both Congar and de Lubac had rejected the term nouvelle théologie as too polemical, and as not expressing their desire to make known the tradition of the Church, the Jesuit and Dominican leadership felt compelled to act. In February 1954, Congar and fellow Dominican Chenu were dismissed from their teaching posts at Le Saulchoir. For De Lubac Humani Generis signalled the end of his academic career. De Lubac was temporarily asked by his Jesuit superiors to stop teaching and to give up his research in this field. His books were withdrawn from Jesuit libraries and his teaching stopped. Likewise other Dominican and Jesuit confrères deemed part of this new movement were removed from posts and prohibited from publishing.

Both de Lubac and Congar endured great personal suffering during this period. One could almost say the ressourcement movement was, in effect, extinguished.

This extraordinarily creative movement for revisiting theological resources was of fundamental importance in helping to bring in the new era of openness, ecumenism and dialogue inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII, in his memorable opening words for the council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesiam, gave recognition to the rich inheritance which the Church has received:

Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for 20 centuries. … The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.

This is what ressourcement theology was seeking to do. It attempted to revisit the Christian past, and to seek deeper, richer engagement with Sacred Scripture, the Fathers and liturgy. It sought its inspiration in the Bible, and in the writings of the early Church fathers, and not in a post-Tridentine reading of Thomas Aquinas termed Thomism (of which there were many brands).

Both Congar and de Lubac were very influential in this Council, in particular in the area of ecclesiology. Indeed Congar noted: “If there is a theology of Congar, that [theology of Vatican II] is where it is to be found.”

The trajectory of ressourcement thinking continues, though it is not uncontested. The search for certainty in church teaching continues to debate with those who look to the old to create something new for the present. Ressourcement thinking has influenced scholarship on Thomas Aquinas – he now is read much more than his commentators. The foundational theological debate on grace and nature continues. The teachings of Vatican II are received positively, and critically. What cannot be denied however is the great riches that the thinkers of this movement have brought to Catholic thinking. They have reminded us of the richness of our inheritance, and the complex nature of truth, and perhaps most importantly of the transcendence and mystery of the great God that all theology seeks to proclaim.

The whole movement of ressourcement theology calls to mind a saying of Aquinas: “A small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions, as the Philosopher says in I De Caelo et Mundo cap. 5 (271b8-13)”, (De Ente et Essentia). The small error that lead to so much pain and struggle can best be illustrated by a remark of a noted scholar of the Council of Trent:

where the Council Fathers intended Trent’s doctrinal definitions to serve as boundary-stones that would demarcate Catholic teaching on disputed matters, these boundary stones often became “barbed wire acting as a barrier to all free movement” and helped turn the post-Tridentine church into a Counter-Reformation church, closed at times to the encounter and the dialogue that Trent at its best had tried to foster.

It is in line with this that we find the following proposition condemned by the Holy Office on December 1st, 1924:

Even after Faith has been received, man ought not to rest in the dogmas of religion, and hold fast to them fixedly and immovably, but always solicitous to remain moving ahead toward a deeper truth and even evolving into new notions, and even correcting that which he believes.

The efforts of the ressourcement theologians to return Catholic thought to a living contemplation of a God that is mystery, and who is mystery in Jesus Christ have been of immense influence and are still a matter of inestimable importance to our times. This book is an important resource for those who wish to benefit from this legacy. We owe sincere thanks to the editors and to the numerous contributors.


Dr Fáinche Ryan is Assistant Professor in Systematic Theology at Trinity College Dublin.



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