Religion & Liberty Online

The real foundations of secular ideologies

Henri de Lubac

Writing for the Catholic World Report, Acton’s Director of Research Samuel Gregg, reflects on Cardinal Henri de Lubac, whom he calls one of the “greatest theologians” of the 20th century. Gregg also argues that de Lubac’s interest in how secular ideologies such as Marxism or socialism had such influence on the Western church would benefit us today. “As someone immersed in the history of theology,” Gregg says, “de Lubac understood that the antecedents of some of the most insidious modern political ideas law deep in the past.”

Though well-known for his work in opening up the Church’s rich intellectual patrimony and his influence upon key documents of Vatican II, de Lubac was far from being a reclusive scholar. Coming from a fervently Catholic French aristocratic family, de Lubac could not help but be conscious of the deep fractures between the Church and the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Nor was he afraid to immerse himself in many of the epoch-making conflicts of his time. Indeed, de Lubac definitely had a mind for politics—but not of the type you might expect.

When much of the Church hierarchy, clergy, and laity rallied to the Vichy regime following France’s humiliating defeat in 1940, de Lubac quickly became active in the French Resistance. A consistent anti-Nazi before and during World War II, de Lubac was outspoken in his opposition to anti-Semitism at a time when anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread among many Catholics. Likewise, de Lubac was critical of some French Catholics’ infatuation with Marxism after World War II. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Communism was never something about which de Lubac entertained any illusions.

de Lubac understood that the foundations of the secular ideologies of the 20th century could be found in medieval theology:

The Middle Ages were not just a time in which the world’s first universities were built, great art and architecture produced, and the first recognizably capitalist economies emerged. They also witnessed the development of radical millenarian movements preaching apocalypses and the dawn of new historical epochs. This is one reason why the thought of the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202) became controversial in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A former notary, hermit, and pilgrim to the Holy Land, Joachim was widely known in his time for his piety, asceticism, and commitment to learning. An advisor to temporal rulers and well-regarded by popes, Joachim eventually founded an abbey, San Giovanni di Fiore, in 1198 to promote a monastic life even stricter than that of the Cistercian order. Though he wrote on many subjects, Joachim was best known for systematizing what was called the theory of the Three Ages.

Since the patristic period, many theologians had sought to associate each member of the Trinity with different historical periods. According to Joachim, the first age, that of the Father, was the time of the Old Testament in which a fearful man meekly obeyed God’s laws. The second, the Age of the Son, was that of the sway of Christ and his Church. The third, the Age of the Spirit, Joachim prophesized, would come into its own in 1260 AD. This period—one which Joachim portrayed as freedom in a perfect society rather than what he described as the reign of justice in the preceding imperfect society—would be one in which the separated churches of West and East would reunite, the conversion of the Jews would ensue, and the spirit of the Gospel and a type of universal peace would reign. The Church and its sacramental order, Joachim intimated, would essentially disappear and be replaced by a type of charismatic order under the leadership of monks.

After his death, a number of Joachim’s propositions concerning the Trinity were formally condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council and Pope Alexander IV. Some of his other ideas, however, were taken up by extremist elements in mendicant orders, particularly those known as spirituals (immortalized in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose), most of whom belonged to the Franciscan Order. Some such Franciscans, often grouped under the catch-all phrase “Fraticelli,” regarded Francis of Assisi and his movement as the charismatic force foreseen by Joachim. For this and other reasons, some spirituals disputed the hierarchical Church’s authority and, in some cases, promoted a type of anarchist utopianism. This may be one reason why St. Bonaventure (himself Minister General of the Franciscan Order) carefully studied and criticized the theology of history outlined in Joachim’s writings. Bonaventure also went out of his way to insist that there was no Church apart from the apostolic hierarchical Church willed by Christ.

Gregg brings Joachimism back to de Lubac:

On one level, de Lubac saw Joachimism as present in the effort of some Catholics after Vatican II to sideline what they called the “institutional” Church (the language itself is revealing) and supplant it with a church of “the Spirit”—a spirit that seemed indistinguishable from the preoccupations of the 1960s and 70s and which conflated the Gospel with political activism, invariably of the leftist kind. It is also likely that de Lubac was echoing concerns expressed by his fellow Jesuit and Resistance member Gaston Fessard, who famously and publically warned French Catholics in 1979 that the Church’s very integrity was threatened by any flirtation with Marxist ideas. More broadly, de Lubac’s concerns would also encompass those Christians whose conception of social justice seems hardly distinguishable from that of the secular left but who sit very loosely vis-a-vis a slew of core Church dogmas and doctrines.

That said, Joachimist tendencies have hardly disappeared from the West. One can find this in various forms of techno-utopianism which hold out the prospect of ushering in a type of nirvana through the progress of science. Then there are propositions to literally transform human nature, such as posited by the transhumanist movement. Another more pedestrian but far more common example is the reduction of salvation to politics. Consider the depressing regularity with which many in the West have invested politicians with Messiah-like qualities, or the sheer faith that so many of the European Union’s political class place in supranational social democratic institutions to bring about what amounts to a very secular pacem in terris—illusions which constantly run up against some of the realities highlighted by St. Augustine in his City of God, not to mention even more basic truths about the human condition underscored by Christianity.

None of this, however, would have surprised de Lubac, for the simple reason that he understood that the religious impulse cannot be eliminated in man. It can only be diverted—or perverted—from its natural end. The persistence of the Joachimite virus over so many centuries suggests that, for all its vaunted secularism, the West remains profoundly religious in character. The real question is surely which religion will eventually prevail.

That, I’d suggest, is Père de Lubac’s political message to us today.

Read “The Jesuit, the Monk, and the Malaise of the West” in its entirety at the Catholic World Report.