Henri de Lubac SJ (1896-1991) was a major influence on the Second Vatican Council and on theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, with whom he founded the journal Communio. In 1942, he and some fellow Jesuits founded Sources chrétiennes, a series that publishes the original text of patristic and medieval Christian writings alongside a French translation. He thereby stimulated within Catholic theology a return to its sources. Putting this ressourcement into practice in his own works, he argued that the Church should retrieve the patristic understanding of the Eucharist, the Church, creation, grace, and Scripture. In 1983, Pope John Paul II created him a cardinal.

Approaching de Lubac’s vast oeuvre can be daunting. Fortunately, Dr. David Grumett is here to give an overview of de Lubac and explain what you should read first.

David Grumett is senior lecturer in theology and ethics in the University of Edinburgh. He has recently published Henri de Lubac and the Shaping of Modern Theology: A Reader with Ignatius Press.

  1. Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man
    by Henri de Lubac
  2. The Christian Faith: An Essay on the Structure of the Apostles' Creed
    by Henri de Lubac
  3. Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940-1944
    by Henri de Lubac
  4. Scripture in the Tradition
    by Henri de Lubac
  5. Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work
    by Rudolf Voderholze
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.

Who was Henri de Lubac and what makes him one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century.
De Lubac was a French Jesuit. He was born in 1896 and died in 1991. So, he really had an incredible lifespan. He fought in the First World War and lived to see the start of the fall of communism. His theology was rooted in the tumultuous and, if you like, short twentieth century. It begins with the problems between Church and state in France. The Jesuits are ejected from France along with the other religious orders. So, he undertakes most of his formation overseas, on the British Channel Islands and on the South Coast of England. But even though the French state expels religious orders—it does not allow them to teach in France—it nevertheless expects them to return and fight. So, he returns and is catapulted from this safe, conservative seminary into the maelstrom of war. There, he comes into contact with a far wider group of people than before. This shapes his theological engagements and concerns.

He then becomes a teacher of theology at the Catholic faculty of Lyon and lives in the Jesuit house at Fourvière. During this time, he becomes interested in fundamental theology and the wider social, even interfaith, contexts in which Christian belief is situated. He is interested in the notion of religion as well as the Christian faith.

He had already been expelled from France and come back to fight for his country. But then in the 1930s, a new challenge comes on the horizon: anti-Semitism in France. He is one of a surprisingly small number of Roman Catholic clergy and religious who from the start see that this is completely unacceptable. It is something they need to fight against. In Lyon, de Lubac plays a leading role in the spiritual resistance to anti-Semitism and to the Vichy regime during the early 1940s, at great personal danger.

When the war ended, one might have thought that he would have been thanked for his troubles by the Church hierarchy. But he quickly becomes enveloped in a controversy around theology and the idea of the supernatural. He is accused of departing from approved theology. During the 1950s, he is really a bit of an outcast. He doesn’t teach Christian theology but takes several years researching Japanese Buddhism. He sees a particular form of Buddhism in Japan, that he calls Amidism—Pure Land Buddhism as it would be called now—as interestingly echoing Christian belief.

However, de Lubac is suddenly rehabilitated in the run up to the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. He is appointed one of the French theological experts at the Council and he takes a significant role in theological conversation that contributes to the drafting of its documents, which are still tremendously important in the Church today.

In the wake of the Council, he becomes critical of what he sees as excessively liberal interpretations of its teaching. He becomes an apologist for some of the classic doctrinal loci: the importance of the Church and its hierarchy, and of sin. He is concerned, along with other clergy of his generation, such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, that society is moving in ways that could become destructive, and that the purpose of the Church is to speak clearly and that it must not lose sight of traditional doctrinal and moral teaching.

He is pleased at the election as Pope of John Paul II, with whom he had good interactions during the Second Vatican Council. He is delighted that someone who had a leading role, and continued to have a leading role, in the fall of communism was Pope. For him, that was an important sign and significant in the Christian combat against communism, which he saw as one of the great spiritual conflicts of the later twentieth century. He was also pleased at the appointment as Archbishop of Paris of Cardinal Lustiger, who was born a Jew and, as it says on his memorial inscription in Notre-Dame Cathedral, remained a Jew, even though he became Christian. De Lubac perhaps saw this as a rounding-off of the hostility between many Christians and Jews, and the failure of Christians to stand up for Jews in France in the earlier twentieth century, and a recognition, really, that the Christian faith comes fundamentally out of the tradition of Israel that preceded it, described in the Old Testament and by Paul in the New Testament.

You mentioned that de Lubac, after a period in exile from academic theology during the 1950s, in the wake of the encyclical Humani generis, played a role in the Second Vatican Council. Has he shaped the teaching of Vatican II and subsequent popes?
Yes, I think he has. When we look at the five books, we might see in some greater detail areas in which he has contributed. Let’s take a couple for now. Think of the importance of how the Church is seen today: not as an administrative institution, in some way paralleling the state or a government department, but as the organic living body of Christ. This was an idea that was tremendously important to de Lubac. He spent a lot of time looking into its history and he was he was highly critical of understandings of the Church that just thought of it as a bureaucratic organisation rather than Christ’s organic body, composed of the bishops and other clergy and people in it.

Also, de Lubac's approach to Scripture was extremely important in the methodology of the Council. If one looks back at the documents of previous councils, often Scripture is not cited much. There is much more citation of previous Church teaching. But de Lubac saw the relationship between Scripture and doctrine as very close. He thought we really should be returning to Scripture and understanding how doctrinal themes come out of it. He saw Christ as present in the whole of Scripture and revealed in Scripture, in some sense analogously to how Christ is present in and revealed through the Eucharistic host. If we think of worship, Christ is present in the host. But Christ is also present in Scripture. This parallelism of sacrament and word was important to him. The life of the Church is not just expressed in worship but actually comes out of worship. One of the phrases rightly associated with de Lubac is that the Eucharist makes the Church. It is through the Church’s collective prayer and worship that its identity and other areas of its life and reflection come.

What brought you do study do Lubac?
My PhD thesis was on the theology of another French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was active about fifteen years before de Lubac and was controversial in his time for his ideas about theology and evolution, and the relationship between theology and science more widely? One might think that de Lubac would not be interested in him. De Lubac might be regarded as someone deeply anchored in classical doctrine, spending most of his time writing and thinking about that. Actually, de Lubac wrote several books on Teilhard, had great respect for him, and spent a lot of time defending his fellow Jesuit from misinterpretation and false accusation.

Through having worked on one French Jesuit, I moved into working on another, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century in terms of his impact on the Church and the importance of his work. Then, there is the sheer volume of it. The French publisher, Cerf, based in Paris, is currently publishing de Lubac’s complete works. It expects that the project will run to 50 volumes.


De Lubac’s Catholicism is not only the first work on your list, but also his first published book. Joseph Ratzinger stated that reading this book in 1949 was an essential milestone in his theological journey. Why is this book so important? Why have you put it first on your list?
It is the closest de Lubac gets to a systematic theology. By that, I mean it is the closest he gets to laying out in a single volume, in a structured way, the key theological topics, as he sees them, in Christian doctrine.

Before I talk briefly about the structure of the book and its contents, I should just say that there is a big section at the back of the book, where he reproduces texts by theologians from Christian history. There is a good seventy pages where he is providing texts from the early Church Fathers and mediaeval theologians that he thinks are important for Christian doctrine today. So, this big appendix shows us a key plank of his methodology: ressourcement; re-resourcing theology for the present day, using historic sources and reconnecting theology with its roots, so it can take up again the goodness from those roots.

It is wonderful reading through some of those texts and reflecting on why he might think that each one is important.

In this book, he begins with dogma in the Church and ends with reflections on transcendence. He begins with the importance of the Church as the outworking of fundamental facts about humankind, as reflected in Christian doctrine. For de Lubac, it is important that we are all one in Adam. Humanity is essentially a collective concept. Contrary to modern individualism, de Lubac does not see humanity as lots of isolated individuals. Rather, he sees humanity as fundamentally collective. We are all created in Adam in God's image. That is why we are called into the Church, Christ’s collective, organic body.

From the Church, he talks about the sacraments, and he talks about baptism and penance before he moves on to the Eucharist. This is interesting. It reminds us that that, back when de Lubac published this in 1947, regular reception of the Eucharist was not as common among Christians as it is now. Rather, confession was the sacrament that they would often have received most frequently. Nevertheless, de Lubac quickly moves to the Eucharist. He says that this produces the Church. He reflects a bit on Christ’s different bodies. We see the body present on the altar. We have Christ’s body, now resurrected in heaven, and we have Christ’s body, the Church. For de Lubac, the correspondence between these different bodies of Christ is hugely important, and is displayed principally in the Eucharist, which leads us into eternal life.

In the second of the three parts, he looks at Christianity from a historical perspective. This is important to him because it really draws him into reflecting on why Christianity arose when it did. Why did Jesus come into the world, incarnate as a human, when he did? De Lubac sees the lead-up to this as important. For him, ancient Israel is the original type of the Church. God chooses the people of Israel, not a particularly big, privileged, wealthy, or powerful group, but a collection of small tribes. They become God’s chosen people. Israel are God’s elect people. For de Lubac, that shows a key fact about the Church. The Christians that make it up are God's chosen people.

This strong sense of continuity between ancient Israel and the Church also comes out in this part because de Lubac gives a very good overview of his understanding of Scripture.

Perhaps we have become fixated in the present day with the idea that there is a conflict between a literal interpretation of Scripture, on the one hand, and figurative one, on the other hand. It is either one or the other. However, de Lubac reflects on the mediaeval fourfold exegesis of Scripture, as he calls it. For the medievals there were at least four different ways of reading Scripture. There is the literal sense. Every book of Scripture has a narrative that might be historically true or certainly makes historical sense as a description of events. It has an allegorical sense. There are people and events in the Old Testament that can signify the Church, different parts of Christian theology, or can point us forward to Christ. Then there is the moral meaning of Scripture. Many parts of Scripture have a moral message. There is also the eschatological meaning. This is the fourth sense of Scripture that de Lubac identifies. Scripture points us toward a future consummation that that we can only dimly understand at the present. So, we cannot understand Scripture simply by looking back into past history. It challenges us by calling us forward too.

Coming back to de Lubac's collective theological anthropology, he has a strong sense that just as the creation of humans was collective— we are all one in Adam—so all humanity will be saved collectively.

The idea of collective salvation has sometimes been misunderstood as saying, “Well, those individual sins do not matter,” or, “Oh, this means that people of all religions will just be brought in and it will not matter what your faith has been during your life.” However, de Lubac says salvation is collective because of this fundamental fact about humanity being collective. That does not mean that universal salvation will be easily achieved. Very far from it. Nevertheless, he thinks that, for deep theological reasons, it is collective. So, during our lives we need to continue working for unity amongst peoples of the world and people of faith.

Somehow, everyone will be brought back together again, beyond all these divisions and conflicts we have in present life.

In the third part of Catholicism, he defends ideas about the person and about transcendence. It has become popular to think, “Well, all that exists and is true is whatever we can see with our senses in the world around us”. De Lubac very much wants to say, “No! Present reality points us upwards towards something greater, but not in a way that disconnects us from other people and from society.” As I have said a couple times already, this collective dimension is very important to him, but in a way that deepens into personal bonds and gives new meaning to all our daily interactions. He wants to put us beyond thinking that what we have, what we do, or what we achieve in earthly terms in our lives is the most important thing. No, he wants us to look upwards collectively and get a sense of what God is calling us to as a society. Those are some of the broad themes of Catholicism.

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