January 2012 Print

The Three Modernist Musketeers

Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

It is impossible to speak of the genesis of the Second Vatican Council without mentioning the leading figures of the whole movement. Let us mention three names who manifest clearly how people of such different cultures and formations reached similar conclusions: Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner.

Many things unite these three men. They all had a long history as university professors; all were under theological scrutiny for modernist ideas under Pius XII; all were somehow disciplined or exiled from their positions. All were then miraculously reinstalled as Council periti on the eve of the Council. Their teaching ideas were broadly known as “the new theology” and they came to influence the principles of conciliar teaching. They all became the experts of subsequent popes and therefore were granted many praises and honors by the post-conciliar Church.

Pius XII had little time for the new theology and its avant-garde teachers. They represented for him the rear guard of the old modernist wave so forcefully condemned by St. Pius X in Pascendi of 1907. The pope again reiterated the condemnation of the new—old—trends in Humani Generis: “Others [de Lubac] destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.…1 Some [de Lubac, Congar] reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation. Others finally belittle the reasonable character of the credibility of Christian faith.”

The Heirs of the Modernists

De Lubac, in his Mémoires,2 explains that he would passionately devour the strange philosophy of philomodernist Blondel, but also of the more openly modernist Lachelier. “In those days, such readings constituted, in the main, 
a forbidden fruit. But thanks to indulgent professors and counselors, they were never considered to be a clandestine or underground activity.”3 As a professor, de Lubac spent the better part of his time teaching and writing at a safe distance from polemics, adroitly managing to avoid censorship.

Congar did not have the same luck. More outspoken, he was repeatedly exiled to Jerusalem, then recalled to Rome and Cambridge, before ending the pre-conciliar era in Strasbourg. From Rome, he could write in all impunity: “The course I am currently teaching, De Ecclesia, despite its naïve tone, is my real answer; it is my real dynamite under the seats of the scribes! Wait and take advantage of the occasions as they arise to express outwardly my refusal of the lies of the system.”4

Of Rahner’s early life little is known, yet it seems as if the duplicity of his confreres was not foreign to him. Else, how could he quote St. Thomas on every page of his philosophy which is the exact opposite of Thomism? How could he pretend to be a Catholic theologian when he explained the fundamental mysteries of our faith as a sort of pantheism? The Italian Fabro rightly accuses Rahner of being a systematic distorter, crashing around amongst Thomistic theses like a deaf man at a musical concert.5

The “New Theology”

The term “New Theology” was coined to describe the school of thought around the person of de Lubac, who drew in many friends among the Jesuits of Fourvière, his residence while teaching at the university of theology of Lyons. This high-powered team included the future cardinals Daniélou and von Balthasar. They had also some influence on the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and the Dominicans Chenu and Congar. A brilliant mind and an accomplished writer, de Lubac’s culture was universal; yet, his preference went to historical and patristic criticism, profusely quoting the dubious Origen, all the more readily for his aversion to scholastic theology.

The new theology is also characterized by the rejection of an authoritative sovereign magisterium which must pave the way for the living tradition, the definition of Revelation as the living Person of Christ, and the rejection of the supernatural order which leads to praise man’s dignity for being simply a man. Both the exaltation of man and the downgrading of the Church’s magisterium open the door to a universal dialogue with Christians and non–Christians alike. One formula, which encapsulates the entire Lubackian spirit, would consecrate his fame at the Council: “By revealing the Father and by being revealed by Him, Christ completes the revelation of man to himself....It is through Christ that the person reaches maturity, that man emerges definitively from the universe....”6 Cardinal Siri once described Fr. de Lubac’s entire body of work as “evasive” because it effectively denies all of the first principles of philosophy. Pius XII also blamed the New Theology in September 1946, and would complain about the duplicity of the Jesuit of Lyons.7 For our short exposé, we can only give a glimpse of the main tenet which each musketeer brought into the Council’s teaching. De Lubac cuts at the essence of truth; Congar embraces a broad ecumenism, and Rahner attacks the papacy.

The Historicism of De Lubac

Historicism is the theory which affirms that truth of faith varies according to the age. Theology, to remain alive, must move with the times. It is a mitigated form of scepticism applied to the Faith. Here are some aspects in which de Lubac shows himself a historicist theologian: He rejects any imposition of the faith from without. “Nothing is more inadequate to truth than the extrinsecist doctrines which maintain in the Church only a unity of constraint, unless it be an unity of indifference....They transform the obedience of faith into a faith of pure obedience.”8

Truth is never adequately defined: “No more than we were yesterday in a ‘pre-theological’ state, we shall not be in possession of a perfect theology of the Church....Such a Utopia fits in with neither the nature of revealed truth nor that of the human intelligence.…”9 In fact, truth consists in the power of inclusion, whichever it may be! “This spirit, which gives the tone and the orientation of his entire work, is that of plenitude, of totality, to the point that the power of inclusion becomes the primordial character of truth.”10

The unity is obtained by means of tradition, which is utterly redefined. It is an entity “concrete and living...which becomes actual in conformity with the needs of each epoch as well as it preserve the revealed truth.”11

“The river of Tradition cannot reach all the way to us if its bed is not perpetually cleared of old silt and sand.”12 De Lubac’s “living Tradition,” which he found in Blondel, is a throwback to Loisy’s “law of life” by which the Church is deformed and transformed to become its own most perfect contradiction. Living Tradition today labels as false the truth of yesterday, and truth today what then was falsehood.13

The Ecumenism and the Broad Church of Congar

To Congar we owe much of the schema of Lumen Gentium. The identity between the Mystical Body and the visible and hierarchical Church is mentioned in a positive way, but this in no way implies the exclusive sense which was found in Fr. Tromp: this allows for the inclusion of the famous ‘subsistit in’ of No. 8, modest but decisive discovery which constitutes the substance of Lumen Gentium 8.”14 Congar, for one, claims that the separate Churches belong to the Church of Christ—pure heresy.­

Where the traditional magisterium dealt with the nature of the Church, Congar spoke instead of the mystery and sacrament of the Church;16 where Pius XII defined the notion of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, Congar inserted the vague Tyrrellian17 notion of “communion of the People of God.” Why? because one is or is not a member of a body, but one can be more or less in communion.18 In other words, Congar reinterpreted the strict concept of “Church” to become a one-size-fits-all term that can be applied to any religious group. “The Church existed always as institution and thing made from above since Christ and the Apostles. It needed to be remade and for this to be reinvented as a people.”19 There is a need of reform to avoid the temptation of becoming ‘Synagogue’ because “The body of the Church has grown, but not its skin. Then, there could be a break. What are questionable are certain features of the temporal aspect which Christianism has received from another historical world.”20 Interestingly, Congar is using the very image used 40 years earlier by the English modernist Tyrrell.21

From the broad Church of Christ to universal salvation, there is only one short step. “Today nobody can claim that any need to save souls from Hell is what accounts for the missions. God saves them without their knowing the Gospel. Otherwise we should all have to leave for China.”22

Rahner and Church Collegiality

Collegiality was another flagship of the modernists. This was an idea launched by Rahner, who had the support of the omnipotent Rhine coalition. This type of government, as understood by the liberals, would have made the pope the equal of the bishops—primus inter pares, according to a formally condemned thesis. Rahner had defined the collegiality as the uncrowning of papacy and the democratization of the Church. Incidentally, he was a member of the subcommission which curtly rejected the legitimate desiderata of the conservative Fathers. And, despite the Nota Explicativa Praevia which precluded the heretical interpretation, the liberals were jubilant. Congar declared that the Church had carried off her October Revolution! Indeed, it seems as if after Vatican II, the papacy has been the victim of multiple sclerosis, virtually at the mercy of superpowers and some episcopal conferences, which set the Roman agenda Urbi et Orbi.

Impact of the Three Theologians

There is little doubt that the three mentioned theologians have formulated the theological principles of the conciliar Church. John Paul II praised de Lubac by making him a cardinal for “the long and faithful service which this theologian gave, using the best of Catholic tradition in his meditation on Scripture, the Church, and the modern world [his Gaudium et Spes].”23 Congar was also rewarded with the red hat. And one of the main surprises of The Rhine Flows into the Tiber is that the author considers Rahner as the most influential and perhaps the decisive authority behind many of Vatican II’s innovations. According to Congar himself, “The atmosphere became: ‘Rahner dixit, ergo verum est.’24 Heaven help us to find a Christian way out of the present maze set by such powerful masterminds!


1 The supernatural is “absolutely impossible and absolutely necessary to man.” (Blondel, Action, p. 357. Cf. Wagner, Henri de Lubac, p. 87). De Lubac, like Blondel, claimed that God could not have created pure nature without ordaining it toward the supernatural (in The Angelus, Dec. 1993, p. 18).


2 De Lubac, in Mémoires autour de mes œuvres (Milan: Jaca Books, p. 10) quoted in The Angelus, Dec. 1993, p. 18.


3 Ibid., p. 192.


4 In Leprieur, Quand Rome Condamne (Paris: Plon-Cerf, 1989), in One Hundred Years of Modernism (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2006), p. 243.


5 Fabro, La Svolta Antropologica de K. Rahner, texts collected by Innocenti, Influssi Gnostici nella Chiesa d’Oggi, p. 48.


6 De Lubac, Catholicism, p.189; cf. Courrier de Rome, La Nouvelle Théologie, p.103; John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 8, 2. See also Théologies d’Occasion, p.68; Gaudium et Spes 22, 1; “L’Athéisme et le Sens de l’Homme”, p.96-112, in Wagner, Henri de Lubac, p. 92.


7 “The problem with him is that we never know whether what he says or writes corresponds to what he thinks.” Cf. Mémoires, p. 70 and 296.


8 La foi Chrétienne, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1969; in Wagner, Henri de Lubac, Cerf 2001, p. 55.


9 Méditation sur l’Église, English translation by Michael Mason, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 27; cf. Wagner, Henri de Lubac, p. 166.


10 V. Carraud, in Wagner, Théologie fondamentale, Cerf 1997, p. 157


11 La révélation divine, Cerf 1983, p. 173.


12 Paradoxes (Paris, 1959), in Wagner, Henri de Lubac, p. 133.


13 Ratzinger, Osservatore Romano, July 2, 1990, p. 5. “Their core remains valid, but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification.”

14 Le Concile de Vatican II, Beauchène, Paris, p. 134 and 18.


15 Such is the opinion of Cardinal Ottaviani, in Courrier de Rome, Église et Contre-Église, p.123. On the opposition between cardinals Ottaviani and Bea prior to the Council, see Courrier de Rome, Église et Contre-Église, pp. 122-123.


16 Lumen Gentium n. 1.


17 Tyrrell was a reknowned English modernist.


18 Congar, Une Vie pour la Vérité, p. 149.


19 Jalons pour une Théologie du laïcat, Unam Sanctam 23 (Paris: Cerf, 1952), p. 81.


20 Vraie et Fausse Réforme dans l’Église, Unam Sanctam, 23. Paris, Cerf, 1953. p. 186.


21 “Catholicism is Christianized paganism or world-religion, and not the Christianized Judaism of the N[ew] T[estament]….[T]his is altogether a liberation and a spiritual gain—a change from tight clothes to elastic.” In One Hundred Years of Modernism, p 140-141.


22 Jean Puyo, Jean Puyo Interroge le Père Congar: Une Vie pour la Vérité (Paris: Centurion, 1975), p. 175.


23 John Paul II at the death of Henri de Lubac, Osservatore Romano, English edition, September 9, 1991, p. 16.


24 “Rahner has spoken, therefore it is true.”