Father Congar, a progressive centrist

Par Don Pio Pace

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The historian Etienne Fouilloux publishes a biography on the Dominican Father Yves Congar, 1904-1995 (Salvator, 2020), a well documented work which is destined to make a bit of history. Very precise and thorough, the book presents a theologian who was one of the main figures at Vatican II, as much for its preparatory work long before the council (Chrétiens désunis – Principes d’un “œcumenisme” catholique, Cerf, 1937[1]), and other work, closer, after the second world war (Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Église, Cerf, 1950[2]), than for his direct contribution to conciliar documents, especially, but not only, Lumen gentium as well as the three documents concerning religious liberty, ecumenism, and inter-religious dialogue.

The influence of Fr. Congar over the ecumenical doctrine of Vatican II was considerable. We are ecumenical, he wrote in Chrétiens désunis (p. 173), “when we believe an other to be Christian, not despite his faith, but in his faith and through his faith.” From there comes the elaboration of the impressionist doctrine teaching that the Church of Christ does not identify Herself absolutely to the Catholic Church, but that this Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church (Lumen gentium 8), and that there is a graded ecclesiality between the Catholic Church and the other communities (Unitatis redintegratio 3).

Fr. Congar was not a radical man: he shared the aim of Paul VI who wanted documents to be open while, at the same time, being able to gather the widest possible support. But he was also strongly hostile to the Tridentine ways of the “Roman system” of the time of Pius XII who, for that matter, had pushed the theologian around a bit.

Great was his disappointment looking at the post-conciliar crisis (Situations et tâches présentes de la théologie [Situations and present tasks of theology], Cerf, 1967), and his reactions were sometimes similar to those of Maritain, Lubac, Gilson: “I have enough of changes”, he wrote to some liturgists (in Etienne Fouilloux, p.291). He criticized the liturgical translations. He grieved the crisis of vocations. He deplored the undermining work of some wanting only to sap and demolish.” But, he regretted nothing. On the contrary, against Paul VI’s Humanæ vitæ and partial collegiality, he advocated a continuation of the aggiornamento and recommended moving forward, because Vatican II is only a starting point: “all the work of the council is halfway through” (Une vie pour la vérité [A life for truth], Le Centurion, 1975, p.149).

In regards to the present pontificate one would be tempted to say that the Council is now moving forward from the halfway grounds where it was left. But it is not totally true. It is exact that the men in charge today are fully developing all the potential of Vatican II. But, in spite of everything, this council remains, and always will, a “centrist” council: actually borrowing from Congar’s work, one understands ecumenism is a compromise between old and heterodox ecclesiology. This is what makes Vatican II weak: it is rejected on its “right” or put aside on its “left”. But, it is also what makes its strength: it escapes being the subject of clear condemnations.

Pio Pace

[1] Divided Christendom: a Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion, translation MA Bousfield, London, Bles, 1939.
[2] True and False Reform in the Church, translation Paul Philibert, Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 1968, 2011.