A Theologian for Our Times – Rediscovering Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange

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About three and half years ago, I was on my way to spend Easter break on the beach with some friends. I had with me three books: [easyazon_link asin=”1406788325″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Apologia Pro Vita Sua[/easyazon_link], by Bl. Cardinal Newman, [easyazon_link asin=”0385028695″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Our Lady of Fatima[/easyazon_link], by William Walsh, and [easyazon_link asin=”0895556340″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Predestination[/easyazon_link], by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange.

I was also a Calvinist.

Or, rather, I was in that confused middle place between Protestantism and Catholicism, where one day I would put the odds of the truth of Catholicism at 30%, the next day at 80%, and the day after that at 50%. That a Protestant could have had a run-in with Cardinal Newman is not particularly surprising, and perhaps meeting Our Lady of Fatima is not entirely implausible, but finding Garrigou-Lagrange must have been a miracle. In his treatment of predestination, Garrigou-Lagrange gave a persuasive defense of the Catholic doctrine of predestination and an equally persuasive critique of both the Calvinists or Jansenists on the one hand and the Arminians or Molinists on the other.

This was a providential first encounter with the Dominican friar who I would later realize to be the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, a bulwark against error, and a beacon of light for these times of confusion. Lasting from 1877 to 1964, his life encompassed a time of great revival in neo-scholasticism, issuing from Pope Leo XIII’s call for a return to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. For the modern Catholic, disillusioned by so much confusion in both the Church and the world, he is irreplaceable. To introduce the reader to him, I would like to highlight three aspects of his work.

Firstly, he was the chief opponent of the nouvelle théologie during the 1940s and 1950s. A theological movement influenced by modernism began to sweep through the Dominican and Jesuit world. Some of the names leading this movement will be familiar: Yves Congar, Mari-Domnique Chenu, Louis Charlier, and Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri Bouillard, Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, and others. They desired an updating of theology to suit the needs of modern man. Congar described neo-scholastic theology as a “wax mask.” 1 Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie – New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 31. Theological doctrine was historicized, and it was said that theology needs to bear the philosophy of the age. Bouillard wrote, “A theology that lacks topicality is a false theology.” 2 Ibid., 34. Jacques Maritain wrote that through their misguided understanding of the Early Church, the new theologians were “reinventing the Fathers of the Church to the music of Hegel.” 3 Aidan Nichols, “Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie,” The Thomist 64 (2000): 7. Of these new theological tendencies, Pope Pius XII asked the Jesuits in their 1946 General Congregation, “If we were to accept such an opinion [of the ‘new theology’]  what would become of the unchangeable dogmas of the Catholic Faith; and what would become of the unity and stability of that Faith?” 4 David L. Greenstock, “Thomism and the New Theology” Quarterly Review 13 (1950): 102-3, accessed April 1, 2014, http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/scholastic/Thomism%20and%20the%20New%20Theology%20(Greenstock).pdf.

In this context, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, an advisor to the Holy Office, published “La Nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle” [New Theology where are you leading us?] in the Revue Thomiste in 1947. Garrigou-Lagrange answered: straight back to modernism. This was received as a bombshell, and he declared that all traditional theologians must respond to these errors under “a strict obligation of conscience.” 5 Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “Nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?” Angelicum 23 (1946): 135, accessed April 1, 2014, https://ia700307.us.archive.org/22/items/7NouvelleThologieRefutationsInAngelicum/7NouvelleThologieRefutationsInAngelicum.pdf. (My translation)  From this point on, this good friar led the war against the nouvelle théologie – and he won. In 1950, Pope Pius XII promulgated the encyclical Humani Generis, in which he condemned the new tendencies, “It is evidenced from what We have already said, that such tentatives not only lead to what they call dogmatic relativism, but actually contain it.” 6 Pius XII, Humani Generis, Encyclical letter concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundation of Catholic Doctrine. Vatican Web site. April 10, 2014 Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange has been rumored to have ghost-written or at least contributed to this document.

Why is this so important? The nouvelle théologie, while suppressed under Pope Pius XII, soon came out from under cover, and the modern crisis in the Church that we now contend with is the fruit precisely of this movement, which was at its time the resurrection of modernism. The “synthesis of all heresies” had again risen her impious head, and it was Garrigou-Lagrange who won a crucial battle, though his victory was not to last. To respond adequately to the current crisis, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is indispensible. We are not fighting a collection of unrelated errors, heresies, and misunderstandings; if we think we are, we are gravely mistaken and we will fail. We are fighting resurrected modernism, and to understand how to slay that dragon, we must take recourse to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. His works against the nouvelle théologie, in French, can be found here. (If anyone has the time and skill to translate these works, he would do an inestimable service to English-speaking Catholics.)

Secondly, he dedicated great labor to Thomist theological treatises, like Life Everlasting, Predestination, The Priest in Union with Christ, Life Everlasting and Mother of our Saviour and Our Interior Life. He also wrote commentaries on Aquinas’ Summa Theologica like The One God, The Trinity and God the Creator, Beatitude, Grace, and Christ the Saviour. What is so beautiful about these works is that he demolishes the “wax mask” claim of Congar so entirely. One moment, you will be struggling through dense, difficult theology, and the next you will find yourself borne aloft in Thomism that reads like poetry. I quote below at length from Grace:

“From all eternity God the Father has a Son to whom He communicates His whole nature, without dividing or multiplying it; He necessarily engenders a Son equal to Himself, and gives to Him to be God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God. And from sheer bounty, gratuitously, He has willed to have in time other sons, adopted sons, by a filiation which is not only moral (by external declaration) but real and intimate (by the production of sanctifying grace, the effect of God’s active love for us). He has loved us with a love that is not only creative and preserving, but vivifying, which causes us to participate in the very principle of His intimate life, in the principle of the immediate vision which He has of Himself and which He communicates to His Son and to the Holy Ghost. It is thus that He has predestinated us to be conformable to the image of His only Son, that this Son might be the first-born of many brethren (Rom. 8:29). The just are accordingly of the family of God and enter into the cycle of the Holy Trinity. Infused charity gives us a likeness to the Holy Ghost (personal love); the beatific vision will render us like the Word, who will make us like unto the Father whose image He is. Then the Trinity which already dwells in us as in a darkened sanctuary, will abide in us as in an illuminated, living sanctuary, where It will be seen unveiled and loved with an inamissible love.” (405-406)

Thirdly, his central focus was in fact the Christian spiritual life, and thus many of his works are wonderful for the soul looking for good, traditional, spiritual reading. His magnum opus was a work not of abstract, speculative theology, but of concrete pastoral and spiritual concern: The Three Ages of the Interior Life. A smaller version of this three-volume work, The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, summarizes the three volume work in a little over one hundred pages. In these books, he synthesizes St. Thomas with St. John of the Cross and describes the Christian growth in holiness according to the tradition of the Church. His book Mother of Our Saviour and Our Interior Life is perhaps my favorite and is equally pastoral. It was very painful deciding on just one passage to quote, but here is a particularly striking one:

“In Bethlehem [Mary] sees her Son born in a stable and believes that He is the Creator of the world; she sees all the weakness of His infant body and believes in His omnipotence; when He commences to essay His first words she believes in His infinite wisdom; when the Holy Family takes flight from Herod’s anger she believes that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, as St. John would later say. At the Circumcision and the Presentation in the Temple her faith in the mystery of the Redemption expands. Her whole life on earth was passed in a dark brightness, the darkness arising not from human error or ignorance but from the very transcendence of the light itself—a darkness which was, in consequence, revealing of the heights of the mysteries contemplated by the blessed in Heaven…Mary’s act of faith on Calvary was the greatest ever elicited on earth, for the hour was unspeakably dark and its object was the most difficult of all—that Jesus had won the greatest of victories by making the most complete of immolations.” (124)

There are many great theologians, devotions, prayers, liturgies, and teachings that have been forgotten in the past few decades, but I think that a recovery of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange (and with him, traditional Thomism) needs to be one of our priorities. He passed on to his reward just on the cusp of the revolution, and while we may wish he had lived but a decade longer, we can still have frequent recourse to him. Often, God grants us a holy witness to the Faith just before the light is blown out. Within a decade of his death, the winds of change had swept into the Church, but in His person we have beautiful figure of the Faith before all the disorder hit.

If we wish to avoid descending into an ever-deepening critique of people and events around us and instead rebuild a positive Catholic culture and theology in the Church, we would do well to have recourse to this holy friar. And if we do need to confront errors, we would do well to imitate his disposition:

“His small eyes were filled with mischief and laughter, his body was constantly moving, his face was able to assume attitudes of horror, anger, irony, indignation and wonder.”7 http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/thomas-crean/saint-in-heaven.htm

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie – New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 31.
2. Ibid., 34.
3. Aidan Nichols, “Thomism and the Nouvelle Théologie,” The Thomist 64 (2000): 7.
4. David L. Greenstock, “Thomism and the New Theology” Quarterly Review 13 (1950): 102-3, accessed April 1, 2014, http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/scholastic/Thomism%20and%20the%20New%20Theology%20(Greenstock).pdf.
5. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, “Nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?” Angelicum 23 (1946): 135, accessed April 1, 2014, https://ia700307.us.archive.org/22/items/7NouvelleThologieRefutationsInAngelicum/7NouvelleThologieRefutationsInAngelicum.pdf. (My translation)
6. Pius XII, Humani Generis, Encyclical letter concerning some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundation of Catholic Doctrine. Vatican Web site. April 10, 2014
7. http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/thomas-crean/saint-in-heaven.htm