Winter 2008

The Total Meaning of God and the World

Henri de Lubac

“To remind man what constitutes his final end is not to tell him something that substantially fails to interest him. . . . It is rather to illuminate the total meaning of his being by helping him to find and then to interpret the inscription written into his heart by his Creator.”1

1. Two intersecting problems

By offering us the initial outline of a Christian anthropology, as many council fathers requested, the constitution Gaudium et spes has invited us to reflect on the phenomenon of contemporary atheism, which it presented as the most essential and urgent task confronting us today.2  This reflection is meant to guide our attitude and our behavior as believers with respect to the phenomenon. It is a task so fundamental and so vast that it would be impossible to do anything more in the present context than to point out its general orientation. Let us take up the constitution once again and consider a little more closely the relationship between its two parts. At first glance, it seems that the second part follows the first as an application of the general principles that had initially been established to a few particular problems. This impression is not false, and it can justify itself by referring to the explanation given by the reporter to the conciliar assembly,3 and also to the very terms of the paragraph that serves as a transition:

This council has set forth the dignity of the human person, and the work which men have been destined to undertake throughout the world both as individuals and as members of society. There are a number of particularly urgent needs characterizing the present age, needs which go to the roots of the human race. To a consideration of these in the light of the Gospel and of human experience, the council would now direct the attention of all. (GS, 46)

Be that as it may, the relationship between the two parts is more complicated, and could be interpreted in a slightly different way. The title of the first part has a certain ambiguity, even more in French than in Latin, and this ambiguity was no doubt necessary in order to allow it to cover the entire field of what was being pre- sented. “Man’s calling” here means the calling of man (vocatio hominis). Now, this vocation of man—as everything that follows makes clear—is not only human, but also divine.4 “For faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation,” and it is by virtue of this that it “directs the mind to solutions which are fully human” (GS, 11).5 Created in the image of God, man is called to eternal life, in God—and this is why, by way of a sort of indirect or ascending path, each of the four chapters culminates in an evocation of the return of the Lord and of the Kingdom to come.6 The second part, conversely, starting with Christian principles and proceeding in their light, descends back to questions of the temporal order, which it in fact envisages in their most urgent contemporary form, with the aim of discovering appropriate responses.


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1. This text is a translation of the first four (of six total) sections from chapter two of de Lubac’s Athéisme et sens de l’homme: une double requête de Gaudium et Spes, in vol. 4 of his Oeuvres Completes (Paris: Cerf, 2006), 471–500. Original publication Coll. Foi Vivante 67 (1968). Bracketed material in footnotes reproduce handwritten notes de Lubac intended for a later edition and were added to the present text by the editors of the complete works. The final three sentences of the fourth section have also been removed, since they serve as a transition to the section that follows. Translated and published by kind permission of Les Éditions du Cerf.

2. Cf. Jean Mouroux, “Situation et signification du chapitre 1,” in L’Église dans le monde de ce temps (Paris: Cerf, 1967), vol. 2, 229–30: “It should be noted that this anthropology is neither historical, nor phenomenological, nor philosophical; it is theological, insofar as it proceeds from revelation in order to illuminate human reality and experience. . . . It is Christian in the sense that: a) it is based on revelation . . .; b) it opens up the human data and values that are accessible to reason, and recognizes them as forming a rational infrastructure that it respects even as it deepens it and integrates it into its own vision (this is especially characteristic of the Catholic approach as such); c) it finds its fulfillment explicitly in Jesus Christ, on whom it has rested already from the beginning and through the whole of its trajectory.”

3. Msgr. Hengsbach, bishop of Essen, Relatio from 24 September 1965: the first part “potius principia generalia exponit”; the second “ad orientationes magis particulares descendit.”

4. Msgr. Charles Moeller spontaneously translates it as “man’s divine calling” in his study on Gaudium et spes that appeared in Lumen vitae 21 (1966): 200.

5. Cf. GS, 3: “Sacra Synodus . . . asseverans. . . .

6. We note that the constitution Lumen gentium follows a parallel course.