Spring 2011

Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology and the Triumph of Maurice Blondel

William L. Portier

“Blondel sought to ‘open up a position in philosophy through which the light of Christian revelation could pour in.’”

The second of November, 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of Maurice Blondel’s birth. He was born at Dijon into an old, landed Burgundian Catholic family. His father and his uncle were both lawyers. He studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure from 1881 to 1884 and defended his controversial dissertation, L’Action, at the Sorbonne on 7 June 1893. A year and a half later, on 12 December 1894, Maurice Blondel and Rose Royer were married. They had three children. Rose Royer Blondel died on 7 March 1919 in the twenty-fifth year of their marriage. After a year at the University of Lille, Blondel taught philosophy at the University of Aix en Provence from 1896 to 1927, when blindness forced him into retirement. From 1931 onward, thanks to the help of his secretary and former student, Nathalie Panis, he continued to write at an extraordinary pace until his death in 1949 at the age of eighty-eight. After his death, Panis retained the care of his archives at Aix en Provence.2

A professional philosopher, Blondel (1861–1949) had a decisive impact on twentieth-century Catholic theology. Often noted, his impact is as often left unexamined. After the briefest sketch of Blondel’s philosophy of action, this essay addresses a more historical question: how did this philosopher, important in his own right, come to have such a deep and abiding impact on twentiethcentury Catholic theology?3

1. Blondel’s impact on twentieth-century Catholic theology

Five years after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, Canadian theologian Gregory Baum published a book-length attempt to re-vision Catholic theology. He entitled the opening chapter “The Blondelian Shift.”4 Almost two decades later, Hans Urs von Balthasar called Blondel “the greatest Catholic philosopher of modern times.” He credited L’Action (1893) with giving to Catholic thought “a decisive new beginning.”5 Anglican theologian John Milbank called Blondel’s philosophy, “reunderstood as theology, . . . perhaps, the boldest exercise in Christian thought of modern times.”6

1. This essay is based on the second annual Michael J. Kerlin Lecture given at La Salle University on 22 March 2010 and dedicated to the memory of my friend Michael Kerlin (1936–2007).

2. On Blondel’s life, see Oliva Blanchette, Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010). Blanchette dedicates his book to Nathalie Panis. See also the chronology in Henri Bouillard, Blondel and Christianity, trans. James M. Somerville (French edition 1961; Washington/Cleveland: Corpus Books, 1969), 218–19 and Jean Lacroix, Maurice Blondel: An Introduction to the Man and His Philosophy, trans. John C. Guinness (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1968), chapter 1. Lacroix knew Blondel personally and belonged to the network Étienne Fouilloux describes as the second “Lyon School.”

3. On Blondel’s philosophical importance, see Maurice Blondel et la Philosophie Française, Colloque tenu à Lyon, ed. Emmanuel Gabellieri and Pierre de Cointet (Lyon: Éditions Parole et Silence, 2007).

4. Baum credits Blondel with initiating in the Catholic Church “a new style of thinking about that transcendent, redemptive mystery in human history which we call God” (Gregory Baum, Man Becoming: God in Secular Experience [New York: Seabury Press, 1970], 1).

5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved’? With a Short Discourse on Hell (German edition 1986/1987; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 81, 114. The quote from 114 begins chapter 7, entitled “Blondel’s Dilemma.”

6. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2006), 319. This quote comes near the end of a ten-page excursus on the theological significance of Blondel’s philosophy.