Spring 2011

Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology and the Triumph of Maurice Blondel

William L. Portier

So how did Blondel get into contemporary Catholic theology? The short answer in two parts is, first, that Blondel was a profoundly religious man whose philosophy reflected on his own lived life. It was his intention from first to last that his philosophy be religiously and theologically relevant. He wanted to be a real philosopher but also to deal with religious questions he took to be an inevitable constituent of human existence. “I propose to study action,” he wrote in 1886, “because it seems to me that the Gospel attributes to action alone the power to manifest love and to attain God! Action is the abundance of the heart.”7 His last work was called Philosophy and the Christian Spirit, in three volumes. He signed the contract for the third volume the day before he died.

Second, Blondel’s philosophy came to the center of twentieth-century theology through its appropriation by a group of social and intellectual Catholics, both laity and clergy, in the French city of Lyon in the decades after the “double hécatombe” of the Catholic “modernist crisis” (1893–1914) and Great War (1914–1919). Not least among this “Lyon school” was a group of French Jesuits at La Fourvière, the Jesuit theologate in Lyon. Chief among these “jésuites blondelisants” was Henri de Lubac (1896–1991), the pivotal figure in twentieth-century Catholic theology.8 From Lyon, Blondel’s influence spread in Jesuit networks throughout Europe. During the period between 1896 and 1913, in response to theological critics of L’Action, Blondel engaged intensely with theologians on the question of the supernatural. Along with L’Action, it is primarily his work during these years that changed the face of Catholic theology.

This essay traces the Blondelian thread to de Lubac and the Lyon school and then to Vatican II, and, finally, to John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio. In a preliminary form that would require further development, this essay argues that the figure of Maurice Blondel holds together in a continuous narrative a series of four widely significant events that, for varying reasons, are often treated as isolated episodes in French Catholic history. These events include: 1) the modernist crisis, during which the theological implications of Blondel’s thought began to emerge; 2) the rise of the proto-fascist L’Action française, Blondel’s opposition to which, between 1909 and 1913, clarified the political implications of his thought; 3) the debate on “Christian philosophy” (1930–1931), which made clear the extent to which Blondel had problematized the question of the relation between philosophy and theology, and to which debate Pope John Paul II returned in his 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio; and 4) the controversy over “la nouvelle théologie,” brought to a head by the publication in 1946 of de Lubac’s Surnaturel, the fruit of two decades of work developing the theological implications of Blondel’s thought. This essay focuses on de Lubac’s role as the main channel through which Blondel entered twentieth-century Catholic theology. For reasons of space, the essay can only gesture in the direction of the second and third events. It concludes with a treatment of Blondel in Fides et ratio.


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7. Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma. Texts presented and translated by Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), from Dru’s “Historical and Biographical Introduction,” at 33, citing Blondel’s Carnets Intimes, October 1886. Written in 1964, Dru’s and Trethowan’s “Introduction” retains its value as an entrée to Blondel in English.

8. On the “Lyon School,” see Étienne Fouilloux, “La seconde ‘École de Lyon’ (1919–1939)” in E. Gabellieri and P. de Cointet, eds., Blondel et la philosophie française (Paris: Parole et Silence, 2007), 263–73. The phrase “double hécatombe” is Fouilloux’s at 265. On the “jésuites blondélisants,” see the contribution to the same volume by Msgr. Peter Henrici, “La descendance blondélienne parmi les jésuites français,” 305–322. Henrici introduces the phrase “jésuites blondélisants” at 310. The translations throughout are my own. See also Henrici’s major work Hegel und Blondel, Eine Untersuchung über Form und Sinn der Dialektik in der “Phänomenologie des Geistes” und in der ersten “Action” (Pullach bei München: Verlag Berchmanskolleg, 1958) and the discussion in Bouillard, Blondel and Christianity, 212–13, from which this citation is taken. It was Henrici who suggested to the young Michael Kerlin that he write his Gregorian University dissertation in philosophy on Blondel.