The Ascension and Pentecost

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

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.


. . . . . . . . . .
To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF or buy this issue.