Winter 2008

Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace: A Note on Some Recent Contributions to the Debate

Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

“Our natural desire for God entails a renunciation both of self-sufficiency and of demand. To want a gratuitous friendship is also to want to be surprised, and so to refuse to know in advance the actual shape of that gratuity.”

A number of recent publications have brought new life to the debate surrounding Henri de Lubac’s writings on nature and grace.1 At issue in this seemingly “academic” question is the novelty and gratuity of Jesus Christ in relation to creation. Embedded in the question of how Christ’s novelty relates to the order of creation is a set of further issues concerning the relationship between the Church and the world, the relationship between theology and philosophy, the ecclesial and cosmological significance of the Eucharist, and the meaning of the universality of Christ’s saving mission. For some, de Lubac’s account of these matters represents a recovery of the breadth and depth of the authentic Catholic tradition, a renewal of the vision of Christian humanism that unites patristic and high medieval thought and that informed the documents of the Second Vatican Council. For others, de Lubac’s writings on nature and grace represent a “distortion of the Thomist legacy” that has “influenced for the worse a large percentage of Catholic theologians and philosophers trained since the Second World War” and “contributed to the destabilization of Catholic theology.”2 Because de Lubac and his interlocutors both claim to be faithfully interpreting Thomas Aquinas, much of the debate has focused on the meaning of texts in Aquinas on the desiderium naturale visionis dei as well as related texts on the “twofold beatitude” proper to human nature.

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1. John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005); Ralph McInerny, Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006); Surnaturel: Une controverse au coeur du thomisme au XXe siècle (Toulouse: Revue Thomiste, 2001); Lawrence Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters (Rome: Apollinare Studi, 2001); David Braine, “The Debate Between Henri de Lubac and His Critics,” Nova et Vetera 6 (2008): 543–90. For an introduction to de Lubac’s life and work that includes an overview of his publications on the theme of nature and grace, see David L. Schindler’s “Introduction” to Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural [hereafter MS] (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998), xi–xxxi.

2. Romanus Cessario, “Neo-Neo-Thomism,” [Review of Ralph McInerny, Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers] First Things (2007): 51. For a different account of de Lubac’s role in twentieth-century Catholic theology, see Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998). In addition to noting how de Lubac “suffered so much under the narrowness of the neoscholastic regime” (142), Ratzinger recounts how his encounter with de Lubac’s book Catholicism “gave me not only a new and deeper connection with the thought of the Fathers but also a new way of looking at theology and faith as such . . . . De Lubac was leading his readers out of a narrowly individualistic and moralistic mode of faith and into the freedom of an essentially social faith, conceived and lived as a we—a faith that, precisely as such and according to its nature, was also hope, affecting history as a whole” (98).