Vatican II and the Lasting Influence of Garrigou-Lagrange's Mystical Theology

Since his death in 1964, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. has been both one of the most highly regarded and divisive theologians. In particular, Garrigou has become a battle line for the traditionalist versus progressive war which has plagued the postconciliar Church. In academic circles, Garrigou stands as an exemplar of a preconciliar theology that was speculatively stale, doctrinally rigid, and which employed Vatican power to dominate and oppress its enemies. In many ways, these were the very concerns that effected the movement for aggiornamento during and after the Second Vatican Council. As such, it is unsurprising to hear in a recent video, for example (but also here), Bishop Robert Barron stating that “‘Garrigou-Lagrange Thomism’ lost at Vatican II.”

But the so-called “sacred monster of Thomism” (an epithet coined by Francois Mauriac which certainly reflected at least some of the feelings of the Nouvelle theologians), has seen a resurgence in theological influence of late, and not merely among the traditionalist crowd (with which he is often associated). Even several years ago, David Bentley Hart was already lamenting the increase of

Those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange.

The reason for the increase in interest in Garrigou among both non-academic Catholics and academic theologians seems clear: Garrigou has been unjustly maligned, shoehorned by his own enemies into playing the part of the Ghost of Church Past. But those who spend time with Garrigou, reading through several works of his extensive corpus, will be quickly disavowed of the myth.

Of course, it isn’t that rigid, pre-conciliar theology did not exist. But Garrigou did not write the much hated manuals of theology. This is increasingly clear with a new series of publications of previously untranslated Garrigou works, thanks to Matthew Minerd. The Order of Things¸ a treatise on final causality, was written by Garrigou partially as a dialogue between the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle. In The Sense of Mystery, Garrigou likens the mystery of predestination to a poem by French poet Ernest Hello entitled “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” which he quotes at length. Throughout his works, one will find references to particular symphonies which Garrigou most cherished, anecdotes from his life, and it is not unusual even to find jokes among his musings.

This style, so far from the rigidity of the manuals (though these were meant as tools not as contemplative works), seems to reflect how Garrigou was as a man and a professor. Fr. Joseph de Torre, commenting on what it was like to have Garrigou as a teacher, said that he had “a prophetic gift of effective and provocative communication . . . In class, Garrigou’s gestures, modulations, facial expressions, use of the black-board, joviality and witty humor, etc., were truly masterful.”[1] Garrigou’s biographer, Richard Peddicord, drawing upon another student of Garrigou’s (P.M. Emonet) recalls that,

Emonet also remarks that Garrigou had a gift for comedy and that rarely would a class period go by without at least a moment or two of hilarity. In this, Garrigou “was aided by . . . his small eyes filled with mischief and laughter, a body in constant motion, a head practically completely bald, a face able to mime horror, anger, irony, indignation, and wonder.”[2]

Especially as Garrigou aged, his reputation as a firebrand was belied by a certain tranquility. Emonet says:

With the passing of the years he calmed down greatly, without losing his reasoned attachment to his chosen positions nor his opposition to the eclecticism that dulls the sharp edges of thought. He also kept his sense of the errors of rationalism, agnosticism, modernism, neo-modernism, and others, while growing progressively in serenity. He communicated the delight and the love of the truth that he lived.[3]

Even those theologians of the Nouvelle théologie school who were supposed to have been Garrigou’s enemies were often taken with his combination of intellectual talent and spiritual wisdom. Yves Congar O.P. said, “He impressed me very much with his profound grasp of the spiritual life, but most of all by his strong sense of affirmation.”[4] Moreover, “He made a profound impression on me. Some of his sermons enthused me and overwhelmed me with their clarity, their rigor, their fullness, their purity of lines, their spirit of faith allied to an impressive intellectual rigor.”[5]

While it is certainly true that Garrigou was devoted to safeguarding orthodox Catholic theology and the Thomistic tradition, “Those who knew Garrigou speak of his single-minded pursuit of the truth. He did not cultivate a personal animus against anyone. Nor did he practice character assassination or attempt to vilify his discussion partners. One looks in vain for an ad hominem argument in Garrigou’s numerous publications.”[6] Garrigou’s zeal for the truth caused him to disagree with many friends and confreres, but that this was not born out of meanness can be seen from his relationship with Jacques Maritain.

Garrigou and Maritain, initially close friends, drifted apart over differences regarding political questions, holding both speculative and practical differences about French politics. Even so, Maritain maintained a great respect and admiration for Garrigou. After Garrigou’s death, preceded by a long struggle with health problems, Maritain wrote in his journal:

This great theologian, who was little versed in the things of the world, had an admirably candid heart, which God finally purified by a long and very painful physical trial, a cross of complete annihilation, which according to the testimony of the faithful friend who assisted him in his last days, he had expected and which he had accepted in advance. I pray to him now with the saints of heaven.[7]

It was, perhaps, this devotion to the spiritual life which is the leitmotif of Garrigou’s work and the most important gift which he has left the Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar, another of the Nouvelle theologians against whom Garrigou is constantly pitted, commends his spiritual theology,

The example of Garrigou-Lagrange might well be followed in his confronting the theology of Thomas with the mystical experience of John of the Cross, carefully assessing both from a theological standpoint, making them elucidate and complete each other. Whether or not we agree with all his conclusions, his initiative and method are certainly to be commended.[8]

Garrigou is recognized for his project of uniting the scholastic and speculative science of sacra doctrina with the spiritual wisdom of the saints. For this reason, he was made the first chair of Catholic spiritual theology in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. As Peddicord notes, Garrigou’s lectures on spiritual theology at the Angelicum “attracted people from all parts; they would become one of the unofficial tourist sites on the itineraries of theologically minded visitors to Rome.”[9] Though he was in too ill of health to contribute directly to the Second Vatican Council, in his lectures and in his multiple works on spiritual theology, Garrigou anticipated and influenced the direction that the Church would take after his death.

Today, because of the Council, acceptance of the universal call to holiness is so pervasive that it is nearly relegated to the subconscious for Catholics of all theological and liturgical varieties. However, this largely overshadows a significant pre-conciliar dispute regarding the extension of the call to holiness. Today, all recognize that, as Lumen gentium teaches, “it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”[10]

But in the pre-conciliar theological academy, this was still contested by some. When Garrigou’s colleague, Juan Arintero, O.P., began to argue that all men are called to a mystical contemplation of God through infused grace (and not merely natural thought about God), French theologian Albert Farges responded, “What are the reasons that so many souls stop in the ways of mysticism? . . . beyond any doubt the principal [reason], is that God, who is master of his gifts, does not call them any higher.”[11] Farges upheld a common view of the pre-conciliar era: there are two groups within the wayfaring Church, those who are called to a life of extraordinary work and contemplative prayer (almost entirely the ordained or religious) and those who are called to a spiritual life marked chiefly by mere obedience to the laws of Church and Faith (almost entirely the laity), whom God “does not call any higher.” This is a place where polemics and hyperbole about the pre-conciliar period often reign. It is neither true that this tradition, which will sound rightfully unseemly to us today, was entirely monolithic nor that it is entirely mythic.

Within the Church there were also voices arguing contrary to the position of Farges, and those most upsetting this “two-tier” [12] tradition were Arintero and Garrigou. For these French Dominicans, there was no such thing as acquired or ungraced contemplation, nor was it possible that the end of sanctifying grace could be lesser for some than for others. Garrigou was wont to say throughout his works that sanctifying grace, and especially the theological virtue of charity, is the seed of eternal life, i.e. heaven already begun within us. The reason that Garrigou could say that the wayfaring Christian already had the germ of the beatific vision even as wayfarer was that he followed St. Thomas Aquinas in maintaining that man’s supernatural end is God himself, i.e. “a partaking of the divine nature.”[13] In a real, and not merely figurative or poetic way, the Holy Trinity begins to live within the justified and graced Christian. Garrigou calls this an “intimate presence” which “being quasi-experimental, attains God not as a distant and simply represented reality, but as a present, possessed reality which we can enjoy even now.”[14]

If this intimate presence of God, an indwelling of the divine, is the very reality of sanctifying grace and its effects, then it must pertain to all Christians, since all Christians are called to sanctifying grace. Therefore this intimate, even experiential, knowledge of God “far from being something essentially extraordinary, like visions, revelations, or the stigmata, is in the normal way of sanctity.[15] Moreover, Garrigou cautioned that some “aim only at common virtues, and do not tend to perfection which they consider too lofty . . . [they] do not pass beyond a certain level of mediocrity that is often due, at least in part, to their early imperfect training and to inexact ideas about the union with God to which every Christian can and must aspire.”[16]

Is not one of the chief aims of the self-described pastoral Council of Vatican II precisely to reform imperfect ideas regarding the spiritual life and to inspire a more robust desire among all Christians for holiness? Lumen gentium reminds us that “the classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one – that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God.”[17] This universal call to holiness is rooted precisely in Garrigou’s theology of infused contemplation and the singular end of mystical union, through the Spirit, to which all are called. As such, it seems to me that “Garrigou-Lagrange Thomism,” far from being defeated at Vatican II, won decisive victory. As Peddicord says, “Garrigou-Lagrange’s position, informed by the classical Dominican tradition and bolstered by the reflection of Juan Arintero, O.P., eventually became the Church’s official teaching.”[18]

Nor is this primacy of the spiritual/mystical merely one portion of Garrigou’s work. Rather, it serves as the very lodestar of his entire theological project. Throughout Garrigou’s corpus, we see the harmony of theological study and prayer, two necessary aspects of the Christian life which are unfortunately so often pitted against each other. For many in the Church today, higher education, continued study of works of theology, etc. are seen, at best, as hobbies which are more likely than not to inflate one with pride and obscure a simple life of prayer.

For many academic theologians and amateur students of theology, the simplicity of the unlearned old lady, reciting her rosary in the back of the church, is regarded as naivety and ignorance. But this false dichotomy is precisely what Garrigou’s work helped to overthrow in the Church, and not by limiting the import of one or the other, theology or prayer, but by extolling the necessity of both and their mutual enrichment. Rising above these extremes, we have Garrigou’s model of harmony, always rooted firmly in mystical theology.

Indeed, Garrigou defines mystical theology as “the application of theology to the direction of souls toward an ever closer union with God.”[19] What else could better describe the unity of theology and sanctification? What else could be a higher science? And who else has written so extensively and wisely on this subject in the last one-hundred years? Garrigou’s work is the synthesis of the speculative insights of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas with the mystical wisdom of Sts. Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. Not only did this not lose, it cannot lose.

In this way, we can say that Garrigou reflects remarkably the greatest figure of his Order, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived a life devoted to the study of God, both natural theology and sacred theology, and whose study was ultimately a means to mystical union with God. St. Thomas famously stated that all of his work was straw, but not because it was false, but because while true, it so failed to encapsulate or exhaust the infinitely sublime object of its study.

It is not merely the holiness of St. Thomas Aquinas which makes him the exemplar for theologians, but the holiness of his theological habit which effected his understanding of the relation between theology and sanctifiction. And we see in Garrigou-Lagrange a remarkable mirror of that habit, a true student of his teacher and of the living theological tradition which has followed St. Thomas. As such, we dare to say that Garrigou-Lagrange may one day be remembered not as the “sacred monster” but rather as the “sacred master of Thomism.”

The recent spate of both academic and non-academic interest in Garrigou shows, I think, that his influence has only just begun. What should have been an immediate enthusiasm for his work after his death was put on hold due to the internecine conflicts which broke out during and after the Council. As the dust settles, however, a new generation of Catholics, unencumbered by the personal distastes of the day, are seeing what all those who encountered Garrigou during his life saw: an extraordinary mind loyal to the Church married to a burning, even feverish, love for God.

The recovery of Garrigou means an encounter and embrace of a more serious, substantive, and orthodox study of God’s self-revelation to us. But unlike the most stagnant tributaries of pre-conciliar theology (rarer than many will have you believe, but not non-existent either), this will not be theology for the sake of retribution against those in error, nor for our own satisfaction, nor even theology for its own sake. Rather, our study of God will be guided toward its proper end, an increase in our spiritual movement to union with the divine. This will be a participation in God’s own work, the elevation of the human struggle for comprehension and holiness to Understanding and Perfection. This is an elevation that is both gratuitous and infinite, for God (somehow) makes the part to be whole, the imperfect to be perfect.

Contemplation of the mystery of sanctification and deification will always bestow humility before a God who both has absolutely nothing to gain from us and yet simultaneously pours himself out for us. What is most important, then, about Garrigou-Lagrange is that, just like his Master St. Thomas, he is an exemplar of this theology of humility, always looking outward, toward its term. This theology may come and go out of style, but it cannot ever be truly defeated or irrelevant or antiquated, for its source and end is Victory, Being, and Eternity Itself. Yet, perhaps now more than ever is the time to look to Garrigou, who teaches us: 

Theology, likewise, the more it advances, the more does it humiliate itself before the superiority of that faith which it never ceases to set in relief. Theology is a commentary ever drawing attention to the word of God which it comments on. Theology, like the Baptist, forgets itself in the cry: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.[20]

[1] Joseph M. de Torre, “My Personal Memories of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange,” in Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP: Teacher of Thomism, edited Jude Chua Soo Meng and Thomas Crean OP, pg. 10. Open access from Thomistic e-nstitute.

[2] Richard Peddicord, O.P., The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), 19.

[3] Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism, 18.

[4] Patrick Granfield, Theologians at Work (New York: Macmillian, 1967), 245.

[5] Yves Congar, Journal d’un théologien, 1946 – 1956, ed. by Etienne Fouilloux (Paris: Cerf, 2000) 36.

[6] Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism, 51.

[7] Jacques Maritain, Notebooks, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1984), 169.

[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theology and Sanctity” in Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 181 – 209.

[9] Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism, 16.

[10] Lumen gentium, §40.

[11] Albert Farges, Les phénomènes mystiques distingués de leurs contrefaçons humaines et diaboliques (Paris: Librairie Saint-Paul, 1923), 275 and Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism,189.

[12] Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism, 184 – 185 , 190.

[13] ST I-II, q. 112, a. 1.

[14] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, vol. I, trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book. Co., 1960), 103 – 105.

[15] Garrigou, The Three Ages, vol. I, 105. Emphasis is my own.

[16] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation: According to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book Co., 1937), 3.

[17] LG, §41.

[18] Peddicord, The Sacred Monster of Thomism, 181. Emphasis is my own.

[19] Garrigou, Christian Perfection, 23.

[20] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, (St. Louis & London: B. Herder Book Co., 1950), Ch. 6.

Featured Image:Jusepe de Ribera, St. Teresa of Avila, 17th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Taylor Patrick O'Neill

Taylor Patrick O'Neill is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Mercy University. He is the author of Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin.

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