Yves Congar and the Future of the Church in Its Past

Jonathan Guilbault: For our last discussion in Avenues of Faith, you chose Faithful to the Future, a work by Brother Émile, from the Taizé Community, about the theologian Yves Congar. Why did you pick this book rather than one of Congar’s main publications?

Charles Taylor: Because, in my opinion, Brother Émile’s book summarizes the core elements of Congar’s thought with admirable conciseness. Moreover, the author succeeds in situating the French theologian’s task in the context of works that have prepared and prolonged it—namely, those by Henri de Lubac and Marie-Dominique Chenu. Congar, de Lubac, Chenu: now here are three titans of Catholic theology who managed to circumvent the prohibitions applied to modernist thought. In doing so, they made the small revolution of Vatican II possible; they enabled the Church to open up to what is right and precious in modern intuitions. They sometimes had to fight harsh battles—especially de Lubac—but, thanks to their audacity, their perspicacity, and a remarkable sense of faithfulness, they were instrumental in cleansing theology of certain ideas that had, with time, become real ruts. To make a long story short, let us say that their “maneuvers” greatly consisted in going back to the Fathers of the Church, not to search their writings for valid answers to the contemporary situation but to be inspired by their way of thinking at a theological level.

JG: Why the Fathers of the Church? Is it because they were the first to tackle the task of preaching and translating the Gospels in cultural contexts different from those of the biblical authors? Is it then a matter of entering the movement of their preaching and teaching approaches, as this movement has something exemplary about it—namely, in its way of not resting on any structures deemed timeless?

CT: Entering their movement is perhaps the best way of expressing the conversion of theological thinking that Congar and his colleagues advocated. For it is not about finding in their work some rules and solutions of universal value but rather reconnecting with the spirit with which they used to think—adding the necessary adjustments, of course. Fathers not as sources but as models.

JG: “The Church is its future as much as it is its past.” This claim by Congar, highlighted in Brother Émile’s book, is significant and summarizes well a large part of Congar’s ecclesiology. How do you interpret it?

CT: Jesus enjoyed a unique authority among those who surrounded him, because they felt directly touched by his teachings, his words of comfort, and his deeds. The Church is responsible for relaying Christ by making him present to men and women of all times. To carry out this mandate efficiently, it must indeed remain faithful to what it was but also to what it needs to be for the people of today and tomorrow. Besides, this is the only way for it to be a main player in the construction of the future. Individuals and institutions that address people of today as if they were speaking to people of yesterday have a minimal impact on the evolution of society.

I would also like to mention that, for the Church, being faithful to the past is essentially synonymous with remaining as close as possible to the intuitions that have made the world a better place and with working at spreading these out further, in the direction pointed to by the “signs of our times.” Let me explain myself: I think that, morally speaking, humanity is evolving. Of course, this evolution is not linear, but if we look at things on the scale of centuries, the human conscience has gained in breadth and depth. Sometimes, it makes considerable leaps. For instance, I am thinking of what we call the “first axial revolution,” triggered by Buddha, the prophets of Israel, and the Greek philosophers. At that moment, for the first time in the history of mankind, and more or less everywhere simultaneously across the planet, the purposes of existence and social organization changed: many became sensitive to a horizon of meaning that went beyond mere survival and the prosperity of the community. I am referring to nirvana, eternal life, etc. Human conscience leaped out of tribal partitions and opened up to higher aspirations that were, at the same time, more universal and more personal. Jesus represents a decisive leap, and it is the duty of the Church to do what it takes for this leap to drive consciences as far as possible.

JG: Is that not what Congar meant when he defined tradition as “the permanence of a principle at all moments of its history”?

CT: Yes, as long as we correctly grasp the nature of the principle at stake. It is not a universal rule that can be locked into a formula. Our understanding of this principle, of this “leap,” is in constant evolution.

I spoke of the “signs of our times.” This expression, supported by Vatican II, is essential to cast light not only on the change of the Church’s position in the face of modernity but also on its tradition. If the deposit of faith that the Church has preserved over centuries could actually be expressed in formulas, then, of course, there would be no reason for the Church to question its position within the course of history before speaking out. It would have recipes at its disposal, to confront each moral situation. Yet, this is obviously not the case. One can probably speak of a deposit of faith but only if one relinquishes the idea of turning it into a series of concrete teachings and practices that would claim to exhaust what the gospel inspires and demands. During Vatican II, it was noted, in a more official and resolute way than in the past, that no society has ever fully embodied the gospel, and none ever will. It is true that some individuals have lived according to the gospel with a singular kind of radicalism, but each of their lives is only one page of the gospel, not a summary thereof. And none of these pages is an exact copy of anyone else’s existence. This is also true, a fortiori, for societies: each society has seized some of the gospel’s intuitions and resorted to the necessary means to realize them, all the while leaving other intuitions in the dark. For example, in the first Christian communities, authority used to be carried out in a much more charismatic way, much more comparable to Christ’s style than it was in the Middle Ages. But in saying this, I am not condemning the Church of the Middle Ages as being globally more removed from the gospel: to face the challenges of its time, it found elements in the gospel that could inspire it, and it interpreted them with a mix of good and bad faith, as is often the case when it comes to human beings.

Another example: the first Christians did not see the abolition of slavery as an irrepressible requirement of their faith in Jesus Christ, as this was unthinkable at the time. Aristotle did not like slavery, but he believed that a society could not function without exploiting some of its members—barbarians, preferably! And the situation, like the general mentality, barely changed on this topic with the advent of the Roman Empire. Hence, societies have been shaped discretely, from within, by the gospel as well as by other forces, in such a way that, at a certain point in history, it became obvious that slavery was not compatible with Christian faith. If we may use an anachronistic expression, we can say that Christians—for that’s what they were, and we may not let present-day seculars deceive us on this subject—read the signs of their times back then. Their faith-filled outlook enabled them to perceive an incoherence between a social phenomenon and the gospel. Sometimes, the signs that enable an evangelical intuition to resurface in the Church, or in Christian societies, come from elsewhere. For instance, let’s remember the movement of nonviolence, orchestrated by Gandhi. The context of the Indian society in which he lived, combined with the nature of the regime he confronted and with his admirable decision to dedicate his life to a cause, enabled the hatching of a movement that has had spectacular repercussions throughout the entire world. Influenced by the gospel, Gandhi also influenced the Church and Christian societies, helping them rediscover to what extent their faith in Christ sometimes calls for a firm yet nonviolent opposition. Martin Luther King, for example, is Gandhi’s heir. Just like Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.

In short, it is inevitable: the Church always makes a selection, most often unconsciously, among the values of the gospel. It is good that things should be this way, for the awareness of this limitation prevents the Church from leaving its eschatological horizon to claim establishing the kingdom of God on Earth by its own forces, just like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The Church is essentially a peregrine Church. When it meditates upon the signs of the times, it must walk a narrow path, bordered by two ravines. One is an excessive impatience to make the required changes, which can lead to incomprehensions that ultimately make the remedy a worse evil than the disease itself. And the other is a pusillanimity that paralyzes its movements.

To come back to the abolition of slavery, when we see today how inextricably it is linked to the progress of evangelical intuitions in our culture, we get a certain idea of what tradition is: a keystone of the history of the Church.

JG: Brother Émile mentions two different ways of looking at the history of the Church, which condition our conception of tradition. The first is a prospective look: we imagine ourselves at the apostolic age, and, from this Everest, we watch the developments of time in order to highlight what is faithful to the primordial given. This approach is very similar to that of the rationalists, who judge everything on the basis of an “I” that overlooks the rest of human existence. The second is a retrospective look: it first takes note of the present, which it believes inhabited by the Holy Spirit, to then turn toward the past and there discern elements of continuity within faith. I Am guessing that, like Congar, you prefer the second way of contemplating tradition . . .

CT: Assuredly, for in the first case, a single form of knowledge is taken into account: that of the past, which, furthermore, is always fragmentary. The most common consequence, when knowledge from the past is made absolute, is a certain distrust of emerging novelties. Yet distrust conditions a poor learning position. To fairly judge something that presents itself for the first time, one has every interest in adopting a sort of methodological good faith. A certain trust. Then comes the time for analysis: what do the gospel, the history of the Church, and the writings of the Fathers add to my judgment about this or that phenomenon? Is this or that way of behaving, or of loving one’s neighbor, an extension of the leap Christ made us take two thousand years ago?

To be a Christian today, you must not only know the values of the gospel or, in more mystical terms, know Christ; you must also know how to experience them today, how to give them concrete form. And to achieve this, it is a prerequisite to feel the world, to discern injustices, structures that deserve being modified, etc.

The Church, in its capacity of “expert on humanity,” is committed to doing this; but let it be clear that, from Rome, it is impossible to get a precise feel for what is happening all over the planet, in spite of the vast diocesan network that benefits the Vatican. Consequently, every Christian community also becomes involved in this mandate. The magisterium’s authority in the field of signs of the times does not consist in a better ability to cast a prospective look, but rather in the support and relay that it can confer to readings carried out on-site by the communities or even by prophetic figures.

Of course, there are historical reasons that can explain why the Church became distrustful of the world during the early modern period, more inclined to use its authority to condemn initiatives rather than to promote them. For example, in achieving changes brutally imposed against the Church’s will, the French Revolution contributed to antagonizing the Church, placing it in a defensive posture that lasted until Vatican II. The most paradoxical event with regard to the evolution of Catholicism was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This was not only an attack against the sovereignty of the Church in its domain but also a mistake in terms of political philosophy, because the Constitution took it for granted, even though pluralism was starting to blossom, that France was a strictly Catholic country. A state that claimed to be firmly secular considered it to be its duty to hire ministers of religion! The Church was even less capable then than now to negotiate with a secularism that was struggling to find its coherence, and consequently, it defined itself in opposition to revolutionary liberalism. In a nutshell, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was first and foremost a disaster. But, fortunately, and this is where the paradox resides, this blind act also brought about the first steps of what became known as the movement of Christian democracy, the roots of which are also to be found in the German Kulturkampf (culture struggle). This movement, essentially led by Catholic laypersons, did not react to militant liberalism the same way the magisterium had. It internalized some of its demands while remaining faithful to the Church. It is ironic, actually: resistance against the liberalism that was persecuting the Church gave rise, in the heart of Catholicism, to a new form of organization . . . a more liberal one! We experienced something similar in Quebec: the Quiet Revolution was initiated by people from Catholic Action! To make a long story short, a similar phenomenon has prompted different reactions within Catholicism, and, in seeking what belongs to tradition, one must keep in mind all of these reactions and understand them in their context.

JG: We could say that Congar participated in deconstructing the mistrust you spoke of and thereby enabled the Church to reunite with its full power of discernment. It was his constant concern to detach what was valid in the demands and criticisms addressed to the Church or to the Christian faith. For example, although he did not shoulder the excesses of modernism that shook the Church at the turn of the twentieth century, he did acknowledge the fact that this trend was following two legitimate goals: to integrate critical methods into some parts of theology, such as exegesis or the history of the Church, and to rethink the act of faith in the light of the “discovery of the subject” made by philosophy and the emerging human sciences.

CT: As a matter of fact, one can no longer consider the subject of faith the way it was in the Middle Ages and thus come up with a morality of obedience. Congar was critical of what we call subjectivism, yet he considered the subject of faith as a good modernist, unwilling—unlike a few somewhat strict Thomists—to rest his option for Christ on the “proofs” of God’s existence that are to be found in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia. Congar fully took into account the fact that theology could not do without a sincere dialogue with the ethics of authenticity, which were developing in various ways throughout secular circles. Did Congar condemn the Church, in retrospect, for the morality of obedience of which it was the herald for so many centuries? To my knowledge, no, for he had a historical consciousness that prevented him from passing anachronistic judgments. It is true that, in historical hindsight, we can and must draw conclusions. Have the various armed interventions of the Church, globally, borne any good fruits? It is hard to answer this in the affirmative, because we know that the Church is still paying, in terms of moral credibility, for some of its brutal interventions due to its authoritarian style. Today, it is reaping the lessons of this. But let us be cautious—as Congar was—before we throw stones at it: for a long time, its conceptions of salvation and of its temporal role conditioned its reactions. Thereby, the Church often deemed that the lesser evil was to make use of violence, rather than to let masses compromise their salvation . . . by becoming Protestants, for example! In other words, it acted and reacted within the boundaries of a metaphysical framework that is more and more estranged to us but that no one with a sense of history can condemn as a whole.

EDITORIAL STATEMENT: This interview is excerpted from Chapter 5 of the Baylor University Press book, Avenues of Faith: Conversations with Jonathan Guilbault, ALL RIGHT RESERVED. Our special thanks to Jonathan Guiltbault for putting us in touch with the press and Baylor Press Director David Aycock for all his prompt help with this project.

Featured Image: Archives of the French Dominican Province, Yves Congar at Vatican II, 1 January 1964; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University and author of influential books including Sources of the Self, The Ethics of Authenticity, and A Secular Age. He has received many honors, including the Templeton Prize and the Berggruen Prize.

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