On 13 November 1964, after a gathering at one of the laboratories behind the scenes of Vatican II, Rome’s Belgian College, where the think tank and study

  • 59 Congar, Un peuple messianique, p. 152. 61 Congar, Un peuple messianique, p. 168. 63 Congar, Un peuple messianique, p. 168.
  • 60 Congar, Un peuple messianique, p. 154. 62 Congar, Un peuple messianique, p. 170.

group, called ‘Church of the Poor’, had its headquarters,[1] Yves Congar noted in his diary: ‘Presentation by Father Chenu, a Chenu in two hundred per cent top form: intelligence, vitality, prophetic vision, presence. An analysis simultaneously of sensational prophetic vision and intellectual rigour.’[2] There were many ties which bound the two Dominicans together in their efforts to bring the church into the twentieth century and beyond. Chenu, nine years older than Congar, had taught Congar during the latter’s theological studies at the (in)famous Le Saulchoir near Tournai in Wallonia from 1926 to 1931. Vatican II brought them into fruitful regular personal contact again.

Congar was 61 years old when the council ended in December 1965, Chenu already 70. Both theologians had, in effect, completed most of their lives’ work in earlier decades. Chenu had shocked Vatican circles already in 1937 when he presented his ringing defence of scientific historical research within theological studies, later published as L^cole du Saulchoir, in front of a small audience at Le Saulchoir in Kain, located between the first capital of the Frankish empire, Tournai, and the pilgrimage destination of Mont Saint Aubert. Quickly finding its way into the circuit of Catholic theologians, this pathbreaking volume was placed on the index in August 1942. And Chenu became one of the first reform theologians to bear the brunt of an early onslaught of Pius XII’s manoeuvres in defence of ‘orthodox’ tradition, losing his position as director of research at Le Saulchoir.

Chenu soon made a name as the theologian who stood closest to the radical apostolic social movements created in the course of the first wave of Left Catholicism in Western Europe, likewise formulating innovative theologies of incarnation and theologies of labour. From 1954 to 1959, in the darkest years of Pius XII’s pontificate, Chenu was removed from Paris and exiled to Rouen. It was as adviser to a former student of Chenu’s at Le Saulchoir, the bishop of Madagascar, Claude Rolland, who participated in the Vatican deliberations, that Chenu returned to the limelight of ecclesial action. And Chenu immediately left a mark on council history as the author of the original draft of the opening salvo at Vatican II, ‘The Message to the World’, approved by the body of council fathers on 20 October 1962. As mentioned above, this programmatic manifesto prefigured the doctrinal innovations of both Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.[3]

As in my discussion of certain aspects of Congar’s oeuvre—and, in the subsequent subsection, the contributions by Karl Rahner—I leave largely unaddressed the particular role played by Chenu in the course of council deliberations.[4] Emphasis will be placed on post-conciliar publications by Chenu. An astute biographer, Antonio Franco, recently noted on this final period in Chenu’s long and productive life: ‘We can affirm that Chenu, from 1965 to the end of the 1970s, did no more than to comment on and to deepen several doctrinal elements of Vatican II, in the first place Gaudium et Spes.’[5] A close look at some of Chenu’s writings in those crucial post-conciliar years will, however, discover that Chenu considerably developed ‘several doctrinal elements of Vatican II’. Attention will be placed on two such elements: the ‘signs of the times’ and ‘messianism’, two dimensions of, as I will aim to show, the identical coin.

If there is one red thread that should be singled out in the personal and theological itinerary of Marie-Dominique Chenu, it is his consistent defence of the necessity for concrete engagements with historical reality, both in the past and in the present. Attention to historical texts, in Chenu’s view, aids the modern-day theologian to discover long-forgotten and neglected church traditions that could become of great relevance for the revitalization of the church today. Attention to events and processes in the world today could not only open up one’s vision to the realities of contemporary societies but at the same time open windows onto the ultimate destiny of humanity in the utopian Kingdom to Come. Past, present, and eschatological future are thus neatly linked in the historical theology of Marie-Dominique Chenu. It is instructive to point to some samples of Chenu’s own relevant texts—but first a brief digression.

In October 1964, a Swiss Protestant pastor, Lukas Vischer, in the course of the deliberations of a conciliar subcommission, observed ‘that, to recognize the signs of the times in the important historical phenomena of our epoch, we are not handed any criteria which permit us to distinguish the voice of God from any other misleading voice’.[6] Chenu, confronted with this observation, never delivered a social scientific, verifiable blueprint or user guide to facilitate a correct identification of such signs of the times which, at any rate, would have been difficult to deliver. Nor did anyone else. And, in fact, the question of how to sift the vast mass of concrete historical and social scientific data in order to distil the essence and the driving forces of concrete historical and social phenomena is, of course, fundamental to any historical or social scientific quest. Still, despite the absence of a systematic corpus of studies on this topic, in the course of Chenu’s many ruminations on this theme, he developed important insights which transcend the field of theological studies and which have crucial bearing on any serious historical analysis of events and processes in the past and in contemporary society.

  • [1] On this informal but influential grouping, see Denis Pelletier, ‘Une marginalite engagee. LeGroupe “Jesus, l’Eglise et les Pauvres”’, in Matthijs Lamberigts, Claude Soetens, and JanGrootaers (eds), Les Commissions conciliaires a Vatican II (Leuven: Bibliotheek van de FaculteitGodgeleerdheid, 1996), pp. 63-89.
  • [2] Congar, Journal, Vol. II, p. 264.
  • [3] On the genesis of this document, note above all Andre Duval, ‘Le Message au monde’,in Etienne Fouilloux (ed.), Vatican II commence...: Approches francophones (Leuven:Bibliotheek van de Faculteit der Godgeleerdheid, 1993), pp. 105-18.
  • [4] Again, Quisinsky, Geschichtlicher Glaube, is now the definitive work on this subject.
  • [5] Antonio Franco, Marie-Dominique Chenu (Brescia: Morcelliana, 2003), p. 76. This slimvolume is, in general, an apt and concise summary of Chenu’s biography and theology.
  • [6] As reported by Marie-Dominique Chenu, ‘Les Signes des temps. Reflexion theologique’, inYves Congar and Michel Peuchmaurd (eds), L’Eglise dans le monde de ce temps. Constitutionpastorale ‘Gaudium et Spes’, Vol. II: Commentaires (Paris: Cerf, 1967), p. 216.
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