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Henri de Lubac

Henri de Lubac was one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, and his thinking had an incalculable influence on the reshaping of the Church at the Second Vatican Council.

Henri de Lubac was born in Cambrai in Northern France in 1896, to an ancient noble family. The son of a banker, de Lubac was schooled by Jesuits and studied law for a year before entering the Society of Jesus at the age of seventeen. Anti-Church laws in France meant he had to enter the noviciate in England, though his studies were cut short when the following year, 1914, he was drafted into the French army with the outbreak of the First World War. He served until his demobilisation in 1919. During the war he received numerous injuries, including a head wound that would plague him with headaches and dizzy spells for the rest of his life.

De Lubac resumed his studies, first at Canterbury and then in the Jesuit philosophate on the island of Jersey. In 1926 he moved to Lyons to complete his remaining studies, and was ordained a priest the following year. In 1929 de Lubac was appointed the professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University of Lyon. He continued to teach there until, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was forced to go underground as he assisted in the publication of a journal of Nazi resistance. Over the course of the war some of his co-workers on the journal were caught by the authorities and executed.

Once the war finished de Lubac was able to return to his teaching post at the college and to release some texts he had written during the previous few years. In contrast to the general Church view at the time, which focused on studying the works of Thomas Aquinas, de Lubac was one of a number of theologians from that time who was interested rather in studying the early Fathers of the Church. This became a movement in theology called ressourcement – a fresh return to these formative texts with the intention of reading them in the light of contemporary concerns. This radical thinking was condemned, however, and in 1950 de Lubac was removed from his position as professor. He was not allowed to return to his post at the college until 1958, and everything he wrote during this time was heavily censored, though this did not hinder his productivity.

In 1960 Pope John XXIII appointed de Lubac as a consultant to the Preparatory Theological Commission for the Second Vatican Council. De Lubac was later made a member of the Theological Commission by Pope Paul XI. His writings were vital in creating the intellectual climate that brought about and shaped the Council. One important aspect of his thinking was on the nature of grace and the supernatural, which is seen in his book Surnaturel. His argument that every human person bore the dignity of being an imago Dei contributed greatly to the Church’s increased openness to ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue.

Following the Council, de Lubac continued to write; together with Joseph Ratzinger and several others he founded the conservative journal Communio. In 1983 at the age of eighty seven, Pope John Paul II raised de Lubac to the College of Cardinals. He died in Paris three years later.