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52 Authors: Week 52 - Jean Daniélou

Jean Daniélou was a French Jesuit. He was one of the famous group of French Jesuits who passed through the Jesuit house at Fourvière (in Lyon) in the 1920s and 1930s. The greatest member of the group was, without doubt, Henri de Lubac (who has received a very fine tribute from Robert Gotcher in our 52 Author’s series). Many others were also memorable, including Gaston Fessard, a great Hegel scholar, and Yves de Montcheuil, who became a chaplain to the French Resistance and was murdered by the National Socialists in 1944. Henri de Lubac gathered the writings of some of his confrères in one of those many de Lubacy Ignatius Press books, called Three Jesuits Speak, a sort of tribute volume, but worth reading.

Jean Daniélou was not in the same league as de Lubac, but he wrote one great book which will continue to nourish Catholic’s understanding of Scripture and the Liturgy for many generations to come.

De Lubac’s squad of Fourvière Jesuits are famous for three things. One is that they all admired the writings of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. Blondel himself had written a Pascalian tome of philosophy called Action, which argued that human beings put infinitely more energy into their actions than they can ever use in finite circumstances. Human beings have a choice, a basic ‘option,’ Blondel called it, between admiting that the infinite in them comes from God, and actively cooperating with the divine input, or refusing outside help, and remaining independent forever, eternally, living off the fruits of selfish egoism. The young Jesuits of the 1920s and 1930s loved Action, because it was all about acting. It seemed more energetic than the circular logic of the neo-scholasticism of the time. Their elders detested it, because it was all about acting, and not about logical truths which stayed the same for ever. Dominicans in particular disliked it, especially the evil and destructive Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP.

The second thread to the story is that the infamous Garrigou-Lagrange detested the lot of them so much that he had them silenced. To explain how that came about we must mention a third element in the legend of the Jesuits of Fourvière. They loved the Patristics, the early Church Fathers. They started a series of Patristic texts, called Sources Chrétiennes, still being published by Cerf today. These books have the Greek or Latin text on one side, and the vernacular (French) on the other. Danélou was the editor, and as de Lubac later kindly but ruefully observed, he had a series to sell. The series had set off in 1942, and in 1946 Daniélou published an article to advertize it. Daniélou’s article was called “Les orientations présentes de la pensée religieuse,” and it was published in the spring of 1946. This piece, full of Blondelisms about dynamic action and energy, and wholly innocuous in its theological content, became known as the ‘Red Rag to the Roman Bull.’

Later that same year, the Roman bull, in the form of Garrigou-Lagrange charged. He published “La nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?”, where is the ‘New Theology’ going. It was, by the way, Garrigou-Lagrange who christened the new movements as ‘New Theology.’ He argued that this talk about the Patristics and their dynamic energy was leading the Church back to Modernism, that is, back to subjectivism and historicism. He didn’t like all this chatter about the Patristics because he thought himself a Thomist. No, the logic of that cannot be explained. ‘Because Thomas’ doesn’t work, since Thomas himself loved the Early Church Fathers.

Unfortunately for several generations of Catholics, this evil, unimaginative and rather unintelligent man was second in command at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had the whole squad silenced, removed from their teaching positions, and shifted around from pillar to post. For nearly fifteen years before the second Vatican Council, the greatest minds in the French religious orders – for example, Daniélou and De Lubac amongst the Jesuits, Marie-Dominique Chenu amongst the Dominicans – were forbidden to teach the upcoming generation of seminarians. Those are just the great names: there were many other lesser men of their ilk who could not enable faith to seek understanding. The generation of priests who greeted the documents of the Second Vatican Council had not had decent teachers for nearly two decades. The result was exactly the thing which Garrigou-Lagrange had feared, and which he had himself engineered by repressing the orthodox apologetics of the Fourvière Jesuits: a return of modernist subjectivism, fideism and historicism in the Catholic Church.

One thing which suffered greatly after the Vatican Council was the liturgy. A poorly educated clergy was easily infected by a profound amnesia rning the immense poetry of the liturgy. The texts of the Vatican Council had encouraged the Church to put the Bible at the center of Catholic life: but no one had been taught how to read the Bible, especially not the Old Testament. No one knew what to do with the riches which were suddenly poured at the feet of Catholic parishioners, and like lottery winners, they squandered their gains.

One book which should have taught them about that immense poetry was Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy. This book shows how the actions Old Testament prefigure the New Testament, and how these types, and the power they contain, are carried forth today in the dynamic actions of the Liturgy, its sacraments. Its full of quotations from the early Church Fathers, showing how the early Church knotted together the Old and the New Covenants, and how it read every gesture of the liturgy as energetic signs of Biblical events. Daniélou writes that, “the sacraments were seen as great events in sacred history, the mirabilia which fill the sphere between the glorious Ascension and the glorious Parousia, their course constituting that shining train of divine works whose splendour the very angels cannot endure, which fills them with wonder” (p. 199).

The book treats the symbolism of the liturgy as it should be treated, as a revealed system of aesthetic echoes and resonances which carry the drama of the Bible into the life of the Church. Daniélou reminds the reader that “The first type of Baptism to be found in the most ancient Catechesis is that of the primitive waters of Genesis. At first glance this comparison may seem startling and artificial, but we must always be careful to look behind the ‘illustrative’ resemblances which are concerned with images for the theological analogies which constitute typology properly speaking” (pp. 71-72). This great book can be read with pleasure by any one with an aesthetic sense. You do not have to be a liturgy buff or especially pious.

Daniélou was one of those who were left to fight the tidal wave of misinterpretation of the Vatican II documents. The one time ‘modernist’ New Theologian now gained a reputation amongst his fellow Jesuits for being a reactionary. He lived very modestly, sleeping in a simple cell on a very bare board of a bed. Most of his money was given way, to homeless people, beggars and prostitutes. He paid for his valor against post-Vatican II Modernism with his reputation. Long before, he had offered God a shameful death in return for the conversion of his brother, a specialist in the Hindu religion. He got it. Visiting the flat of a prostitute whose protector was in prison, the aged Jesuit dropped dead, the money he had brought with him to give her in his hand. His brother Jesuits apparently knew the truth but made no effort to defend his reputation. Until very recently, Daniélou’s name could only be mentioned with giggles, as the New Theologian who died in the arms of a tart. The motto of the Dominican Order is ‘Veritas,’ and with his habitual concern for the charism of his Order, Fergus Kerr repeats the ‘death in a prostitute’s flat’ story in his recent book on modern Catholic Theologians.

This past spring (April 2015), the slurs began to be corrected. For the first time in forty-five years, Jesuits publicly told the truth about the kind of man Daniélou was, and about how he died. The true story is repeated here (and other versions are available elsewhere on the web) as told by Joanna Bogle.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.


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Thank you for finally answering my question.


Great post, Grumpy. Very interesting, and that will be the first Authors book I read.

And congratulations and thanks to all!


Yes, very interesting. I'd heard Danielou's name, and Garrigou-Lagrange's name too, but didn't know much about either of them or the connection between them. Am adding Danielou to my reading list.

Congratulations to Mac, and to everyone who helped with the project! A job well done.

Thanks very much to all who shared this project. I read fantastic pieces all year, on so many authors!

Janet there is much more.

Thanks Grumpy. It's nice to know more about the people behind famous names whose works I've never read. The whole series has been very enriching.

Like Janet, I think The Bible and the Liturgy might be the next one I have a bash at. I do wonder if there's a chance you've conflated Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Pietro Parente (partly because Garrigou-Lagrange was a consultor at the Holy Office but wasn't number 2, and partly because he seems an odd candidate for "evil, unimaginative and rather unintelligent" – he did a lot to rehabilitate mystical theology as real theology, and mystical experience as an ordinary Christian thing, not reserved to saints we read about in books).

A couple of years ago a Belgian academic theologian brought out a volume called Nouvelle Théologie: Inheritor of Modernism (he thinks this is a good thing), which basically inscribes Schillebeeckx as the fruition of the movement. You wouldn't agree with that line, I take it?

Many thanks to all of you who contributed. It would, obviously, not have happened without you. I'm really pleased that we managed to do all 52. It would really have rankled me if we'd missed a week. And the range and quality were excellent.

I had heard the story of the cardinal in the prostitute's apartment, but forgotten the name involved. I admit I was surprised to hear Grumpy's description of G-L, not that I knew anything much about him beyond the name.

Yay! Well done, Grumpy! Well done, everyone! Thanks for this great series. My main task for today will be reading the posts I didn't get around to reading through the year.

Grumpy, this has been a very interesting post and I'll be looking into it more.

"which argued that human beings put infinitely more energy into their actions than they can ever use in finite circumstances."

As a parent, I really wish this were true! Perhaps it is, but I just don't feel it. :)

By this account Daniélou sounds like a great man and a great priest. I look forward to finding out more about him.

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