Friday, 9 January 2009

A prophet who would not be silenced

Edward Schillebeeckx O.P. dies at 95

Two days before Christmas, the Dominican theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, died at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, after a short illness. He was 95. Widely considered one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Schillebeeckx played a significant role in the preparation of Vatican Council II. Afterwards, he continued to give his share to keep alive the council’s spirit and thought.

Though originally from Belgium, Schillebeeckx spend his whole adult life in the Netherlands. Before becoming a Dominican, he fought in World War II, leaving the army to enter the convent after the defeat of the Belgian forces to the Nazis. While studying in Paris, he came under the influence of other great Dominican theologians of the 20th century, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, as well as that of the great Calvinist theologian, Karl Barth.

In the 1950s, while teaching dogmatic theology at Louvain and Nijmegan, Schillebeeckx became known for his attempt to make theological thought more comprehensible to believers in the modern world. This won him the appreciation and admiration of the Dutch bishops, who chose him to accompany them to Rome as advisor during Vatican Council II.

During the time, Schillebeeckx was very critical of the initial schemata prepared by the Vatican as working documents for the council. He advocated a theological and ecclesiological attitude which moved away from a purely hierarchical structured vision of the Church which focused too heavily on ecclesiastical centrality and Papal authority. Schillebeeckx proposed a more decentralized, collegial perspective, more in line with the modern world.

This began his trouble with Rome, which continued for the rest of his life. Though at the time he was summoned to explain his ‘reformist’ position more clearly, ultimately his contributions considerably influenced various conciliar documents, especially the all-important Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium.

After the council, Schillebeeckx felt that his efforts were needed to keep at bay theologians who, overcome at the council, endeavoured to reverse the ideological and philosophical direction of Vatican II. Hence, together with Chenu, Congar, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng and others, he began the new theological world-wide journal, Concilium. Years later, this was rivalled and challenged by another journal, called Communio, begun by theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger (later H.H. Pope Benedict XVI), who considered Concilium excessively reformist and modernist.

In 1974, Schillebeeckx published in Dutch the first of his most influential works, Jesus – An experiment in Christology. In this beautiful book, while resting heavily on modern Biblical criticism, and attempting to link traditional Catholic teaching to contemporary human experience, Schillebeeckx emphasised the human side of Jesus’ personality. He also applied the methods of historical criticism to the development of the Church’s life, maintaining that few elements in its organisation could be regarded as fixed and final.

Rome did not like the book, and called Schillebeeckx to task. However, it did not pronounce any decision until his promised second work, Christ – The Christian experience in the modern world, would be published. This came in 1977. Again, Schillebeeckx was summoned to Rome. Proceedings lingered on until, in 1984, he was formally accused of denying the divinity of Jesus, and relativizing theology. Schillebeeckx’s opinions were formally condemned by (then Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger in 1986.

In the meantime, Schillebeeckx had published another important work, Church with a Human Face (1985), which Rome also considered not entirely in conformity with the official teachings of the Church. Though Schillebeeckx, being a humble and quiet man, was disinclined to public controversy (unlike, for instance, Hans Küng, who was investigated and condemned by Rome contemporaneously), in 1989 he joined 163 other theologians in a scathing and unprecedented attack on the conservative policies of H.H. Pope John Paul II. Amongst his later publications, one of Schillebeeckx’s most notable works was The Church – The human story of God (1990).

“Jesus,” Schillebeeckx held in one of his works (1965), “is the human way of being God, and the divine way of being human”. This remarkable statement can perhaps sum up what Schillebeeckx’s whole intellectual and spiritual endeavour attempted to communicate to our contemporary age. They are words of hope which Schillebeeckx tried to locate within a Church whose internal structures are made suitable to welcome religious secularisation. “God’s glory,” he proposed in another work (1983), “consists in the restoration of the rejected.”

More information can be obtained from the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation. Recommended reading: Edward Schillebeeckx: A Theologian in his History (2004) by Erik Borgman.

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