Theologian Yves Congar´s Heroic Silence

New Book Sheds Light on Dominican´s Difficult Years

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PARIS, MAR. 25, 2001 ( Cardinal Yves Congar´s intellectual and spiritual stature, as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, has been enhanced with the publication of his memoirs of the difficult years, when he was subjected to sanctions by his superiors.

Cardinal Congar (1904-1995) was one of the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council and a pioneer in fields such as ecumenism and the theology of the laity. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1994, for his long and faithful service to the Church.

Entitled «Journal d´un theologien,» published by the French Dominicans´ Cerf, the book covers Father Congar´s writings from 1946-1956, in which he reveals the restrictive measures and increasing isolation to which he was subjected, by order of the Holy Office, on behalf of his religious superiors.

Father Congar´s journal includes a detailed listing of the ecclesiastical sanctions he was bound to obey, without ever having had the possibility of knowing the specific accusations against him. In the years before Vatican II, his pioneer proposals on ecumenism and the role of the laity in the Church caused concern in the Holy Office and among his superiors, who silenced him.

Theologian Congar understood ecumenism almost by instinct, as a result of the education he received in his family, which was sufficiently open to enable him to have Jewish, Protestant and agnostic friends.

This experience matured during the two World Wars. During World War I, he was profoundly impressed by the action of a Protestant pastor in Sedan, France, his birthplace, who made the chapel of the Reformed community available to the parish priest, as the Catholic church in the city had been bombed.

During World War II, the theologian spent five years in Nazi prisons. He contacted Protestants and Anglicans and discovered the need for dialogue in search of the full truth of the Church.

Father Congar developed the theology of the laity in the 1930s. As a professor in the famous Le Saulchoir theological center, he was under the leadership of Father Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990). Congar developed theology not along lines of abstract reasoning, but as an attempt to follow the Word of God, which challenges man in history. In this way, he hoped to give a theological foundation to the new concept of the Church, which was gaining ground under the impetus of Catholic Action´s liturgical movement.

Father Congar became the interpreter of this new sensibility, published writings on it and, without realizing it, prepared the ground for Vatican II´s dogmatic constitution, «Lumen Gentium.»

However, his superiors´ reaction to his work was colored by the campaign in Catholic circles against the «Nouvelle Théologie,» which began in 1946 and culminated in 1950. Father Congar´s proposals, as well as those of other Dominican theologian friends, such as Father Chenu himself, seemed to be in contradiction to Pius XII´s encyclical «Humani Generis.»

Fearing measures against the Dominican order, Father Congar´s superiors imposed restrictions on him beginning in 1946. He was not allowed to attend ecumenical meetings, conferences, or public gatherings, and his writings were censured. A new edition of his work «Disunited Christians» («Chrétiens désunis, principes d´un oecumenisme catholique,» 1937) was suspended.

The crisis became more acute in 1954, after the Church asked the «worker priests» to reverse their position. Theologian Congar had referred to them with charity and respect. It was at this point that the master general of the Dominicans obliged some of his better-known religious, among whom was Father Congar, to stop teaching at Le Saulchoir.

During his years of «exile,» theologian Congar traveled to Jerusalem, Rome (where he was examined by the Holy Office) and Oxford.

Father Congar reacted to the measures with anxiety and, at times, anger, although he always obeyed. At times his reactions were excessive, and he himself recognized this in moments of serenity.

What was most difficult for him was the loss of friends. «A man is not just his flesh and soul; there are friends and relations,» he wrote.

But later, on July 5, 1960, Father Congar was appointed consultor of Vatican II´s preparatory theological commission. He took part in Vatican II as an expert from 1962 to 1965. After the council, his theology gave extraordinary impetus to ecclesiology.

In 1961, after the storm was over, Father Congar wrote: «I have consecrated my life to the service of truth. I have loved [truth], and I still love it, as one loves a person.»

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