De Lubac and Lonergan on the Supernatural

By Moloney, Raymond | Theological Studies, September 2008 | Go to article overview
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De Lubac and Lonergan on the Supernatural

Moloney, Raymond, Theological Studies

HENRI DE LUBAC'S WORK HAS SEEN RENEWED INTEREST over the past ten years. The occasion for this interest was the centenary of his birth in 1996, and it has continued with articles marking the 60 years since the publication of his major works. In particular, one sees evidence of a continuing fascination with the thorny issues of nature and grace as first raised by de Lubac in his controversial book, Surnaturel. (1) In this work de Lubac put forward his approach on the cusp of a paradox between fulfilment and gratuitousness--fulfilment of nature and gratuitousness of grace--that has left aspects of his approach still unresolved and inviting comment even today. (2) In this article I draw into the discussion the views of Bernard Lonergan, bringing to bear some reflections that benefit from the progress of a later theology.

In his study of the supernatural de Lubac wrote with passion. He considered that the issue he wanted to raise went to the heart of the Catholic Church's confrontation with the secularism of his day, and notably with the two great atheistic ideologies, Naziism and Marxism, which had set the agenda for the tortuous history of most of the 20th century. His passion was all the more profound in that he proposed that the prevailing theology of the supernatural in Catholic schools carried within it a fatal flaw that left the Church all the more exposed to these adversaries, if not actually contributing to the mentality that lay behind them. He identified this flaw in the way "many could see salvation only in a complete severance between the natural and the supernatural." (3) For him this rather refined point of theology was central to issues being played out in the concrete life and apostolate of Christians. (4)

The background to this position lies in de Lubac's study of patristics, and in particular in his conviction that his teaching was in line with that of Augustine: "You have created us, Lord, for yourself, and our hearts will find no rest until they rest in you." (5) De Lubac saw this teaching passing into the great theologians of the 13th century, in particular Thomas Aquinas. They expressed this tradition by speaking of a natural desire for the vision of God. This phrase was the shibboleth for de Lubac's position.

Through a complicated history, which de Lubac traces in the first part of Surnaturel, an alternative approach began to emerge later in writers such as Cajetan and Suarez, according to whom any desire on our part for the vision of God could only be supernatural, not natural. This was the view that came to predominate in Catholic schools until challenged in the 20th century by a number of scholars, of whom the standard-bearer was de Lubac himself. He did not have an easy time in throwing down the gauntlet to the entrenched Scholasticism of the day. For a time he was suspended from teaching by his order, but after spending the 1950s under a cloud, he emerged in the 1960s as a leading peritus of Vatican II, which he always maintained had endorsed the basic thrust of his position, especially in its teaching in Gaudium et spes on the sacred character of all human life and activity. (6)


The first of the two issues I present from this controversy concerns the notion of a state of "pure nature," which the received teaching of the schools considered to be necessary for the definition and vindication of the notion of the supernatural. This position saw the world in terms of what de Lubac called a dualism or a "two-tiered" universe. There is the reality of human nature defined by its orientation to a natural end in a state of natural beatitude. This is what Scholastics referred to as the state of pure nature. At a certain stage, if not from the beginning, this state was subsumed into the supernatural destiny revealed to us in the Bible. At the same time, our natural being remained as the foundational level of our existence. This latter level of being, according to this view, is perfectly intelligible in itself without any need of recourse to the supernatural.

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