Edward Cornelius Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx
November 12, 1914 – December 23, 2009
November 12, 1914 – December 23, 2009
For the past three decades, the leadership of the Catholic church has displayed a particular intolerance of theological dissent. Some of the otherwise loyal priest-teachers who have been targeted by the Vatican have reacted to their very public rebukes by courting the press and liberal Catholic opinion. Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff, for instance, have become prominent examples. By contrast, the Flemish Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx, who has died aged 95, responded to being hauled over the coals by the Vatican in 1984 with characteristic understatement. Though second to none as a theologian in 20th-century Catholicism, he lived out his remaining years away from the limelight out of his enduring loyalty to the church – despite the rough justice handed out to him.
At issue was Schillebeeckx's questioning, in dense but academically influential writings throughout the 1970s, of a too-literal reading of the New Testament. To the Vatican's evident irritation, he queried the relevance to the modern age of church teaching on the virgin birth and resurrection. So did many others, but Schillebeeckx (pronounced Schill-e-bex) had been one of the leading theological lights at the great reforming Second Vatican Council (1962-65). So his efforts in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974) and Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World (1977) to build on the council's updating of Catholic thought by relating the gospel message to contemporary experience could not simply be overlooked. "I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance to old models of experience, culture and ideas," he once said, "but this attitude isolates the church's faith from any future and divests it of any real missionary power."
He was summoned to Rome in December 1979 to explain himself to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the office that had run the Inquisition. He likened the experience to being a naughty schoolboy sent to the headteacher's study, but still went. Küng, under scrutiny at the same time, refused a similar summons, saying that he would not submit to a medieval trial. As a result, while Küng had his church licence to teach theology in Catholic universities removed by the Vatican, Schillebeeckx survived to continue as professor of dogmatic and historical theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.
Rome had not, however, finished with him. A fresh dispute arose over his comments that, in extreme circumstances, lay people could take on the place usually reserved for the priest in consecrating the eucharist. He was again called to Rome, this time in July 1984, when he was supported in person by the head of his religious order, Damian Byrne, the master-general of the Dominicans. His inquisitor was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI. On condition that he drop the reference to lay ministry from any subsequent publications, Schillebeeckx again avoided official censure.
It was a remarkable escape, given the climate of the time, with Pope John Paul II determined to assert his authority over all theological discourse. Küng claimed that Schillebeeckx was spared only because nobody on Ratzinger's team could read his texts in the original Dutch. Yet Schillebeeckx had hardly hidden his distaste for the new appetite for Roman centralism. "Rome puts the accent on restoring 'the Sacred' and hierarchical structures," he wrote. "It seems to me that they want to return to the ancien regime of sacrality without passing through the French Revolution."
His final, very public, act of rebellion came in 1989 when he joined other leading Catholic theologians in signing the Cologne Declaration, prompted by the pope's appointment of an unpopular and extreme traditionalist as the Archbishop of Cologne, the second wealthiest diocese in world Catholicism. The declaration spoke of popes "overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way" their authority over doctrine. It highlighted in particular the papal ban on Catholics using artificial methods of birth control. Though much reported, and applauded by many Catholics, the declaration did not appear to have any effect on either the pope or his successor.
Schillebeeckx was born in Antwerp, Belgium, of Flemish parents, the sixth of 14 children. He went to mass every day with his devout father and was educated by Jesuits. He chose to enter the Dominican order of preachers, with its unique synthesis of academic, practical and spiritual endeavours. He served briefly in the Belgian army until the Germans overran his homeland in the second world war, returning to his studies and ordination in 1943.
His time in Paris, in the immediate postwar years, shaped his thinking. Schillebeeckx came under the influence of nouvelle théologie and its leading proponents, the Dominican theologians Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar. He carried their emphasis on engagement with the modern world into his academic work at Nijmegen and also into his role as a key adviser to the Dutch bishops. He was a key figure in drafting their pastoral letter in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council, rejecting the efforts of Vatican officials to restrict its remit and pushing the case for the far-reaching reform which eventually resulted. He attended the council as an adviser to the Dutch bishops and gave a series of influential briefings on the draft documents emerging from it.
For Schillebeeckx, the Second Vatican Council was the start of a reform process. The Dutch church largely shared this view and it began to experiment in the late 1960s with new structures that increased lay involvement and generated great enthusiasm in parishes. But such radicalism alarmed the incoming John Paul II when he was elected in 1978, and, as well as clamping down on theological dissent, he steadily replaced progressive Dutch bishops with men made in his own more traditional image.
Schillebeeckx bore in silence the pain of witnessing many of the reforms he had supported and promoted being undone. Yet his reputation throughout the Christian churches and beyond as a prophetic thinker could not be dented by papal disapproval. He greeted plaudits – including the Erasmus prize (1982) for his contribution to European culture, the first theologian so honoured – and admirers with humility and an old-fashioned courtesy.
He may just have allowed himself a wry smile when he looked back on a 1968 declaration, published in Concilium, the still flourishing progressive theological journal that he helped to set up, which insisted that the Pope "cannot and must not supersede, hamper and impede the teaching task of theologians as scholars". His own name was there among the signatories, as was that of the then Father Ratzinger.
Tribute prepared by Peter Stanford for The Guardian, UK, published February 24, 2010.