How clever! Probably got a chuckle or two from the audience. The trouble is the speaker actually meant what he said. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., summarized his theological legacy in these words in December 2008 at a symposium held in his honor at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He was ninety-four years old. He died one year later, on December 23. (Although Schillebeeckx was Belgian, most of his many years teaching and writing were in the Netherlands.)
When one thinks of the leading liberal periti at Vatican II, Schillebeeckx doesn’t immediately come to mind. Hans Kung does, Karl Rahner, S.J., Ives Congar, O.P., Jean Danielou, S.J., John Courtney Murray, S.J., Henri De Lubac, S.J., and, of course, Joseph Ratzinger, do. And it wasn’t because the Belgian theologian was too young. He was about fifty years old during the sessions. He just wasn’t the type to promote himself. He liked to work behind the scenes, the quintessential scholar. Nevertheless, excepting Karl Rahner, his influence was more pervasive than any of the others.
Preparatory Work for Dutch Bishops and Vatican II
The Flemish Dominican was so influential that he got the Dutch bishops, most of them that is, into a bit of hot water even before the Council opened. He had prepared, as a ghost writer for Bernard Jan Cardinal Alfrink, a brochure for the bishops outlining the whole liberal agenda; it was nothing short of a revolution in theology, scriptural exegesis, ecclesiology, collegiality, sacramentology, religious liberty, and the Church’s relation with the modern world. This became the basis for the Dutch bishop’s joint pastoral letter of 1961 on the upcoming Council. Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office, called him in for questioning, and he received only a warning. Henceforth, his work at the Council would be anonymous.
Edward Schillebeeckx (on right), in his Dominican habit.
Edward Schillebeeckx’s preparatory work for Vatican II, which he hoped to get incorporated into the synod’s schemata, was the basis for a new catechism that he co-authored with the Dutch Jesuit Piet Schoonenberg. The infamous Dutch Catechism, rife with heresy, was published in 1966. Alfrink’s permission was not asked, but the Cardinal did give the work his imprimatur in 1972. That was about the same time that Pope Paul VI ordered Alfrink to stop giving Communion in the hand, a practice that he had supported as far back as 1965. We know the old story: Abuse; correction; abuse already too widespread to stop; abuse authorized under certain conditions; and, finally, the abuse becomes the norm. Let us pray that Pope Benedict puts an end to this terrible abuse of Communion in the hand.
Ten of the Many Heresies in the Dutch Catechism
Among other heresies found in the Dutch Catechism are the following ten. And, the clever thing was that the heresies were not issued so much as propositions, but as questions placing doubt on definitive teaching. To achieve this, the format of the Catechism is not by way of Q’s and A’s. In fact, the Catechism doesn’t give answers at all. As one of Schillebeeckx’s defenders, Cornelius Ernst, O.P., put it, “Answers kill thought.”
(1) God as Creator. Why must we believe that God created out of nothing, or is this even important?
(2) The Fall of Adam. Denial of original sin.
(3) The virginal birth of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why is this important? Is it necessary to the gospel message that Mary be ever-virgin? Why place such a stumbling block before our Protestant brethren? Nothing irritated Pope Paul VI more than this blasphemy.
(4) The satisfaction made by Christ. Since original sin is denied, the Redemption itself becomes questionable.
(5) The Sacrifice of the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Is the Mass Calvary re-presented in an unbloody manner? Or is it rather a commemoration, just a meal, eaten in commemoration of Christ’s passion?
(6) The Eucharistic Presence and the change of the species of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Again, questions are raised about traditional teaching. A new way of speaking about the Eucharist is suggested. Transubstantiation means nothing to today’s faithful, and is totally unintelligible to Protestants.
(7) The personal infallibility of the pope and that of the solemn magisterium of the Church, denied outright.
(8) The hierarchical priesthood and the power of teaching and ruling in the Church. Why can’t a priest or lay people lay on hands and ordain a chosen one from the community? Apostolic succession is unnecessary to the priesthood.
(9) Promotion of artificial birth control.
(10) The existence of angels.
Two years after the catechism was published, the Holy Office, in 1966, ordered the Dutch bishops to make major revisions and numerous minor ones. As a body they refused. All that they did was attach an addendum at the end of the catechism that listed Rome’s objections. The catechism was censured, but never condemned. How unfortunate! With Alfrink’s imprimatur, the fear was that an outright condemnation would bring on a schism; what was de facto, would become de jure. After Vatican II, the unwritten policy was that incurred excommunications would only be of the ipso facto kind (latae sententiae), for certain offenses listed in canon law, not de jure (ferendae sententiae), which the Church might issue after a juridical hearing of a case. Most of the public excommications issued since 2000, and they are very few, were passed in the United States by local ordinaries and confirmed by Rome.
What was happening in the Netherlands was beginning to happen in the United States. Christ Among Us was a radically heretical catechism that was being used in Catholic primary and secondary schools as early as the late 1960s. In the early 1960s, Schillebeeckx’s friend, Father Piet Schoonenberg, S.J., received a chair as a visiting theology professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the invitation of the then Theology Department chairman, Father John Brook s, with the approval of the then president, Father Raymond Swords.
Richard McBrien’s Tribute to the Deceased
It’s no wonder that none other than Father Richard McBrien, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, enemy of Eucharistic adoration, and paid consultant for the DaVinci Code film, wrote a tribute (February 1, NCR) to honor a theologian of like mind. I use the word “theologian” only for practical purposes; Schillebeeckx’s “theology” was a masterpiece of de-construction. After reading the introduction to his book on The Eucharist, which was published in 1968, I doubt that the devil himself could have composed more clever arguments to undermine the teaching of the Church on the Holy Sacrament. His attempt to put Saint Thomas’ Eucharistic teaching in opposition to the “sensualistic” (as he calls it) teaching of past theologians and councils (he refers to Pope Gregory I’s Eucharistic eulogies as “naivety”) is sheer diabolical genius. He tries to create conflict between the Eucharistic teaching of doctors of the Church in order that he, the harbinger of a new Eucharistic understanding, might do away with the definitions of Trent, and the term “transubstantiation,” which was the shibboleth of orthodoxy of a previous age.
In fact, that’s the essence of Schillebeeckx’s existentialist view of theology. It is to give old doctrines new “forms” that are relevant to the modern world. Everything must be subject to the standard of the age:
“We know from the whole history of theology,” he writes, “that it’s always dangerous simply to repeat a formulation of faith which was made in a different climate of thought in the past and that if we do so it’s hardly possible to speak of a living affirmation of faith.” (The Eucharist)
Solve et Coagula (Dissolve and Reconstruct) or More Idiomatically, Destroy to Re-Create
His work was deconstruction of dogma. Every Catholic doctrine must be re-evaluated or, if unsalvageable for a liberal mind, buried. As one bishop said to our own Brother Francis many years ago of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, “Bury it! It’s a dead horse.”
Pardon my repetition here, however, into the Dominican heretic’s doctrinal graveyard went:
- The physical Resurrection of Our Lord.
- Historical sense of scripture; he did stop short of denying what he called “inspiration.”
- The Real Physical Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
- Necessity of apostolic succession for the priesthood as well as a male only priesthood. And, as you might expect, an end to mandatory celibacy.
- Papal infallibility.
- Church hierarchy; he adamantly campaigned for a democratic system of Church government, which would include lay participation, legislatively and juridically. This was a major theme in his book, The Church With a Human Face.
Early Influences and False Philosophy
Some think that this sixth child from a good Catholic family of fourteen (his father took the whole family to daily 6:30 Mass) was first steered away from the historical Faith by the Dominican, Dominic De Petter, under whom he studied for three years at the Dominican House at Ghent. De Petter immersed the young student in the philosophy of phenomenology. One of Schillebeeckx’s most popular books, Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God (1960), was heavily charged with phenomenological applications to theology. The title of the book is enough to prove that. “Encounter” is a favorite term of this form of subjectivist existentialism.
In was in France, however, at the Sorbonne, where he came under the influence of fellow Dominicans, Ives Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, two of the most famous and most liberal of theologians. Chenu’s writings, or at least his Le Saulchoir: Une école de la théologie, were already on the Holy Office’s Index of Forbidden Books when Schillebeeckx met, or shall I say, “encountered” him in 1946. In fact, the Belgian once said that he considered Chenu a “prophet of freedom” and “the greatest theologian of the twentieth century.”
In his 1974 book, Jesus, An Experiment in Christology, Schillebeeckx never affirmed Christ’s divinity. He wrote of Our Lord as a “prophet,” even an “eschatological prophet.” He was called to Rome on this account, warned, but his writings were never condemned. His comrade in impiety, Hans Kung, said that his Belgian friend flew under the Vatican’s radar because all of his five hundred books and articles were written in Dutch. And, said Kung, there was no Dutch theologian in the Holy Office. This was not true, at least when Cardinal Ottaviani was Pro-Prefect. His secretary, the Jesuit Sebastiaan Tromp, was Dutch. Furthermore, Schillebeeckx had to answer questions from Tromp when he was first called to Rome in 1961 over his ghost writing a controversial Pastoral Letter for the Dutch bishops concerning the upcoming ecumenical council. This Letter called for more participation from the laity in the governance of the Church, and not only participation — the document actually called for democratic lay approval of conciliar and papal decrees. Kung, apparently, was more controversial than the liberal Belgian (it would be hard to be more radical), more aggressive in his condemnations of the Vatican — and everyone in the Curia could read German.
When Schillebeeckx was studying at the Sorbonne in 1946 he was involved in the Nouvelle Théologie founded by Chenu, Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. Congar was already on an ecumenical crusade. He introduced the young Belgian to Church Dogmatics, the thirteen-volume opus of the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Congar’s greatest contribution to the demise of Catholic doctrine was his optimism for the salvation of non-believers. He emptied the Church’s traditional teaching on salvation of any objective meaning. His teaching, which provided the matter for his 1962 book, The Wide World My Parish: Salvation and Its Problems, had a tremendous influence on Schillebeeckx. In his book Congar writes: “Those who have at least this beginning of love for God implicitly desire to do His will; they have an implicit and unconscious wish for baptism and the Church, and are in some degree related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer” (Page 136).
The Essential Schillebeeckx
I have attempted to find in the little I have access to in Schillebeeckx’s writings a definition of exactly what he means by “salvation.” His focus is not on heaven, as far as I could make out, or the Beatific Vision of God. His focus is here; more than here, it is now, this existential moment. It is a “liberation” from suffering. Our work with the poor and those who are suffering, in whatever way they suffer, is God’s work, Christ’s work. Salvation, I would say, for the Belgian Dominican, is being touched by God here and now. When we do the “touching,” by a work of charity (which, remember, essentially consists in the relieving of our neighbor’s suffering), we do the work of Christ. Christ Among Us, today, now, not in the tabernacle, not in the Mass, not in the sacraments, but in comforting, physically or emotionally, the one who suffers. They don’t need the Catholic Faith, or the Church’s sacraments; they need “love,” with a small “l.” A “sacrament” for the éminence grise of the Dutch Church, is a “personal encounter with God,” rather than a visible channel of grace. It is the “rather than” that makes Schillebeeckx more Protestant than Catholic. Without exaggeration, one would be hard pressed to find one Catholic dogma that he accepts, even on mere human faith, without deconstructive qualification.
I think Father McBrien nails the essence of his soul mate’s theology of salvation in his NCR eulogy: “For Schillebeeckx, ‘the creative and saving presence of God’s grace’ becomes manifest ‘wherever human persons minister to one another, especially to the neighbor in need. Human love is an embodiment, a sacrament, of God’s love.’ He called these experiences ‘fragments of salvation.’” (Note: In the early 1980s McBrien had written his own English equivalent to the Dutch Catechism, which he did not call a “catechism,” but Catholicism. Heresies similar to the Dutch Catechism were boldly proposed by the author.)
Kantian subjectivism and Hegelian dialectic characterize the Dominican’s approach to traditional doctrine. His is a war against the Logos, the Word of God. For him, Church teaching can only be understood in the historical context. So, today, all doctrine must be weighed in the present historical context, in the actual experience of our own consciousness as we live today.
Denial of the Resurrection; Solve et Coagula
Although he insisted in his book, The Eucharist, upon affirming that the scriptures must be considered the “word of God,” otherwise they lose all validity, he ends up denying in his book, Jesus, the objective reality of the historical events. Even Our Lord’s Resurrection does not escape his existential dissolution. He insists that the Resurrection must be viewed from the internal “conversion experience” of the Apostles and His followers who were faced with the memory of His brutal death. To him, the Resurrection is not as important, if it occurred at all, as the affect the empty tomb had on His disciples. I do not know how he interprets Our Lord’s appearances to His disciples after the Resurrection. The main thing that concerns him is, not the fact of Christ’s Resurrection (or the promise of our resurrection to come), but how it affected the Christian community. He writes that the empty tomb was an unnecessary hypothesis, since “an eschatological, bodily resurrection, theologically speaking, has nothing to do, however, with a corpse.” That was just a “crude and naive realism of what ‘appearances of Jesus’” meant. (Jesus, An Experiment in Christology, pp 704 and 346)
This is all rather bizarre. Parsing through Schillebeeckx’s writings and trying to understand what he wants to communicate is a challenge even for his most ardent disciples. However, once you do get a grasp of his principles, then you can more or less predict what he is going to say about any theological subject. The lens through which he views Catholic dogma is that of a phenomenologist.
How do we react to His empty tomb today? That is what is important for the Dominican. Everything is “experience,” or “emotion.” Everything is phenomena, appearances; things are real for us only when they relate subjectively to us as individuals. There is no such thing as “tree,” only this existing tree I am experiencing. It is the subjective experience that matters, not any objective reality outside of me. We are back again to the conceptualism of Berkeley, esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. If I am wrong in this evaluation, or my diagnosis is overly exaggerated, I will retract it.
The modernists find the Resurrection particularly disturbing, that and the Eucharist I would say. One day, when Brother Francis (Dr. Fahkri Maluf) was still teaching with the Jesuits at Holy Cross, a devotee of Teilhard de Chardin brought up the doctrine of the resurrection of the body as an example of a defined dogma that cannot be taken literally. When Brother protested, he sarcastically replied, “Do you mean the cadaver”? Brother then replied, “Yes, the cadaver,” to which the Chardinian enthusiast scoffed, “the cadaver doesn’t come back to life, it just joins the cosmos.”
Perhaps this was the same issue with Schillebeeckx. The doctrine of the resurrection teaches that we will rise in eodem corpore (in this same body) some unto glory, some unto everlasting punishment in the flesh. Does the Church mean “the cadaver”? Yes. Our cadavers shall rise “anew” in an immortal state, at a perfect age, for glory or punishment, but it will be the same body. In fact, when we recite the article of Our Lord’s Resurrection in the Apostles Creed we use a faulty English translation. The article ought to read: “He arose anew from the dead,” rather than “He arose again from the dead.”
One may wonder how such an “intellectual,” whose thought was anything but lucid and understandable to the average Catholic, could have had such a tremendous influence on the Church. Influence is an understatement. Although Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, did not adopt Schillebeeckx’s more radical ideas about re-evaluating Church doctrine in terms of the dominant social milieu of the times, his basic challenge of dialoguing with the modern world, instead of confronting it as an adversary, came to the Council floor via Cardinal Alfrink and others. When Divine Word Father Ralph Wiltgen titled his book on Vatican II, The Rhine Flows Into The Tiber, the Rhineland’s chief gray eminence was not an obnoxious German peritus, a la Kung, but an urbane, soft-spoken Belgian.
Architect of Deconstruction: The Fall of the Netherlands
Phil Lawler wrote a devastating book on the collapse of the Boston archdiocese called The Faithful Departed. The demise of the archdiocese, which he chronicled, took several generations. What happened in the Netherlands, under the un-mitred leadership of Edouard Schillebeeckx, was a single generation tour de force. From his chair at the Louvain, and more especially at the University of Nijmegen, where he taught from 1958 until his retirement in 1982, he transformed most of the Catholic Church in Holland into a doctrinal and moral travesty. Prior to his rise to power, before the 1960s, the Netherlands was one of the most vibrant Catholic countries in the world, considering its population of only three million Catholics. Home to 2% of the world’s Catholics, Holland accounted for 11% of the Church’s missionaries. This was even a higher ratio than its robust Catholic neighbor, Belgium, which, I think, for that time, would follow as a close second. Although the Netherlands was still more Protestant than Catholic prior to 1960, the Dutch Reformed Church was an anachronism, an empty shell that could have easily been evangelized and converted. That would have been a mission for Father Schillebeeckx and the Dominicans, instead of becoming more Protestant than the Calvinists, who no longer believed in anything much, never mind predestination.
The neck-tied priest was “utterly gracious.”
The statistics that chronicle the precipitous fall of the Dutch Catholic Church are illustrative of the sobering dictum: corruptio optimae est pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst).
- In 1960, there were 318 ordinations to the priesthood. In the year 1977, only sixteen. On the average, nowadays, there have been only ten to fifteen ordinations yearly for the whole country. The diocese of Breda hasn’t had an ordination for the last fifteen years.
- Prior to 1960, 75% of Dutch Catholics went to Sunday Mass. In 1977, it was down to 24%. Today it’s 7%.
- Today there are 4.3 million Catholics in the Netherlands. That’s 700,000 less than in 2000 and 1.3 million less than in 1980. Other than the 7% that practice their Faith, most of the other 4.3 million (60%) say they are Catholic in name only.
- By 1977, 4300 nuns and brothers left religious life. Two thousand priests left their ministry. This defection is three times worse than any other country.
- In the 1960s, fifty seminaries were closed and reopened as coed schools. Some of these offered what were called “theology institutes,” which were run by laicized priests, both married and homosexual. Religious vocations and celibacy were discouraged, if not mocked, at these “institutes.”
- In the 1950s, the Dutch Church published its own daily newspaper and numerous journals; it had a radio station, a union, a TV station, and ran hundreds of monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals. 97% of Catholics subscribed to the Church’s newspaper. After the exodus from religious life, the remnant members sold these houses and made huge amounts of money. They didn’t even have to assume the health cost of aging members. The government gave every senior, including religious, a pension. After the revolution of the 60s and into the 70s and 80s the Catholic newspaper and KRO radio became powerful vehicles of anti-Catholic propaganda. Every sexual moral evil was pushed by the media: contraception, abortion, divorce, pornographic films, homosexuality, and, lastly, even euthanasia. The Catholic media had become a cesspool of perversion.
During and after the 1980s, Pope John Paul II appointed more tradition-minded and pro-papal bishops in Holland. In 1970, over ten years earlier, Paul VI faced a near de jure schism from the elites of the Dutch Church when he appointed the conservative Bishop Simonis to head the Rotterdam diocese. The ordinary lay people, however, supported Simonis. Remember what I mentioned half way through this article about the Dutch Pastoral Letter of 1960, calling for democracy in the Church. Well, when Paul VI appointed Simonis, the pastors of the Dutch churches filled the pews with opinion poll sheets. The faithful were asked if they approved or disapproved of the appointment of Bishop Simonis. The people judged rightly in this case, 20 to 1 pro Simonis, pro pope. The Church was crumbling in the land of windmills and tulips, but there was still some life. By 1980, however, it was too late for a lost generation. The few good bishops that John Paul II appointed were powerless to restore the Faith and Church discipline. Seminaries were empty. Lay people, sometimes with priests presiding, sometimes not, were having “community liturgies.” Liberal priests, like Schillebeeckx, had trained them well. It is the congregation that “consecrates.” The Eucharist comes from “below” not from “above.” The people, as a praying congregation, are the Eucharist. The priest is powerless without the congregation. “We are Church” had morphed into “We are Eucharist.”
Such was the legacy of the man whose failing voice uttered these mighty and sagacious words to his adoring disciples, gathered to honor him the year before he died: “There is no salvation outside the world.” “It was a conviction,” said Mary Catherine Hilkert, fellow Dominican and close friend, that “captures the love of the world and the ‘grace-optimism’ that characterized [his] life’s work. …”
Edouard Cornelius Florentius Alfonsus Schillebeeckx has been described by his colleagues and friends with all kinds of flattering compliments, not just on account of his theological prowess, but as a good and simple man of peace. He was “humble,” “reserved,” and “even-tempered.” He must have lost his even-temperedness when, in an open letter to Pope John Paul II in the early 1980s he signed, along with over a hundred other theologians, a scathing rebuke of the Holy Father’s close-mindedness to novel theological speculations and his stubborn authoritarianism. I don’t have that open letter to check out, but one writer did call it “scathing.”
Having turned away from the authority God established in Peter, the Church in Holland will rise again by a renewed fidelity to the solemn definitions of the holy Church, and a submissive reverence for the papal office. There have been some positive signs recently of such a reformation among the Dutch bishops. The old guard is gone. The current pope and his predecessor have made new and better appointments. We shall see. For that, and for the whole suffering Church, let us pray.
In concluding this critical essay, is there anything I could add by way of praise for Schillebeeckx? No. I think not. Oh wait, maybe there is. Let me quote Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert again, because she said it better than I could. She is a professor of theology herself, you know, at Notre Dame. And she is editing a volume of essays about her mentor. She is also one of the sixteen signers of the feminista Mandeleva Statement calling for an end to patriarchalism in the Church and acceptance of homosexuality. I am sure she will allow me the liberty to make her words my own. She said the great Dominican trailblazer was “utterly gracious.”