obituaries Cardinal Yves Congar

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yves Congar was one of the most universally respected Roman Catholic theologians of the century. Judicious and balanced, never given to pressing extreme theological positions whether to the right or the left, he once wrote: "Each one has his place. It matters not a whit whether it be glorious or modest . . . It is the plan which is grand. One is great only in occupying one's own place within it. The most modest place is quite incomparably great, provided that it is inhabited with faithfulness."

As a Dominican friar pledged to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Congar's place was, by most standards, modest. But he thought about his faith and he tried to explain what that was, where it came from, and why it matters and is worthy of belief. When admirers of his work expressed their admiration to him he was noted for saying "One does what one can."

Congar was born in 1904 in Sedan in the French Ardennes. He had an early interest in medicine but decided to become a priest in 1921. He studied for a while in a seminary in Paris but decided to join the Dominicans. He entered their novitiate at Amiens in 1925. He took his final vows in 1929, and was ordained priest in 1930.

His Dominican studies took place at the Dominican study-house of Le Saulchoir at Kain-la-Tombe in Belgium. He worked under Marie-Dominique Chenu, who had a serious influence on his thinking. Chenu advised Congar to prepare a thesis on the theology of the Church, and it is for his contribution in this area, ecclesiology, that Congar will probably be best remembered.

Until the outbreak of the Second World War most of Congar's efforts were devoted to teaching - chiefly basic theology and ecclesiology. His early years as a priest also saw him developing a serious interest in ecumenism, though his ecclesiology and ecumenism make for one subject rather than two since his thinking on ecumenism was the fruit of his understanding of what the Church is.

In 1937 he published Chretiens Desunis ("Divided Christendom") - a substantial history of factors leading to disunity among Christians coupled with a view of the Church and proposals for the future. Also in 1937 he visited Lincoln as the guest of Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury. At a time when Catholics were simply not seen at Anglican services, Congar stood out in Lincoln as a Catholic priest actually willing to be present at an Anglican celebration of the Eucharist.

In France, too, he preached at services concerned with Christian unity. But the Second World War led to Congar's being drafted as a military chaplain. It also led to his being imprisoned for a while at Colditz.

After the war Congar suffered a time when he was held suspect by ecclesiastical authorities. In 1947 he was forbidden to publish an article on the position of the Catholic Church with respect to the (then strongly growing) efforts among Christians to promote the cause of Christian unity. Early in 1954, in the wake of a crackdown on certain trends among French Dominicans, he found himself removed from his teaching work and sent for a spell (as he was originally expecting to be) to the Dominican house in Jerusalem. He then went to live at the Dominican house in Cambridge.

In Jerusalem he wrote Le Mystere du Temple ("The Mystery of the Temple") but 1954-55 were clearly not happy years for him. In Cambridge he was, as he put it, subjected to "odious restrictions on my ministrations and movements".

Basically, he was ordered to keep quiet about ecumenical matters, to steer clear of his Anglican contacts, to keep away from the student friars of the English Dominican province. He was, I am told, refused access to the Dominican priory of Blackfriars, Oxford - the theological study-house of the English Dominicans.

From then until the late 1980s he published over 30 books (all models of clarity) - including Jalons pour une theologie du laicat ("Lay People in the Church"), La Tradition et les traditions ("Tradition and Traditions") and Je crois en l'Esprit Saint ("I Believe in the Holy Spirit").

He was also a powerful influence at the Second Vatican Council. He was a consultant to the preparatory commission and heavily involved in the writing of several of the Council's main documents. Much that your average theologically minded Catholic now takes for granted is due in no small measure to Congar's efforts at the Council.

By 1984 Congar was a sick man who needed care that could not be provided at the Dominican priory of St Jacques in Paris. So he moved to the Hotel des Invalides, where he was entitled to be as a French veteran. In 1994 he was appointed a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.

Many of the elements of congar's theological vision are beautifully displayed in the 1974 Aquinas Lecture which he delivered at Blackfriars, Oxford - "St Thomas Aquinas and the Spirit of Ecumenism". Congar spent much of his time trying to read Aquinas in a serious historical manner rather than through the eyes of writers with no special interest in the history of theology. At Blackfriars he stressed that Aquinas cannot be regarded as a catechism from which to get final answers to all theological questions, but that he is someone with a lot to offer "the spirit of ecumenism". "Ecumenism," he said, "lives, from its very first moment, in the recognition of the other and in the effort to understand him."

Aquinas, said Congar, was someone who achieved just this kind of recognition. Congar's whole writing career was an attempt to do likewise.

Brian Davies OP

Yves Congar, theologian and priest: born Sedan, France 13 April 1904; ordained priest 1930; cardinal 1994; died Paris 22 June 1995.