Current Issue: Essay Essay 29 The Jesuit, the Monk, and the Malaise of the West

Originally at:

by Dr. Samuel Gregg

Twenty-five years ago, one of the 20th century’s greatest Catholic theologians passed away in the Avenue de Breteuil in Paris in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Born in 1896 as the Dreyfus Affair was tearing France apart, and dying while the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, SJ, participated in some of the most momentous events that shaped the Catholic Church between the pontificates of Leo XIII and Saint John Paul II.

Though well-known for his work in opening up the Church’s rich intellectual patrimony and his influence upon key documents of Vatican II, de Lubac was far from being a reclusive scholar. Coming from a fervently Catholic French aristocratic family, de Lubac could not help but be conscious of the deep fractures between the Church and the forces unleashed by the French Revolution. Nor was he afraid to immerse himself in many of the epoch-making conflicts of his time. Indeed, de Lubac definitely had a mind for politics—but not of the type you might expect.

When much of the Church hierarchy, clergy, and laity rallied to the Vichy regime following France’s humiliating defeat in 1940, de Lubac quickly became active in the French Resistance. A consistent anti-Nazi before and during World War II, de Lubac was outspoken in his opposition to anti-Semitism at a time when anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread among many Catholics. Likewise, de Lubac was critical of some French Catholics’ infatuation with Marxism after World War II. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Communism was never something about which de Lubac entertained any illusions.

Beyond the specifics of particular movements, de Lubac was puzzled by the fact that secular ideologies—ranging from Marxism to socialism, fascism, nationalism, and particular expressions of liberalism—continued to exercise such a grip on the Western imagination. Why, de Lubac asked, did so many people in the West continue cleaving to ideas that had led to the destruction and death unleashed throughout the 20th century in the name of the proletariat, der Volk, or “progress”? And how, he wondered, could people of considerable intelligence actually believe that they were promoting man’s well-being by supporting such ideologies?

As someone immersed in the history of theology, de Lubac understood that the antecedents of some of the most insidious modern political ideas lay deep in the past. In 1942, for example, just before going underground to evade the Gestapo, de Lubac gave a lecture in the small town of Pont-de-Claix on the religious roots of Marxism and National Socialism. De Lubac also recognized that the origins of these ersatz-religions long preceded the various Enlightenments. Yesterday’s medieval heresy, de Lubac knew, often prefigured the path of modern totalitarians—or, indeed, anyone inclined to locate the fullness of salvation in the here-and-now. In that regard, de Lubac believed that one medieval theologian had much to answer for.

Mystic, monk, millenarian

The Middle Ages were not just a time in which the world’s first universities were built, great art and architecture produced, and the first recognizably capitalist economies emerged. They also witnessed the development of radical millenarian movements preaching apocalypses and the dawn of new historical epochs. This is one reason why the thought of the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202) became controversial in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A former notary, hermit, and pilgrim to the Holy Land, Joachim was widely known in his time for his piety, asceticism, and commitment to learning. An advisor to temporal rulers and well-regarded by popes, Joachim eventually founded an abbey, San Giovanni di Fiore, in 1198 to promote a monastic life even stricter than that of the Cistercian order. Though he wrote on many subjects, Joachim was best known for systematizing what was called the theory of the Three Ages.

Since the patristic period, many theologians had sought to associate each member of the Trinity with different historical periods. According to Joachim, the first age, that of the Father, was the time of the Old Testament in which a fearful man meekly obeyed God’s laws. The second, the Age of the Son, was that of the sway of Christ and his Church. The third, the Age of the Spirit, Joachim prophesized, would come into its own in 1260 AD. This period—one which Joachim portrayed as freedom in a perfect society rather than what he described as the reign of justice in the preceding imperfect society—would be one in which the separated churches of West and East would reunite, the conversion of the Jews would ensue, and the spirit of the Gospel and a type of universal peace would reign. The Church and its sacramental order, Joachim intimated, would essentially disappear and be replaced by a type of charismatic order under the leadership of monks.

After his death, a number of Joachim’s propositions concerning the Trinity were formally condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council and Pope Alexander IV. Some of his other ideas, however, were taken up by extremist elements in mendicant orders, particularly those known as spirituals (immortalized in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose), most of whom belonged to the Franciscan Order. Some such Franciscans, often grouped under the catch-all phrase “Fraticelli,” regarded Francis of Assisi and his movement as the charismatic force foreseen by Joachim. For this and other reasons, some spirituals disputed the hierarchical Church’s authority and, in some cases, promoted a type of anarchist utopianism. This may be one reason why St. Bonaventure (himself Minister General of the Franciscan Order) carefully studied and criticized the theology of history outlined in Joachim’s writings. Bonaventure also went out of his way to insist that there was no Church apart from the apostolic hierarchical Church willed by Christ.

Toward Heaven-on-Earth

Most medieval millenarian movements were relatively short-lived. They were either eventually suppressed by Church and state authorities or disappeared when their predictions failed to materialize. But as de Lubac illustrated in his two-volume book La Postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore (1979-1981), Joachim’s notion of the Age of the Spirit and its associated vision of history worked its way into the corpus of Western culture. According to de Lubac, Joachim’s fatal if perhaps unintended contribution was to open the door to the Christian idea of hope in Christ and the fullness of life definitely revealed in him being hollowed out and mimicked by quasi-religious ideologies of progress and a type of faith in the future—whatever that future happens to be.

Such notions weren’t, de Lubac argued, just reflected in the Renaissance’s vision of the celestial city. In his view, Joachimism helped shape movements ranging from German romanticism to Hegelian idealism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, de Lubac suggested, Joachimist trends manifested themselves to the extent that some Enlightenment thinkers understood their project as implying a breaking away from faith in general and the Catholic Church in particular in favor of a new historical era of reason.

Joachimism exerted a significant influence upon the thinking of people, de Lubac maintained, as far apart in their views as the once-liberal then utopian-socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, the Nazi racial theorist Alfred Rosenberg, and, above all, Karl Marx and associated Marxist theorists such as the German philosopher Ernst Bloch. Underpinning all these ideas, de Lubac held, was a type of laicized millenarianism which conveyed the sense that a new age was about to dawn as history inevitably progressed toward some type of this-worldly utopia.

There was, however, another way in which the Joachimite vision manifests itself: this is the idea that secularization is not just inevitable but even represents a type of fulfillment of Christianity. By “secular,” de Lubac did not mean the temporal realm which exists alongside the sphere of faith. This distinction has always been part and parcel of Christian approaches to politics, even in the worst cases of Caesaropapism. Instead, he had in mind secularization as the conversion of the Christian idea of salvation into ideologies of the progress of man through history—progress being understood as the steady advance of a post-Christian secular humanitarianism that seeks to take care of all people’s needs in the here-and-now.

Inside the Church

This brings us to another way in which de Lubac believed that Joachimism continues to shape the West today. In his Mémoires sur l’occasion de mes écrits, de Lubac wrote:

Under the various forms it has assumed, I consider Joachimism to be a still-present and even pressing danger. I recognize it in the process of secularization, which, betraying the Gospel, transforms the search for that Kingdom of God into social utopias. I see it at work in what was so justly called the “self-destruction of the Church” [after Vatican II]. I believe that it can only aggravate the misery and cause the abasement of our humanity.

On one level, de Lubac saw Joachimism as present in the effort of some Catholics after Vatican II to sideline what they called the “institutional” Church (the language itself is revealing) and supplant it with a church of “the Spirit”—a spirit that seemed indistinguishable from the preoccupations of the 1960s and 70s and which conflated the Gospel with political activism, invariably of the leftist kind. It is also likely that de Lubac was echoing concerns expressed by his fellow Jesuit and Resistance member Gaston Fessard, who famously and publically warned French Catholics in 1979 that the Church’s very integrity was threatened by any flirtation with Marxist ideas. More broadly, de Lubac’s concerns would also encompass those Christians whose conception of social justice seems hardly distinguishable from that of the secular left but who sit very loosely vis-a-vis a slew of core Church dogmas and doctrines.

It is also hard not to think of particular versions of liberation theology, most notably its Marxist varieties, when assessing Joachimism’s impact after Vatican II. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of “the Theology of Liberation,” for instance, highlighted many liberationists’ propensity to reduce the Catholic faith to “a purely temporal messianism” and to “identify the kingdom of God and its growth with the human liberation movement.” The Joachimite habit of relativizing the significance of the Church itself and subjecting it to the progress of history was also apparent in some liberationist accounts. “As far as the Church is concerned,” the congregation stated, particular schools of liberationist thought “would see her ‘only’ as a reality interior to history, herself subject to those laws which are supposed to govern the development of history in its immanence.” Similarly, the sacraments in some liberationist accounts were stripped of, well, sacramental significance and reduced to a “celebration of the people in their struggle.”

Nine years after the publication of the second volume of de Lubac’s book on Joachim de Fiore, some of the major edifices established by people committed to the Marxist dream of a new age had fallen. While radical versions of liberation theology have not disappeared, they have struggled for credibility. As no less than one Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio wrote in a preface to a book entitled Una apuesta por America Latina (A Commitment to Latin America) (2005), “After the collapse of ‘real socialism,’ these currents of thought were plunged into confusion. Incapable of either radical reformulation or new creativity, they survived by inertia, even if there are still some today who, anachronistically, would like to propose it again.”

That said, Joachimist tendencies have hardly disappeared from the West. One can find this in various forms of techno-utopianism which hold out the prospect of ushering in a type of nirvana through the progress of science. Then there are propositions to literally transform human nature, such as posited by the transhumanist movement. Another more pedestrian but far more common example is the reduction of salvation to politics. Consider the depressing regularity with which many in the West have invested politicians with Messiah-like qualities, or the sheer faith that so many of the European Union’s political class place in supranational social democratic institutions to bring about what amounts to a very secular pacem in terris—illusions which constantly run up against some of the realities highlighted by St. Augustine in his City of God, not to mention even more basic truths about the human condition underscored by Christianity.

None of this, however, would have surprised de Lubac, for the simple reason that he understood that the religious impulse cannot be eliminated in man. It can only be diverted—or perverted—from its natural end. The persistence of the Joachimite virus over so many centuries suggests that, for all its vaunted secularism, the West remains profoundly religious in character. The real question is surely which religion will eventually prevail.

That, I’d suggest, is Père de Lubac’s political message to us today.

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