H.E. Yves Marie-Joseph Card. Congar O.P., Dominican friar, priest, theologian and contemplative.

To contemplate and to give to others the fruit of your contemplation.

Yves Congar O.P.

He was a remarkable Dominican, Yves Cardinal Congar, O.P., who entered the Lords loving embrace on 22 June 1995. The man is as voluminous as his years. He has been a bastion of the Church, and a marvellous manifestation of ‘Laudare, benedicere, praedicare—to praise, to bless and to preach” maxim of the Order of Preachers within his personal life and in his conveyance of theology: to contemplate and to give to others the fruit of your contemplation. His meditations on God and revealed truth in the light of the past helped to usher in a new light which flowed into the Church when Pope John XXIII decided to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in” and convened the Second Vatican Council on 11 October 1962.

It is important for me to emphasise right form the start that Yves Congar was not just a theologian, but a contemplative theologian. “What” you would ask “is the difference”, and why should it make a blind bit of difference? The study of divine Wisdom can take one of two directions: judging through inclination (per modum inclinationis) or judging through knowledge (per modum cognitionis). St. Thomas teaches that judging (theologising) by inclination is the work of the Holy Spirit within the soul with the individual’s response to grace in faith. To judge by knowledge is simply man’s  effort through study alone. [1] Put the two together and you have Yves Congar, you have a contemplative theologian.

Congar’s theological approach reflects the influences of his initial theological training and the influence of people and events of his early years. Before the age of twenty he was studying Thomism at a Parisian seminary whilst the study of Aquinas had not yet been well received. It was his good fortune to have the early influence of great Thomistic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain  († 1973) and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. († 1964) Neither of them, however, approved of the historical approach known as “palaeo-thomism” [which I consider to be to strict-observance Thomism], which Congar progressively comprehended so passionately. The young Frenchman, Congar, discovered the Dominicans and subsequently entered the Order, taking his studies at the Dominican House “Le Saulchoir” in Belgium.

Étienne Gilson

Historical theology, highly criticised by so many within the Church at that time, was expounded at Le Saulchoir and laid the sound foundations within Congar’s mind. Today we can clearly distinguish the different disciplines of theology and attribute particular functions to each. Positive theology, is a division that studies the data of revelation in a critico-historical method, was not universally accepted. All the same, these areas of theological pursuit were stepping stones for the developing mind of the young friar. He meditated on them, exercised these inner theories intellectually, learned more about them with his interactions with people and gradually wrote about them. Congar was busy all his life going from theological seed which germinates, into a young viridescent plant, to mature and fruitful teaching—theologising.

With reference to the historical method, the French historian of medieval philosophy Étienne Henri Gilson († 1978) greatly influenced Congar, but perhaps his most prominent guide, particularly in ecumenism, was his  teacher, Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P. This led to an inner yearning for among Christians that has lasted all his life:

Congar selected as the subject of his ‘lectoral’ thesis (an internal Dominican degree) in 1928 [Johann Adam] Fr. Möhler’s favoured theme, the unity of the church. On the eve of his ordination to the priesthood on July 25, 1930, he prepared himself by meditating upon Jesus’ high-priestly prayer for the unity of his disciples in John 17, with the help of the commentaries of Thomas and the contemporary biblical scholar Marie-Joseph Lagrange. This he recognised in retrospect as the true launching of his ecumenical vocation. [2]

In Germany he absorbed fully a knowledge of the heterodox Martin Luther O.S.A. († 1546) and Lutheranism. In Paris he attended lectures by theologians of the Reformed Church, who had been most heavily influenced by Calvinism. Within Protestantism, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s emphasis on the powerful here and now [3] influence of the Word of God fed the fire in his soul.

Dom L Beauduin OSB

Yves Congar’s teaching gifts were applied to establishing the Institute of Medieval Studies at  Toronto. He picked the Modernists’ “animal” apart to reject the bad and accept the good. At first he concentrated on fundamental theology in his lectures, but gradually ecclesiology became the song of his heart and lips. Ecclesiology was his springboard for ecumenism. The man Congar was a mixer and not one to limit his experience, so it was natural that he associate himself with the bi-ritual Byzantine-Latin monastery of Chevetogne in Amay Belgium and its founder Dom Lambert Beauduin OSB († 1960). He had made friends with Protestant and Eastern Orthodox and maintained ecumenical contacts in others. He consumed himself in the history of the Church of England on one front and, accomplished Dominican preacher that he was, he went from one French city to another preaching on the Christian Unity Octave.[4]

Just as Father Congar became fully established in his theological concepts and pursuits of teaching, preaching and writing, he was drafted into France’s Army for military service as a chaplain Lieutennant. He was captured and held by the Germans from 1940 to 1945 as a POW in Oflag X Colditz due to his repeated attempts to escape from other POW camps. He was made a Chevalier of Légion d’honneur and also received the Médaille des Évadés—Escapees’ Medal for his repeated escape attempts. 

Soon after, and just as swiftly, yet another event occurred which caused Congar’s inner war, his Dark Night of the Soul. It was an interior war of the soul, engulfed in the darkness of suffering, a purification of the theologian. In a word, in 1947 he was censured and silenced with his fellow French Dominican confreres who taught and thought just as he did. Rome concluded that Congar and his confreres had made a leap of truth too far ahead of their time.

What precisely had occurred? These good men were severely admonished for what was considered by the Roman Curia to be ‘Semi-Modernism’. A Dominican, the master of the sacred palace and and by Pius XII appointed as “Theologian ad personam” of the Secretariat of State no less, Fr. Mariano Cordovani († 1950), protested stating “that the emphasis of the Saulchoir men on historical context would end up by turning theology into cultural anthropology, deprived of any real hold on its divine subject-matter, revelation”.[5]

The Curia’s decision was farcical! When told he could no longer be allowed to lecture, write or have any communication with Le Saulchoir, his contemplative grounding served him well, his obedience was immediate, humble and resolute. His books, volumes that would become milestones of theological thought for the entire twentieth century and were to become the very bedrock foundation of the spirit and documentation of the Second Ecumenical Council, were, in 1954, on the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum—Index of Prohibited Books!

Congar knew the Holy Office had various objections to his writings on ecumenism, the laity, the organic nature of tradition and reforms needed within the church. These writings, whose second editions had inevitably been blocked by Rome’s censors, were advocating the ecclesiology of Johann Adam Möhler.

Möhler’s thought marked a return to the patristic sources of theology, a historical conception of Revelation, an openness to the thought of his time and to the doctrines of other Christian denominations. Möhler saw the Church as a living organism [6] which is animated by the Holy Spirit, extending the mystery of the Incarnation and not primarily as a structure of juridical power. By making unity the organic principle and the foundation of the Church, Möhler approached the question of confessional differences in a new spirit. [7]

He is considered today as a forerunner of Vatican II ecclesiology and one of the fathers of modern ecumenism. He influenced several theologians of the twentieth century, including Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger.[8]

Congar was obedient. All the same, he would be less a Dominican if he shrank from the truth. He simply said “in all honesty, I don’t take back what I have written and have taught. I accept the full weight of the truth which I have spoken.” [9]

When Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli ascended the throne of Peter as John XXIII and inaugurated the Second Vatican Council, Congar and other censured theologians of his calibre were fully reinstated. So, too, was their teaching voice. Yves was quickly enlisted as a theological consultant to the preparatory commission for the Ecumenical Council. At the Council he helped write the ‘Message to the World’ at its commencement, and worked on such major documents as Dei verbum — Dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), Lumen gentium — Dogmatic constitution on the Church (1964), Gaudium et spes — Pastoral coinstitution on the Church in the modern World (1965), Ad gentes divinitus — on the missionary activities of the Church (1965), Unitatis redintegratio  — Decree on Ecumenism (1964), Presbyterorum ordinis — Decree on the monistry and life of Priests (1965), and Dignitatis humanae — on the right of the person (1965). [10]

 Opening Session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican 11 October 1962

If that isn’t astonishing enough, Pope Paul VI appointed him to be a member of the official Catholic-Lutheran commission in 1965. That same Pope appointed him to the Pontifical International Theological Commission to widen the vision for the work on the Doctrine of the Faith. Saint John Paul II set his seal on Congar’s theological brow by inviting him to participate at the Second Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, but ill health and his advanced years prevented him from participating.

We could very well be at the end of our lengthy resume, but a word must be said about the Ressourcement movement “return to the sources” which reclaimed the great tradition of the past. Congar and theologians of his ilk felt that by picking up on the sources they could enliven the faith in the twentieth century. I mention this here, because at the inception of the Vatican II, Ressourcement gained prominence; and was suddenly overshadowed by yet another movement the Aggiornamento “bringing up to date”. This movement was imbued with modernisation and veiled tradition and the sources. With reference to Ressourcement, George Lindbeck wrote:

“Its power was most dramatically evident on the Roman Catholic side. De Lubac, Congar, Rahner, Kung and Ratzinger, to mention some of the better-known progressives of the Ecumenical Council, all joined at the time in seeking renewal first through return to the patristic and biblical roots. This was their way of updating the church, of escaping from the post-Tridentine rigidities which had been intensified by the anti-modernist reactions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Paradoxically, they triumphed over the conservatives and advanced the cause of modernity by being more traditional than anyone else: they appealed to traditions earlier than the medieval and counter-Reformation ones which the traditionalists favoured. Without their mastery of both the spirit and the letter of Scripture and the fathers, it would have been impossible to formulate and defend the reforms of the liturgy, of the understanding of the church and of ecumenism, of the place of the laity, and of religious liberty.” [11]

Only today, we begin to see significant and growing signs of a return to the Ressourcement, a movement which Yves Congar so strongly and adeptly championed for the Church’s own good.

Fr. Yves Congar of the Order of Preachers, a prolific theological and spiritual author, presented wonderful authoritative works in his field; and perhaps his Tradition and Traditions: An historical and a theological essay (1960), I Believe in the Holy Spirit (1979) and My Journal of the Councilm(2012) are his most noteworthy. 

Who can tell? As a contemplative and man of prayer, he may fail to recall his earlier theological discernment. He only remembers that God alone is supreme:

The psalms mean so much to me. They are the daily bread that nurtures my hope, they give voice to my service of God and my love of him. Would that I could penetrate all the wealth they contain as my lips shape their words. [12]

Would that we could say the same after our long labours of love and testimony of God’s action in our lives. Would that we could live a theology that engenders so much faith. For Congar had written of theology that “all the light comes to it from the premise of faith. Theology is truly the scientific development of faith, the science of faith.” [13


[1] Summa Theologiae , la, q.l, a. 8, ad 3m.

[2] Aidan Nichols, o.p. (ed. David F. Ford), The Modern Theologians, Vol. 1 . (Blackwell, Cambridge USA) 220.

[3] Karl Barth, God Here and Now. London: Routledge, 1964.

[4] Aidan Nichols op.cit. 221. 

[5] ibid. 22.

[6] Thomas O’Meara o.p., ‘Raid on the Dominicans‘: The Repression of 1954, (America, February 5, 1994, Vol. 170, No. 4.), p 11.

[7] Cf. Michel Deneken. Notice sur Johann Adam Möhler, Cerf, 2007.

[8] This is, according to Joseph Ratzinger, a good opportunity to immerse yourself in the study of the famous Tübingen school to gain new perspectives. This school was made up of a group of theologians united around Johann Adam Möhler who, in the first decades of the 19th century, had made a decisive contribution to the creation of historical theology. These theologians proposed an approach based on the history of salvation that Ratzinger himself had favoured from his research of Freising and Munich. It would be nice — Ratzinger thinks — to use the lesson of Möhler and his group to give strength to the path of witness in the modern world that the Council has suggested. But the climate of the faculty is conditioned and its attention diverted by other dynamics. “Ratzinger,” Kuhn concludes briefly, “perhaps hoped to tie into the great Tübingen tradition. But when we arrived, this great tradition no longer existed”. Gianni Valente, L’histoire de Joseph Ratzinger: 1966-1969, Les années difficiles d’enseignement à Tübingen.

[9] Thomas O’Meara o.p., op. cit.

[10] The Modern Theologians. Vol., 222

[11] George Lindbeck (ed. David F. Ford), The Modern Theologians. Vol.11 . (Blackwell, Cambridge USA) 258.

[12] Yves Congar, o.p., Called to Life . (Crossroads, NY), 19

[13] Yves Congar, o.p., The History of Theology. (Doubleday and Co., Inc., Garden City, NY), 248.