Sic et Non: Thoughts on Henri de Lubac’s Thomistic Retrieval (I)
I. Ad Primum Sic Proceditur: Fidelity to the Mystery
For Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991), the nature of all Christian mystery is one of paradox. The truths of Revelation inevitably take shape before the intellect in a relation of two terms whose profound harmony lies beyond (though not opposed to) the horizons of reason. It is a harmony only accessible in the shadows of faith, and thus it places upon dogmatic reflection the demand to hold seemingly irreconcilable propositions together, according to an invisible synthesis not humanly achieved; for only thus are truths of divine intelligibility properly revealed. Theology is therefore formally paradoxical, requiring that “the believer should combine in thought certain realities that are clearly not mutually exclusive, even though finite human reason often cannot see how these things can be reconciled with one another.” Christ is both fully God and fully man; the Church is both visible and invisible; Mary is both virgin and mother. Yet for de Lubac, the foundational mystery revealed in Christ’s life, which provides the framework within which all other mysteries are received, is the mystery of man’s divine destiny: the mystery of the supernatural. Here the mind must hold in tension the notion of the natural inadequacy of man’s intellectual powers for the vision of God with the fact that he is nonetheless destined from creation for this end; an end he can only desire as a free gift from God.
Confronted with any mystery, however, the intellect is tempted with a deep impatience and is often driven to abandon its vigilance to that harmony by radically favoring one pole at the expense of the other. It develops a rationalizing tendency threatening the “both/and” of the synthesis with a reductive “either/or” which, for de Lubac, constitutes the fundamental attitude of heresy. When de Lubac began writing on the subject of the supernatural as early as 1931, there were before him at least two problematic ways in which the complex character of the mystery was subject to distorting reductions. The first was a form of intrinsicism equated with the immanence of Modernism, as criticized by Pope Pius X in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). Such a vision construes faith, and thus the foundation of all religion, as the outworking of internal sentiment. Accordingly religious belief achieves only a subjective character and the public significance of dogma and worship are undermined. Transcendence is thus ultimately contained within the principles of the finite human spirit: in a sense, it never breaks away from the plane of the natural. Modernist immanence thus represents the reduction of the mysterious paradox by radically equating the natural and the supernatural, making the latter little more than a function of the former (or perhaps vice-versa). It achieves unity without distinction.
The second evident threat to the synthesis moves in the opposite direction: by positing a distinction which forfeits unity, and thus reduces to a purely extrinsic opposition between the terms of the paradox. This is the cardinal sin that de Lubac sees stemming not from modern agnostics, but rather from within the Thomist theological tradition. According to de Lubac, beginning as early as the 15th century, St. Thomas’s teaching regarding the natural and supernatural was gradually distorted as doctrines that challenged his synthesis (such as that of Denys the Carthusian, 1402-1471) were introduced into the Thomist tradition as interpretations of Thomas himself: the chief perpetrator being the well-known commentator of the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (1468-1534). Cajetan’s interpretation led to a conception of human nature that is fundamentally “purified” from the supernatural with an existential trajectory and finality distinct from the vision of God. Nature then becomes a self-contained and self-sufficient order unto itself, to which grace must come only as an intrusion, or an order “super-added” on top of it. The supernatural is ultimately little more than “accidental” to nature: contingent and alien to it; opposed rather than simply beyond; depriving the Catholic mantra “grace perfects nature” of its force. Ultimately in de Lubac’s eyes this brand of extrinsicism paves the way theoretically for the birth of modern atheism, naturalism, and secularism.
De Lubac thus attempts to forge with his doctrine a via media between the Scylla of Modernism and the Charybdis of extrinsicism (equally the progeny of modern error). He seeks to articulate a form of theological intrinsicism that faithfully responds to the “double burden presented by the Gospel, of an utterly gratuitous gift on God’s part coupled with the human person’s profound- non-arbitrary- desire for this gift, both of these being present already at the beginning of each creature’s existence.” It is de Lubac’s task in The Mystery of the Supernatural to avoid the former perversion while adamantly attacking the latter. Seeking to reclaim the fundamental unity between the natural and the supernatural, his thought is guided by a principle adapted from a well-known Scholastic maxim: to counter extrinsicism, one must not only “distinguish to unite,” for “to unite in order to distinguish, is just as inevitable.” Far from a self-conscious “New Theology,” de Lubac saw this program as quite the reverse: he was attempting to recover the traditional teaching to which the Fathers of the pre-modern Church gave witness and bring it into contact with the exigencies of contemporary thought. Thus de Lubac’s explication of the mystery of the supernatural cannot satisfy itself with a purely systematic treatment: it is necessarily a historical enterprise aiming to relocate the theoretical context beyond the poisonous structures of the moderniores. His goal is to reclaim a broadly Augustinian perspective of the supernatural that sufficiently counters the dualists while avoiding the excesses of Bajus and his kin. And yet, for de Lubac the faith is never truly old, never of the past, but is “always new.” One cannot deny the presence of genuine theological progress in that novelty, as if the tradition were simply static and one could ignore all thought in the ages between the Fathers and ourselves. De Lubac’s retrieval of Augustinianism is a sic et non: it is not simply the voice of Augustine he wants to make heard, but more so the voices of the 13th century Scholastics within his tradition. Thus, more properly speaking, de Lubac is seeking an Augustinian-Thomist perspective, enacting a “full return to the thought of
It is the true teaching of
II. Videtur Quod: Beyond Pure Nature
According to de Lubac, when the natura pura was first invoked in the 14th century (in response to the reductive Augustinianism of Bajus), it was “aware of its own artificiality.” It was the result of a hypothetical speculation about God’s omnipotence and the potential for God to have created a human nature with its ultimate end separate from God. It did not initially challenge the understanding that the actual order contained a human nature always already ordained to the beatific vision from its creation. Yet in the 15th century, with the influence of thinkers like Denys the Carthusian- for whom man’s final end lies in contemplating created realities- the former distinction between speculation and reality was blurred. De Lubac points to a change in the conception of nature, which was now defined by an end proportionate to natural powers. In this context, Cajetan proceeded to introduce into the interpretation of
This theology of natura pura was originally formulated in an effort to safeguard the gratuity of grace and the supernatural end. Yet the result, according to de Lubac, was to posit nature and grace as two complete and parallel species within the same genus. Grace could only thus appear as a kind of superstructure: something additional, something accidental, contingent, and ultimately inconsequential. It could no longer perfect, transfigure, or overwhelm the natural order. Consequently, de Lubac argues, natura pura actually fails to ensure the gratuity of the supernatural. The opposition leads inevitably to the conceptual reduction of the supernatural to the natural plane: figuring it always in terms of the natural, as a copy or a “shadow” of it, because the finite end would always remain primary in concept and reality (one sees here the faint specter of Modernism). Further, the theory would need to demonstrate the giftedness of the supernatural in relation to the actual, historical human nature.Yet in contemplating pure nature, one is in fact imagining a wholly different order in which human nature is defined by a distinct, purified finality. It would then only bear an abstract, theoretical “resemblance” to the concrete nature in the actual historical order and would ultimately only establish the gratuity of grace relative to another nature altogether. One can readily see the ultimate failure to uphold both terms of the essential paradox.
In contrast to this, de Lubac argues that a real gratuity must stem from the acknowledgment that in man there is a natural desire that exceeds the limits of natural potency: a desire for the one supernatural end that nature itself is unable to deliver. It can in fact only be desired as an entirely free gift from God. The self-sufficiency of the natural order must be breached in order to be “real;” yet breached in such a way as to always maintain God’s freedom in offering grace. The operative theological principle behind de Lubac’s entire perspective is the unity of God’s Providential economy (the unity that the theology of pure nature implicitly sunders). “His sovereign liberty encloses, surpasses and causes all the bonds of intelligibility that we discover between the creature and its destiny. Nature and the supernatural are thus united, without in any sense being confused.” It is God’s intentionality for His creation, revealed to man, that provides the organic unity between nature and its pre-ordained destiny in the vision of God: the simplicity of God’s antecedent will underlies the distinct gifts of nature and grace. While the natura pura theory conceives of the relationship Platonically (nature and grace relating as if two substances), de Lubac notes that the more proper analogy is hylomorphic: nature and grace relate as if two complementary principles of one substance, one order. It is in their union that they are distinguished.
In expressing this fundamental unity, de Lubac sees himself as freeing St. Thomas’ traditional teaching of the desiderium naturale for the vision of God, which for de Lubac forms the foundation of continuity with the supernatural in the creature. Human nature is, from the moment of creation, called and infused with a dynamism that stretches beyond natural boundaries. For God has ordered man to a single end: as ordained to beatitude, he is specifically distinguished from all speculative hypotheses. While “pure nature” is defined by its orientation to an end proportionate to its powers, human nature as God has actually created it is defined by its orientation to a supernatural end. This orientation underlies all of man’s conscious, finite acts of intellect and will. It is, in fact, as this nature of created spirit (intellect and will) that a sense of “nature” radically foreign to the pagan philosophical concept is established. For only as spirit, created in the image of God, is the concept of nature properly opened beyond its finite limitations. The natural desire for the beatific vision is thus not incidental and “supper-added,” but rather a property of human nature qua spirit: it is “inscribed” or “impressed” on man’s being, something “ontological,” an “essential finality.” What Cajetan and Suarez after him failed to take account of was the utterly exceptional character of the created spirit which infuses the concept of “nature” with a radically different meaning. And it is through the continuity it provides that de Lubac believes he has successfully accounted for both the unity and the distinction implicit in the paradox of the mystery.
 Henri de Lubac, S.J., The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p.169: “A synthesis indeed; but for out natural intellect, it is a synthesis of paradox before being one of enlightenment.”; and p.171: “Revealed truth, then, is a mystery for us; in other words it presents that character of lofty synthesis whose final link must remain impenetrably obscure to us. It will forever resist all our efforts to unify it fully.”
 Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac, trans. Michael J. Miller, (
 Voderholzer, p.119.
 The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.167.
 Ibid., p.xxxv.
 Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis:Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the Doctrines of the Modernists, (St. Peter’s, Rome: Sept.8, 1907), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html
 David Braine, “The Debate Between Henri de Lubac and His Critics,” in Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol.6, No.3 (2008): pp.573
 The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.xxxv.
 This version of misconstruing the mystery was the distortion de Lubac’s position most clearly boiled down to in the eyes of his critics. We will examine more deeply below what foundations there are, if any, in de Lubac’s thought for such associations.
 An example of the supernaturalizing tendency can be found in the theology of Michael Bajus (1512-1589). It was in response to his vision of “everything is grace” that many aspects of the Thomistic distortions were likely formed.
 David Schindler, “Introduction to the 1998 Edition” in Henri de Lubac, S.J., The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans. Rosemary Sheed, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p.xxvii
 For de Lubac, the “separatist thesis” may only have just begun to bear its bitterest fruits; see The Mystery of the Supenatural, p.xxxv.
 Catholicism, p. 330.
 The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.xxxvi: “Faith must provide the needed answer, and must do so before it is too late to be of help to many.”
 Ibid., p.18.
 Ibid., p.206.
 Voderholzer, p.130.
 The Mystery of the Supernatural, p.9.
 Ibid., p.178.
 Ibid., p.36.
 Ibid., p.55
 Ibid., p.60: “You may put into this hypothetical world a man as like me as you can, but you cannot put me into it. Between that man who, by hypothesis, is not destined to see God, and the man I am in fact, between that futurable and this existing being, there remains only a theoretical, abstract identity, without the one really becoming the other at all.”
 Ibid., p.94. The datum optimum is fundamentally ordered to the donum perfectum; but never in such a way that the donum is guaranteed or demanded (as Bajus thought), but only freely given.
 Ibid., p.99.
 Ibid., p.32.
 Ibid., ch.7, pp.119-139.
 Ibid., pp.79-80.
 Ibid., p.81
 Ibid., ch.6, pp.101-118.