Jean Danielou died in disgrace. In 1974, at age sixty-nine, the noted advisor to the Second Vatican Council who had been made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI was found dead in the home of a Parisian prostitute. France’s Catholic bishops, trying to calm rumors, published a letter in Le Monde saying that “everyone is aware that, from the first, his apostolate reached out into the most varied milieux and often to the most abandoned and desperate cases.” An editorial note accompanying their letter wondered, however, whether “there might have been another side to the cardinal, hitherto unknown.”
Along with the derisive cackles there was a defensive silence. Initial reports falsely claimed that he had died of a heart attack while dining with friends. Then the Catholic press began to report that he had been visiting a “cabaret singer.” Those within the Church, as much as those outside it, seemed to suspect his death was one of a sinner rather than a saint.
It was not just the company he kept, but also the ecclesial politics he espoused, that led to the silence. His fellow Jesuits were rankled by a 1972 interview he gave to Vatican Radio that said religious orders had succumbed to “decadence” stemming from “a false interpretation of Vatican II.” That same year, he moved out of the Jesuit religious house in which he had lived for decades.
One person who stood by him was his brother, Alain, a convert to Hinduism and partner of the Swiss photographer Raymond Burnier. Though a Hindu, he was ready to consider this Catholic a saint:
His death and the scandal provoked by it, when he had become one of the leading figures of the Church, was a sort of posthumous vendetta, one of those favors that the gods bestow on those whom they love. If he had died just a little while sooner or later, or if he had been visiting a lady of the sixteenth arrondissement under the pretext of works of charity, instead of bringing the revenue of his theological writings to a poor and needy woman, there would have been no scandal.
Jean had always dedicated himself to disregarded people. For a certain period he had celebrated a Mass for the sake of homosexuals. He tried to help prisoners, criminals, troubled young people, prostitutes. I deeply admired this ending of life similar to that of the martyrs, whose fragrance rises to heaven amid the opprobrium and sarcasm of the crowd. He died as true saints die, in ignominy, in mockery, in the disdain of a spiteful and vile society.
The scandal surrounding Danielou’s death delayed the publication of his spiritual diary. When the book eventually did come out, it was hard not to read it as a vindication. Danielou had received in death what he had prayed for in life:
Jesus, I have come to know that you do not want me to distinguish my sins from the other sins of the world, but to enter more deeply into your heart and consider myself responsible for the sins of those persons whom you may wish: those of Alain, of anyone else as it may please you. You make me feel, Jesus, that I must descend even lower, take with me the sins of others, accept as a result all the punishments that these may draw down upon me from your justice, and in a particular way the disdain of the persons for whom I will offer myself. To accept, or rather to long for dishonor, even in the eyes of those whom I love. To accept the great abasements, of which I am not worthy, in order to be ready at least to accept the small ones. Then, Jesus, my charity will resemble that with which you have loved me.
Danielou, like Dostoevsky’s Fr. Zosima, saw himself as “guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins.” He felt the truth of Christ’s words, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” He knew himself to be a great sinner, which is one reason why some view him as a saint.
Today, the same counterfeit ideas that Danielou identified are once again in circulation. Cultural change is cited as a reason to alter the Church’s teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried. Those who object are dismissed as ice-hearted “formalists.” What we need now is spontaneous faith rather than rulebook rigidity.
In his famous interview, Danielou warned against such arguments, saying that “with the pretext of reacting against formalism” there has arisen a “false conception of freedom that brings with it the devaluing of the constitutions and rules and exalts spontaneity and improvisation” and an “erroneous conception of the changing of man and of the Church.”
Danielou made these arguments even while living in great closeness to those who are usually held up as the beneficiaries of replacing formalism with freedom. Though his views made it difficult for him to live with his religious brothers, they did not prevent him from dying with those in need. If we hope to reprise Danielou's arguments today, we would do well also to imitate his actions.
Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.