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Henri de Lubac, S.J., one of the twentieth century’s greatest Catholic theologians, was among the prominent figures in the ressourcement movement that prepared the way for Vatican II. Indeed, many of his writings influenced the very terms employed by the Council, especially in the constitutions on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and on revelation (Dei Verbum). During his long theological ministry, stretching from the early 1930s to the early 1980s, not only did he insist on the intimate bond between theology and spirituality, he also witnessed to the inseparability of the dogmatic and the pastoral in his courageous opposition to Nazism and anti-Semitism. His last major theological work, completed despite declining physical force, was the almost one-thousand-page volume La posterité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore (The Spiritual Posterity of Joachim de Flore). Unfortunately, it is not yet available in English. But its reflections are most helpful today as we consider the Church's ongoing Synod on Synodality and its recently released Instrumentum Laboris (working document). 

De Lubac had first treated the twelfth-century mystic at length in the third volume of his Exégèse Médiévale. He concentrated upon Joachim’s distinctive approach to Scripture, in particular his view that there would be a “third age” of the Spirit that would supersede the ages of the Father and the Son (represented by the Old and New Testaments, respectively). On de Lubac's reading, the thrust of Joachim’s prophetic vision was to call into question the saving finality of Jesus Christ. In Joachim's “third age,” the “Spirit” in effect becomes separated from Christ and fuels pseudo-mystical and utopian movements. For without the objective Christological referent and measure, appeal to the Spirit easily falls prey to subjective ideologies and fantasies.

Already here, de Lubac glimpsed the long and troublesome “afterlife” of Joachimism, including its schismatic propensities. He began to explore the variety of movements, both secular and quasi-religious, that, much like Joachim, envisioned the arc of progress bending toward a “Third Age” fulfillment, whether in Hegelian, Marxist, or Nietzschean forms. In all of these movements Jesus Christ was deemed at best a penultimate word, and the Church considered but the relic of an unenlightened age.

De Lubac took up the mammoth task of writing his book on Joachim’s posterity because he discerned that the period after the Council was marked in many circles in France and elsewhere by a recrudescence of Joachimite sensibilities and projects. These Joachim-like tendencies plot a way beyond the parochialism of the “institutional Church,” toward the celebration of a universal humanity, liberated from the constrictions of law and hierarchical order.

In his moving memoir, At the Service of the Church, de Lubac comments on the “circumstances that occasioned his writings.” He makes clear that his book on Joachim’s posterity was animated not by merely academic interests, but by his sense of a present danger: the danger of betraying the Gospel by transforming the search for the kingdom of God into a search for secular social utopias.

He wrote a thousand pages before his failing health prevented him from providing the doctrinal conclusion to the work that he originally intended. But he came to realize that he had already offered a conclusion in his earlier book, Méditation sur l’Église. He directs the reader to chapter six of that work, “The Sacrament of Jesus Christ.”

The chapter famously begins: “The Church is a mystery”—words which, ten years later, formed the title of the first chapter of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. De Lubac immediately specifies the content of this mystery: “the Church on earth is the sacrament of Jesus Christ.” Here again Lumen Gentium follows de Lubac’s lead, by declaring in its very first paragraph: “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity.” 

This Christological and sacramental perspective provides the orientation for Vatican II’s ecclesial vision and proclamation. Now, though the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod, at paragraph 28, does provide the full quote from Lumen Gentium, 1, in two clear further references at paragraphs 46 and 52 (in the all-important Section B on “Communion, Mission, Participation”) the crucial words “in Christ” are conspicuously absent. This omission can scarcely be attributed to mere oversight, and raises legitimate concerns regarding the document’s Christological deficiency.

From de Lubac’s insistence upon the Church’s mystery as being the sacrament of Jesus Christ (an approach echoed and sanctioned by the Council), he draws crucial doctrinal and pastoral consequences. He writes: “the Church’s purpose is to show us Christ; to lead us to him; to communicate his grace to us. In sum, she exists only to put us into relation with Christ.”

Hence, any stratagem to replace the actual reign of Christ with a future nebulous reign of the Spirit is to introduce “deadly separations” in the life of the Church. “Thus, in no sense do we await the age of the Spirit; for it coincides exactly with the age of Christ.” 

Drawing upon this chapter of Méditation sur l’Église (a book often extolled by Pope Francis), I have a de Lubac-inspired modest proposal for the Synod. A salutary spiritual exercise for the groups, gathered each day to share their “conversations in the Spirit,” would be to ponder the decisive final paragraph of Part One of Gaudium et Spes. It would provide for the participants a vivid anamnesis as to whose Spirit it is that they invoke and seek faithfully to serve. 

Here is the magnificent dogmatic profession of Christological faith from Gaudium et Spes:

God's Word, by whom all things were made, was Himself made flesh so that as perfect man He might save all men and women and sum up all things in Himself. The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings. He it is Whom the Father raised from the dead, lifted on high and stationed at His right hand, making Him judge of the living and the dead. Enlivened and united in His Spirit, we journey toward the consummation of human history, one which fully accords with the counsel of God's love: “To reestablish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on the earth” (Eph. 11:10).

Nary a hint of Joachim’s posterity here!

Father Robert P. Imbelli is author of the forthcoming collection Christ Brings All Newness.

Editor's note: This article has been slightly amended to clarify the argument in paragraph 8.

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Image by Jean-Pol Grandmont. licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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