Marie-Dominique Chenu, a rugged journey

Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990)

by Etienne Fouilloux

Salvator, 280 pages, €22.50

Numerous works have already been devoted to the figure of Marie-Dominique Chenu, to her two condemnations by the Rome of Pius XII (in 1942 and in 1954), to her accompaniment of the workers’ mission in the midst of the “cold war” or to her role at the Second Vatican Council.

But a common thread was still missing to make the link between the work and the commitments of the Dominican theologian who “has weighed on the history of French Catholicism, even of the Roman Church as a whole”. A gap that Étienne Fouilloux wants to fill in this biography which seeks to establish the links between decisive moments in the life of Chenu and his theology which attaches great importance to history.

The lure of contemplation

But writing such a biography is not an easy task. Because Chenu – unlike his friend Yves Congar, whom Fouilloux knows well for having devoted a biography to him published in 2020 by the same publisher – was hardly concerned with leaving a trace of his life through a journal or archives worthy of this name. Not only because Chenu was too poorly organized for that, but also because he was aware that the story he was helping to write and which he was living intensely “exceeded him on all sides”.

At the start, nothing seems to predispose Chenu to this commitment to history. He was barely 19 years old, in 1913, when he entered the order of preachers, attracted by contemplation and mysticism. At the end of the novitiate, he was sent to Rome where a climate of suspicion still reigned towards modern thought.

Vitality and dynamism

In August 1920, he returned to the study house of the Dominicans of Saulchoir in Belgium, which he was to radiate thanks to his vitality and dynamism, even if it meant showing freedom with regard to traditions and rules in vigor.

“His collaborators are sometimes jostled by his enthusiasm and his audacity or irritated by his lack of organization and his lack of respect for institutions and hierarchies, but they must recognize his humility and his ability to put himself at the service of the common cause. : that of Saulchoir to which Chenu partially sacrifices his personal work, notes the historian. Only those closest to him know the weight of prayer and contemplation that allows him to endure difficulties and trials with an optimism that seems stainless. » It is these interior resources which will allow the theologian to remain faithful to a Church which will condemn him twice.

Settling scores

In a very enlightening chapter, Étienne Foullioux details the various adventures that led to the publication of the brochure A school of theology, the Saulchoir, written in 1937 and in which Chenu “proposes a definition of theology and the method for teaching it quite far removed from the then classic canons in the Church of his time”. “The case turned into a settling of accounts between two types of theological teaching, or even two ways of doing theology, that of Rome and that of the Saulchoir according to Chenu. For the authority regime of intransigent Catholicism, such competition is not admissible,” explains the historian.

The 1954 conviction will be the last episode of the affair before Chenu’s rehabilitation, which will however only be complete with his death, his funeral at Notre-Dame and posthumous tributes. “Alive, Father Chenu remained suspect and infrequent in many Catholic circles; dead, he is suddenly adorned with all the qualities that had been denied him before: a great theologian and a pillar of the conciliar Church. The solemnity of his funeral and the concert of praise which surrounds it are worth full rehabilitation to the twice condemned religious”. summarizes Fouilloux for whom this late recognition is also that of a whole generation “who suffered for Vatican II to happen”. A recognition that unfortunately did not bear fruit. “No more than Congar, who lamented him in his old age, Chenu really had no descendants among his own, even if many of his intuitions continue to feed the kaleidoscope that Catholic theology has become in France” , laments the biographer.

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