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On Charles Journet’s Theological Method

Posted by admin | Posted in Philosophy and Theology | Posted on 28-06-2009


Marian Co-redemption

in the Ecclesiology of Charles Journet


Antonio Livi


The theological work of Card. Charles Journet (1891-1975) has still not been sufficiently taken into consideration by those who, in contemporary Catholic culture, imagine that they are able to weigh up the merits and demerits of the theology of the 20th Century and, on this basis, orientate the theological research of the 21st Century. A few years ago now, in a note accompanying the publication of the acts of the Theological Week in Fribourg dedicated to the figure of Journet,[1] one was given to understand that there’s no need to pay too much attention to a theologian who proved to be (or simply seemed to be) too far removed from the then dominant progressivism (theological modernism, subsequently rehashed as “conciliar theology”) and too much in favour of the theological tradition of Thomism.[2] In reality, these claims of a wanting of “ecclesiality” constitute precisely the weightiest theological credentials of this author, who should be considered the greatest ecclesiologist (a theologian of the mystery of the Church of Christ) of the 20th Century. Theology, in fact, is the more scientific the more it is more animated in its depths by faith, and less by ideologies, which are essentially nothing more than prevalent philosophical currents in the ambit of culture and media. Ideologies, whose philosophical substance is incompatible with recta ratio, and hence also with an orthodox interpretation of the Faith,[3] represent the real methodological barrier to theological research, which is entirely dependent upon the correct relationship between the rational premises of the Faith and rational reflection on the data of the Faith (dogmas) in view of the elaboration of interpretative hypotheses.[4] The hypotheses of interpretation are not all alike: they can be orthodox (compatible with the data of the Faith) or heterodox (incompatible with the data of the Faith, understood as the Church has always and everywhere understood them, eodem sensu eademque sententia). Now, ideologies that pretend to interpret dogma with the categories of immanentistic and historicist thought are necessarily opposed to orthodoxy—either because they follow the criteria of extreme rationalism (such as the theology inspired by Hegel, as in Hans Küng, but also that inspired by Schelling, as in Piero Coda, or by critical rationalism, as in Giuseppe Colombo) or because they allow themselves to be taken in by the dialectic of irrationalism, translating it into theological fideism (consider, for example, the German thinkers who follow Heidegger, or the Italians such as Bruno Forte, in exclusive dialogue with Gianni Vattimo and Vincenzo Vitiello). Such being the way things are, that for which Journet is reproved as having limited his theological work—namely, having kept aloof of cultural fashions and progressivistic cliques, while maintaining instead a long intellectual association with the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain—is in fact his title to methodological correctness and spiritual sincerity. If, then, some accuse him of apologetic fanaticism for having always had at heart the defence of Christianity against anti-Christian ideologies,[5] and, paradoxically, still others accuse him of having given in to reactionary ideologies on account of having assumed in his last years an attitude of prudent reserve with regard to the rhetoric of ecumenism whenever such hides an intention to bring about the relegation of Christological dogma and of the ecclesiological orthodoxy that is its fruit,[6] I retain that all this, far from being a reason to re-appraise his historical importance, or put aside his teaching as “out-dated” or “superseded,” is instead a good reason (because theological) to see in Journet a teacher of theology worthy of trust—one of those teachers, that is, of whom we are in need in order that theology might be truly, to use his own expression, a “journey of faith” setting out from dogma.[7] Lastly, the end result of his studies and research—namely, his monumental work on the Church in five volumes[8]—provides us with a confirmation of this by way of the evident, intimate connection between the entirely orthodox edifice of his ecclesiology and his abundant production of works of spirituality, in which one discovers the truly theological function of the contemplative life and of pastoral zeal.[9]

            In the contemplative life of Charles Journet—in his mind (that of a true theologian) and in his heart (that of a true shepherd)—one discovers, in the light of his writings, the characteristic traits of an authentic man of faith. One sees, in fact, that its central axis is an adoring love for the Head of the mystical Body, and hence devotion to Mary, because the incarnate Word wanted as His Mother the Virgin Mary, associating Her in this way with His redemptive work, and making Her—the Mother of God, the “full of grace”—the channel of all graces for “every man born into this world.” The Church, says Journet, was already born at the moment of the Incarnation, when the Eternal Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. An image that the Swiss theologian like to use was that of the concentric circles that appear in the water of a pond when a stone is thrown in: the first circle represents the person of Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word, while all the other circles indicate the lives of the believers in Christ who would follow one another down through subsequent ages.[10]


            The redemptive function of Our Lady is not a hazarded theological interpretation, but an attempt to express, in theological terms, the Catholic Faith in its most fundamental dogmatic elements, after these have been the object of a lifetime’s constant and devout meditation. Marian theology and Marian devotion are, in this sense, united in the thought of Journet, and I believe that both one and the other—or rather, both together—are the concrete expression, in personalistic terms, of the mystery of the Church lived in the fullness of faith.[11] It’s significant that, after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, who greatly esteemed Journet, raising him to the dignity of Cardinal, took the initiative of solemnly declaring Mary “Mother of the Church,” a move clearly in harmony with the ecclesiological thought of his theologian friend. And, notwithstanding the current opinion that is inclined to see Journet as completely isolated in the 20th Century European theological scene, one must recognize that his Marian theology on an ecclesiological foundation ties in explicitly with the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, according to whom, as Pope John Paul II pointed out,[12] the ecclesial function of Mary, Redmeptoris Mater, precedes and founds that of the Apostles.[13]


            Of considerable importance are the passages in Journet’s greatest work, L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné, that deal with the role of Mary. She is not a common member of the Church, but Mother of the Church. At the foot of the Cross, on Calvary, the Mother of Jesus renounced Her corporeal maternity, sacrificing Her Son, in order to take up the Spiritual Maternity entrusted to Her by Her divine Son. She is Mother of the Church not only because She is the Mother of the Head of the mystical Body, but because She is the Coredemptrix, that is, intimately associated to the work of Redemption carried out by Her Son. Coredemption, according to Journet, is to be considered in a maximal sense, that is, not only as a function of impetration (which it undoubtedly involves, since it is already explicitly set forth by Scripture in the episode at Cana; and Journet, on this point, loved to recall by way of analogy the conversion of Augustine, which also came about as a result of the prayers of his mother, Monica) but also and above all as a function of liberation from sin and of sanctification, within the sacramental economy which, from the moment of Baptism, makes possible incorporation into Christ and the appropriation of His merits, especially those of the Passion. There, precisely, in the stabat Mater, Journet sees the “mission” of Our Lady in relation to the other members of the mystical Body of Christ: the Blessed Virgin, Whom God willed qua Mother of the Word Incarnate and the very first form of existence of the Church, is invested by Her crucified Son with the salvific function of Mother of the Church according to the maximal sense of “Coredemptrix.” In Mary, the sanctity of the Church is found in a personal form, while in the Church it is found only collectively.

            For Journet, then, Mariology is a structural part of ecclesiology, and ecclesiology, in turn, is the necessary realization of Christology. And—I would add—theology is wholly at the service of lived faith and, consequently, of the spiritual, sacramental and liturgical life: contemplation and asceticism, community life and the apostolate, are the fruits which theological reflection aims to produce in the souls of those who receive its instruction. Journet cultivated Mariology with the spirit of a believer who desires “to grow in faith”[14] and who, conscious of being a living member of the Church, does not neglect to communicate to other Christians the discoveries which reason, when it believes, is able to make when contemplating with true faith the truths of the Faith (according to the motto of Saint Thomas: “contemplari, et contemplata aliis tradere”). A correct theological hermeneutic, in fact, does not place theological hypotheses above faith; on the contrary, it uses theological hypotheses—recognised as such with honesty, without ever confusing them with dogma—in order to make the datum of faith more believable and more believed, with all of its life giving consequences, which we could call “the healthy and mature fruits of true theology.”[15] One of the fruits of orthodox Mariology is a devotion to Our Lady that activates the potentialities of sanctifying grace in every believer. The Mariological expressions that are so typical of Journet’s ecclesiological discourse—and often repeated in the five volumes of L’Eglise du Verbe Incarné—are to be understood in this sense. To cite some examples: his declaration that “the Church is attracted by the Virgin, without ever being able to identify with her, in the same way that a polygon is attracted by a circle”; or that “in Mary the collective grace of the whole Church is condensed and intensified”; or lastly, when he writes that, in the Church, Mary is “more Mother than the Church, more Spouse than the Church, more Virgin than the Church.”

            His great ecclesiological work apart, though, it is clear that the revealed mystery of Mary’s Divine Maternity was the object of devout reflection on the part of the Swiss theologian from his earliest publications[16] up till the very last contributions proffered before death.[17] From the point of view of essay writing on matters of spirituality and top-quality popular theology, the work that has had perhaps the most success is the one entitled “Mary Coredemptrix,” a precious book which I, together with the philosopher Vittorio Possenti and his wife Nora Ghiglia, had the joy of publishing in Italy almost twenty years ago now. In my introduction to the work,[18] I wrote that it should be read as a devotional text with a view to edification, precisely because it welled up out of the contemplative life of a sincere believer who made good use of the sound discernment that came to him from reflecting on rigorously theological bases—on the revealed mystery that is contemplated, that is—not in order to attempt to understand it in a rationalistic way, reducing it to a supposedly human truth,[19] but in an attempt to live it in the enlightening obscurity of faith.[20] A confirmation of all this is provided by the attention that is repeatedly given by numerous essayists on dogmatic theology and spirituality to Journet’s most typical themes, down to the most recent of them.[21]



[1] Marta ROSSIGNOTTI JAEGGI and Guy BOISSARD (edd.), Charles Journet: un témoin du XXe siècle. Actes de la Semaine théologique de l’Université de Fribourg 2002, Éd. Parole et Silence, Paris 2003.

[2] “Charles Journet a été un des théologiens marquants du siècle dernier. Son nom fait partie de cette liste impressionnante de penseurs que la Confédération helvétique a donnés au monde. Ce théologien a connu un destin marqué à la fois par son temps et par une relative solitude. Les liens qu’il avait avec tel ou tel étaient eux-mêmes empreints de solitude par rapport au monde, par rapport aussi à d’autres cercles dans l’Église. Cela donnait parfois à sa pensée, au moins dans son expression, une coloration polémique. Après sa mort, certains de ses disciples accentuèrent encore ce caractère [1]. On est un peu étonné de l’agressivité de ton du préfacier qui entend défendre, sinon Thomas d’Aquin, du moins les thomistes de l’âge baroque comme ceux du néothomisme” (Pierre JAY, review of the volume indicated in note 1, in Esprit et Vie, n° 101 – mars 2004, p. 24).

[3] This is the explicit teaching that the Church’s Magisterium has recently addressed to theologians: cf. JOHN PAUL II, enc. Fides et ratio, 14th September 1998.

[4] Cf. Antonio LIVI, Razionalità della fede nella rivelazione. Un’analisi filosofica alla luce della logica aletica, Leonardo da Vinci, Rome 2005.

[5] Cf. Pierre JAY, op. cit., p. 25 : “L’époque – qu’on y songe – était pour l’Église catholique une époque où la nécessaire défense contre les multiples agressions était devenue un réflexe. C’est dans cette atmosphère que le théologien s’est formé et a travaillé. Jeune prêtre, il organisait des ‘conférences apologétiques’. Les adversaires du catholicisme étaient donc cités, dénoncés, combattus. C’est dans ce climat qu’a vécu, que devait travailler Journet.”

[6] “Il ne faut pas oublier le contexte théologique mais aussi politique de ce temps. Plus d’un était tenté de subodorer, à travers les nombreuses oppositions à l’Église, l’existence d’un projet coordonné, et voyaient un ‘système’ en tout. La lutte engendre souvent l’esprit de parti qui fausse les perspectives. C’est toujours un désastre pour la foi chrétienne. Sans doute, un parti arrive toujours à recruter. Il peut avoir du succès auprès des jeunes et des convertis. La faim de l’absolu s’investit aisément dans un parti; de même, le goût de l’opposition. Mais cela ne suffit pas à animer longtemps une vie. On quitte parfois le parti pour une sorte de néant; on peut aussi se scléroser. Surtout, il y a la foule, la grande foule de ceux qui, rebutés, se sont écartés de toute foi chrétienne” (Pierre JAY, op. cit., p. 25); cf. Guy BOISSARD, Préface, in Marta ROSSIGNOTTI JAEGGI and Guy BOISSARD (edd.), Charles Journet: un témoin du XXe siècle, cit., p. 7: “L’accusation [against Journet] d’adversaire de l’œcuménisme ou d’absence de sens œcuménique est demeurée tenace.”

[7] Cf. Charles JOURNET, Le Dogme chemin de la foi, Je Sais-Je Crois (Encyclopédie du catholique au XX Siécle, I, 4), Paris 1963; Idem, Le message révélé, sa transmission, son développement, ses dépendances, Téqui, Paris 1963.

[8] One refers to a tremendously important work, the fruit of forty years of reflection. The first two volumes, which Paul VI had ever at hand during the work of the Council, were published in 1939 and 1952, respectively; the third volume, which contains numerous references to conciliar documents, came out in 1969; the last two volumes were published later, thanks to the work of René and Dominique Mougel, guided by Pierre Mamie, Bishop emeritus of Fribourg, and by Card. Georges Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household. The definitive edition, with numerous supplements, is edited in Switzerland by Éditions Saint-Augustin of Fribourg.

[9] An Italian scholar, a fine interpreter of the thought of Jacques Maritain, wrote: “‘The Church is the Gospel continuing.’ ‘The history of the Church ought to be defined history of the truth.’ ‘In heretics faith is possible, but it is mutilated.’ ‘The Orthodox Church is not schismatic, but dissident.’ ‘The baptized sinner and the just non-baptized belong to the Communion of Saints.’ ‘The Church is not to be brought to the peoples, but peoples to the church.’ ‘The Church separates the good and evil in us. She holds on to the good and leaves the evil. Her frontiers pass through our hearts.’ These few citations, drawn from the almost eight thousand pages of the five volumes of Charles Journet’s The Church of the Incarnate Word, finally completed, are sufficient to show that this work will make its mark in the theological studies of coming years, will be discussed on account of the boldness of its propositions, especially in regard to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, will be appreciated as a book of meditation for—among other reasons—its literary style, for the spiritual intuitions it suggests” (Piero VIOTTO). As much is acknowledged even by critics not so well disposed towards the work: “Sans doute, comme tout théologien, le cardinal n’a pas tout dit. On ne peut donc s’attendre à tout trouver chez lui. On peut même se risquer à dire qu’il y a, parfois, dans ses écrits, de tout. Mais le portrait qui se dégage de tant de pages est celui d’un croyant, d’un priant, d’un penseur, d’un pasteur. Sa formation, les événements, sa surdité précoce aussi, en ont fait un théologien un peu plus solitaire que d’autres” (Pierre JAY, op. cit., p. 24); “Un théologien est de son temps même s’il lui arrive parfois d’être prophète. Le service qu’a rendu aux croyants Ch. Journet, c’est d’abord d’avoir donné à l’ecclésiologie un véritable statut dans la théologie de l’époque. De l’apologétique, on est passé à une véritable théologie. Un second service, c’est celui d’avoir bien exprimé le désir de vie spirituelle sans lequel la théologie n’est rien. Depuis, en partie grâce à lui, nous avons peut-être progressé. Que l’on songe aux publications de Torrell sur Thomas d’Aquin ‘maître spirituel’. Il est facile, après coup, d’être d’accord avec ce qui se dit aujourd’hui et qui peut être vrai. On ne peut oublier que c’est grâce au travail et à la prière de grands devanciers que nous pouvons nous permettre de les juger, voire de les dédaigner” (Pierre JAY, op. cit., p. 26). Unreserved, on the other hand, is the admiration of the Swiss Bishop Pierre MAMIE: “Devant un tel homme, à côté d’un tel prêtre, on ne peut qu’admirer l’œuvre d’une grâce que Dieu lui a offerte et l’on doit reconnaître que tout est de Dieu» (in Marta ROSSIGNOTTI JAEGGI and Guy BOISSARD, edd., Charles Journet: un témoin du XXe siècle, cit., p. 361).

[10] Cf. Charles JOURNET, La Vierge Marie et l’Eglise, in Idem, Entretiens sur Marie, Éd. Parole et silence, Paris 2001, p. 13.

[11] Cf. Charles JOURNET, “L’Eglise du Christ est mariale,” in Nova et Vetera 1 (1954), pp. 71-75.

[12] Cf. GIOVANNI PAOLO II, Allocution to the Cardinals and Prelates of the Roman Curia, 22nd December 1987 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, X, 1987, 3, p. 1483): “Mary, the Immaculate, precedes all others. And, obviously, Peter himself and the Apostles. As a contemporary theologian has said well, ‘Mary is Queen of the Apostles, without claiming for Herself apostolic powers. She has others and more besides’” (the citation of von Balthasar included in the quote is referenced to the text indicated in the following note).

[13] Cf. Hans Urs von BALTHASAR, Nuovi punti fermi, It. trans., Ed. Rusconi, Milan 1980, p. 181.

[14] Cf. Missale Romanum, 6th Sunday of Easter, Prayer over the gifts.

[15] In this regard, see what I wrote in reference to a great theologian and mystic of the 16th Century [St. John of the Cross]: Antonio LIVI, Il mistero, il dogma e l’ermeneutica teologica, Introduction to: Luigino Zarmati, L’Incarnazione. Dal dato rivelato all’interpretazione mistica di Giovanni della Croce (Ermeneutica teologica, 1), Leonardo da Vinci, Rome 2004, pp. 7-30.

[16] Cf. Charles JOURNET, “La Vierge immaculée et les théologiens », in Revue des Jeunes (1922), pp. 502-510; Idem, Notre-Dame des Sept douleurs, Juvisy 1934 (2nd ed., Éd. Saint-Augustin, Saint-Maurice 1955; It. trans.: Our Lady of Sorrows, Sheed and Ward, New York 1938); Idem, “La Vierge est au coeur de l’Eglise,” in Nova et Vetera 25 (1950), pp. 39-95; Idem, “La troisième parole de Jesus en croix: Voici ta Mère,” in Nova et Vetera 4 (1951), pp. 291-308; Idem, Petit catéchisme de la Sainte Vierge, Éd. Saint-Augustin, Paris 1937 (2nd ed., Éditions de l’Oeuvre, St. Maurice 1951, 1968; It. trans.: Catechesi sulla Santa Vergine, Florence 1953; Sp. trans.: Pequeño catecismo de la santísima Virgen, Ed. Aquileo, Montevideo 1995); Idem, “L’Immaculée Conception dans l’Ecriture et dans la tradition orientale,” in Nova et Vetera 1 (1953), pp. 53-68.

[17] Cf. Charles JOURNET, Entretiens sur Marie, cit. In this collection are published a few of the eighty-four year old Cardinal’s meditations. The first, “La Vierge Marie et l’Eglise,” was written in 1974 (six months before he died) and represents a kind of spiritual testament of Journet; Bishop MAMIE wrote as much in the Introduction to the volume, expressing the wish that “ceux et celles qui les liront y reconnaissent la profession de foi e le testament théologique d’un grand ami de Dieu” (p. 12).

[18] Cf. Antonio LIVI, Presentazione, in: Charles JOURNET, Maria corredentrice (Emmaus 11), Ares, Milan 1989, pp. 6-10.

[19] In effect, Journet’s theological method is quite the opposite of that of theologians of a rationalistic bent, who adopt a Hegelian hermeneutic in their approach to Christian dogma; with regard to Journet’s opinion of Hegel as a “theologian,” see Charles JOURNET, “Un affrontement de Hegel et de la sagesse chrétienne,” in Nova et Vetera 38 (1963), pp. 102-128.

[20] Cf. Charles JOURNET, Maria corredentrice, It. trans., with an introductory essay by LIVI, Edizioni Ares, Milan 1989.

[21] Cf. B. LEAHY, Il principio mariano nella Chiesa, It. trans., Città Nuova, Rome 1999; Chiara LUBICH, “I movimenti ecclesiali e il profilo mariano della Chiesa,” in Nuova umanità 28 (2006), pp. 141-150.

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