At last Cardinal Jean Daniélou is beginning to be honoured as he should be
In a way, it was a form of posthumous martyrdom: the once distinguished Jesuit dying in humiliating circumstances, on an errand of mercy, his reputation in tatters and his Jesuit confrères unwilling to offer any defence of his actions.
Cardinal Jean Daniélou was a Prince of the Church who had spent the first part of his priestly life seeking to renew and restore an authentic understanding of the riches of the Church Fathers and the need for a return to these sources of theology.
He was part of the ressourcement group – with Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the young Joseph Ratzinger – who had a profound and valuable influence at the Second Vatican Council. The older among them, including Daniélou, had suffered considerably in earlier years, as their exploration of the writings of the early Fathers challenged the standard Neo-Thomism of the day. Absolutely orthodox in their beliefs, they were regarded by some as dangerous Modernists and by others simply as tiresome individuals whose call for a fresh sense of mission and evangelisation was surely unnecessary.
Publishing patristic texts in a series, Sources Chrétiennes, in the 1940s, Daniélou and de Lubac opened up the Church Fathers to a new generation, an approach to theology offering a rediscovery of treasures. Joseph Ratzinger, a peritus (adviser) at Vatican II 20 years later, described the sense of vigour and hope that accompanied the debates in Rome: a recognition of the Church’s glorious truths for which the world was aching.
But then came the betrayal, of which Daniélou spoke in a Vatican Radio interview in 1972: “A false interpretation of Vatican II … secularisation, a false conception of freedom”, and a collapse of authentic religious life, with priests abandoning their vows, a whole vision of consecrated life at risk. The Jesuits of his own community were caught up in this: his superior would in due course leave the priesthood and dedicate his life to legalising abortion in France.
Daniélou had been appointed cardinal by Paul VI in 1968. He had politely refused the honour several times before. But the Pope told him he was needed “so that you can suffer with me for the Church”, and he accepted.
Suffering there was indeed. Paul VI was attacked and denigrated with passion across the Western world for affirming the Church’s unchanging teachings in Humanae Vitae, and his final years saw him facing forces of hatred and contempt that at times seemed almost overwhelming.
Here I have a personal memory. In the ideological battles of those years, people who loved the Church and defended the Pope seemed few and, at times, almost voiceless. Catholic institutions, publications and seminaries united in condemning Paul VI’s encyclical. Liturgical and catechetical chaos contributed to the gloom. The Faith Movement, led by the splendid Fr Edward Holloway, launched a series of booklets teaching the truth and celebrating the Church’s message. One was Daniélou’s I Believe in the Church.
The booklets were sold from our house in a London suburb. A spare bedroom was taken over for this purpose and, as the work expanded, the stock migrated down the corridor into my room, where my (ever-loyal, non-Catholic) father constructed metal shelving. I woke every morning to the works of Daniélou and Cardinal Wright, as well as Frs Holloway, Nesbitt and Tolhurst, in bright 1970s covers that seemed so modern at the time. I was occasionally dragooned into helping with the packing and posting.
Daniélou wrote with a great love of the Church. He knew her faults and had suffered from them. But he had no rancour. Rather, he wrote, “what draws me to the Church is not the sympathy that I feel towards the people who compose her, but what is given to me through these men, no matter who they are – that is to say, the truth of Jesus Christ. I am attached to the Church because she cannot be separated from Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ freely gave himself to her, because I cannot find Jesus Christ in any authentic way outside her.”
In May 1972 Daniélou was found dead in a prostitute’s house with a large sum of money in his pocket. Of course, there were headlines. The Jesuit community, immediately setting up an inquiry, discovered the truth with no great difficulty. Daniélou had been known to carry out all sorts of charitable visits to the poor and the marginalised. His last was to a woman whose husband was in prison and needed legal help. She described with complete simplicity what had occurred: the good priest had come to bring the money, then collapsed and died in her presence. There was never any question of immoral behaviour. He was simply a good man who had carried out innumerable works of charity to similarly needy people over many years.
But – and here’s the horror of it – the Jesuits refused to make public their findings, allowing the public to gloat over the mystery of the death of this once-revered man. He was loathed by the then leadership of the Paris Jesuit community because he had denounced them for abandoning their vocation and had espoused complete loyalty to the Church in her hour of need.
Today, the truth is known and Daniélou is beginning to be honoured as he should be. I am rather proud to have been a part of the group that stood by him, even when his reputation was unjustly tarnished. I’m discovering with joy his earlier writings, and being nourished by them. The post-Vatican II chaos gave way to happier times, with St John Paul the Great paving the way for a new era.
There’s probably a case to be made for the cardinal’s beatification. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from his life and even from the manner of his death. To meet God in humiliating circumstances, misunderstood as a villain and yet acting with great charity, is to meet the Man on the Cross. Thank God for the life and work of Jean Daniélou.