The Belgian Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx (born 1914) was one of the most influential Catholic thinkers of his day.
Edward Schillebeeckx was born November 12, 1914, in Antwerp, Belgium. The sixth of fourteen children of Johanna and Constant Schillebeeckx, he grew up in Flemish-speaking northern Belgium and attended a high school run by the Jesuits. His father was an accountant in the Public Records Office, and an older brother became a Jesuit missionary in India. But Edward found himself more attracted to the Dominicans, whom he joined when he was 19. He has said that the Dominicans seemed to him warmer, and that their stress on the doctrine of God in philosophy and on social questions in theology struck a responsive chord.
Schillebeeckx did his novitiate and philosophical studies in Ghent, Belgium, after which he performed his compulsory military service. The next stage in his formation was theological studies at the Catholic University of Louvain, where he found himself dissatisfied with the neoscholastic approach then in favor. On the advice of a Dominican superior, he began reading the works of Karl Adam, a Catholic theologian teaching at Tubingen, Germany. Adam was trying to restate Catholic faith in non-scholastic terms, by returning to the Bible and the patristic tradition. From the Jesuit theologian Pierre Rouselot, as well as Adam, Schillebeeckx learned to stress experience—both the believer's experiential struggles with faith and the human experience of Jesus. The works of the Dominican Yves Congar and the Jesuit Karl Rahner also helped him escape the impasse of neo-scholasticism.
Schillebeeckx was ordained a priest in 1941. His next period of study took place in France, at the Sorbonne and Le Saulchoir, the French Dominican house of studies. His doctorate in theology came from Le Saulchoir, and the greatest influence on him in those years was M.D. Chenu, a Dominican who was deeply interested in "the signs of the times" that theology had to read if it were to communicate the relevance of faith. Chenu supported the French worker-priest movement (an effort to meet the laboring classes, who were disaffected from the Church, on their own ground), and Schillebeeckx imbibed a deep sympathy for this approach to priestly ministry. Church authorities in Rome condemned Chenu's views, but he carried on peacefully. Years later, when Schillebeeckx himself was suspect in Rome, he kept in mind the fortitude that Chenu had shown.
From his experience in France, Schillebeeckx was convinced that theology ought to reflect on the practice of faith. Unless theologians were in touch with people's actual experience, including their efforts to establish a just social order, they would not be effective. This conviction anticipated the Latin American liberation theologians of the 1970s and 1980s, for whom Schillebeeckx later maintained great sympathy. Working with refugees one summer building houses, Schillebeeckx found that reflecting with students on this experience in the evenings brought a rich yield for theological investigation.
From 1943 Schillebeeckx was teaching theology at the Catholic University of Louvain. He was responsible for the entire curriculum of dogmatic theology (that which exposes the basic tenets of church doctrine), which was spread over a four-year cycle. Thus he was forced to consider the entire corpus of Catholic doctrine and think about the interrelations among the different tracts. His first publications, beginning in the early 1950s, dealt with sacramental theology. Translated into English as Christ, The Sacrament of Encounter with God (1962), his first book received a warm reception. Schillebeeckx was rethinking the sacraments in non-scholastic, personalist categories, searching for the presence of Christ in and through the signs of the sacramental ceremonies. His next book, on Mary, treated her in the context of Christology, rather than in the ecclesiastic context usually employed. The result was to humanize Mary, tying her to the humanity and work of Jesus. This focus, more limited than the previous tendency to associate Mary with the entire sweep of the history of salvation, was more congenial to Protestant theologians, who feared idolatrous overtones in Catholic devotion to Mary.
In addition to teaching dogmatic theology at Louvain, Schillebeeckx also gave spiritual direction to numerous students. His tendency in that work was to relax the previously rigid rules and support a training regime both permissive and progressive. This succeeded in reducing tensions between students and faculty, and it put into practice the positive, hopeful, humanistic theology that he was developing from his studies in the history of theology and the Bible. His goal was to be not so much a superior as a friendly, understanding, kindly older brother.
In 1957 Schillebeeckx was appointed to Nimegen University in Holland, where he wrote his most influential books. At first he was depressed by the conditions at Nimegen, which were considerably more constrictive than those at Louvain. But his work as a peritus (expert) before and during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) put him in contact with the leading bishops and theologians of the world-wide church and caught him up in the euphoria of an unprecedented effort to update the Church by bringing it into dialogue with the modern world. He gave numerous lectures to bishops, explaining recent advances in theology, and he contributed to the chapter on marriage and the family in the key conciliar document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). Reflecting years later, he found the achievement of the council to be ambiguous, because it brought some progress but by no means the radical reforms for which he had hoped. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II both put brakes on such reforms and clamped down on theologians who stressed freedom of conscience or democratic processes in the Church. Schillebeeckx found himself most sympathetic to the "critical communities" that arose in Europe after the council. These grass-roots churches sought to criticize church practice in view of its social and experiential impact, as well as its fidelity to tradition.
Schillebeeckx's greatest books, on Christology, appeared in Dutch in 1974 and 1977. Translated as Jesus (1979) and Christ (1980), they have set the standard for contemporary studies of Jesus. With great erudition, Schillebeeckx sought to retrieve the experience of both the man Jesus and the early Christian community that became convinced he was alive in their midst (through the resurrection). Together, these books were a tour de force, joining biblical scholarship with hermeneutical (interpretational) acumen and speculative power in a fresh synthesis. The two books brought Schillebeeckx under a cloud in Rome, because they do not use traditional language and do not make the formulas of the Council of Chalcedon (451), where the divinity and humanity of Jesus were defined classically, the template for all Christological reflection.
Schillebeeckx bore the attacks on his writings patiently, continuing to produce controversial studies in other areas. For example, his book on ministry (1980) argued for the ordination of women and against priestly celibacy. He also continued his leadership in Concilium, an international publishing venture designed to help theologians from all over the globe collaborate on important current issues.
Schillebeeckx retired from Nimegen in 1982, the same year in which he received the Erasmus Prize, one of Europe's most prestigious awards. He continued to study and write, remaining a quiet, soft-spoken advocate of a free, engaged, personalist Christian faith. He lived in a book-lined room at the Albertinum, a Dominican community residence in Nijmegan. The silver-haired theologian was in personality similar to his books; he spoke, sometimes opaquely, only to his peers and never tried to popularize. Dignified, reserved, soft-spoken, and somewhat nervous, he looked like the scholar he was. Schillebeeckx suffered from heart trouble. As for prayer, he said he has "never found it difficult" to "speak to God" as "a man speaks to his friend."
Schillebeeckx's major works are Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God, Jesus, Christ, Ministry, and The Church with a Human Face (1985), an expanded version of Ministry. A good sampling of the major themes of his work are available in The Schillebeeckx Reader, edited by Robert Schreiter (1984). Schillebeeckx also published some of his sermons (God Among Us, 1986) and a short book On Christian Faith. The best introduction to his life and thought is his God is New Each Moment (1983), a series of interviews he gave to Dutch journalists. Also useful is John Bowden's Edward Schillebeeckx (1983). □