Congar, Yves Marie-Joseph
CONGAR, YVES MARIE-JOSEPH
Theologian, ecumenist, author; b. in Sedan (Ardennes), France, April 13, 1904; d. in Paris, June 22, 1995; son of Georges and Lucie (Desoye) Congar. He studied at the minor seminary in Rheims and the Institut Catholique in Paris, and in 1925 joined the Dominican Order, completing his studies and earning a doctorate in theology at the Dominican Studium of Saulchoir. He was ordained a priest in 1930, and from 1931 to 1939 he taught fundamental theology and ecclesiology at Le Saul-choir. Drafted into the army in 1939, he spent five years as a prisoner of war.
At the end of World War II, Congar returned to Le Saulchoir, where he taught until 1954, when a series of ecclesiastical decisions forced him into exile in Jerusalem, Rome, and Cambridge before being given a regular
assignment in Strasbourg (1956–58). He was invited, at the express wish of Pope John XXIII, to help in the preparations for the Second vatican council. At Vatican II he served on the Doctrinal Commission and made major contributions to the council's documents on the Church, ecumenism, revelation, missions, the priesthood and the Church in the modern world.
Congar contributed a running commentary on the theological discussions and events of the Council to the bi-weekly Informations catholiques internationales (collected in Le concile au jour le jour 1963–66). Vatican II represented a thorough rehabilitation of his reputation in Catholic circles; after the council he was able to devote himself peacefully to historical and theological scholarship until a chronic bone disease made it difficult for him to write.
Writings and Thought. The list of Congar's published titles numbers more than 1,700 books and articles, among which may be found works of first-rate historical scholarship, theological exploration, contemporary ecclesial interpretation, and essays in spiritual theology. For almost fifty years he reported regularly on ecclesiology in the Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques.
On the eve of his priestly ordination, Congar received what he considered to be a divine vocation to work for the reunion of Christians. He understood that ecumenical rapprochement would require a thorough renewal in ecclesiology, and it is his research into the history of the theology of the Church and his efforts to recover a fuller ecclesial vision than had prevailed in the baroque theology of the modern era that provided the chief focus of his writings.
Congar's first major contribution, Chrétiens desunis: Principes d'un "oecuménisme" catholique (1937; English translation 1939), was a watershed in the Catholic Church's attitude towards ecumenism. In this work Congar offered an historical interpretation of the great schisms which have split the Church, a sympathetic presentation of the distinctive characters of Protestantism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy, and a statement of principles for Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement. This work also caught the attention of Roman authorities, and it seems it was only his wartime imprisonment that enabled him to escape the condemnations which in 1942 fell upon Le Saulchoir and his colleague, Marie Dominique chenu.
Upon his return to France after the war, Congar threw himself into the very heady atmosphere of Church life. In the late 1940s, French Catholicism was alive with the promise of Biblical, liturgical, and patristic revivals, the so-called new theology, the worker-priest experiment, and efforts to construct a new pastoral theology and practice. Congar attempted to propose principles and criteria for an authentic reform and renewal in the Church in his next great work, Vraie et fausse reforme dans l'Église (1950). Much of what he proposed would later be sanctioned by Vatican II, but in 1950 this was hardy stuff; and he was one of those considered to indulge in the "false irenicism" condemned that year in Humani generis. In 1952 all translations and re-editions of the work were forbidden by Rome.
Nonetheless in 1953 he was able to publish his very influential work, Jalons pour une théologie du laïcat (1953; rev. ed. 1964; English translation 1957 and 1965), which was later to find many echoes at Vatican II. The work provides a critique of the reduction of ecclesiology to "hierarchology" (a term which he seems to have coined), and a validation of the laity's participation in the threefold office of Christ.
A year later, however, the series of denunciations, warnings, and restrictive measures which he had received from Rome was crowned by an order that he desist from teaching and leave Le Saulchoir. He was ordered successively to Jerusalem, Rome, and to England. All his writings were made subject to stringent censorship. In 1956, Archbishop Weber took him under his protection in Strasbourg.
During these difficult years, Congar published, after long delays caused by the censors, a profound study of the Church under the title, Le mystère du Temple (1958; English translation 1962). Unable to participate directly in ecumenical activities, he devoted himself to historical scholarship. A first fruit of this was his two-volume work, La tradition et les traditions (1960 and 1963; English translation 1966). This work and several lengthy essays on episcopal collegiality, on authority as service, on poverty in the Church, on the local church, and on catholicity as universal inculturation were to contribute greatly to the elaboration of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. His participation in the preparation and unfolding of the Council was to make up for the years of neglect and suspicion, and he could rightly claim the Council as the triumph of many causes for which he had been working.
Post Vatican II. After the Council, Congar continued his scholarly work and participated actively in the great debates occasioned by the remarkable changes that took place in the Church. He published two major works on the history of ecclesiology, L'ecclésiologie du haut moyen-âge (1968) and L'Église de Saint-Augustin à l'époque moderne (1970). Several collections of his published works include essays on ministry, salvation, diversity and communion, the theology of Luther, and the ecclesiology of Vatican II. A three-volume work on the Holy Spirit, Je crois en l'Esprit-Saint (1979–80; English translation 1983), attempts to redress the neglect of pneumatology in Western theology. Many other scholarly essays remain scattered in various journals and volumes.
Congar never regarded Vatican II as an unsurpassable moment and with a remarkable openness he continued to speak and write on post-conciliar developments and problems, as for example, the challenge of Archbishop Lefebvre, political and liberation theology, and the charismatic movement.
His contribution to 20th-century theology is difficult to summarize or to synthesize. Congar's most widely acknowledged contribution is the vast work of historical recovery of the great and broad Catholic tradition before it began to be straitened by the schisms of the 11th and 16th centuries. He regarded this ressourcement as crucial to the life of the Church today, and all his life he has brought to the discussion of contemporary events a mind informed by a broad and deep knowledge that has enabled him to be what J.-P. Jossua calls "a prophet of tradition," that is, a theologian exercising a critical and constructive role precisely as a mediator of the achievements of the past. In all these respects, as the event of the Second Vatican Council itself illustrates, Yves Congar proved a model of a perennially necessary theological effort. Pope John Paul II named Congar to the College of Cardinals on Nov. 24, 1994.
Bibliography: y. congar, Le Concile se Vatican II: Son Église, Peuple de Dieu et Corps du Christ (Paris 1984); Dialogue Between Christians: Catholic Contributions to Ecumenism (Westminster, Md. 1966): 1–51; Diversity and Communion (Mystic, Conn. 1985); Une passion: L'unité: Réflexions souvenirs 1929–1973 (Paris 1974). e. fouilloux, "Friar Yves, Cardinal Congar, Dominican: Itinerary of a Theologian," U.S. Catholic Historian 17 (1999): 63–90. j.-p. jossua, Le Père Congar: La théologie au service du Peuple de Dieu (Paris 1967). t. i. macdonald, The Ecclesiology of Yves Congar: Foundational Themes (Lanham, Md. 1984). a. a. nichols, A. Yves Congar (Wilton, Conn. 1989); "An Yves Congar Bibliography 1967–1987," Angelicum 66 (1989): 422– 66.
[j. a. komonchak]