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“Cardinal Yves Congar: Ecclesiologist and Ecumenist” with Paul Philibert and Gerard Austin

I thought I would post my notes from this fascinating discussion by some Roman Catholic theologians about the ecclesiology of Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar (1904-1995).  Based on their description of Congar, I would think many Protestants would appreciate him. 

Disclaimer.  These are not exact transcription or exact quotes but rather just my rough notes.  Still, I know many of you would love the chance to get a glimpse into discussions like these that are happening around Duke Divinity School so I think it is worth posting the notes.   

“Cardinal Yves Congar: Ecclesiologist and Ecumenist” with Paul Philibert and Gerard Austin

Date: Mon., Oct. 26

Time: 12:20 - 1:30 p.m.

Location: 0012 Westbrook

Duke Divinity School

Description of event: Philibert, Order of Preachers (OP), has held various academic positions including most recently as the resident scholar at Collegeville Institute in Minnesota. He has published extensively on ecclesiology and the religious life. Austin, OP, teaches liturgics at the Rice School for Pastoral Ministry in Florida and has published widely on liturgical and ecclesiological topics.

Paul Philibert has held various academic positions, most recently resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota; he has also served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Fribourg (pastoral theology) and at Aquinas Institute of Theology (church and society).  He has published extensively on ecclesiology and religious life.

Gerald Austin teaches liturgics at the Rice School for Pastoral Ministry in Arcadia, Florida.  He taught theology, ministry and liturgics for thirty-one years at The Catholic University of America.  He has taught at various other universities, including Aquinas Institute of Theology, and the University of Notre Dame.  He has published widely on liturgical and ecclesiological topics.

This event is sponsored by the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School (omnes cognitiones theologiae famulantur).

Paul Griffith: Introduction. 

It is my pleasure to introduce two Dominicans.  (See descriptions above).

Gerald Austin: Paul Philibert’s book is really good: Priesthood of the Faithful. 

I’m on sabbatical this semester to celebrate 50 years of teaching.  So I went back to Paris and Paul’s book was there in French too. 

The seeds of Congar’s ecclesiology lie in his great theology of baptism and Eucharist.  All his life he insisted on not treating all sacraments on the same level.  We have main sacraments: baptism and Eucharist. 

Congar’s article in volume 31—Baptism and Eucharist are the major sacraments. 

This is not how many Catholics think. 

Ordination is a minor sacrament. 

Congar affected me very much. 

He is most known for 1953 French book—Signposts for a Theology of the Laity.  Translated into English as —Laypeople in the Church.  1957 French revised edition and in English 1965 are what you should read.

The Priesthood of the Baptized.  The participation of all the faithful in Christ’s priesthood.  1 Peter 2. 

I was on a sabbatical and I told Congar I was using his book and he told me to read his corrections in an article.  It got translated into English in The Jurist.  1971 in French; 1972 Volume 32 169-188. 

Congar, "My Path-Findings in the Theology of Laity and Ministries," The Jurist 32 (1972): 169-88.

Congar says humbly how he would do it differently. 

I was ordained a priest in 1959.  50 years ago.  I taught undergrads for four years and then they asked you if you were happy in academia, then you would or would not go on to do a doctorate.  I was sent to Paris to do doctorate—1964-1968.  I defended during the revolution.

I had Congar as a teacher and lived with him in the same community.  He changed my life. 

When I arrived in 1964, I would have said I am a Roman Catholic priest.  After Congar, I would have answered quite differently: I am a baptized Christian who happens to be ordained. 

On the intellectual level, it changed my whole life—making me more compassionate.  I just finished a retreat this weekend—emphasizing Eucharist and baptism—shaking up some people. 

The Church is first and foremost the body of Christ.  Book in 1965. 

Two familiar terms from St. Paul: Christ in us; and we in Christ.

The Orthodox have always stressed this—theosis, deification, divine-human, divinization. 

17 books I have written but now I have my students reading about divinization. 

Congar says in the Jurist article, “I was not true to my vision in the book.” 

Avery Dulles said Vatican 2 could be called Congar’s Congress. 

Liturgical constitution was first.  Then constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)—they reversed the chapter order after reflection—putting hierarchy later.

Two Americans were working on this: Godfrey ________ and _________

Congar—it was the community. 

Paul Philibert’s new book: At the Heart of Christian Worship—essays by Congar.  Congar’s essay on community will finally be in English.

Published by Liturgical Press.


Congar says, I was going to write about “total ecclesiology” constitutional, hierarchical and “everything we do” –the latter we have lost track of it. 

In the Jurist article, Congar says “the coupling is the laity vs. ordained doesn’t work.  It is better to say, ministries or services vs. the whole community.”

Congar says in Jurist article,  I didn’t go through with that in the book.  I didn’t write a book about “total ecclesiology.” 

Congar said, The door you open to the subject determines what you will discuss.  I opened the wrong door.  I opened the door of hiearchy rather than the door of community. 

The Vatican haven’t got it yet but they are getting closer: the new catechism—the priesthood is a means for the priesthood of the faithful.

Congar: I can give you the definition of the laity, I can give it to you in a second. But a definition of the ordained priest, is more complicated and difficult. 

I owe a great debt to this man—he made me do an ecclesiological flipflop. 

I like to go to the Wafflehouse late at night and they flip over the omelet for me.  Congar flipped my omelet. 

Intellectually I owe the most to Congar. 

Paul Philibert knows much more than I about Congar. 


Paul Philibert: Thanks for allowing us to share our interest in and passion for Congar. 

Born in 1904 in NE City of  Sedan, France.  He grew up in a city where Protestants and Catholics were fond neighbors. 

WWII marked his youth.  He told the story in 4-5 books about how the Catholic church was destroyed and the Reformed church let the Catholics use their facility.  This left a big impact on him.   

He met Jacque Maritian.  The invited the great intellectuals of Paris—literary, cultural, theologians to discussions

Because of interest in Aquinas, Congar became a Dominican. 

1925 Novice.  1930 Priest. 

Congar says, I came to ecclesiology and ecumenism—in 1929—reading Gospel of John.  Unity of the church and Christians—John 17.  My vocation to the unity of the church and unity of Christians—since winter 1929-1930, I have been oriented that way. 

Only religious experiences was that one and in third conference of Vatican II.  Congar said to God, I don’t know why I am here but I know you are doing something.  This is a mystery beyond what I can understand. 

Vatican II was the largest council and crucially had delegates from the Reformed Churches. 

Congar saw himself as a chaplain to the Protestant representatives.  There was a Protestant study group who brought recommendations. 

Given permission to do 3 month trip to Germany—where he went to Dusseldorf.

In Paris, Congar used to visit Oscar Cullman.  Neighbors were worried about their bad influence on each other. 

1930—he was given the Treatise on the Church.  In 1930-32, it was an insignificant tract.  It was something you do in a couple of weeks.  He wanted to refound ecclesiology.  He had to go back to Robert Bellaman. 

Four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  This is not just Roman Catholic church.  How can we draw parts together?

1950 True and False Reform in the Church. Within 9 months, it was forbidden to be translated or distributed.  In 1968, he emerged from Vatican as respected and Paul Philibert has translation of revised edition coming out. 

1953 Lay People in the Church.  One important ecumenical development: uses prophet, priest and king.   He acknowledges this is from John Calvin. 

Congar says, I don’t know if the Fathers led me to John Calvin or Calvin led me to the Fathers. 

This caught the attention of ecumenical theologians. 

Christians in Dialogue (French) Dialogue between Christians (English).  “I wanted to gain respectability and support by publishing by theologically important and incontestable works because Roman Catholic church was afraid of ecumenism.”

Four principles from Congar about theology:

1. Primacy of charity and pastoral.  Reform in the church is based on charity—the concrete needs of souls. 

Most important thing in 1940’sJoseph Cardin—young Christian workers: observe, judge, act.  Small groups of young people were taught that they can look, judge and do something. 

The ordinary is important.

2. Remain within the community of all. 

Congar believed, If Luther had stayed and put up with the absurdity of papal delegates, there would have been more faithful church.  Luther is one of the top 4 Christian geniuses with Augustine and Aquinas. 

He says he would not have liked Luther much.  But there is a complementarity—every continent—this is Catholicity.  John Henry Newman—this appeals to Newman as well.   

Guardians of the tradition let deformities go on under business as usual—they should have been more impatient. 

3. Patience and respect for delays.

He had to endure Vatican correctives of his work.  Congar was forbidden to do something but then found better way to do it. 

4. Begin by returning to principles of Catholicism.  It is a living reality.  Continuity of development. 

In True and False Reform—the church exists as the body of Christ whose responsibility is to preserve the unity of the body through approval, correction and administration.  This is apostolic gift of the church.  But there is the periphery and they have gifts of the Holy Spirit—every language, philosophy and culture.  We look to the periphery for creativity.  If the center does not respect periphery, or periphery does not respect center, that is not healthy. 


Three principles of Congar that summarize ecclesiology and ecumenical vision:

1. Church is apostolic yeast of kingdom of God but is not the kingdom of God itself. 

Church is servant and sign of the Kingdom. 

2. Church is an ordered society with structure but has periphery to express tradition with creativity and faithfulness. 

3. Christ’s own priesthood was not essentially liturgical or priestly.  Christ was not a priest—only eschatologically (Hebrews 4:11).  Neither should the baptized faithful be priestly. 

Congar’s use of the word “real” –the realized mystery of the Eucharist—the union and gifts of the people who have taken the Eucharist.  Not 15 minutes on Sunday at church but expressed in the ordinary of daily life.  He joined Lutheran and Calvinist perspectives—and was respected by Cullman and Swiss pastor/theologian.—You have restored our hope in the church. 


Geoffrey Wainwright: Question: “I was most influenced by French title—resourcement.  Congar made it explicit for Catholics and Protestants.” 

Philibert: He read incessantly in the Church Fathers.  I translated 2,500 footnotes—most are Church Fathers.  Tradition capital T and small t: (1) Scriptures are living reality as proclaimed and taught in the church, the fathers in the church in dialogue with each other and us; (3) . . .

Stanley Hauerwas: 1962-1965 we were reading Congar in seminary.  We were surprised to read about Eucharist and Baptism.  Did he try to come up with general account of sacrament and then try to figure out how many there are? 

Austin: This was all in the Fathers.  I had him as a teacher.  Start with God and then Christ sacrament of that, and then Church sacrament of that.  Then sacraments seem quite small.  Vows are sacrament.  Only 11th century, they limited it to 7. 

I teach everything because it is a small school.  I’m teaching theology of ministry.  Sacraments are a gift to the church.  The whole church is the proper locus of apostolicity.  Christ institutes the eucharist through priest—NO! 

Philibert: Radically patristic.  Not orders but baptism.  Not popes, priests but baptism.  Baptism awakens people who raise up leaders.  There is no privilege of holiness for ordination. 

Hauerwas: Christological center. 

Philibert: As an old man, one of the last interviews with young Croatian.  If I were to look for your theology, where do I look?  Congar replied, Look in Council documents. 

This is very touching from diary at council.  Congar wrote, I am filled to overflowing because all of the things I gave special attention to at Council are in the documents: ecclesiology, mission, return to sources . . .   

To Congar: Your theology has had to evolve, right?  We are all disciples of Christ. 

Congar replied: I couldn’t agree more but the church is not ready to hear it yet. 

Certainly he thought RC church had gift of apostolicity.

Paul Griffith: The church has moved on since Congar.  The controversy is trying to understand the council documents (which is normal).  Contrast ecumenical vision vs. John Paul II encyclical 1995 about ecumenism.  Would you agree there is a difference in tone?  It is not altogether in Congar’s direction. 

Philibert: Congar was dead at that time.  When he started in 1937, he never dreamed there would be another council, a document on ecumenism.  He did not lose interest but his last years were full of gratitude.  The biggest difference between Congar and Vatican is Congar’s interest in the periphery and local church.  Vatican wants to subsume local in the larger church. 

Austin: To add to that, John Paul II is going at things in a very different way.  He is opening the door at ordained ministry.  Read the Holy Thursday addresses—a radically different approach. 

But for Congar, in that Jurist article, the whole church is apostolic succession.  Raymond Brown made people nervous—ordained ministry is not in the New Testament. 

Griffith: I am not disagreeing with you—I think that is mostly right.  But I want to ask about the development of doctrine.  How now should (normatively) we as Catholics think about these things—like proper doctrine of apostolicity? 

Austin: Raymond Brown was never disciplined by the Church.  Was the Last Supper the first ordination?  John Paul thought it was but most New Testament scholars would disagree. 

Philibert: Magisterium.  Even with development of doctrine, you look to the periphery says Congar and I agree.  Church does not exist so that priest can say mass in church.  Rather, that the church can be benign contagion in their daily lives.  Congar thought that was Augustine’s vision.  A missionary ecclesiology rather than a client ecclesiology. 

Griffith: That sounds hyper dialectic.  We can have both/and. 

Hauerwas: I was struck at Notre Dame that Catholics had fine hierarchical understanding but didn’t give a toot for local congregation.  I take that to be a pastoral challenge.  Do you think my characterization is fair?  Any congregation in Ireland would count.

Philibert:  I think that is the great challenge.  You can see Gerry (Austin) and I have bought this.  You could say Congar is an egghead not a parish priest.  Most people go to church for 15 minutes and they feel good about themselves—5000 families in one parish.  That is probably going to be the majority but church has responsibility to proclaim prophetic gift of community.

Austin: Read I Believe in the Holy Spirit.


We have bright former MIT prof.  She said I am so glad I read I believe in the Holy Spirit because now I read Congar with new set of glasses.  Early church would call it baptismal theology.  To the Father, through the Son in the Spirit; but early church included mention of the church. 

Reinhard Huetter: Thank for for this fascinating introduction.  I was constantly thinking about local parish—St. Joseph’s in Raleigh.  It could be described in Congar’s terms in many ways.  All races and people—diversity.  Small: 400-500 families.  They sing well—even the Latin.  Strong community.  Still vast majority would reject Congar’s theology.  They would reject it because Eucharist is revered over baptism.  Ordination is indispensable.  I agree with Griffith that this is not either/or.  The healthy church life is flowing from a deeper center.  It is servant and ordained priesthood.  One could get Congar’s church life without his theology.  He became Cardinal under John Paul II.  I would press continuity between Congar and Vatican on core issues. 

Austin: Yes, on core issues there is no difference. 

Griffith: The tradition book by Congar book--I have profited from it greatly.  I would say start with it.