Monday, June 24, 2013

The Greatest Forgotten Catholic Theologian of the 20th Century

If the subject of 20th-century Catholic theology comes up in conversation, one will undoubtedly hear a whole slew of names being dropped - Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, and unfortunately, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx.  But hardly ever will one hear the name of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

Revered by many as the greatest Thomist theologian and by some as the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th-century, Garrigou-Lagrange stood (as his great mentor St. Thomas Aquinas did) against the errors of his day.  Like Aquinas who stood against the corrupted interpretations and translations of Aristotle, attacks on the Christian faith both within and outside the Church, and all sorts of other errors, Garrigou-Lagrange seemingly stood alone against the new assault on the Church known as Modernism.

Garrigou-Lagrange, in my reckoning, was as strictly orthodox as one could possibly get.  He was a disciple of St. Thomas to the very core, an adept philosopher, and an orthodox theologian and son of the Church.  So how is it that such a great mind in service to the Church seems so forgotten?

I confess that I don't know the answer.  Perhaps it lies in the density of his writings - but then again, in my encounters with more popular and well-known theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, I have seen nothing but incredibly dense material.  So this cannot be the reason.

Perhaps it is because Garrigou-Lagrange is unapologetically orthodox to the point of seeming "archaic".  With the advent of the two World Wars, it seems that theology in general (both Protestant and Catholic) took a different turn.  Scholasticism per se could have seemed outmoded - with the onslaught of war and genocide in these days, it was existentialism, paradox, and demythologization that seemingly began to take hold of the Christian mind.  Despite the papal encyclical Humani generis (of which he was supposedly the ghost writer of) condemning many of the en-vogue opinions of some modern theologians, it seems that the orthodoxy of Garrigou-Lagrange slipped away into the dark without much ado.

This is incredibly unfortunate.  Though I am no theologian, what I have read of Garrigou-Lagrange is incredible.  As a Catholic theologian, he wisely draws from the greatest Doctors of the Church; not only St. Thomas Aquinas, but others such as St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Siena as well.  His works warned of modernism's undermining of the faith, strengthened orthodox Catholic teaching, and stood as a beacon of light amidst swirling storms of theological errors and heresies.  In my opinion, one would do well to introduce themselves to his works.

Of course, any theologian can seem intimidating to the average reader not acquainted with heavy material.  Luckily, not all of Garrigou-Lagrange's works are written only for the academic and scholar, and some can be easily read by any Catholic serious about deepening their faith.  Two works come to mind that are accessible, and these are The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, as well as The Last Writings (though this one is really hard to find unfortunately).  The Last Writings is penetrating and profound, a welcome collection of meditations on the life of faith by a great theologian; on the other hand, The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life is an excellent introduction to the spiritual life of Catholics.  Drawing on orthodox Catholic teachings on grace, prayer, and faith, Garrigou-Lagrange outlines the mystical aspects of the spiritual life with surgical precision and sublime beauty.  I cannot recommend the work enough - if you wish, you can pick up a cheap copy here.

In the end, I still have to raise my hands in the air as to why this great theologian and son of the Church is not better known and more widely read.  But as it is, I hope these few words aid in changing that.


  1. I know him : ) Of course, since he relies heavily on John of the Cross as well as other wonderful theologians. How can I not LOL! I like his *Christian Perfection and Contemplation*.

    Thanks for always striving to help us learn about the *little knowns*.

    1. Theresa,
      You must have an incredible library! Thank you for reading!


  2. I think he upset a lot of people with the way in which he sought to silence de Lubac and others of that circle. He seems to have believed that a certain kind of neo-Thomism was the only legitimate way of doing theology, and he was pretty relentless in seeking to suppress other types of theology, and in seeking to silence the theologians who practised them. One could argue that this reflected a praiseworthy zeal for the truth, and one could equally argue that it represented the narrowness and rigidity of outlook which were the great weakness of neo-scholasticsm. Sadly, the arguments between neo-scholasticism and the various manifestations of the nouvelle theologie appear to have generated a lot of heat and antagonism on both sides among men of genuine holiness and goodwill.

  3. My impression of his work, is that it was geared toward those with vocational callings, not laity, so it's a bit difficult to grasp without a wide understanding of theology (esp. theological history).

    I've mentioned this before, but you can read his "Three Ages of the Interior Life" here:

    Out of that large text, I've gleaned about 30 pages of notes I want to commit to memory, and print out for occasional review. A lot of the text is explanatory & background material, which is useful if you're studying the subject, but perhaps not so useful if you just want to get to the bottom line :)

    I've found quite a few other works of Garrigou-Lagrange's online as well. I'll leave it to the reader to "GIY" :)

  4. Thank you for posting about the writings of Fr. Legrange. I have several on his works on my kindle that I was able to buy for less than a third of what I spent for the softbacks. He is a joy to read and I learn something new with every re-reading of his works.

  5. And let's not forget that Father G-L was the dissertation supervisor and mentor for a young Polish priest and graduate student at the Angelicum, one Father Karol Wojtyla ....