On the last day of 2009, theologian Edward Schillebeeckx was buried in Nijmegen. The funeral of the controversial Dominican was attended by a fair number of fewllo theologians and representatives of the Church. This despite the often difficult relations between Schillebeeckx and the authorities. On behalf of the Dutch bishops, Msgr. Gerard de Korte attended the funeral, and he writes about it in his column at rkk.nl.
On the death of Father Schillebeeckx
Just before Christmas the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx died at a very high age. On new Year’s Eve he was buried in Nijmegen. I, representing the Dutch bishops, also gave my last regards to this influential theologian. Memorial articles appeared in the media, very soon after his death. As during his life he remains a controversial theologian after his death.
An orthodox protestant theologian called him a ‘liberal whistle-blower’. Conservative Catholic websites speak of an ‘heretic’. Through their chairman, Bishop van Luyn, the Dutch bishops utter careful words. They recall with appreciation the major role of Father Schillebeeckx during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He remained, in the words of Bishop van Luyn, an influential theologian in the years following, both within the Netherlands and without.
I would call Schillebeeckx a challenging and especially difficult theologian. In the first place difficult to read. Incorrect interpretations were easily made, not just because of the erudition of the books but sometimes also because of the long and convoluted sentences. Schillebeeckx also became increasingly difficult for Church authorities, in Rome and in the Netherlands. Looking back I can only consider it tragic that bishops and theologians of Father Schillebeeckx’ stature ended up fruitlessly opposite one another.
The early Schillebeeckx
As far as I can recall, Christ, the sacrament of the encounter with God was the first of Schillebeeckx’ works that I read. It is a work by the early Schillebeeckx from the 1950s. I read it as a history student and was gripped by its piety. The relational approach struck me. Our faith is ultimately about the personal relation of God who came to us in Christ. Schillebeeckx calls Christ the primordial sacrament. The encounter with God is deeply connected with our encounter with Christ, prime access to the Father. In the Church, and especially in the sacraments of the Church, Christ approaches us visibly and tangibly.
Critical about tradition
After my graduation as a historian I became a seminarian and read, among others, his famed book Jesus: an experiment in Christology. Schillebeeckx had become a systematic theologian who wanted to do justice to the results of the study of the Bible. In his own words, he wanted to be an orthodox theologian who was critical about tradition. He emphasised the importance of hermeneutics. A repetition without context of the dogmatic formulae of the past is not fruitful for a living faith. A good explanation and presentation are exceedingly important. What did the early Church say about the mystery of God and the person of Jesus Christ? How can the old faith be put in such words that it is relevant for modern Christians? In this light theology had a deeply pastoral motive for Schillebeeckx: how can I help modern people to achieve the faith in Jesus that the Church wants to express in her christological dogma?
The later Schillebeeckx
In Schillebeeckx later works current events became important, next to tradition. He said God’s salvation far beyond the boundaries of the Church. People are the words with which God write His story. This support of the broad working of God’s Spirit leads to both agreement and questions. Is God’s unique salvation through Jesus Christ still done enough justice?
Discussion about holy orders
Recently there has been some tension between the bishops and the Dutch Dominicans about a brochure about holy orders. Especially the notion that a local community could let someone who was not a priest celebrate the Eucharist was a bridge too far for the bishops. The word schismatic was unavoidable in this context. One could wonder in how far Father Schillebeeckx, with his critical publications about holy orders, stimulated this vision.
In his response, Bishop van Luyn, as chair of the bishops’ conference, rightly says that Professor Schillebeeckx’ new way of practicing theology led to discussion. Future research will have to clarify the definitive role of Father Schillebeeckx. Personally, I see important questions for a theological evaluation. Does his later theology do enough justice to early Christian declarations about the triune God and Jesus Christ? And the many questions that his theology of holy orders has caused remains interesting.
At the grave
Standing at Father Schillebeeckx’ grave, however, I did not bid farewell to a difficult theologian but first of all a brother in Christ. Theological concepts and disagreements are exceedingly relative. I had to think about an experience that Saint Thomas Aquinas related. After an intense experience of the Eucharist the great medieval theologian is said to have called his imposing work nothing more than straw. All our knowing is temporal. On the other side of death we will fully know as we are known now. Edward Schillebeeckx need no longer look into a mirror darkly, but can now see face to face (1 Cor. 13,12). He died with great faith. On the day of his death he felt that God was calling him. Some hours before his passing he said, “I see a door, half open, and much light”.
His death announcement mentions a looking forward to the encounter with God as the Living and the Merciful of all people. We prayed that Father Schillebeeckx is secure with God, who came so very close to us in Christ. May he rest in peace.
Msgr. Dr. G.J.N. De Korte