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A Saint in Heaven

by Fr. Thomas Crean O.P.

Who was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century? Many, seduced by the glamour of personality (which obtains even among theologians), would answer Karl Rahner SJ. But some who know how ferociously certain pre-Vatican II thinkers were buried by the liberals and reformers would look elsewhere entirely. One who loomed like a giant was Pére Garrigou-Lagrange OP who is now being slowly rediscovered, not least by Fr Aidan Nichols OP who has accepted a new lectureship at Oxford University in part to reassess his work. Here Fr Thomas Crean OP introduces Garrigou-Lagrange's life and thought.

John Henry Newman, in his Plain and Parochial Sermons, said this: "Great saints, great events, great privileges, like the everlasting mountains, grow as we recede from them." As we leave behind the twentieth century it becomes easier for us to see who the great men of that time within the Church truly were, and any list of such men would surely include the French Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Father Garrigou-Lagrange's works would once have been highly esteemed by seminarians and theologians alike; after the Second Vatican Council they fell largely into neglect, but more recently there have been some small signs that he is being read again, e.g. a new book published by an American Dominican introducing his life and work, and the inclusion of his name among the lecture topics scheduled for this coming year at Oxford University.

So who was this man, described rudely enough by the novelist François Mauriac as "that sacred monster of Thomism", but by Pope Paul VI as "this illustrious theologian, faithful servant of the Church and of the Holy See?" (The phrase "monstre sacré" is not easy to translate. It may be used colloquially of a 'legendary' media personality, such as a film star. Used of a theologian it was certainly meant ironically. I am grateful to Mr Brian Sudlow for supplying this information.)

Pére Garrigou-Lagrange as a young priest

Absolute truth

Gontran-Marie Garrigou-Lagrange was born in 1877 into a solid Catholic family living in the south-west of France. In 1896 he began studies in medicine at the university of Bordeaux, but whilst there he read a book by the Catholic philosopher Ernest Hello which changed the direction of his life. Years later Fr Garrigou described the impression this one book made upon him: "I glimpsed how the doctrine of the Catholic Church is the absolute Truth about God, about His inner life, and about man, his origins and his supernatural destiny. As if in an instant of time, I saw how this doctrine is not simply 'the best we can put forward based on our present knowledge', but the absolute truth which shall not pass away..."

To this intuition the young university student would remain faithful for the remaining sixty-eight years of his life.

Medical studies abandoned, Gontran-Marie entered the French Dominicans at the age of twenty, and received the religious name Reginald. (Blessed Reginald of Orleans was a contemporary of St Dominic: our Lady appeared to him in a vision, cured him of a mortal sickness and gave to him a white scapular that thereupon became part of the Dominican habit.) Friar Reginald had the good fortune to receive his initial training from Dominicans committed to implementing Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, the document that insisted upon the unique place of St Thomas Aquinas in philosophy and theology. It was by studying the angelic doctor that the young Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange nourished the conviction that had brought him to the cloister: the unchangeableness of revealed truth.

His superiors clearly perceived his abilities, for after ordination in 1902 Fr Reginald was enrolled for further philosophical studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was a mark of the trust that his superiors placed in him that he was sent to so aggressively secular an environment while still a young priest. Among his lecturers were Henri Bergson, Emile Durkheim, and the not yet excommunicated Alfred Loïsy, 'father of Modernism'. His fellow students included the future philosopher Jacques Maritain, not yet a Catholic and indeed driven almost to despair by the prevailing nihilism of the great French university. Father Garrigou's relations with Maritain were later to be both fruitful and troubled.

In 1906, Fr Reginald was assigned to teach philosophy at Le Saulchoir, the house of studies of the French Dominicans. His pedagogic skill was such that in 1909, at the age of thirty-two, he was sent to teach at the Dominican University in Rome, the Angelicum. Here he remained for the next fifty years, teaching three courses: Aristotle, apologetics and spiritual theology. He had the gift of making the most difficult subjects clear, and of showing how sound philosophy and revealed truth fit together in a wonderful harmony. Father Garrigou clearly loved his work: one of his students remembered him exclaiming, "I could teach Aristotle for three hundred years and never grow tired!" He also possessed what is perhaps the rarer gift of communicating his own zest for a subject to his listeners, for his lectures, abstract though they were, were not dull affairs. One student paints this portrait of Fr Garrigou lecturing: "His small eyes were filled with mischief and laughter, his body was constantly moving, his face was able to assume attitudes of horror, anger, irony, indignation and wonder."

The watchman

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange was by nature and conviction a controversialist. He believed that the theologian's task was not simply to teach Catholic doctrine but also to be, in the scriptural phrase, a watchman, on guard against whatever might undermine it. In the spirit of St Pius X and his encyclical Pascendi, published in 1907, Fr Garrigou considered that the greatest threat to the Catholic faith was what is called 'Modernism' – that confused effort, made sometimes with good intentions and sometimes with bad, to 'reinterpret' Catholic doctrines in line with prevailing trends in history, philosophy and the natural sciences. Into the combat with Modernism he entered with vigour, attacking not people but errors, and desiring to lead those in error back to the integral truth of the Catholic Faith.

Two of the 'great names' of the day with whom Garrigou-Lagrange crossed swords early on were his former professor Henri Bergson and Maurice Blondel. Bergson, now almost forgotten, was then a greatly celebrated Jewish philosopher who seemed to many Catholics a useful ally in the struggle against materialism. Father Garrigou showed that Bergson's writings were incompatible with the Catholic belief that by our concepts we can grasp the unchanging natures of things, and thus can form dogmas that will never need to be revised. In the end Bergson was brought, in part by Garrigou's efforts, to the very brink of the Catholic Church, though he died unbaptised.

Blondel was another widely-fêted philosopher who was a Catholic. His explanation of how only Christianity could fulfil the deepest human longings compromised what is called 'the supernatural order': the fact that God by sanctifying grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit raises us infinitely beyond anything that our nature itself requires. For Fr Garrigou, the distinction between the natural and supernatural orders was of the essence of Christianity – he loved to quote a dictum of St Thomas Aquinas, that "the smallest amount of grace in one person is greater than the whole of creation". One child with a baptised soul is of more value than all the angelic hierarchies, naturally considered. It was because Blondel's ideas threatened to undermine this distinction that Garrigou-Lagrange resisted them. In so doing he anticipated the teaching that Pope Pius XII was later to issue in the encylical, Humani Generis.

In his defence of Catholic doctrine according to the principles of St Thomas, Fr Garrigou was greatly aided by Jacques Maritain. Maritain, originally from a markedly anti-clerical family, entered the Church in 1906 and was to become the most brilliant Thomist philosopher of the twentieth century, dying in 1973. Between the two wars, Garrigou-Lagrange and Maritain organised the 'Thomist Study Circles'. These were groups of laymen committed to the spiritual life who studied St Thomas and the Thomist tradition, and who met once a year for a five-day retreat preached by Fr Garrigou at the Maritains' house in Meudon. The study circles were highly successful, and Meudon became a seed-bed of vocations. The young Yves Congar, who was later to write somewhat bitterly about Garrigou-Lagrange, was present at some of the retreats preached by the Dominican friar at Meudon, and later recalled: "He made a profound impression on me. Some of his sermons filled me with enthusiasm and greatly satisfied me by their clarity, their rigour, their breadth and their spirit of faith."

Throughout this period Garrigou-Lagrange's reputation grew and became international. His lectures at the Angelicum on the spiritual life were particularly in demand. According to one author they became "one of the unofficial tourist sites for theologically-minded visitors to Rome", attracting students from other universities and even experienced priests who wished to learn more about spiritual direction. (Father Garrigou himself was a sought-after spiritual director, valued alike for his knowledge, his firmness and his compassion.)

Call to holiness

It is perhaps in this field of mystical, or spiritual, theology that Garrigou's most original work was done. As early as 1917, a special professorship in 'ascetical and mystical theology' had been created for him at the Angelicum, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. His great achievement was to synthesise the highly abstract writings of St Thomas Aquinas with the 'experiential' writings of St John of the Cross, showing how they are in perfect harmony with each other. The one describes the spiritual life from the point of view, so to speak, of God, analysing the manifold graces that He gives to the soul to bring it into union with Himself; the other describes the same process from the point of view of man, showing the 'attitudes' that a faithful soul should adopt at various stages of the spiritual journey. It must have been particularly pleasing for Fr Garrigou when St John of the Cross, whose orthodoxy had once been doubted by some writers, was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI.

The other great theme of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's spiritual theology was the universality of God's call to the mystical life. He argued convincingly that while the more dramatic mystical phenomena such as visions and locutions are obviously reserved to a few, all the baptised are invited not just to a life of virtue, but to a life of close union with God in prayer. This union is in the most proper sense of the word mystical, since it is founded on the gifts of the Holy Ghost and on our sharing in God's own life by sanctifying grace. He went so far as to say that the transforming union as described by such saints as St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila was simply the full flowering of the grace of baptism. At the same time, Fr Garrigou's writings contain useful warnings against abusing this doctrine, for he often points out that any so-called mysticism not based on the practice of the virtues and on meditation on Christ and His Passion is an illusion.

The role of university professor naturally brought with it the obligation of supervising doctoral students. It is said that Garrigou considered his best student to have been his fellow French Dominican, Marie-Dominique Chenu. Chenu's later career, however, must have been a disappointment to his mentor, for he went on to distance himself from the kind of Thomism traditionally practised in the Dominican Order in favour of a far more 'historical' approach to the subject. Fr Garrigou, however, was always less interested in historical questions of who influenced whom than in discovering where truth in itself lay. It also seems unlikely that Garrigou would have been impressed by Chenu's involvement in the 'worker-priest movement'. Another doctoral student of Father Garrigou's, and one destined for an even more prominent role in the Church than Chenu, was a young Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla. Under Garrigou-Lagrange's direction the future Pope wrote a thesis on 'The meaning of Faith in the Writings of St John of the Cross.'

Kingship of Christ

The disaster of world war in 1939 brought a special, personal suffering to Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange: estrangement from Maritain. When France fell, Fr Garrigou, in common with many Frenchmen, continued to recognise Marshal Pétain, the hero of the Great War, as the rightful head of state. It followed that Charles de Gaulle was a mere rebellious soldier attempting to usurp authority. Father Garrigou did not shrink from publicly stating the logical conclusion: objectively speaking, to support de Gaulle was a mortal sin. But Maritain was a Gaullist, and made radio broadcasts from America in favour of the Free French.

This practical disagreement was matched by a theoretical one: Maritain had come to advocate a 'pluralist' model of society, in which adherents of different religions or of none would be granted equal freedom of expression and of public practice; a shared 'sense of human brotherhood' would be enough, he argued, to create a basically just society. Garrigou-Lagrange considered that Maritain was compromising the social doctrine of the Church by his writings on this subject, and also that he was overly optimistic about the spiritual state of those outside the Church. He wrote a solemn letter to Maritain asking him to change course, but Maritain, despite the great esteem he had for Fr Garrigou as a theologian and as a man of prayer, refused to do so. The friendship between the two men was wounded, and could not be healed, or not in this life.

After the war Fr Garrigou continued to teach in Rome. Over the years, his lecture notes were turned into an impressive array of books, the more technical ones being published in Latin and the more popular ones in French. In particular he commented on St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiæ, taking his place in the line of the great commentators on that work, a line that stretches back to the Middle Ages. All the time, he was conscious, like Pope Pius XII, of how the dangerous tendencies against which he had striven in the days of St Pius X were still alive in the Church, threatening to undermine the integrity of doctrine. A famous article of his, called, 'Where is the New Theology Headed?' was written shortly after World War II. It contains this shrewd comment about Catholics who were unwittingly harming the Catholic cause: "They go to 'the masters of modern thought' because they want to convert them to the faith, and they finish by being converted by them." An interesting remark, perhaps, for these days of inter-religious dialogue.

No portrait of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange would be complete without reference to his religious life. For if he was an internationally renowned professor (and a feared opponent), he was above all a friar of the Order of Preachers. He was known, in fact, for his fidelity to the regular life. Although dispensations from the choral office were readily available in the Dominican Order for someone with his teaching load, Fr Reginald was habitually present in choir. He would have gladly echoed a remark made by St John Bosco to his religious: "Liturgy is our entertainment." We are told that he was very modest in matters of food and drink and that he felt that it was hardly compatible with religious poverty to smoke. His 'cell' at the Angelicum was the most spartan in the priory, with no ornamentation, and a bed that was, in the words of one contemporary, "a pallet and a mattress so thin that it was virtually just an empty sack." It was not that he had no attraction for the things of the senses – as a young man he had learned to love the music of Beethoven, a love that remained with him through life. Yet – as he taught generations of Roman students – ascetism is a permanent necessity in this life, both because our fallen nature inclines us to sin, and also because we have to be made capable of the infinite good which is God.

Father Garrigou liked to emphasise that there is no incompatibility between external works such as teaching, preaching and retreat-giving and the monastic life that he had learned to live within the cloister. Following a dictum of St Thomas, he would remark that a friar's external activity should flow "from an abundance of contemplation", especially from liturgical prayer, mental prayer and above all the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He was always troubled when anyone seemed to rank action more highly than contemplation, or spoke of the latter as a mere means to an end. He liked to emphasise that contemplation is an end in itself, a higher good, from the fulness of which preaching comes forth. To explain this idea, he would use the analogy of the Incarnation of the Word and man's redemption. From all eternity God willed the Incarnation, not as a means subordinated to our redemption, but as a greater good, from which our redemption would, so to speak, overflow.

In short, Fr Garrigou-Lagrange was not only a master of spiritual theology: he lived what he taught. Yet if his vocation lay principally in what are called 'the spiritual works of mercy', he did not forget the corporal ones. In his room he kept a box with the inscription, 'Pour mes pauvres', and into this he would invite his many visitors to put alms. When it was full he might be seen doing the rounds of the city of Rome, distributing the contents to the poor.

Final years

Father Garrigou had worked in various capacities for the Holy Office from the days of Benedict XV onwards, and in the late 1950s Pope John XXIII invited him to join the theological commission that was preparing documents for the Second Vatican Council. But by this time his strength was failing, and he had to decline. He gave his last lecture at the Angelicum shortly before Christmas, 1959. For the next five years Friar Reginald lived in a serene decline of his mental faculties. As his mind and his eyes failed, this great theologian who had once written so subtly of potentiality and act, of sufficient and efficacious grace, of the inner life of God and the glory of Heaven, would remain in his bare cell or in the priory church, praying his Rosary and awaiting his own transitus. He died on 15 February 1964, the feast of one of the greatest of Dominican mystics, Blessed Henry Suso.

Unanswerable questions are the most fascinating. What would Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange have said, what would he have done, if he had lived a little longer with his faculties intact? What would he have thought of the Second Vatican Council, and of the liturgical reform? Might he, like his confrère Roger-Thomas Calmel, have become an early ally of Archbishop Lefebvre in the struggle to maintain orthodoxy? Or would he perhaps, like Cardinal Ottaviani, have spoken once and then resigned himself and the Church to God? Who shall say? A merciful Providence spared him all such puzzles: he had fought the good fight long enough, and he was called home.

Let the last word be given to Jacques Maritain. In 1937 Maritain recorded in his diary a disagreement which he had had with Fr Garrigou over the Spanish Civil War. Years later, when Maritain published his diaries, the following note was appended to the passage in question: "This great theologian, little versed in the things of the world, had an admirably candid heart, which God finally purified by a long and very painful physical trial, a cross of complete annihilation, which he had expected and had accepted in advance. I pray to him now with the saints in heaven."

Suggested Reading

I should like to acknowledge my indebtedness for this article to a recent book by an American Dominican, Fr Richard Peddicord, entitled, The Sacred Monster of Thomism. As far as I know, it is the only book that has been written expressly on Fr Garrigou-Lagrange's life and legacy. It is published by St Augustine's Press.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange wrote 28 books and over 600 articles. His best-known work of mystical theology is the two-volume study, The Three Ages of the Interior Life. This is in effect a summa of his research in this field. Many people, laymen, religious and priests, have found it very valuable. It has recently been reprinted in English by TAN Books.

For those interested in apologetics, De Revelatione is an austere masterpiece. It was in large part translated into English in 1926 by Thomas Walshe under the title, The Principles of Catholic Apologetics. A companion work, though more philosophical in content, is God: His Existence and Nature, published originally by St Louis. The same publishing house produced translations (from Latin) of Fr Garrigou's commentaries on the Summa Theologiæ of St Thomas.

TAN Books have also reprinted various other of the more 'popular' works of Garrigou-Lagrange, including The Mother of our Saviour and Everlasting Life. These are full of solid doctrine, whilst also being suitable for devotional use.

Finally, there is a work called The Last Writings of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, published in 1969 by the New City Press. This contains retreat talks given by Fr Reginald in his last years.

[Taken from "Mass of Ages" August 2006, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine] Reproduced with permission


Version: 8th February 2009

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