Somewhat unnoticed this past week in the U.S. media was the passing of Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. (1914-2009), a Dominican priest who advised the Dutch bishops at Vatican II and became a major figure in the Church’s efforts to implement the reforms of that Council in the decades that followed. He died December 23 in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, where he had lived and taught for half a century. He was 95.
“With his academic studies and pastoral books, he inspired a large reading public, both within and outside the Christian churches,” stated a press release from the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation. “His erudition and eminent knowledge of the Christian tradition went hand in hand with a strong commitment to Church and society. This theology was focused on human beings in the creation of a pre-eminently humane God, who object is human salvation: Deus humanissimus.”
Schillebeeckx is deservedly famous for his theological scholarship, which often stressed the pastoral and experiential elements of practice and belief (including Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1959), Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, and Christ: the Christian Experience in the Modern World in the 1970s, and Church: the Human Story of God in 1989, among many others), but also for his efforts to see the reforms of Vatican II carried out in the fractious decades following Vatican II. In his obituary, the National Catholic Reporter noted that “[a]fter the council the Netherlands became the most progressive country in the world in implementing Vatican II initiatives, and Schillebeeckx, often behind the scenes, was at the center of this movement.”
Three times in the 1980s Schillebeeckx was questioned by officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over controversial issues in his writings including Christology and lay ministry in the Church, but neither he nor his writings were ever censured.
Less well remembered about Schillebeeckx are his sociological studies and analysis of the Catholic Church in the United States in the late 1960s. Like other prominent European theologians of the time (Hans Kung being the most famous example), Schillebeeckx came to the United States on several speaking tours in the years following Vatican II, traveling throughout the country and speaking to packed lecture halls at every stop. Lecturing frequently on the theological underpinnings of the “priesthood of all believers,” Schillebeeckx also had the opportunity to speak with Catholics of every stripe during these junkets, and reported that his own observations were of an American Church deeply divided on many levels. In an article in Catholic Mind from March 1968, he was quoted as saying “the discontent among American priests” was “indescribable.”
In his final years Schillebeeckx returned to his study of the sacraments, according to the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation, and was working on a book on religious rituals and their connection to the sacraments at the time of his death.
Jim Keane, S.J.