5.3.4 Henri de Lubac and Louis-Joseph Lebret

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Unit 5 Contents



Henri de Lubac was perhaps the most significant Catholic theologian of the twentieth century.  His thinking was highly influential at the Second Vatican Council and on John Paul II among others.  In 1946, he published a book called Surnaturel (this French word means ‘supernatural’) in which he made an argument that was vast in both its scope and its implications for Catholic Christianity.

He argued that most Catholic theology from the sixteenth to the twentieth century had been based on a misinterpretation of both St Thomas Aquinas and the whole of the earlier Christian tradition.  In this misinterpretation, purely natural human flourishing had been separated off from supernatural blessing.  In other words, the wellbeing of humans, as we are in this world, can be described entirely in terms of what is possible in the natural world – the fulfilment of purely natural capacities.  Yes, God saves us through Jesus Christ for eternal blessing, but this has no inherent relationship to human nature.

As I say, De Lubac saw the view I have just summarized as deeply mistaken.  He supplied massive evidence, through extensive historical study, that during earlier Church history, from the beginning up until the late medieval period (the fifteenth century), the Christian vision of human wellbeing had consistently been one in which the very way in which God has made us, our created humanity, means that we cannot be fulfilled by things within nature but need, in addition, what transcends nature.  It is by God’s grace that we find true human wellbeing, in communion with the triune God.  The consistent teaching during that long period is summed up in St Augustine of Hippo’s famous statement: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”.1

We can see de Lubac as taking Maritain’s point about the need for an ‘integral’ understanding of human persons further.  Whereas Maritain had continued to acknowledge that the ends we naturally desire in this world and our supernatural or spiritual ends are distinct, even though they need to be integrated, de Lubac’s thesis was that these are inseparable.  We cannot understand the apparently natural ends we seek without recognizing that their context is that persons find fulfilment beyond nature, in communion with God.  “For de Lubac, the paradox of a natural desire for the supernatural was built into the very concept of the human.”2

Here is the sentence in the last reading from PP that directly quotes de Lubac:

True, man can organize the world apart from God, but “without God man can organize it in the end only to man’s detriment. An isolated humanism is an inhuman humanism”. (#42)3

If this is true, it gives the basis for a profound critique of views of development that reduce humans to only economic agents.  These are not just wrong but damaging.  Pope John Paul made exactly such a critique later, characterizing such views as ‘economism’.  He focused both on the Communism he had known in Poland and on a narrow capitalism in which humans are made subject to profit maximization.  (See especially Laborem Exercens of 1981 which can be studied in Module A, Unit 4.)

If you would like to read a bit more about de Lubac, here is good place to start:


Optional reading  (5pp)

Henri de Lubac: an on-line archive


We have noted the influence of Maritain and de Lubac on PP, and students of CST need to know about both these major figures.  But the work of neither of them was actually focused on international development.  Maritain was first and foremost a philosopher and de Lubac was a theologian.

This is where we need to bring in the third person mentioned on the last page: Louis-Joseph Lebret OP.  As a young priest in the 1930s, Lebret launched a movement for young seafarers modeled on Cardijn’s Young Christian Workers. In 1941, inspired by Maritain, he began a journal entitled Économie et Humanisme and a research centre with the same name that he directed for the rest of his life.4. His activities became focused on international development and he worked in several Latin American countries, South Vietnam and Lebanon.  More than anyone, it was Lebret who pioneered the thinking about how to address global poverty that became expressed as ‘integral human development’.  He emphasized that this required a multidimensional approach, embracing “economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, and spiritual components of human well-being….  Lebret never tired of insisting that development was for ‘every person and the whole person’”.5. He was the Vatican’s spokesperson at a major United Nations conference on trade and development in 1964 and then was entrusted with work on what would become PP:

Lebret intensely participated in [that] event and was, along with Che Guevara, the most applauded speaker at the plenary session.  Within this context Lebret began to write a document on the development of peoples at the request of Paul VI.6

But Lebret died in 1966, the year before PP’s publication.  The text honours him as an “eminent specialist” (#14).  We could say that Lebret translated Maritain and de Lubac into the language of international development.

While Donal Dorr gives attention only to Lebret’s influence (not mentioning Maritain or de Lubac), he uses a helpful analogy to put across the way in which the vision of integral human development makes PP different from earlier CST statements in this area (i.e. from Mater et Magistra and Gaudium et Spes).



If you are asked to describe your ideal house, how would go about doing so?

Dorr contrasts two ways of doing this.  You might start with an existing house and say how you’d like some things to be different (e.g. it should have three extra rooms, a sauna, and solar panels on the roof).

Or you might start with some general criteria that you think an ideal house must meet (spacious, large windows, view of the sea, etc.).7

Which approach would you take?


Dorr points out that the discussions of development in earlier CST documents take the first approach: they propose some modifications of the existing dominant model.  By contrast, in PP we find the second approach:

[Pope Paul VI] did not take the current conception of economic development… and then modify it.  Instead, he laid down certain basic standards by which we can [assess what counts as] authentic human development. In other words, what Populorum Progressio gives is a framework… of the ‘shape’ of genuine human development.8

This proved to be a hugely significant move, because ‘integral human development’ has continued to be central in later CST texts addressing global poverty and justice – that is, in Solicitudo Rei Socialis of 1987 and Caritas in Veritate of 2009.  We shall look at these in the next unit.

As we now work through the rest of PP, we can ask the question: to what extent does this presents a coherent outworking or application of the ‘theory’ of integral development?



End of 5.3.4

Go to 5.3.5   I.3 a. Integral development vs ‘unchecked liberalism’ (##22-28)


Module B outline

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  1. The outline I have given of De Lubac’s thesis in Surnaturel is indebted to the exposition in Fergus Kerr, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Blackwell, 2007), 72-75. 

  2. Cardinal Avery Dulles SJ, ‘Henri de Lubac: In Appreciation’, America, 28 Sept. 1991 

  3. Note 45 cites the source: Henri de Lubac SJ, Le drame de l’humanisme athee (3rd ed., Paris, Spes, 1945), p. 10; Eng. tr. The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1949), p. VII. 

  4. See Stefan Gigacz, ‘From Vatican II to the World Social Forum: An interview with Francisco “Chico” Whitaker, co-founder and “architect” of the World Social forum’, 4 April 2005 (accessed 21 Jan. 2015 at onlinecatholics.acu.edu.au/issue49/interview.doc), note 2. 

  5. Denis Goulet, ‘The Evolving Nature of Development in the Light of Globalization’, in Louis Sabourin (ed.), The Social Dimensions of Globalisation (Rome: Pontifical Academy of Social Science, 2000), pp. 26-46, at p. 34 (accessed 21 Jan. 2015 at http://www.pass.va/content/dam/scienzesociali/pdf/miscellanea2.pdf). 

  6. Vincent Cosmao OP, quoted in Allan Figueroa Deck, SJ, ‘Commentary on Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples)’, in Kenneth R. Himes, Lisa Sowle Cahill, et al. (eds),  Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Georgetown University Press, 2005), p. 296. 

  7. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 180 

  8. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 181