Although Belgian by birth, Schillebeeckx spent most of his life in the Netherlands, where he was professor of Dogmatics and the History of Theology at the University of Nijmegen from 1958 until his retirement in 1982.
He first came to public notice shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, when the Dutch Catholic bishops issued a controversial letter advocating substantial reform of the Church and the curtailing of the power of the Vatican. Schillebeeckx made a considerable contribution to the content of this letter and was widely regarded as its author.
As a consequence he was not invited to be an official consultant to the Council, though he accompanied the Dutch bishops to Rome and served as their theological adviser. During the course of the three years of deliberation he also gave regular lectures, sometimes to as many as 200 bishops from all parts of the world, on what he regarded as the strengths and weaknesses of the Council's basic documents.
His influence on the final drafts of these was indirectly substantial, and he was among a group of leading European scholars who successfully pressed the Council to espouse change. It was said at the time that the Rhine had flowed into the Tiber, and it was a cause of great dismay to Schillebeeckx and his colleagues – as well as to many other devout Catholics – that many of the Council's forward-looking proposals failed to be implemented.
He therefore played for many years a prominent part in the editing of the quarterly journal Concilium, which seeks to keep alive the spirit and thinking of Vatican II; and in 1989 he joined 163 (mainly West German) theologians in a scathing and unprecedented attack on Pope John Paul II for his conservative policies.
Schillebeeckx's own writings aroused considerable suspicion in the Vatican, and in December 1979 he was summoned to Rome to answer a number of questions about his beliefs and their compatibility with the Church's official teaching. Two other investigations followed later in his career, but none of these led to formal condemnation.
His output of theological work created a bibliography of more than 400 items, including many books, none of which makes for easy reading. He was a profound thinker, with a dense literary style, and his two most important works – Jesus (1974) and Christ (1977) – occupy 786 and 926 pages respectively. The final volume of the trilogy, Church, did not appear until 1990.
Schillebeeckx was one of only two major Catholic theologians to take full account of modern Biblical criticism and this inevitably influenced his handling of the New Testament. He also had a particular concern to relate the traditional teaching of the Church to contemporary human experience, so that lay people might be drawn to a dynamic, living faith. It was unfortunate that few of these could understand him, though his use of simile and story was often brilliantly illuminating.
Two other matters caused anxiety at the Vatican. In his book Jesus he emphasised the role of the Christian faith's founder as a prophet ("an eschatological prophet" he called him) and this could be interpreted as emphasising too strongly the human side of his personality at the expense of his divinity. Furthermore, by applying the methods of historical criticism to the development of the Church's life, Schillebeeckx concluded that few elements in its organisation could be regarded as fixed and final.
It is not clear how he managed to avoid official condemnation. One theory is that, since Professor Hans Kung, of the German university of Tübingen, was under investigation at the same time and attracting much publicity, the Vatican did not wish to add to its problems. Kung himself believed that his friend escaped because there was no one in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose Dutch was good enough for a serious consideration of his complex thought.
It was also the case that Schillebeeckx's conclusions were always carefully qualified and subject to frequent revision. And, unlike Kung, he was a reluctant controversialist. He was a humble, quiet man, of great charm – an attractive personality who was not easy to vilify. The jury of the Erasmus Prize for important contributions to European culture understood his work well enough to make him, in 1982, the first theologian to receive it; and the next year he was made a Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau, the highest civil honour in Holland.
Edward Cornelius Florentius Schillebeeckx was born into a Flemish family in Antwerp on November 12 1914, the sixth of 14 children. His father, who was a chartered accountant and an intellectual, influenced him greatly; although dismissive of the clergy, he was a devout Roman Catholic who took his family to Mass every day at 6.30am and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads before they went to sleep at night.
Edward, along with his eight brothers, attended a Jesuit School but found the Jesuit way of life too rigid and formal; and he decided, on leaving school, to enter the less formal, more open Dominican Order. He served his novitiate at Ghent, then spent three years – which he always described as the best in his life – studying Philosophy at the University of Louvain.
There he was encouraged to read the works of Kant, Hegel and Freud, though all were officially banned by the Church. In 1938 he was conscripted for military service, but was allowed to spend most of his time pursuing his studies. After a year he was permitted to return to Louvain.
Almost immediately, however, the outbreak of war demanded his recall to the army, though the speed of the German occupation of Belgium in May 1940 allowed no time for serious defensive action. Instead he went back to Louvain to embark on a three-year course of Theology, and he was ordained a priest in 1943.
Having completed his doctorate, Schillebeeckx was appointed a lecturer in dogmatic theology at Louvain until the end of the war. He then spent two years in further study in Paris, where he came under the influence of Professor Marie-Dominique Chenu, whom he regarded as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and as a prophet of freedom whose work had already been condemned by the Vatican. He also had a number of important conversations with Albert Camus.
Schillebeeckx was then recalled to teach again at Louvain and combined this with the chaplaincy of the local prison, as well as pastoral work among the students and preaching in village churches. The university authorities, however, regarded him as being too lax with the students, and there was trouble when he took two coach-loads of them to the frontier with East Germany to meet a progressive Lutheran pastor who was working with refugees.
During this time he was often invited to lecture elsewhere and to write for Dutch journals concerned with church reform, and in 1958 he became a professor at Nijmegen. He moved in to the Albertinum, a large Dominican house in the town, where he remained until its closure.
There were at that time no more than 40 theological students, mainly priests, at the university, so his teaching responsibilities were light. But he could never refuse an invitation to speak elsewhere, and he soon became involved in the preparatory work for Vatican II.
During the 1970s he became increasingly involved in social and political issues, especially the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, which he always regarded as a great evil.
He also developed a special interest in Latin American liberation theology, and his own work was regarded as significant by its practitioners. All of which, he insisted, was an integral part of theological exploration and not an added veneer.
Following his retirement from his university chair in 1982 he became much less active, and the now conservative leadership of the Dutch Church was less appreciative of his insights. But he remained a theologian of international status and a sign of hope to serious reformers in all the churches.
When the Albertinum closed for want of friars, Schillebeeckx moved into a flat nearby and during his final years was cared for by a devoted nun.
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