De Lubac: On Social Salvation

This week we’re looking at Cardinal Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, a 1947 text (originally published in French) where de Lubac contends for the “essentially social” nature of Catholicism. It’s not a summa, an overview of Catholic doctrine from start to end – it’s an argument for the social nature of the church, an argument that Catholicism isn’t just some doomsday cult where everybody’s keen to leave Earth and go to heaven. It’s about the church in the world, as part of the world, as invested in the wider body of humanity. And it actually has some pretty cool ideas when it puts theology through that filter.

For instance, de Lubac argues that salvation is a social phenomenon – that it’s about all of humanity becoming again one people under God. In the first chapter, ‘Dogma’, he argues that “monotheism postulates the brotherhood of all men.” He cites the first phrase of the Lord’s Prayer as evidence – “Our Father.” It’s not my father, in the singular – it’s plural. It’s inclusive, it means everyone together as one people. That’s why Christ taught us to pray that way, argues de Lubac: “he assumed the original unity of all men and that he was effectively to reunite them all in one same worship.” In that reading, sin also has a social dimension. We often see sin described as separation from God – but de Lubac argues that it’s also separation from other people. “All infidelity to the divine image that man bears in him, every breach with God, is at the same time a disruption of human unity.” De Lubac describes sin as “a breaking up, an individualization,” as “the disintegration of the limb cut off from the body.” In turn, salvation reunites us with the divine, and with each other. The ultimate vision is world peace, global harmony, all people acting as one, perfectly attuned to the divine image.

And – you know what the kicker is, of course. Any time the Catholics come out with any point of doctrine, they eventually conclude with ‘and this is why you have to be Catholic.’ For de Lubac, the Catholic church is the organ of global unity – it is the only place where true unity can exist. “Outside the church, no salvation.” In a later chapter, ‘Salvation through the Church,’ de Lubac offers “a positive form” of that sentiment, in case it has an otherwise “ugly sound” – he says that it’s not “outside the church you are damned,” but that “it is by the church and through the church alone that you will be saved.” Again, your mileage might vary on how encouraging that sounds – although it does open up some interesting avenues. If the vision of salvation is all people brought together as one, then any impulse for unity is arguably a desire for salvation, a desire to see humanity made perfect. That’s recognition of the call of God. This whole thing offers us interesting theories of the non-believer – if you’ve never heard of the church, de Lubac says, you can still be Catholic “as it were by anticipation.” If your soul tends towards the unity of all things, he says, then you are in some sense “already a Catholic.” This ruling only applies to people who don’t know about the church though – if you’ve heard of it, you are obliged to join it, because “the church is the natural place to which a soul amenable to the suggestions of grace spontaneously tends.” That is, if you know about the church, and haven’t become Catholic, it’s because you don’t actually want human unity – you “deceive” yourself if you “shirked answering [the church’s] summons.”

So – you know – de Lubac has to make his sales pitch, and he has to tell you why Catholicism is the only valid form of belief and how if you’re not Catholic or like a secret aspiring Catholic you don’t actually want to be saved – you know, he’s still a Catholic – but the idea of salvation as social, as a reconnecting of people to each other – I think that has some value. Everybody likes the idea of world peace – nobody thinks it’s a bad thing, right. Nobody objects to the idea of unity, the idea of that utopian future where we’ve sorted everything out and everybody’s cool with everyone else and there’s just nothing to fight about any more. I think everyone can find that desire within themselves – we can all agree that it’s what we all want. And there is something unifying about that. We might not agree on the details (it’s still official Catholic doctrine that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”), but we do all want to reach a point of unity. We do have that desire to come together and be one people. It’s interesting to think about that as perhaps in some sense an instinct towards the divine – to see reconciliation as being at least in part an instinct towards the transcendent, towards the eternal home.

This idea being presented by a Catholic also gives us an opportunity to reflect on unity as it relates to power. Obviously the Catholic concept of unity is put through the lens of their own organisation – salvation means the coming together of all people, but it’s under the partisan Catholic banner. It’s coming together under the authority and governance of the Catholic church, which, as noted, has very specific ideas about what utopia should look like. Their tendency is also to interpret every human activity in terms of their own frame of reference. If you want world peace, you’re a secret Catholic. You know – so often, theology and our thoughts about the divine are cast in very human terms – in terms of political structures, for instance. I read somewhere about how Catholicism was a fundamentally medieval faith – that it was rooted in a monarchic political context, where authority filtered down from one sovereign figure. You can see how that emphasis on the singular authority bleeds through here. To be saved, everyone has to come together under the correct banner – there’s one God, and we all have to get in line with His one plan and His one church – it has that very centralised, top-down thinking. Unity is understood in terms of obedience, in terms of allegiance. I guess for me, as a Protestant, I’m a little more comfortable with the democratic, with the egalitarian or ecumenical. That’s a political structure that, again, eventually bleeds into theological thinking – and the practical implications of that bleeding are in some places still being worked out. But the bigger point is that when we talk about the church as social, or about salvation as social – we are already social creatures, embedded in the fabric of society. That embeddedness shapes our understanding of these supposedly universal concepts, like the desire for world peace. It shapes our understanding of oneness, of unity, of what it means to come together. It is the material context of the many. And as we strive for world peace, or salvation – if that’s really what we’re doing – that tension between the plural and the singular will remain. It’s not clear where we’ll land in the final balance.


  1. […] And at this point, I just want to read on a little further. Von Balthasar doesn’t just say that anxiety is bad and illegal – he distinguishes more specifically between a sort of sin-anxiety, anxiety born out of some concern for your own welfare (“which comprises everything that throws a person back upon himself, closes him off, constricts him, and makes him unproductive and unfit”), and divine anxiety. Divine or Christian anxiety is anxiety as expressed in a proper, Christian manner – anxiety focused on other people, rather than on yourself. Von Balthasar uses as his point of reference the death of Lazarus in John 11. Mary and Martha are anxious for Lazarus, who is sick – this, to von Balthasar, is the true and righteous form of anxiety. “This anxiety is laid upon the women in the midst of their concern for their neighbour.” Christian anxiety, he says, is “fundamentally a catholic anxiety” – catholic meaning communal or collective. “As the believer leaps into God, he cannot thereby renounce solidarity with his neighbour and leave him to his fate. His leap of faith, rather, must snatch up his neighbour and bring him along.” Anxiety for ourselves is replaced by anxiety for other people – by a Christ-like hope and anxiousness that other people will come to share in what de Lubac calls social salvation. […]


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