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A Gift from the French

A History of the Irish Dominicans in 100 Objects (#2)

A History of the Irish Dominicans in 100 Objects (#2)

There is a book circulating in the Studium of the Irish Dominican Province that has been around for most of the last hundred years of the eight that we are celebrating. It can tell a tale of how some of those who taught there related to the theological life of the Church in the years before and after the Second Vatican Council.

The three names hand-written on the inside of the front cover page are of men who taught the part of Theology called Dogma in the Studium from 1930s to 1970s. The book has been marked and underlined in a way that tells something about them and the Studium in which they worked. As well as the marks it bears, it also has paper-clipped into it a faded, half-page letter. It is from the author of the book, the French Dominican M.-D. Chenu, and tells something about the man who wrote it. Along with the letter there is a cutting from a newspaper which tells something of how that man was seen by Church authorities in his day.

At the time he wrote this letter Chenu had become famous – to some infamous – for being one of the leaders of a school of theology which was emerging during the 1930s in the Studium of his Province, that had been exiled from France at the beginning of the century and made its home in Belgium in a priory called Le Saulchoir. He became a spokesperson for the school by writing, in 1937, the book that he entitled Une école de théologie: Le Saulchoir (A School of Theology: Le Saulchoir).

That was an era when the dominant school of Catholic Theology was that called Neo-Scholasticism. Many neo-Scholastic theologians, among whom was the best-known Dominican theologian of the day, fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, reacted negatively to the kind of thinking being done at Le Saulchoir. They saw it as belonging to a movement to which they were giving the derogatory title la nouvelle théologie, ‘the new theology’. They knew they had the Roman Magisterium  (of which they themselves were the principal advisors) on their side. The Holy Office of the Inquisition would eventually, in 1942, put Chenu’s book about Le Saulchoir on the Index of Forbidden Books.

The Dominican who was teaching Dogma in Tallaght in the 1930s, fr Francis Smith, would have known about the controversy surrounding Chenu’s book. The Studium had links with colleagues of the Paris Province, one of whom, fr. André-Jean Festugière, had come on loan to teach Philosophy in Tallaght. Smith asked him to tell Chenu he would like to have a copy of his book. Chenu obliged and sent it with the letter to Smith that is still clipped into it. Evidence that Smith gave the book a thoughtful reading can he found in the careful underlining of many of its key passages. But it was a critical reading. There is, indeed, one ‘NB’ written in with a positive tick mark beside it, and a few other such tick marks. But more often the underlining is accompanied by a neat question mark in the margin. It is likely Smith was still on the side of the Neo-Scholastics and would have had problems with some of the things Chenu was saying about Theology.

Smith seems to have passed the book on to William Barden, who succeeded him in the teaching of Dogma. Barden was not, apparently, a book-marking man and did not even put his name on it. But, the way he himself is remembered to have taught Dogma suggests that if he had marked the book none of the marks have been question marks. Although he is not known to have said so, his Theology was entirely in keeping with what Chenu was prescribing.

When Barden left Tallaght in 1961, to launch the new mission being undertaken by the Irish Dominican Province in Tehran, and when I succeeded him in the teaching of Dogma, he gave me the book. I had been a student of his. In 1956, after two years of being taught Dogma by him in Tallaght, I had been sent to Paris, where the French Studium had by now been able to move from Belgium, to complete my theological studies. There, I found that the teaching and mentoring I had been given by Barden made me totally at home with the way Theology was being done – which was still the way described by Chenu in his book.

When I came back to Tallaght to teach in 1958 I brought that way of doing Theology with him, and especially when, after the departure of Barden, I was appointed to teach Dogma from the Summa. I did so during the years of the Second Vatican Council – which had drawn on, among others, the friend of Chenu and one of the giants of Le Saulchoir, fr. Yves Congar – and the following ten years. I added a few lines down the margins of some paragraphs, especially in the chapter on Theology. They were to remind me of certain passages that I thought important, but that had not been highlighted by Smith.

I was reminded from time to time that the Neo-Scholastics had not entirely given up their suspicions of LeSaulchoir-style theology. The Irish Dominican who was Master of the Order, fr. Michael Browne, let it be known that he thought I, after my years at Le Saulchoir, should be sent to Rome to do my doctorate – making no secret of his concern that I might have picked up some strange ideas in Paris that would be set right by exposure to Roman theology. Again, in an article about post-Vatican II theology that I wrote for Doctrine & Life, I made an inconsequential remark about fr. Garrigou-Lagrange. It was taken up by one of the brethren, the distinguished theologian and first Regent of the Tallaght Studium when it became a Studium Generale in the 1930s, fr Aegidius Doolan. In an article in Doctrine & Life  he suggested my article was an unwarranted discrediting of Garrigou’s way of doing theology. I tried to correct that impression in a further article.

When I, in my turn, was leaving Tallaght in 1975, I passed the book on to Paul O’Leary, who would be teaching Dogma after me. Paul returned it to me, without putting his name on it, when he was coming to the end of his teaching in Tallaght. I subsequently made it available to some others who, in the succeeding years, taught various parts of Dogma in the Studium. None of them has as yet added his name to it. It may be hoped that it was because they were following,  and not just in that, the legacy of the great teacher of Irish Dominicans who was fr. William Barden!

Author: Liam Walsh OP, St Saviour’s Priory, Dublin.


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