Justice Beyond the Grave: The Vindication of Cardinal Danielou

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

It was forty years ago this May that the body of a dead Jesuit was found in an apartment in Paris owned by a prostitute whose husband needed money for a lawyer to get him out of jail. The victim, an eminent theologian and cardinal, had for years freely dispensed charity among the poor, doing so in secret and always with the intention of helping the most wretched and despised. This would be his final work of mercy, however, performed on behalf of a woman of ill-repute who, seeing him collapse from a heart attack, looked on in horror as he breathed his last. Later, to police and medical personnel, she added, “it was a good death, for a cardinal.”

Yes, it was. But due to the sly imputations of a number of his Jesuit confreres, this would not be the judgment of most people regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of Jean Cardinal Danielou. Owing to their enmity, a great pall of silence and suspicion would fall upon his memory, leaving not just his books unread but his reputation in ruins. Until fairly recently, that is, when the rumors and lies swirling about his death in 1974 were finally laid to rest at a conference in Rome in 2012 held by the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “Windows Open on the Mystery” was its theme, the happy outcome of which would at last lift the long embargo, leaving new generations of the faithful free to discover the richness of his writings, alongside the quiet heroism of his life, which together testify to a Jesuit vocation tirelessly spent in defending the Church he loved. “I love best of all,” he would say, “that Church mud-splashed from history.” Like his own mud-splashed history.

So why had it become necessary to discredit him in the first place? And why the cover-up? Especially when the results of an investigation undertaken by the Jesuits themselves, not to mention the witness of the woman to whom he had gone to give money, had clearly acquitted the Cardinal of any wrongdoing whatsoever. If everyone knew he was innocent, why not say so straightaway? Why did we have to wait nearly forty years to clear his name?

This last question, by the way, carries a special poignancy for those of us who, great admirers of his work and keenly aware and appreciative of his loyalty to the Church, were nevertheless shaken at the time by the stories of his death. Certainly the publicity widely generated at the time by a hostile Parisian press did nothing to disabuse the public of its fixation on the scandal. Corrupt cleric found dead in arms of mistress!   Conservative Prince of Church, pockets stuffed with cash, discovered dead in brothel! We know how headlines like those would play in Peoria. Well, they would not have played much differently in Paris. And, of course, far from allaying suspicions, such lurid details would furnish only another nail in the Church’s coffin.

Cui bono?   Who had most to gain from keeping the true story silent?   Worse still, by whose orchestration was a campaign of innuendo begun, designed to besmirch the good name of a man who had become odious to certain elements within the Society of Jesus and the larger French Church? The question is not terribly difficult. Clearly among the arch villains of the piece was a Jesuit named Bruno Ribes, powerful head of Etudes, the cutting-edge journal of cultural opinion owned by the Jesuits in France, whose pages were filled with copious and unseemly dissent from official Church teachings, including especially Humane Vitae, the 1968 encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI. It should scarcely come as a surprise for those who followed the trajectory of his career to know that Robes sought the destruction of Danielou. To be sure, the wretched Robes would, not long after, leave both the Society of Jesus and the priesthood; after which, he would finally abandon the Church he’d been baptized in as a child. And when last heard from, he was busy crafting legislation that would allow unrestricted abortion rights for the women of France. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

And Danielou? Well, in the year following 1968, that most tumultuous moment in modern Church history, a much-beleaguered pope would offer him a red hat, an honor he had refused twice already.   The third time around, one does not refuse. Besides, Pope Paul told him, sounding the prophetic note, “I need you to be a Cardinal so that you might suffer with me for the Church.”

That suffering would intensify when, two years before his death, Danielou sat down for an interview with Vatican Radio in which he declared that “there is now a very grave crisis of religious life,” and that in light of its spreading pathology, “one should not speak of renewal, but rather of decadence.” A storm of vituperation fell upon his head for unleashing comments like that.

And what did he think was the source of the crisis? Nothing less, he said, “than a false interpretation of Vatican II,” resulting in the most wide-ranging distortions of an experience of communio that God had intended for his Bride, the Church. Far from ushering us into a New Pentecost, not a few of the reformers had in fact betrayed the very Council to which they had so glibly appealed in order to justify a series of manipulations that would make a great wreckage of the Church.

Danielou’s indictment was not short on specifics. “The evangelical counsels,” he charged, “are no longer considered as consecrations to God,” with the lamentable result that “all regularity of the life of prayer is abandoned.” In the wake of such confusions, there would predictably follow “the disappearance of vocations among the young,” whose formation had been shamefully neglected, along with “numerous and scandalous desertions of religious.” And why not? Having broken their promises to God, why should they feel honor bound to the People of God?

This wrenching apart of a people from the God to whom they were ineluctably joined, and not just by bonds of grace, but by nature as well, became the great theme of Danielou’s life. The urgency of it would animate everything he did, whether the books he wrote or the acts of charity he performed.   His every exertion became an ongoing crusade to combat a secularism that threatened not only the natural religiosity of human beings, leaving them alone and bereft without God, but the sovereign right of God himself to a place at the table of men. Here he would cite the example of a wonderful mayor of Florence, who shrewdly said that the true city was a place where men owned their homes and God owned his, which meant that only by making provision for God within the city would we have fashioned a truly human city.

“The idea of a completely secular society is one that to me seems profoundly anti-human,” declared Danielou, “and in this sense I feel it is totally impracticable.”   It is not to be permitted, in other words, nor is it even possible, to exclude God from the city of man. And so he saw secularism in all its forms and mutations as something virulent and unnatural.

“One of the greatest dangers which the Church must face,” he argued to the very end, “is just this diminishing of a feeling for God and of God’s place in the human experience.” Neither the goods of technology, nor the flourishing of fraternal life, never mind how encompassing the satisfactions they provide, will ever be enough to assuage the need of the human heart for God. There must always be room for adoration, yes, even amid the affairs and arrangements of this world.   Otherwise we should all be left in a state of “spiritual asphyxiation,” which he described with chilling precision as a situation in which men are “left literally gasping for breath.”   It would be a most fearful state of destitution, in which human beings are thrown back on themselves, deprived of the breath of God. Shorn of all sense of the sacred, of those times and places men choose in order to kneel before God, they simply could not go on living and would thus die of despair.

How deeply Jean Danielou thought about such things. And how empty the world has become without his wise and brave counsel. May his rehabilitation help bring to life a great springtime of renewal in the Church’s apostolate to bring Christ to our world.


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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