Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 1

*Note: This series is taken from a paper that I wrote a year or so ago. As such, it is - along with everything else that I write here on DET - my intellectual property. Feel free to make use of it as long as you observe the proper conventions of attribution.


The significance of Yves Congar’s theology is clearly attested in Avery Cardinal Dulles’s comment that the Second Vatican Council “could almost be called Congar’s council.”[1] An ecclesiologist deeply rooted in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, Congar recognized early the importance of ecumenical dialogue when, as Fergus Kerr notes, “talking theology and praying, with Lutherans, Anglicans and Orthodox, was widely regarded as inappropriate for Catholics.”[2] Congar’s ecclesiological study and ecumenical engagement lead him to recover a doctrinal theme that had languished in the Roman Catholic tradition for some time, namely, the place of the Holy Spirit in theology as a whole and particularly within ecclesiology. Elizabeth Groppe makes this point when she writes that “Congar’s historical and ecumenical scholarship uncovered a tradition in which ecclesiology was indivisible from pneumatology.”[3]

The numerous articles and shorter works that flowed from Congar’s pen confirm this recovery, but perhaps it is most impressively demonstrated by his three-volume work, I Believe in the Holy Spirit.[4] This weighty study represents Congar’s mature understanding, an understanding that corrects certain of his earlier positions, as Congar himself points out. The most significant of these for the purposes of this essay has to do with the freedom of the Holy Spirit. Congar had previously, in his work entitled The Mystery of the Church, argued that though “the Church is always the work of the Holy Spirit who dwells in it,” the Holy Spirit is not “exclusively bound to the institution and working in and through it;” rather, “there exists a kind of free sector” in which the Holy Spirit works immediately, autonomously and personally.[5] Now, in the second volume of I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Congar notes that he still thinks that something like this free sector really exists, although he has come to recognize more clearly that this free activity of the Spirit “is always a question of doing the work of Christ and of building up the Body of Christ.”[6] Congar puts a fine point on this distinction when he makes note of this refinement of his thought again a few years later in The Word and the Spirit:
It is a mistake to think, as I did…that a kind of ‘free sector’ reserved for the Holy Spirit exists alongside the operation of the instituted structures and means of grace. The whole of Christian history bears witness to the fact that this freedom really exists, but it is the freedom of the living and glorified Lord Jesus together with his Spirit.[7]
It is this relation between the Word (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit with which the present study is concerned. The goal of this study is to understand the relation of these two themes in Congar’s understanding of the Eucharist. However, it is generally the case that how one understands the Eucharist is intimately connected to one’s understanding of the church. This is no less true for Congar, and so the relation of Word and Spirit in his ecclesiology must be explored. An investigation of the relation between Word and Spirit in Congar’s doctrine of the Trinity, as well as of the Spirit’s role in Congar’s Christology, will provide further grounding. This study will begin with the doctrine of the Trinity and move through Christology and ecclesiology to arrive at Congar’s doctrine of the Eucharist. Critical reflection on Congar’s theology as here expounded will serve as a conclusion. It should be noted that this study will draw primarily on Congar’s mature work in I Believe in the Holy Spirit and The Word and the Spirit, although limited use will be made of his earlier writings.

  1. Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Preface” in Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church (Edited by Gabriel Flynn; Louvain Theological & Pastoral Monographs, 32; Dudley, MA: Peeters Press, 2005), 27.
  2. Fergus Kerr, “Yves Congar” in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 39.
  3. Elizabeth Teresa Groppe, “The Contribution of Yves Congar’s Theology of the Holy Spirit” in Theological Studies 62 (2001), 477.
  4. Yves Congar, Je crois en l’Esprit Saint, 3 vols. (Paris: Cerf, 1979-80). This essay will make use of the English translation, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, 3 volumes in 1 (Translated by David Smith; New York: NY: Herder and Herder, Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006).
  5. Yves Congar, The Mystery of the Church (Translated by A. V. Littledale; London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1960), 180. Originally published as Esquisses du Mystere de l’Eglise (Paris: Cerf), the second edition of which appeared in 1953.
  6. Congar, Holy Spirit, 2:12. Emphasis in the original.
  7. Yves Congar, The Word and the Spirit (Translated by David Smith; San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986), 61. Originally published as La Parole et le Souffle (Paris: Desclée) in 1984.


Anonymous said…
Travis, here is my opinion.

It is a mistake, in my opinion, to suppose a “‘free sector’ in which the Holy Spirit works immediately, autonomously and personally”. This would lead to the problem of how we can perceive an action as coming truly from the Holly Spirit. Have we a sort of pure organ, completely spiritualized, that is in contact with it? Some tendencies of Thomism and scholasticism are inclined to such a conception. This is a Platonic influence upon the Christian thought that is not according to the anthropology displayed in the Gospels.

If the Holly Spirit is to act, he has to do it through the word. Then, one left two: or the word is to place the human being in front of God, forcing him to understand his existence in face of God’s will and commands; or the word has not such a “power” (or “authority” in terms of the Synoptics), to move the existence of human from the world until God.
Hi Anon,

Thanks for the comment. I don't want to answer now as the remaining 4 or 5 parts of this paper will shed further light, etc. Perhaps once it is up in its entirety we can have a discussion of these things.

Feel free to follow along and continue to pose questions.
Luke said…
This Luke, not Anon.
Shane said…
"This is a Platonic influence upon the Christian thought"

In which of the Platonists do you find this?
Luke said…
I was thinking in the obscure doctrine of the “intellectus agens” in Aristotle. It says, as far as I reach, that there is a piece in the human soul that is eternal and never dies. Scholastics told me that such a doctrine was an influence of Plato. Later on, in the Hellenistic thought, above all in the Stoa, such a doctrine, or something similar, was popularized and some of those ideas came into the Christian thought through the Hellenistic communities. I am afraid I cannot give you any particular author.

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