M. D. Chenu, Grandfather of Liberation Theology  and Creation Spirituality

By Matthew Fox, June 10, 2019

In yesterday’s video, speaking about the Sacred Masculine archetype of the Grandfather, I quite spontaneously invoked my mentor, Père M. D. Chenu, who named the Creation Spirituality tradition for me when I studied with him in the Spring of 1968. Yes, it was that climactic spring, when Paris and many university towns were shut down by rioting students opposing the Viet Nam War, but also a sclerosis of frozen academia that was preventing, it seemed to our generation, a fuller experience of learning.

Today some one asked me for more information about this amazing elder.  In naming the Fall/Redemption vs the Creation Spirituality tradition for me, Chenu can rightly be named the Grandfather of Creation Spirituality.

Chenu is grandfather of Liberation Theology as well.  Silenced by Pope Pius XII for twelve years, he was forbidden to publish because he had supported the Worker Priest movement in France after WWII, and that movement was active in the unions, which were quite heavily communist.

He would attend union meetings as an observer and at the end the leaders would ask him: “Father Chenu, what did you hear us battling about?”  And he would give a brief summary of what he had listened to.  Here lies the methodology of what would become liberation theology and base communities: Listen to the people, let that be the “lectio divina.”  Hear their stories.  And together explore how to solve common problems.

Chenu also called for reinventing training for priests including putting aspirants into real situations such as working with blue collar workers and unions.  This too disturbed the powers to be in the Vatican.


“May 1968: Workers and Students Together” in International Socialist Review, photographer unknown

When we were in class during the riots of 1968, Chenu ended one class this way: “We have been studying history,” he said.  “Here’s your chance to make it.  Go out and join the revolution and don’t come back next week.  Come back in two weeks and tell me what you have contributed.”  He was 75 years old at the time.

Chenu was a world-renowned historian and theologian who was very active at the Second Vatican Council, having written the basic draft for the “Church in the Modern World” document.  But he did not carry a grudge or any bitterness from his pain at the hand of the church—though he did apply humor.  For example, when discussing Nicolas of Cusa, he remarked, “he was a great scientist, theologian, mystic…and a cardinal in the Roman Catholic church…not necessarily a good reference you understand.”

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest, pp. 73, 79-82, 90, 93, 251. 239, 311, 451, 440, 285.
Banner Image: “Marie-Dominique Chenu,” from biography in Backward Viewblog, 2/12/2012; photographer unknown

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