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from issue no. 06 - 2011

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Lebreton, a believing theologian

A French Jesuit who published fundamental writings on the early centuries of the Church.

Many famous names are indebted to him.

Yet there is no trace of him in the most recent theological dictionaries. Because he loved the faith of tradition more and rather than the debates of the learned.

A biographical sketch

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Father Jules Lebreton. Born in Tours in 1873, died in Paris in 1956 [© Romano Siciliani]

Father Jules Lebreton. Born in Tours in 1873, died in Paris in 1956 [© Romano Siciliani]


The very recent dictionary of theologians ignores him. There is no mention of him even among the one hundred and ten portraits offered in the Lexicon of the theologians of the 20th century, the last volume of Mysterium salutis, the famous work on dogma (it boasts von Balthasar and Rahner among its illustrious contributors). Yet all the so-called greats from Chenu to Danielou, from Leclercq to Lyonnet, from Bouyer to Marrou, have acknowledged their indebtedness to Father Jules Lebreton, to the extent that Emile Blanchet, Rector of the Institut Catholique de Paris, when announcing his death in July 1956, wrote that in reality “we shall never know the depth and extent of Father Lebreton’s influence”.

Born in Tours in 1873, Jules Lebreton was seventeen when he entered the Society of Jesus, and after a brilliant career as student could hardly avoid becoming a teacher. In 1907, in the middle of the Modernist crisis, he was appointed to the Chair of the History of Christian Origins, newly created at the Institut Catholique de Paris to treat the extremely delicate historical-theological area of the studies on the early Church. Father De la Potterie remembers meeting him in Paris many years later and Lebreton confided that when he arrived in that city in the early years of the twentieth century, “un vent glacé soufflait sur Paris”.

Would that young professor be able to withstand the frigid wind of Modernism? Colleagues, not always well intentioned, were indignant: “Your superiors must be crazy to allow you to accept such a post”. “I didn’t do any campaigning to get this post”, Lebreton replied. “They called me. I came”.


In humility

This attitude of supreme and humble indifference was always to be his. “His austere spirituality was totally at odds with any quest for adventure and evasion. The priest expressed no wishes”, so wrote René d’Ouince in the memoir dedicated to him in Études in 1956. In fact, even from the scholarly point of view, Father Lebreton spent most of his life in work that costs toil and brings no glory, at least that earned among men by staking out one’s claim to originality. God knows what it costs to be a teacher always available for almost forty years, to write a correct summary in two volumes of the history of the Church down to Constantine for the great enterprise edited by Fliche and Martin, and to be always busy providing contributions to such reviews as Études and Recherches de science religieuse (which he had founded in 1910 with Father De Grandmaison, and of which he assumed the editorship after the latter’s death), but above all reviewing until the late ’forties, countless works of others for the Bulletin d’histoire of that magazine. For half a century, the works of some importance of all the New Testament exegetes, of the patrologists and the historians of dogma underwent his critical scrutiny. And so measured was his analysis that one has to read between the lines to find some trace of him. In the thirty-fourth year of publication of Recherches de science religieuse, in his presentation of Surnaturel by Father de Lubac, he says: “Every Christian knows that God offers the beatific vision as the ultimate purpose of his life, whereby he will be joined eternally with his Creator and Savior; he knows that this vision is promised to him and will be given by the pure grace of God; but he may wonder whether this end was proposed to mankind from the moment of the creation of the first man or only after the Fall, in view of the merits of the Redeemer; in this second case are we to see Adam, before his sin, as meant by God for a natural beatitude, merited by a pious and just life such as the forces of nature might provide? If this hypothesis of a pure nature oriented to a natural end must be discarded...”. In other words: Christians know what they should believe, hypotheses are hypotheses and it’s not certain that that of pure nature should be discarded...

Father Lebreton left unfinished the only work that might have brought him fame. L’Histoire du dogme de la Trinité des Origines au Concile de Nicée did not get as far as Nicaea: he stopped at St Irenaeus. But perhaps it was no accident. Lebreton’s faith was a bit like that of Irenaeus. Again René d’Ouince tells us that Father Lebreton, like Irenaeus, “was habitually content to set out the traditional doctrine of the Church with firmness”. In the preface to his Histoire du dogme he is in line with the regula fidei of Irenaeus when he says: “The living chain of our tradition unites us more closely and more securely to the past than the commentaries of exegetes and the dissertations of historians”.


The old servant

The distrust of the speculations of the Christian gnosticism of Clement of Alexandria and Origen came back in some of the articles he wrote in the ’twenties, ample passages from which are quoted on the following pages. According to Origen simple believers are like infants, tied to basic knowledge: “They know only Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified, thinking that the Logos made flesh is all of the Logos; they know Christ only according to the flesh: and that is the crowd of those who are called believers”.

So Father Lebreton aimed to live and die like them. In the last years of his life, turned into a child again by a serious illness, he confided to a nun, old and sick as himself: “You understand as I do, Mother. What the Lord wants to find in His old servants is trust in Him. A child has no fear of going into its father’s house. One’s strength weakens from month to month. This afternoon I’ll go to the doctor for the monthly injections that help me live, think and remember things. When they have no more effect, I’ll let go all this and live in my father’s house like an obedient and trusting child, repeating the words: ‘Scio cui credidi: I know in whom I put my trust’. He won’t pull back”.

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