Bernard Lonergan

November 23, 2016 in Inspirational Jesuits

Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan was a 20th century philosopher and theologian of immense importance. Specifically he worked within the Thomist tradition, but not in a narrowly neo-scholastic way. Rather he was committed to the effort to bring scholastic philosophy into dialogue with the dominant forms of contemporary philosophy, particularly neo-Kantian epistemology and various strains of positivism, both of which radically undermined the metaphysical realism upon which Thomism depended.

Bernard Lonergan was born in Buckingham, Quebec, in 1904. He attended Loyola College, a Jesuit high-school in Montreal, for four years before entering the Society of Jesus at the age of seventeen. After two further years education in Ontario, he was sent to Heythrop College in London, where he studied scholastic philosophy, as well as taking external degrees in mathematics and classics.

A bright and intelligent thinker, Lonergan was unimpressed with the focus of the teachings there. What was taught was rooted in the neo-scholastic works of theologians such as Suárez, who dealt primarily with metaphysical discussions on being and existence. To Lonergan such strains of thought as these were too grounded in abstraction and the teaching too focused on learning established methods of inquiry rather than using one’s own experience and one’s historical consciousness from which to develop new ways of investigating.

Lonergan encountered the same issues when he began studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1933, having spent three years in between his studies teaching back in Canada. After his ordination in 1936 and a ten-month tertianship in France, Lonergan was sent to the Gregorian to complete a doctorate on St Thomas and the theology of grace.

But war in Europe was soon to strike and after it did Lonergan found himself forced to leave Italy, two days before he was due to defend his doctoral dissertation. He returned to Canada where he spent over a decade teaching at Jesuit universities, first in Montreal, and finally at Regis College in Toronto for six years. In 1953 Lonergan returned to Europe, to the Gregorian College in Rome where he took up a teaching position in theology.

While lecturing here he published one of his most influential works, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. In this Lonergan outlines what he calls a Generalized Empirical Method, which seeks to tackle the question of what it is to know, and to build a formula for how to enquire intelligently from first principles. Equally important, and following on from this first work, was his Method in Theology, published in 1972, in which he applies the reasoning on enquiry he had created to culture and to Christian faith.

In between the publication of these books Lonergan suffered from lung cancer. Forced to return to North America where he underwent surgery, he remained and returned to teaching theology at Regis College in 1965. He retired from this a decade later, and was made a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Boston College until 1983. Lonergan died a year later, aged seventy nine.