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

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. 

“Marie-Dominique Chenu,” from biography Backward View blog, 2/12/2012; photographer unknown

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 inBackward View blog, 2/12/2012; photographer unknown

For a Deeper Perspective….


Read Chenu’s classic work, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century.  Lessons abound there about the “evangelical movements” of the Middle Ages that apply to youth movements of our own time.

How do these stories affect your understanding of the wisdom of the Elders?

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.

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1 thought on “M. D. Chenu, Grandfather <br>of Liberation Theology <br>and Creation Spirituality”

  1. Avatar

    Reading your book about Merton (A Way to God) and realized you attended Loras College…exactly where I acquired the book from their library. 2nd book I checked out (A Theology of Work by M.D. Chenu). I am currently seeking employment and I liked the cover of his book…knew nothing about him. Little did I know he was your mentor!! Thanks for the synchronicity!!

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