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Who was Bernard Lonergan?

Revised Version

By Matthew C Ogilvie PhD

This paper is mostly a summary of material contained in the book: 

Faith Seeking Understanding: The Functional Specialty "Systematics" in Bernard Lonergan's Method in Theology

Bernard Lonergan was a Canadian Catholic philosopher-theologian. The impact of his work can be seen in over two hundred and fifty doctoral dissertations that have been written on different aspects of his work. His collected works are being published by University of Toronto Press and several journals are dedicated to Lonergan studies. There are Lonergan research centres and institutes based in Toronto, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Sydney Australia, Melbourne Australia and a number of other locations. In this paper, I'd like to begin an answer to the question "Who Was Bernard Lonergan?" 

There are a number of good sources I would suggest for the details of Lonergan's life.(1) In 1904 he was born in Buckingham, Quebec. Lonergan's earliest education was at a parish school conducted by the Brothers of Christian Instruction. He admired the brothers' commitment to high standards. He later contrasted the Brothers' approach with his Jesuit community, which he said "taught him to loaf."(2) At the age of thirteen he went to boarding school at Loyola College, Montreal. While there he suffered a serious mastoid condition and operation. Despite his health problem, his school work was very successful.(3) However, Lonergan was later most critical of his education. He regarded it as being "organized pretty much along the same lines as Jesuit schools had been since the beginning of the Renaissance, with a few slight modifications." The classicist educational culture embraced the notion that there was one normative culture to which all others should aspire. Classicist culture assumed that intelligent communication would occur within that culture. Cultured people believed that they would communicate with the "uncultured" by making slight adjustments, though there would be no real expectation that the "uncultured" would understand. Lonergan found that this "Renaissance" style of education emphasised the uomo universale, the man who could master anything. Lonergan's later work showed how classicist assumptions about the normativeness of one culture, or the ability of people to be universal masters of learning, have been challenged by modern, specialised techniques, and by anthropological, empirical notions of culture.(4)

Lonergan entered the Society of Jesus in 1922. He spent two years in novitiate in Guelph, Ontario. During 1926-1929, he undertook philosophical studies at Heythrop College. At the same time he took an external "General Degree" from the University of London. Lonergan praised his Heythrop professors for their competence and extreme honesty. Yet he found the Suarezian philosophy taught there to be inferior.(5) Lonergan's studies made him interested in cognitional theory. He criticised the principal place given to universal concepts. For a while this led him to believe that he was a nominalist. Yet this conviction gave way after Lonergan read J. A. Stewart's Plato's Doctrine of Ideas. From this work, Lonergan realised that his opposition was not to intelligence or understanding, but it was an opposition to universal concepts. Lonergan also learned from Stewart that Plato was a methodologist and that the scientific or philosophic process towards discovery goes by way of question and answer. Lonergan complemented his interest in methodology and heuristic investigation with a developing. The significance of these interests come out later in Lonergan's search for a theological method that could both account for developments in modern science, and confront the objections of modern philosophy.(6)

Many of Lonergan's later ideas had their beginnings during these early days. One key development is found in several unpublished papers from 1928 and 1929. In a study of Euclid's proofs, Lonergan rejected the interpretation that one could appropriate the proof by concerning one's thought with the concept of a geometrical figure. Lonergan argued that instead of dealing with concepts, Euclid's inquiry was into the image of the geometric figure. It was the image from which he gained his proof. At this point we find the genesis of Lonergan's rejection of conceptualism. At the same time as he rejected conceptualism, we find emerging the cognitional element that he later articulated as insight into phantasm.(7)

Lonergan's thought developed through his reading of Newman and H.B.W. Joseph's Introduction to Logic. From Newman's work, Lonergan was encouraged to confront difficulties with sincereity. Newman also provided the "illative sense" that was the model for what Lonergan later called the reflective act of understanding. Lonergan's cognitional theory developed even further with readings of Plato and the early dialogues of Augustine. He noted in particular how Augustine was "unmindful of universal concepts." At this early stage Christopher Dawson's The Age of the Gods, also overturned Lonergan's previous classicist notion of culture.(8)

What I have just written should correct the widespread misconception that Lonergan began his career as a Thomist, and only later developed an interest in modern philosophy and science. Rather, in these early days, Lonergan already had an interest in modern mathematics and science, and a disillusionment with the then current Catholic philosophy. Moreover, Lonergan's notion of insight developed through his study of Euclid, and his notion of judgement was rooted in Newman's illative sense. All of these developments occurred before Lonergan took any serious interest in Aquinas' cognitional theory.(9)

Following his regency, Lonergan began theological studies in 1933.(10) He delighted in many aspects of his Roman student life. Yet he was he was dismayed at the standards of education. However, despite his disappointment, Rome provided some decisive influences. Most importantly, Maréchal was mediated to him through a fellow student, Stefanos Stefanou. Maréchal taught Lonergan that human knowledge was discursive, not intuitive, and that its decisive component was judgement. Lonergan found that his position correlated with Augustine's notion of veritas and with Aquinas' notion of esse. This discovery was complemented by Leeming's course on the Incarnate Word, which convinced Lonergan that the Hypostatic Union was impossible without a real distinction between essence and existence.(11) Lonergan was also influenced by Peter Hoenen's 1933 Gregorianum article, in which he argued that "intellect abstracted from phantasm not only terms but also the nexus between them."(12) These sources allowed Lonergan to articulate (i) that intelligence operates first by insight into phantasm, and (ii) that there is a distinct act of judgement.

After his doctoral studies,(13) Lonergan "taught theology for twenty-five years under impossible conditions," within a system that was "hopelessly antiquated." It was a system that demanded too much of the outdated uomo universale and operated with both an inadequate philosophy and a classicist notion of culture.(14) During this time, Lonergan criticised not only Jesuit education, but Catholic education in general.(15) Despite the challenges he faced, he was able to produce some most constructive work. He rewrote his doctorate for publication in Theological Studies, then began researching Aquinas' views on understanding and the inner word. The resulting Verbum articles were decisive in emphasising that essential to Aquinas' cognitional theory were neither inner words nor concepts, but understanding.(16) While he was working on Verbum, Lonergan took a Montreal Adult education group through a course on Thought and Reality. The group's response convinced Lonergan that his cognitional theory was "a marketable product."(17) So, after completing his Verbum work, he spent from 1949 to 1953 writing Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. The work had several important aims, not the least of which was to help the reader personally appropriate the crucial role of understanding. This element of personal appropriation was important, because Insight was meant, not as a set of prescriptions, but as an aid to help people experience understanding for themselves, to advert to that experience, name it and identify that experience in subsequent occurrences.(18)

Originally, Lonergan intended Insight to be the first part of a work that dealt first with methods generally, then theological method specifically. His transfer to the Gregorian University in Rome meant that he had to round off his Insight work, and postpone his work on theological method.(19) Despite its part in his years of teaching under "impossible conditions," Lonergan's Roman period provided fertile ground for his theological method. His Roman lectures show interest in the development of doctrine, as the ongoing, ever-deeper understanding of revealed mysteries. During this period, Lonergan also struggled with the challenges of new hermeneutics and critical history and the need to integrate modern achievements in these fields with the teachings of Catholicism. This effort can be seen in his writings of this period and in the different doctoral courses on theological method that he taught. His teaching career was interrupted by cancer the lung its removal in 1965. After this illness, he took on a lighter teaching load. From 1965 to 1975, he served as Professor of Theology Regis College, Toronto, apart from 1971-1972, during which time he was Stillman Professor at Harvard Divinity School. Despite his ill-health, Lonergan worked on his theological method, and in 1972, his Method in Theology was published. During 1975-1983 Lonergan was Visiting Professor at Boston College, where he delivered graduate seminars on economics. He died on November 26, 1984.(20)



1. More detail on Lonergan's life can be found in the sources this paper has used: "Insight Revisited," 2C:263-278; "An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.," 2C:209-230; Hugo Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," in David F. Ford (editor), The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, Volume I, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989), 205-216; Frederick E. Crowe, "The Growing Idea," Appropriating the Lonergan Idea, (edited by Michael Vertin), (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 3-12, (Originally published as "Introduction," B. Lonergan, Collection, London, Darton Longman and Todd, 1967, viii-xix.) A fuller chronology of Lonergan is found in Frederick E. Crowe's, Lonergan, (Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series, series editor B. Davies), (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1992).

Please note that in this and the following endnotes, "2C" refers to Bernard Lonergan, A Second Collection: Papers by Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, edited by W F Ryan and B J Tyrrell, 1996).

2. F. Crowe, Lonergan, 4-5; B. Lonergan, "Letter to John Swain, 5 May 1946," cited in Ibid., 5. In response to the standards being proposed for Jesuit seminary education, Lonergan complained, later in his life, that minimum standards lead to minimum results. "Questionnaire on Philosophy: Responses by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J.," Method, 2(1984):14, (n4.11.)

3. F. Crowe, Lonergan, 4; H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 205.

4. "An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.," 2C:209-210.

5. "Insight Revisited," 2C:263; F. Crowe, Lonergan, 6-17, especially 12-14; H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 205.

6. "Insight Revisited," 2C:263-264, 276; F. Crowe, Lonergan, 14; H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 206.

7. F. Crowe, Lonergan, 14-15, 32n33. cf. B. Lonergan, "The form of mathematical inference," Blandyke Papers, (1928):126-137, cited in Ibid., 14-15. These papers were unpublished, extra-curricular works, written by students during their holidays.

8. "Insight Revisited," 2C:263-265.

9. "It can be seen from Lonergan's early papers that his basic ideas were solidly in place by 1929, before he had read a line of Aquinas." H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 206.

10. Lonergan did not actually begin his theological studies in Rome. He began at the Collège de l'Immaculée-Conception, Montreal. This period at Montreal was brief, though, and Lonergan was sent to Rome in November, 1933.

11. "Insight Revisited," 2C:265; "Letters to H. Smeaton," cited in F. Crowe, Lonergan, 20-21. cf. H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 206.

12. "Insight Revisited," 2C:266-267. cf. Petrus Hoenen, "De origine primorum principiorum scientiae," Gregorianum, 14(1933): 153-184; referred to in Ibid., 267.

13. The doctorate, on the concept of gratia operans in Thomas Aquinas, was directed by Charles Boyer. The greater part of this work was initially published in four articles appearing in Theological Studies (1941-1942), and was later republished in the book, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. (New York, Herder and Herder, 1971.)

14. Philosophy of God and Theology: The Relationship between Philosophy of God and the functional Specialty, Systematics, (London, Darton Longman and Todd, 1973), 15; "An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J." 2C:212. cf. F. Crowe, Lonergan, 80.

15. Of interest is Lonergan's belief that "Colonial" Universities were seen as inferior to English Universities, which in turn were seen as inferior to Continental institutions."In England they smile very tolerantly at colonial universities; in France and Germany they smile at English Universities. But what is galling about this smiling is that it is completely and fully justified. . . . I know that I cannot produce the stuff that a European scholar would produce with half the labor I put in." "Memo to John Swain," 24 May 1946, cited in F. Crowe, Lonergan, 30n10. cf. Ibid., 5-6, 12, 20.

16. The articles were originally published as "The Concept of Verbum in the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas," Theological Studies, 7(1046):349-392, 8(1947):35-79, 404-444, 10(1949):3-40, 359-93. Later the articles were edited by David Burrell and Published as Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Notre Dame, 1967 and London, 1968. cf. "Insight Revisited," 2C:267.

17. "Insight Revisited," 268. The group was the Thomas More Institute for Adult Education, which is still thriving.

18. "An Interview with Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.," 2C:213; "Insight Revisited," 2C:268-269.

19. "Insight Revisited," 2C:268. cf. H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 205-206.

20. "Insight Revisited," 2C:277; F. Crowe, Lonergan, 106-107; H. Meynell, "Bernard Lonergan," 205-206.


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