Gregory Baum was one of Roman Catholicism’s outstanding theologians of the 20th century, who let the Holy Spirit – rather than the institutional church – direct his restless, curious mind and could never understand why it landed him so consistently in controversy, criticism and vilification.
He called himself “the first Catholic theologian who publicly defended the ethical status of homosexual love.” He was reputed to be the author – certainly he was involved with the production – of the Winnipeg Statement of 1968 that distanced Canada’s Catholic bishops from Pope Paul VI’s July 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, which prohibited artificial contraception.
Dr. Baum’s writing’s were accepting of liberation theology in the face of condemnation from the Vatican. He wrote on the works of tendentious Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan. He was one of the church’s most eloquent and uncompromising advocates for social justice and society’s marginalized groups. He authored articles and books sympathetically explaining Quebec separatism to anglophone Canadians.
Though he was born into a Protestant Jewish family, he was drawn to Catholicism and the seminary in his 20s. He later left active priesthood and, in 1978, married a former nun. His autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, published last year, revealed he was gay and had, in his 40s, a sexual relationship with a man.
“I did not profess my own homosexuality in public,” he wrote, “because such an act of honesty would have reduced my influence as a critical theologian.”
Indeed, throughout his adult life, he was one of the church’s great theologians on ecumenism, a fact that was noted in the citation when he was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. As one of the Second Vatican Council’s periti (expert theologians) in the 1960s, he wrote an early draft of Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) – “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” – that moved the church into the sunlight of accepting the unified spiritual goals of all humankind and especially the bonds between Christians and Jews, ending the church’s centuries-old branding of Jews as the killers of Jesus Christ.
He believed it was essential for the Catholic Church to change, to let power devolve from Rome. Well before the clerical sex-abuse scandal erupted, he diagnosed the church as “a company that becomes so big that it can’t be run any more.” Any management consultant, he wrote, would take one look at the church and would say, “This is simply impossible. You have to decentralize, you have to delegate. You need a different system.”
After studying for two years at New York’s New School for Social Research in the 1970s, he pioneered the introduction of sociology to religion, embracing the teachings and writings of political theorist Hannah Arendt and classical sociologists Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber among others.
At the core of his theological convictions – and explaining so much of what he did – lay the writings of the early-20th-century French philosopher Maurice Blondel. They led to what may have been his most important book, Man Becoming: God in Secular Language, assessing positively Blondel’s acknowledgment of God’s redemptive presence in human history.
God, in other words, existed in the nitty-gritty of life – an “insider God,” as Toronto’s Regis College academic Mary Jo Leddy explained Dr. Baum’s view. You fall in love? That’s God at work.
God was on the ground with grace – the benevolence shown by God toward the human race, the spontaneous gift from God to people, “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.”
As leading Canadian Catholic Church scholar Michael Higgins wrote of Dr. Baum six years ago, the embrace of Blondel’s thought “proved to be Baum’s Copernican revolution. Henceforth his writing, research, teaching, and activism would be shaped by Blondel’s views: his theological anthropology; his rejection of the church’s negative valuation of the secular; his belief in the ubiquity of grace.
“It was not a big step,” Dr. Higgins said, “from Baum’s adoption of Blondel’s inclusivity to his realization that God is mediated by all kinds of things besides the institutional church.” Not a big step for Dr. Baum, but a step many others could never take.
Dr. Baum died Oct. 18 in Montreal of kidney failure. He was 94. When he had entered hospital several days earlier, he told friends he was “disappearing inside.” Those, such as Dr. Leddy, who came from across Central and Eastern Canada to visit him in his last days found him sunny, genial and serene as death approached.
Blondel’s impact was the goalpost in the evolution of Dr. Baum’s thought – the finish line to the formal shaping of his mind. The whole journey of his life was an opening of his thought to God’s presence in history exhibiting an inclusiveness that outreached the writ of the institutional church.
Gerhard Albert Baum was born in Berlin on June 20, 1923, to Bettie (née Meyer) and Franz Siegfried Baum. His well-to-do Protestant father died early and his Jewish mother had a passion for medieval art and Gothic and Romanesque architecture, to which she introduced her son.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, she made the choice to send her 17-year-old son to England to escape persecution under the Nazi race laws. She never saw him again.
As a nurse, she became infected with pneumonia in the hospital where she worked and died during the war.
When he arrived, the teenager was interned by the British along with other German older teens and adults – many of them scholars who became volunteer teachers in the internship camps, which enthused him.
He was transferred in 1940 to an internship camp in Quebec. He came to the attention of a woman active in volunteer work who sponsored him to attend McMaster University in Hamilton, where he studied mathematics and physics.
He also began reading Catholic thinkers Thomas Aquinas and Étienne Gilson.who established the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at University of Toronto.
One Christmas he was given a gift of The Confessions of St. Augustine, the autobiography of the great Church Father detailing, among other things, his conversion to Christianity – and the young student was hooked. In the year he graduated from McMaster, 1946, he decided to enter the Augustinian religious order to become a priest. At this point he adopted the name Gregory.
After ordination, he was sent by his order to Switzerland’s University of Fribourg for graduate studies. Along the way he read a book on the Catholic Church’s treatment of Jews and was appalled.
His dissertation, touching on the subject, was completed in 1956 and published two years later under the title That They May Be One: A Study of Papal Doctrine (Leo XIII–Pius XII).
The dissertation came to the attention of German Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea and Dutch priest Johannes Willebrands, president and secretary respectively of the Vatican’s newly established Secretariat for Christian Unity. They admired the book, and Dr. Baum found himself appointed to the Secretariat, assigned to help prepare for the Second Vatican Council announced by Pope John XXIII in 1959.
Dr. Baum later told the story of Cardinal Bea, during the Council years, assigning his staff to guard their manuscripts until they got to the translators and were published, to save them from being snatched and their texts altered by church conservatives.
Nostra Aetate was easily one of the most important and – particularly with its section on the Catholic Church’s relationship with Jews – one of the most controversial documents to emerge from the Second Vatican Council. It made Gregory Baum’s name as a theologian and confirmed him as a leading interpreter of the Council’s accomplishments.
It also established him as a clear spokesman and writer on the church in the modern world – a role which he carried out for five years, on Cardinal Bea’s instructions, travelling around North America giving talks on the Council’s work before taking up a professorship at University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
The church was unable to contain his application of Blondellian thought and roaming intellectual curiosity.
Michael Higgins wrote of him, “Baum defines himself not as a theological shaper or foundational thinker, but as a journalist following his curiosity wherever it leads him.
“To Baum, one should note, ‘journalist’ does not betoken a scribbler with a deadline, but rather someone inexhaustibly fascinated with ideas, intellectual trends, and currents.” In an interview, Dr. Higgins called him an experimenter and explorer.
University of Toronto’s Prof. Stephen Scharper, a scholar in anthropology, environment and religion who did his doctorate under Dr. Baum’s supervision, described his work as “being attentive to where the Spirit was calling him.”
It called him repeatedly into controversy and censure, from which Dr. Baum never flinched.
He was thunderously criticized by the church hierarchy and had restrictions placed on his teaching after publicly dissenting from the Vatican’s 1976 Declaration on Sexual Ethics, with its strictures against homosexuality.
He was censured for declaring that the church was not immune from the social and institutional toxins that infect other organizations.
He himself openly criticized the church governance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI – the latter who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s thought police (and whom Dr. Baum knew well as a fellow peritus at Vatican 2).
His frequent public speeches, to say the least, got up the nose of his superiors (his 1987 Massey Lecture explored liberation theology and its justifying biblical exegesis, much of which the Vatican considered Marxist).
Dr. Baum’s openness toward the ordination of women and gay marriage also made him a target for conservatives.
The mildest of his critics labelled him a dilettante driven by mere trendy nonconformism.
In the late 1970s, he was summoned by his Augustinian order under direction from Rome to return to the order’s monastery which he refused to do.
He eventually withdrew from active priestly ministry and accepted a teaching position at McGill University after reaching the then-mandatory age of 65 retirement at University of Toronto. In 1978, he married former nun Shirley Flynn. Her death in 2007 left him grieving her loss for the remainder of his life.
His departure from the priesthood was a mystery to many who knew him, until the publication of his 2016 autobiography revealed that he left the church because of his personal commitment to being gay.
Even before this revelation he had long been demonized by conservative Catholics for his writings and teachings. A 2012 interview on Catholic Salt + Light TV that he did with its chief executive, Rev. Thomas Rosica, generated hundreds of furious, outraged e-mails. “Yet Gregory was a very significant theologian of the Second Vatican Council,” Rev. Rosica said. “We owe much to him for his role in the decree of ecumenism and interfaith relations.”
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