Solange Lefebvre // David Seljak – « Gregory Baum (1923-2017) »

Solange Lefebvre // David Seljak – « Gregory Baum, Pioneer of ecumenism and dialogue (1923-2017) »

Gregory Baum always tried to dialogue with those who were different—well before our societies embraced pluralism as a public value. His career mirrored his private life in which he sought to reconcile a great diversity of identities: German, Canadian, Quebecois, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, liberal, conservative, radical, scholar, activist, priest, husband, homosexual and friend. For Baum, valuing one’s particular identity while striving through dialogue towards universality was a project that was at once personal, theoretical, and practical.[1]

Born on June 20, 1923 in Berlin to a Protestant father and Jewish mother, he fled Germany in 1940 to seek safety in Great Britain. As an enemy-alien internee, he was transferred to a camp in Canada. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree (McMaster University, 1946) and Master’s (Ohio State University, 1947) in Mathematics, he converted to Roman Catholicism after reading Augustine’s Confessions. He later became a priest and theologian, earning a doctorate in theology from Fribourg University in 1956; his dissertation—which launched his career as an expert in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue–was later published under the title That They May Be One.[2] From 1959 to 1986, he served as professor of Religious Studies and Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, which he left in 1986 to join the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal. While at St. Michael’s, he studied sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York, which inspired his important book Religion and Alienation: A Theological Reading of Sociology.[3]

Active during the Council, Baum quickly made his mark as a member of the new generation of theologians keen to renew the Church. Named peritus (expert) to the Secretary for Christian Unity at Vatican II, Baum, at the age of 37, drafted the very first version of Nostra Aetate, which would revolutionize the Church’s relations to Jews, other Christians, and ultimately other faith communities. He was also very active in the discussions leading to the Council’s declaration on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). His first article in Concilium appeared in volume 4, published in 1965. After recognizing the validity of the many Christian communities, he wrote: “the Churches engaged in ecumenism… strain after a fulfillment that even a single visible Church on earth embracing all Christians could not supply.”[4] He had chosen his side: no Church was perfect, and respectful pluralism among churches was more important that institutional unity.

In order to promote ecumenism, he founded in 1962 a small theological journal called The Ecumenist, which continues to this day. It should be remembered that, prior to the Council, ecumenism was regarded with suspicion in the Catholic Church, which adopted a defensive posture, refusing to engage in dialogue. In The Ecumenist, Baum confronted this attitude with a courageous, generous, and open spirit. He especially confronted the demons of anti-Semitism in the Catholic tradition. Having left the priesthood, Baum married Shirley Flynn, a former nun,in 1977. In his recent memoires, he acknowledges that from the age of 12, he knew that he was a homosexual, but this did not stop him from marrying Shirley out of a sense of deep mutual respect and friendship. He also admits that, from 1986, with Shirley’s knowledge, he entered into a loving relationship, at first sexual but later platonic, with a man who shared his Christian and emancipatory values.

In light of these hybrid personal experiences, in his scholarship Gregory addressed a wide range of issues, authoring some 30 books and innumerable articles. He was particularly prolific for Concilium, for which he served on the editorial committee for almost 20 years. His book, Amazing Church: A Catholic Theologian Remembers a Half-century of Change,[5] demonstrates how his life’s work embraced the goals of Concilium; its sections reflect on the Church’s conversion to human rights, God’s redemptive presence in history, and the preferential option for the poor. 

Rooted in the Augustinian tradition and, later, the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, Baum was preoccupied with the “omnipresence of sin” in human history and protested the reduction of human beings to “a collection of objects to be manipulated by techno-scientific reason for the benefit of the strong and the clever.”[6] Often seen as “Marxist”, Baum was always careful to root his reflections in Scripture, Catholic theology, church documents, and even papal teaching. The more radical his position, the more he sought to frame it within the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy and tradition. Perhaps this explains how little official condemnation his work provoked even though his positions were often more radical than those of Charles Curran or Hans Kung.

Baum was a man of the Left, but he was not a Marxist. In an analysis of the dialogue between Christianity and Marxism, Baum distinguished Marx’s humanist philosophy from the atheist and totalitarian regimes created in his name.[7] He said that Christians should appreciate Marx’s outrage in the face of the suffering of workers as well as Marx’s recognition of the dignity of labour. He argued that theological reflection on the social and structural dimensions of sin developed in the latter half of the 20th century owed much to Marx.[8] Nevertheless, Baum confessed that he was moved to the Left more by his encounter with the Catholic thinker Rosemary Radford Reuther in the 1960s and Liberation Theology in the 1970s than Marxism. Moreover, his awakening to the power of ideology and institutional self-interest came not from Marx but from his crushing disappointment in the face of the Church hierarchy’s retrenchment after Vatican II.

In the last article written for Concilium, Baum expressed the same ambivalence. “It continues to amaze me that the Catholic Church, at and after Vatican Council II, has produced boldly progressive social teaching and at the same time refuses to apply this teaching to its own institutional life.”[9]  Baum noted for instance that the initial thinking of Karol Wojtyla included the idea of dissent against the communist regime as being a source of health for the common good, , but Wojtyla dropped this idea form his vision of the Church when he became pope. Real dialogue with the episcopal conferences and local dioceses promised by the Council was compromised. However, in a recent interview Baum expressed great admiration for Pope Francis and his attempts to revive the Council’s spirit of dialogue.

Given this history, we should not be surprised that, recently, in response to rising Islamophobia after 2001, Baum announced his solidarity with Muslims and turned his scholarly attention to the work of a number of important Muslim intellectuals working in the West. For example, he has defended the spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, leader of the Hizmet movement and now a political refugee in the United States where he remains threatened by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Gulen sent a letter of condolence after Baum’s death, praising the fact that “when Turkish government began a defamation and persecution against Hizmet sympathizers last year, Dr. Baum stood on the side of the wrongly persecuted, and defended them through his statements and articles.”[10] Baum also published a book explaining the thought of Tariq Ramadan, an important European Muslim thinker, who was recently, in the wake of the #Me Too movement, accused of rape, assault, and sexual harassment just after Baum passed away.[11]

In the last third of his life, Baum became attached to the city of Montreal (the metropole of Quebec, the only French-language-majority province in Canada) and to the Church in Quebec. In an interview with The Catholic Register, he expressed his joy: “I live in a dream world in Quebec …I still belong to a wide network of progressive Catholics. I never meet any conservatives.”[12] Montreal includes many unilingual, English-language academics who function largely outside the majority French-language culture of the province of Quebec. In contrast, Baum communicated effortlessly in French and worked to disseminate the knowledge of Quebec Catholicism in English, publishing frequently on the Church in Quebec and French Quebecois theology.[13] Baum has received many honorary doctorates and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1990. While often critical of the Canadian government, Baum was proud to receive the Order of Canada, claiming that its motto “Desiderantes meliorem patriam” (“They desire a better country”) was a fine socialist slogan.  Baum was profoundly cosmopolitan, but not in any way “rootless.” His universalism was intimately tied to his “particularism.” He was proud of his Canadian citizenship, German heritage, Jewish roots, Roman Catholicism, solidarity with Quebec nationalism, homosexual identity, and his various vocations as university professor, scholar, human rights activist, and man of the Left. He embraced these markers of a rooted, particular identity, but through these particular poles of identity he reached out to others—allowing them their own particular identity while inviting them to share in a common humanity based on openness to others, compassion, and solidarity. 


[1] G. Baum, Essays in Critical Theology, Kansas City, Mo: Sheed and Ward, 1994, 19-26.

[2] G. Baum, That They May Be One: A Study of Papal Doctrine. Westminster, Md: Newman Press, 1958.

[3] G. Baum, Religion and Alienation: A Theological Reading of Sociology, New York: Seabury, 1975; Second edition by Ottawa: Novalis Publishing, 2005. 

[4] G. Baum, “The Ecclesial Reality of the Other Churches,” CONCILIUM, Vol. 4, (1965), 86.

[5] Ottawa: Novalis, 2005.

[6] G. Baum, Amazing Church: A Catholic theologian remembers a half-century of change, Ottawa: Novalis/St-Paul University, 2005, p. 141.

[7] G. Baum, « The Impact of Marxist Ideas on Christian Theology », in G. Baum (ed.), The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview, New York: Orbis Books, 1999, pp. 173-185.

[8] Ibid., pp. 178-179.

[9] G. Baum, “The Church: For and Against Democracy,” CONCILIUM, (2007/4), 51.

[10] Personal correspondence, 3 November 2017.  

[11] The Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective, South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

[12] M. Swan, “Controversial Canadian theologian Gregory Baum dead at 94”: The Catholic Register, October 19, 2017.

[13] G. Baum, The Church in Quebec, Ottawa: Novalis, 1991; Nationalism, Religion, and Ethics, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001; Truth and Relevance: Catholic Theology in French Quebec since the Quiet Revolution, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014; Fernand Dumont: A Sociologist Turns to Theology, Montreal McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.