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Gregory Baum: in remembrance


By Jean-Claude Ravet


The following editorial will appear in the November-December issue of Relations. It is reprinted with permission.

Few among us who were familiar with Gregory Baum would have thought, just recently, that he was going to leave us so quickly. He seemed to be in good shape, in spite of his 94 years and his period of dialysis three days each week. Even more so because he still had writing plans to follow his intellectual autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2016), published last year and recently translated into French. The years caught up with him suddenly and without warning. Old age was transformed into death so quickly that many people who loved him did not have the opportunity to offer their last farewells. Even if the oil truly ran dry on Oct. 18, his light will not quickly go out.

Like Augustine of Hippo, whose works marked him deeply, notably his Confessions, whose reading, in 1946, led him to convert to Catholicism, Gregory was always grateful for grace offered him as a free gift of God. It was a gift he welcomed as a debt to pay back by placing himself resolutely at the service of life — placing compassion against exclusion, justice against oppression — and in showing himself in solidarity with the excluded whose multiple faces he had learned to recognize. Did he not already share their condition when he was 15 years old, leaving Germany for England in 1939 because of the Nazi menace? Coming from a family whose origins were Jewish, though assimilated into Protestantism in the 19th century, he narrowly escaped the tragic destiny of millions of European Jews. Just to listen to him speak of the three years spent in an internment camp for German nationals in Farnham, Quebec, where he was transferred at the beginning of the war, was to understand his prodigious capacity for resilience.

It is in a similar climate of interior serenity that Gregory Baum, always ready to explore new paths that life opened to him, built up an inspiring and strong theological body of works that was in constant evolution. First of all, as an Augustinian priest in a monastic community which he entered in 1947 and then as a member of the laity — after having renounced the priesthood and religious life, in 1974, because of his disagreement with the sexual ethic promoted by the Vatican, notably on homosexuality — along with his partner, Shirley Flynn, who died in 2007. So it was that he worked, during the 1950s and 1960s, as an expert theologian on ecumenical questions at the Second Vatican Council, to establish fraternal links with the Christian churches, then with Judaism and finally with other religions. These bridges were also built afterward with non-believers, in the name of a transcendent God, immanent to history, a “divine accomplice” in the fight for justice and dignity.

Various events favoured the discovery of the political dimension of the faith he lived as a true conversion in the 1970s. One such moment we can point to is the declaration of the assembly of Latin American bishops gathered at Medellin in 1968, calling, in the name of the Gospel, for solidarity with the oppressed and their struggle for justice; another the blossoming of liberation theology; or again his meeting with the theologian Rosemary Ruether, a socialist, while he was studying sociology at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Opening his eyes to structural inequality and various forms of oppression, he became aware that following the Gospel required of him to look at society and the church from the perspective of the poor, of the excluded, of those without power, and so to condemn all forms of domination, oppression and alienation as Jesus had done. The fact that only a minority followed this path did not disturb him. “The creative renewal begins on the margins of society; it is there that Jesus is to be found,” he liked to say. Knowing he was carried along by a force that was larger than himself, he was not only confident of the multiple movements of resistance that rose up from the grassroots, but he was also open to the unforeseen. He thus saw the arrival of Pope Francis as a source of comfort and joy in the final years of his life.

He pursued this commitment as a Catholic thinker on the Left in Quebec, when, in 1986, he became professor at McGill University after a career of 27 years, beginning in 1959, at the University of Toronto. From the time of his arrival, he joined the editorial board of Relations, where he remained for 30 years. His thought took a new turn through contact with Quebec society and culture that he grew to know, even embracing the project of independence — and doing so in spite of his negative experience of German nationalism — in the name of a more just and open project for society.

Gregory Baum is a major figure of a social Christianity in which social issues such as justice and the common good are as central as the interior life, prayer and liturgy. So, he will continue to accompany and inspire those who have bound themselves to the long march toward “a society that is more just, fraternal and authentically human.”

Ravet is editor in chief of Relations.