Born in Berlin in 1923, Gregory Baum was a former Augustinian friar, theologian, and author of the first draft of the Second Vatican Council Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, one of its ground-breaking documents. He left the Order and the priesthood in his early forties and continued a career as a theologian in his adopted country, Canada. He died on 18 October 2017, aged 94. His obituary appeared in many newspapers and periodicals in the English-speaking world.
He describes The Oil Has Not Run Dry, his last published book, as ‘My Theological Pathway’, but this intellectual biography nonetheless reveals much about the man himself.
He speaks generously of those he encountered in a long and eventful life, describing his time as an Augustinian ‘a happy one’, transforming him, as he admits frankly, from ‘a scattered young man into a determined person with a focus’. He retained his religious name, Gregory, for the remainder of his life.
Given the name Gerhard at birth, he came from a wealthy family of assimilated Jews, unaware of being Jewish as a child. He describes his upbringing as happy and ‘humanistic’ rather than religious, and had a close relationship with his mother who didn’t mind him being a self described ‘poor student at school’. Baum managed to get a place on the Kindertransport for Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany, finding himself as a teenager in England just before the Second World War. Becoming an enemy alien after war was declared, he was sent to Canada from Britain, spending the rest of his life in that country.
Reading the Confessions of St Augustine as a university student of mathematics had a profound effect. Baum devotes a whole chapter to it, describing it as a ‘turning point in my life’. It lead to his reception into the Catholic Church in 1946 and his entry into the Augustinian Order with the Canadian Vicariate of the German Province in 1947. He did preparatory studies for the priesthood in Racine, Wisconsin, followed by a novitiate, after which he was sent to Fribourg University, Switzerland, to study theology. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1954.
He completed his doctorate on an ecumenical topic, unusual at the time, ecumenism being regarded as risqué in the Church of the 1950s. He then went on to research the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Catholic Church and wrote a book, The Jews and the Gospel (1961); he would go on to write over twenty books on a variety of theological topics. Cardinal Bea asked him to join the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity at the onset of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65); and Pope John XXIII, at Bea’s recommendation, made him a council peritus (theological adviser). He attended all the sessions of the council.
Baum authored the first draft of a document on the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews, which after much discussion and near-rejection was broadened to become a declaration on non Christian religions as a whole (Nostra Aetate), including a crucial section on Judaism. Baum’s contribution to theological debate at the council also involved work on the documents on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). He speaks of the ‘intense dialogue and communication’ that went on at the council, something he clearly relished.
The Second Vatican Council introduced him to some of the outstanding theologians of the day, like Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Küng, with whom he would collaborate while on the editorial board of the newly-established periodical Concilium, the pre-eminent platform for post-Vatican II liberal and progressive theology. But his liberal views brought him into conflict with the Canadian hierarchy, and he left the Augustinian Order and priesthood in 1974. Like another German Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, he married a former nun.
His theological interests were wide-ranging, including ecumenism, Jewish-Christian relations, justice and peace, and the relationship between theology and society - writing books on all these subjects, as well as editing his own periodical The Ecumenist. On retiring as a theology professor at St Michael’s College, Toronto, where he taught both as an Augustinian and after he left the priesthood, he was given a final academic post at the prestigious McGill University, Montreal. He describes the move to Quebec as opening up new horizons, and became involved in the movement for independence and various social issues through the Jesuit Justice and Faith Centre in Montreal.
The Oil Has Not Run Dry displays an extraordinary clarity of thought and expression, as well as great generosity of spirit. An optimistic temperament shines through, in spite of all the difficulties encountered, including Nazi oppression, exile, radical change of vocation, theological conflict, and struggles with his sexual orientation. Throughout his life after he left the Augustinians and got married, he mentions being supported by his loving wife, Shirley, who predeceased him.
Like Augustine, Baum was an intellectual and spiritual pilgrim, writing and publishing with great enthusiasm for a wide range of ideas and issues until shortly before he died. In spite of often being a thorn in its institutional side, what comes across is a love for the Church and his deep faith in Christ. Asked about death in an interview that makes up the final section of the book, he finishes with the words, ‘Resurrexit, Christ is risen, is a good note on which to close the story of my theological pathway’. And his life. May he rest in peace.
(The Oil Has Not Run Dry is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and London, 2017)