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 outstand