Skip to main content

Baum, Ryan and De Roo: Canadian Catholic Game Changers

Volume 31, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 20, 2017

Remi De Roo                                                                            Gregory Baum

     Shortly after the passing of theologian Gregory Baum in late October, Bishop Remi De Roo phoned to say he would like to sit down and talk about the great Canadian theologian he got to know through their work at and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
     I had heard about Gregory’s death at an event the Friday evening before from Bishop De Roo’s lips. He was featured in the diocesan celebration of fifty years of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace at St. Patrick’s parish hall in Oak Bay.
     Development and Peace, the third world development aid agency started by the Canadian Bishops in 1967,  itself was the offshoot of the changes in the Canadian Roman Catholic Church after the council. Bishop De Roo served as Bishop of Victoria between 1962 when he was appointed by Pope John XXIII at age 38 from St, Boniface, Manitoba.
     In his 38 years as bishop he frequently hosted Gregory Baum as a speaker and guest of the diocese. They served in tandem as two of the more dynamic speakers and promoters of the changes in the church brought about by the council.
     Perhaps the most significant shift brought about in the Canadian Catholic Church was the enhancement of adult education in theological and spiritual matters among the adult laity, and Bishop De Roo was certainly a leader in this field. 
     Gregory Baum’s visits were part of an ongoing program of forward looking speakers in the fields of social justice, religious education training and progressive theology and avante garde spirituality within Canadian and world Catholicism.
     When we sat down to talk over lunch in Nanaimo, the bishop emeritus’ home when he isn’t travelling the globe still promoting Vatican II, Bishop Remi at age 93 – the same age as Gregory when he died – praised the clarity, depth and simplicity of Gregory’s teaching and writing. In the best sense Gregory Baum was an explainer and popularizer of complex theological concepts, often previously seen beyond the scope of ordinary laypersons who might not be schooled in theology and spirituality.
     Gregory Baum made theology seem like the most exciting adventure, one that peeled back layers of meaning to mundane experience. Each of his many books could be seen in this vein. His final book, The Oil Has Not Run Dry (reviewed by Christine Jamieson in these pages in the spring 2017 edition) was exactly an outline of his theological pathways of the most exciting Canadian Catholic theologian who was a ground breaker in this way, and will be seen as a game changer in Canadian Roman Catholicism. Gregory not only explained the changes but lived them, making a multitude of scholarly and activist friends in the process.
     A personal connection with Gregory Baum was after he left the active priesthood, married and moved to Montreal to work at McGill and the Quebec Jesuit community. My sister and he and a group of their colleagues formed a close friendship. Christine spoke at his celebration of life on October 28. (see article entitled "Gregory Baum, Amazing Human Being" in the Other News tab)
     My own direct personal experience of Gregory Baum was along these lines of his excellence as a teacher. In 1975 I was registered in the Masters of Divinity program at St. Michael’s university in the Toronto School of Theology where Baum was on the teaching staff. He was just back from taking a two year program in sociology in order to write what may be his most landmark book on the relationship between sociology and theology, titled Religion and Alienation: a Theological Reading of Sociology (its 25th anniversary was marked by a special new edition).
     In 1975 Baum was already a legend in progressive Catholic circles. Active with Catholics for Social Change in Toronto and well beyond. He was brought in by Professor Dan Donovan to teach parts of a course called the History of Christian Thought. Baum was to tackle the major critiques of religion and Christianity by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
     Himself a Jew by birth, now a Catholic priest, there was a richness to his approach to the much cited nuances of religion as the opiate of the people (Marx) and as an infantile stage if not block to human development (Freud). It was not without humour and sensitive crediting of the purifying value of such critiques.
     It would have been interesting to hear his take on the influence on religion of the other two 20th Century Jewish game changers in the popular mind Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan. Instead he can be seen himself as a game changer within Roman Catholicism, particular for his work on the relationship between Christianity and both Judaism and Islam, the area of same sex relationships, the prophetic edge of Catholic social teaching and ecumenism.
     The Canadian Jesuit leader Bill Ryan who died in September at a similar age, as his obituary in The Globe and Mail (see obituary) stated, was a leader who added a new subtle nuance to what the term Jesuit has come to mean. A master at both direct and indirect leadership that a mammoth institution like the Roman Catholic Church requires when bringing about change, social or institutional.
     Founding editor of The Western Catholic Reporter (1968), Douglas Roche has this to say about Gregory Baum and Bill Ryan:
     “And so, two more gigantic figures of the Vatican II era have left us.  Gregory Baum, a beautiful interpreter of the Council, and Bill Ryan, social justice champion, both exemplified the fullness of the Council. In Baum, we saw the collegial church as defined by the Constitution on the Church, and in Ryan, we saw the depth of the Church's care for humanity as revealed in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. 
     Both continued to teach and act through the years, undaunted by the reversals the post-Vatican II period went through. They never lost their willingness to work for a better Church or their hope for a humanity enveloped in God’s love. Both men influenced my life and understanding of the depths revealed by the Council.  I thank God for their presence among us.”
     Gregory Baum, who former ICN Editor Marnie Butler called a gentle man and Bill Ryan SJ –  Rest in Peace.