By Andrew Hamilton, S.J.
On 11 January Jean-Yves Calvez died at the age of 82. He was a Jesuit priest, an influential social thinker whose engagements responded exactly to the large movements in the Catholic Church and the world over the last 50 years.
Shortly after he was ordained a priest in 1957, Fr Calvez published La pensée de Karl Marx, which provided a clear and objective treatment of the German philosopher. It came out of his studies in German intellectual history during the 19th century. The work was as much studied in Communist cells as it was in Catholic circles.
Fr Calvez was then teaching social ethics, and the success of the book led him to engage constructively with many Marxist intellectuals at a time when a small space for reflectiveness had opened in communist circles. The book also enabled him to enter into conversation with Russian Orthodox thinkers on social issues.
Before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, he was studying systematically Catholic Social Teaching, and his collections, edited with Jacques Perrin, of key documents on the Social teaching of the Popes, appeared from the start of the Council, followed later by a three-volume treatment of Christian thinkers about society.
The impact of Fr Calvez on Catholic attitudes was enormous but diffuse. He inherited a view of Catholic social teaching as a body of abstract reflection on principles, dominated by its opposition to political systems, and particularly to Communism. He showed how Catholic reflection was influenced by and responded to changing social contexts.
The change in emphasis can be seen in the title of his first book which referred to Catholic social teaching, whereas that of his last spoke of Catholic social discourse. He also made clear that it was about human beings, and so involved solidarity with the poor as well as thought on their behalf.
His books, articles, introductions to papal and episcopal documents and comments on issues of the days influenced two generations of students and teachers. Perhaps his indirect influence can be detected in the high place given to social justice in Australian Catholic schools.
By the end of the Vatican Council, Calvez had been elected as Assistant to Jesuit Fr General Pedro Arrupe in Rome. He supported Fr Arrupe in his insistence that familiarity and solidarity with the poor are an essential dimension of Jesuit life, and helped respond to the conflicts and misunderstandings that this emphasis gave rise to in the Society of Jesus.
These conflicts echoed the larger divisions in the Catholic Church following the Council, and were part of the tension between the Papacy and the Jesuits.
In his writing Fr Calvez developed his reflection on economic issues concerned with development. He was particularly concerned with the impact on the poor. He published a number of books on this theme, and became a frequent visitor to Latin America where he was able to experience the situations that he reflected upon.
After returning from Rome to France Fr Calvez was made President of the French Provincials. His principal task was to prepare for integrating the four Jesuit regions, each with their own governance, into a single Province.
From 1995 he edited the Jesuit cultural magazine, Etudes for ten years. He continued to publish widely, and his reflections on Catholic documents on social issues influenced the way in which the texts were received. In his last work, published in October 2009, he revised his collection of documents to include those of Benedict XVI.
As a human being and Jesuit, he was simple, genial and convivial. The current Jesuit editor of Etudes, Pierre de Charentenay, said of him:
‘He was a man of extraordinary modesty. He never pushed himself forward, always refused awards, decorations and honorary doctorates, saying that it was not in his vocation as a Jesuit to receive these kinds of honours. He was always at the service of the church, a grass roots Religious who had an extraordinary but simple experience in his daily life.’
The life of Jean-Yves Calvez is of wider interest in a time when our instinctive assumptions about the world will not serve us well in the face of the ecological challenges we face. He was deeply engaged in the great changes in church and society over 50 years, but was able to see them in a broader context.
He was never trapped into polemic or denial, always ready to engage with people with whom he disagreed. He could see them as persons and not as walking ideologies. His constant concern was for the poor who were affected by change, and his interest lay in entering their perspective.
He will be greatly missed.
Andrew Hamilton, S.J.
© Eureka Street – January 21, 2010
Andrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne, Australia.