Georges de Nantes.
The Mystical Doctor of the Catholic Faith.


“EVERY morning in the Issy-les-Moulineaux seminary, the prospect of the different classes that we were going to attend overjoyed me. The regular recurrence of the same programme accustomed me as though naturally to classifying the different sciences that were taught to us in the various parts of my mind and, thus, to pursue the conquest of the truth in several fields concurrently, not without having on many occasions establishnmed relationships among them, which strengthened the perception of their coherence. ” 1


Father Ruff
Father Ruff

“ He was a Sulpician priest, a native of the Vivarais, a musician of great distinction, a cellist, with a very disconcerting appearance. He had a tuft of hair on the crown of his forehead in hilarious isolation, a small round face always animated, mocking eyes. He was unable to speak without gesticulations that ended up replacing words, and you had to do what you could to understand ! [...]

“ Straightaway, we saw him charge into the most disheartening treatise, the most difficult of ancient and modern philosophy : the critique of knowledge. I say : charge, because, like a toreador, in every class he would resume the pursuit of Immanuel Kant and his whole troop of idealists, with banderillas and muletas, right up to the final death-blow. During the combat, Fr. Ruff would collapse ten times onto his rostrum, simulating the defeated animal. We understood nothing. Yet, by dint of listening and watching, light gradually dawned. Through this flood of words and this prodigious mimicry, the reality of the objects of knowledge finally managed to appear to us, in the staggering intuition of their being ; of their being as, for instance, that of a lion, a gazelle, a cello or an umbrella, and on the other hand, the futility of these famous a priori categories of pure reason that Kant laboured to invent in order to get himself out of a difficulty […].

“ Thus he presented the whole of the history of philosophy to us as a dice game. How could I write that in my notebook ? I had to understand ! At the tenth explanation, that was it, I got it ! Should I have laughed at the pun ? 2 The modern world collapsed on a throw of the d. Of a d ? Yes indeed ! It lost its d along the way and that is quite simply tragic.

“ The ironical eye of Fr. Ruff hesitatingly sought our approval. He rushed on, however ; listen well !

“ … Immanuel Kant believed that the objectum quo was the objectum quod of knowledge and crash !

“ Ruff spread his arms and, like a hand-puppet in Bellecour Square, his head fell with a good crack onto the rostrum, as though he were dead.

“ … But then, it is he who placed an extra d where it should not be ? !

“ Distressed gestures from the prof.

“ If you like, it is the same thing ! He struck the objectum quod out of existence by going into raptures over the objectum quo, by Jove ! The quo became quod, and it’s the end, all is lost. Understood ? Reason bumps into the walls of its prison. It is Plato’s cavern that takes itself to be the out of doors, with us inside and going around in circles ! Something is askew, it’s the end of the world !

“ The catastrophe is underscored by another fall of his round head onto the rostrum. We can only see the pepper-and-salt tuft of hair.

– Father, I don’t understand.

It is not all that difficult, though !

“ And the turbulent flow of this gesticulatory eloquence gained new impetus like that of the Ardeche River rushing down to the Rhone at the spring thaw !

“ Ah this throw of the dice ! It was intended to serve as a permanent warning to us against the adoration of our ideas, of our minds, and on the contrary to recommend an attentive openness to things and to God. The objectum quod, is – but did we already know enough Latin to be able to translate it ? – what the mind knows : dog, liberty, comb, mud, the infinite… It is the object. But where is it ? In my mind, my own idea, my creation ? There you are, you have lost everything in the dice game. You mistook the quo for the quod, it is a quod pro quo, a mortal quid pro quo ! If your idea is reality, there is no longer reality at all outside of your creative reason ! There finally emerged in my mind the difference between what I know : this dog, this comb, this liberty, and what I know about them : those bits of explanations that were given to me, that I received ready-made in my reading, or that I drew from my personal observations, by which these objects are no longer completely unknown, foreign, to me. A meagre stock of knowledge, indeed ! I have to admit that the ideas that I have about them are manifestly only a means through which, quo ! I attain inadequately but really the object that I have before me, which itself always remains beyond my grasp : objectum quod ! […].

“ Fr. Peissac [at Lyon], a disciple of St. Thomas, had given me the definite certitude of the mysterious relationship of our intelligence with the beings of nature, in the unique and beautiful light of God, Sun of our minds and creative Wisdom. Perhaps this supremacy of reason, however, would have led me, after so many others, passing from Aristotle to Hegel, to satisfy myself with my ideas, the mirror of my mind, the treasure of my knowledge, in the refusal of the perpetual and humiliating questioning that experience inflicts.

“ The Sulpician, a graduate of the École normale supérieur ( teacher training college ), it was said, and a converted Kantian, turned me away from this temptation before it occurred. This goes to show that unless someone is a genius, he remains what his masters make of him. I know that true knowledge exists, that reason unceasingly controls it. Its matter, however, is furnished by abstraction and induction from perceptible objects, contrary to man’s crazy pretention to make himself the measure of all things. ” 3


Here is another subject, another conquest of the truth : the history of the Church, taught by Fr. de Boysson, which began, according to the programme that year, in 313 A.D. : the Edict of Milan, the end of the persecutions, the rapid Christian expansion, the century of Arianism.

“ His course was all the more fascinating, and was followed with a passion by our young, dumbfounded minds, because he recounted those massacres of the Nicaeans by the Arians, those exiles of the great faithful bishops, and that almost general apostasy of the two episcopates of the West and the East as the most miraculous of histories. I wondered later on, for he was very secretive, whether his History did not contain secret keys that he used for his own pleasure, relating to himself the disruptions of our own century under the masks of the ancient heresy.

“ In any case, to my great surprise, I was really in my element in the fourth century, like a fish in his native river. I associated the names of the figures of the fourth century with other figures and names, contemporary ones, well-known for the good or evil role they played in the great age-old struggle of the Church against Revolution. I thus connected contemporary figures with the names of the great saviours of Orthodoxy such as Athanasius and Hilary, or with heretics like Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eunomius and Aetius, or with the saving Councils of Nicaea, Alexandria, and Constantinople, and the ignominious ones such as Sardica, Rimini and Seleucia, and finally with the strong or weak popes such as Liberius or Leo the Great. ” 4


Fr. Cazelles taught the science of the Holy Scriptures : Divine Word and revealed Truth. “ He was, he is even more so today [in 1986], a fount, an ocean of knowledge. We realised this when we listened to him. We got this feeling when we looked at him… He had the head of a Babylonian scribe. The lower part of his face was heavy, with two big, protruding eyes that often took on the alarmed expression of someone who is intensely searching but is unable to find what he is seeking ; his speech was ponderous and sleep-inducing [...]. He heaved himself up into the very high rostrum by the strength of his thick, short arms. Then the torture began, for him and for us. The principles were clear, somewhat different from my simplistic and sterile facts.

“ The Holy Bible, the collection of inspired Books, has as its main author God Himself, and as secondary authors – not as its instrumental cause, like a brush or a stylus, but as secondary authors – chosen men who recited, dictated, and finally wrote them. This is the first principle of all Catholic exegesis.

“ The second principle is similar to it ; it is drawn entirely from the first, with a simplicity and facility that is more apparent than real : the Holy Bible cannot contain any error and still less any deception. It is absolutely worthy of belief and trust, more than any human science, even when it goes contrary to all other human teaching. I say human because the Bible is also, and do not forget it, human thought, human language, human writing, without ceasing to be divine in all its parts – just as Jesus Christ, the Word of God given to us, is true God and true man, perfectly man without ceasing to be perfectly God. The mystery of the inspired writings is akin to the mystery of the Incarnation and is clarified by it.

“ The explication throughout these three months of classes, however, was hopelessly complicated. Fr. Cazelles said very abstract things that he charitably peppered with disconcerting examples [...]. He claimed that the Book of Jonas was most probably a tale, which nevertheless has lofty moral significance. The prophet’s sojourn in the belly of the whale was only an amusing feature that illustrated the almighty mercy of the true God towards His stubborn, recalcitrant witness, as further on it showed itself to be as benevolent towards the multitude of idolaters in the great, fabulously immense city of Nineveh, and towards their animals ! Another day, he let it be understood that Moses was not necessarily the author of Deuteronomy as the Book indicates, or at least, he was not the sole and immediate writer since in it we can read the account of his death ! An outburst of laughter came from the dozen students who kept their eyes and minds open. The others found themselves caught ! The gust of laughter, however, once again shook me, snatched me despite myself from a childish, irrational faith, urging me further on in this formidable and fascinating exegetical critique which is still Catholic, and in which faith does not dread the anxious and suspicious investigations of reason. From it, she hopes to triumph every time, enriched by a new treasure of intelligence and wisdom, and nevertheless of piety – at least that is what I was hoping ! [...]

“ It was thus an immense relief when Fr. Cazelles suddenly stopped, waking up the class, and announced with a furtive and delightful smile, the avowed accomplice of our lassitude, the study of the Book of Genesis :

“ ‘ Take your Bible, page one, chapter one : the Creation of the world.

“ At last, we were going to study the text itself, and from the first to the last page without skipping a line, without avoiding a single difficulty ! It was intoxicating. It was at least a minute of joy. It did not last any longer than that.

“ From the very first verse, how many problems ! Then we stumbled over each word. Cazelles was ruthless. Becoming lost in conjectures, he lost us along the way. The Hebrew had to be corrected ; the Greek of the Septuagint required it ; and the Latin translation is inaccurate. Soon the great Mesopotamian cosmogonies proposed accounts of the creation closely related to our inspired text. We were going to sort out what it had copied from them and reveal what had been rejected, omitted, contradicted. Thus, would what was added be pure divine inspiration ? The five-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh suddenly reappeared brand new at Issy-les-Moulineaux, exhilaratingly topical [...]. At last came the time when these classes that I attended with ever increasing interest plunged me into a state of unbearable anxiety. ” 5

This account is enthralling because it shows us how Georges de Nantes, a young twenty-year-old seminarian, embraced the biblical question in its totality in the very year when Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu recommended to exegetes that they should distinguish the “ literary genres ”. Following his “ incomparable friend’s ” 6 advice, he decided to divulge his interior drama to Fr. Cazelles :

“ I told him of my agitation in a few words [...]. I did not dare, however, to risk the decisive question, which he clearly understood, as we passed through the tunnel leading to the Avenue Saint Jean : Knowing what you know, do you still believe what I believe ? When all is said and done, what is the Christian Faith, a truth or a legend, a subjective certitude, a veritable myth, or an indisputable divine revelation attested by inspired beings and proved by historical miracles ? Father, do you have the Faith ? [...]

“ He replied to me, unreservedly, in a clear voice, his face suddenly expressing an impressive goodness and mildness, as a master to his disciple or, better still, as a father to his child haunted by a nightmare. He did not evade any of the difficulties that I had evoked ; he did not distance himself in order to escape into the false clarity of first principles. He let me see – for the one and only time ! – the bottom of his heart. This great altercation between the traditional representations and the inexorable modern critique was his own debate as well as mine, but he overcame it day by day, year after year, by a rigorous faithfulness to the directives of the Church – ‘ even those of Pius X ’, he specified with a subtle kindness, the ulterior motives of which only appeared to me later on – without renouncing the requirements of rigorous scientific procedures. He did this even if it meant formulating hypotheses that might shock uneducated people and that Rome, for this reason, forbade to be professed publicly and above all not as definite certainties. ”

The master’s answer pacified the disciple who welcomed it with a well-disposed mind :

“ I saw him as the obscure and deserving servant of God, working under the incomprehension of his betters, perhaps under Roman anathemas or under the paralysing threat of them, to draw a distinction in the immense arsenal of modern sciences between what is certain and worthy of enriching the Christian knowledge of the Scriptures, and what must absolutely be rejected as venom of incredulity as much as false science. A difficult work ! Nevertheless, a vital work for the security of the faith of the faithful multitudes. ” 7

This was the line of conduct of our Father in his inexhaustible commentary on Holy Scripture, with which he fed our souls throughout his whole life.


For the seminarian Georges de Nantes, everything was food for the intelligence, the soul and the inmost depths of the heart. This was true in particular for apologetics, which is the demonstration of the credibility of the Christian Faith and of the Catholic religion, in the face of “ this massive, this monstrous indifference of contemporary society. ” From the courses of Fr. Enne, who at the time was superior of the “ philosophers ” of the first and second years, Georges de Nantes retained “ the major intuition that ‘ we go to the truth with our whole soul ’ and not by pure reasoning, however dangerous the application of this intuition may be ! One must love to be able to believe, and one must love even more to be able to make others believe. ” 8

And yet, from that moment, the hint of a first disagreement started to become apparent.

Father Enne
Father Enne

Fr. Enne “ had to his advantage dazzling gifts as a teacher. His papers in his hand, he came and went, speaking and gesticulating with full liberty and ease, dictating his course of which each sentence could provoke impromptu – but perfectly planned ! – digressions of great interest : personal memories, novel pieces of information. Successively didactical, scholarly, moving, prophetic, he rarely argued. He preferred to demonstrate and, even better, to entice, to draw our young minds to his views by persuasion. ”

The first lessons dealt with the Faith : “ Agape, with our pens docilely racing across our notebook, we garnered this marvellous psychology that makes the entire act of theological faith into a work of grace, an inclination of the heart and a luminous intuition of the gratified intelligence. This was not yet his choice, but he laid down the terms in such a way as to turn them surreptitiously to his advantage. From that moment on, we had to understand that reason or intelligence alone, commanding even its most categorical deductions, is vain and its obvious facts sterile, if the heart does not participate in them, does not anticipate them, if some instinct does not incline the whole man to the goal that it sets up, if an impalpable but very necessary grace does not predispose the subject to enter into it with happiness. This was already the subjective element that he favoured with a delicate touch, distinguishing it from objective reasoning. The former recommended us to make it an intimate, persuasive and warm art, a ministry, a pastoral action, the latter constituted apologetics in science […]

“ At the same time as he expounded in detail this manner of approaching, of arousing the interest, then of persuading today’s “ libertine ” or indifferent person, he made a point of justifying its legitimacy in relation to the Faith and to the Church’s Magisterium. He made the most of the Thoughts of Pascal the first outline of a discourse of modern apologetics! – in all their immortal vigour and depth. To protect himself from a possible accusation of Modernism, he invoked Blondel, his secret inspirer and sure reference, he said, for his ‘ method of immanence ’ had not been condemned by the Church. She had clearly distinguished it from the ‘ doctrine of immanence ’, which alone was reproved. ”

In the first end-of-semester examinations, the expected question was posed : “ Plan of an apologetic systematisation. ” Like his confreres, the seminarian Georges de Nantes had trustingly learned by heart this new method of apologetics that twenty years later would be the foundation of Vatican II’s pastoral theory. Now, as he advanced in writing his paper, he came up against a difficulty in its third part, “ ‘ Truth of the doctrine ’ In this part, which was meant to lead us gently, by means of a clever upward turnaround, from the domain of subjective experience to the ‘ Verification by science ’ – number 4 –, I tarried too long. I had the impression that I was floundering and that I would be unable to make that famous turnaround which, however, was capital ! If I failed to do so, my method of immanence would close on itself and change into a doctrine, the extreme danger ! If I was unable to succeed, I would be a Mod-ern-ist ! I would receive a bad mark and disappoint my passionately admired superior.

“ While quickening my writing, I went more thoroughly into the desire of man, I gave more proof of the value of religion as a response to his longings, I already saw in that an indication of its truth. It is profoundly pleasing, thus it is true ? Yes, no ? Only partly ! I sought out the passage towards the history of beginnings, of miracles. I knew that history also by heart. But the passage ! I got bogged down ; I was in an impasse. All Fr. Enne’s anxious zeal was precisely to lead us from one stage to the other without sacrificing the first decisive one to the other, resolutive and was indispensable ! I, however, could not manage it. It was time to hand in the examination papers, and I was still searching for a solution and was going round in circles. I realised that I gave the opposite impression, that there is no possible ascension, no acrobatic turnaround, and finally no through road from earth to Heaven, from the aspirations of man to divine Truth ! ” 9

By not succeeding in avoiding a conclusion made up of Modernist propositions, the student who was mindful of the objective truth of Revelation had put his finger on the source of the trouble, on the error that heralded the future drifts !

Nevertheless, nothing would be able to tarnish his admiration : “ How beautiful this holy Church still was at dawn on this June 6, 1944, when the announcement of the Anglo-American landings in Normandy reached us ! This ‘ longest day ’ was going to interrupt and break up brutally the age-old course of our tradition, and at the same time the humble adventure of our personal destinies. ” 10

Indeed, at the start of the new academic year, 1944, he saw the Revolution at work: it had penetrated even into the seminary on which the Communist flag was flying !


(1) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, p. 43.

(2) Father Ruff’s pun is based on the fact that the French word “ dé ” (dice) used in the expression “ coup de dés ” (a throw of the dice) and the French letter “ d ” are identical in pronunciation : [day]. Immanuel Kant’s philosophical error comes from the confusion that he makes in the two Latin expressions objectum quod and objectum quo. The presence or absence of one letter “ d ” changes completely the philosophical consequences.

(3) Ibid., pp. 43-49. Fr. de Nantes, in turn, taught this “ tempered realism, ”this basic wisdom, the main line of all science to his students : “ To finish with Kant, ” CCR no. 135.

(4) Ibid., pp. 50-52., cf. Letter to My Friends no. 198 and no. 235, CRC no. 89, February 1975.

(5) Ibid., pp. 54-58.

(6) Cf. supra, pp. 47-51.

(7) Memoirs and Anecdotes, Vol. II, pp. 59-62.

(8) Ibid., p. 71.

(9) Ibid., pp. 64-70.

(10) Ibid., p. 81.