Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Bernard J. F. Lonergan (1904-1984)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

At the close of the twentieth century, in a situation of radical theological pluralism and fragmentation, the writings of Bernard Lonergan can seem either eminently appropriate or hopelessly irrelevant, depending on one's perspective. Lonergan, like many of his fellow Roman Catholic theologians, perceived that Catholic theology was in need of a massive update, yet one which maintained continuity with the past, and which did not simply jettison past achievement in order to follow contemporary fads. To express his task, Lonergan adopted a phrase from the encyclical Aeterni Patris of Pope Leo XIII: vetera novis augere et perficere -- to enlarge and perfect the old by means of the new (Insight, 768). During the course of his work, Lonergan came to the conviction that what was needed to properly deal with the nova was a new organon (Crowe, 1980), a new method in theology, and he made the discovery and articulation of such an organon his life work.

1. Background

Lonergan's Life and Intellectual Influences

[Note: The details of this section are mainly drawn from Frederick Crowe SJ, Lonergan, as well as from Lonergan's own reflections on his influences in "Insight Revisited" (Second Collection).]

Bernard Joseph Francis Lonergan was born on December 17, 1904 in Buckingham, Quebec, (about 100 miles west of Montreal). His father, Gerald, descended from Irish immigrants to Canada, and worked as a surveyor mapping Western Canada. Lonergan's mother, Josephine, was from an English family, and worked at raising Bernard and his two brothers, Gregory and Mark.

In 1918, at the age of 13, Lonergan went as a boarder to Loyola College, a Jesuit school in Montreal. There he began forming what would become a lifelong dissatisfaction with the intellectual standards of Jesuit schools in particular, and the state of Catholic education more generally (Crowe 1992, 5). In 1922, he quietly made the decision to join the Jesuit order. There followed a more or less standard progression through the long course of Jesuit formation: four years in Guelph, Ontario (1922-26) as a novice and junior; three years of philosophy at Heythrop College (1926-29), a Jesuit house of studies near Oxford, and another year during which he studied for a degree in languages and mathematics at the University of London; three years of regency at Loyola College (1930-33), where he had teaching duties; then on to Rome for 4 years of theological studies for the licentiate in theology at the Gregorian in preparation for an academic career (1933-37); finally, a 10-month tertianship in Amiens, France (1937-38).

Lonergan's intellectual influences and interests during these years of formation and study were varied. His training at Guelph would have been classical: Greek, Latin, French, some rhetoric and mathematics. His textbooks at Heythrop were scholastic manuals, "German in origin and Suarezian in conviction" (Second Collection, 263). His early papers at Heythrop reflect an interest in the theory of knowledge; one was written on Newman's Grammar of Assent, a book which he read several times. His subjects at the University of London were again Greek, Latin, French, and mathematics, the latter for which he had an especial fondness. In addition to teaching languages at Loyola College, he gave courses in calculus, analytical geometry, and mechanics (physics). While at Loyola he read J.A. Stewart on Plato (which he said cured him of his nominalism) as well as Plato's early dialogues and the early philosophical dialogues of Augustine. He read Christopher Dawson's The Age of the Gods, which resulted in a shift in his thinking from a normative or classicist notion of culture to an anthropological one.

While at Rome, he picked up some of the transcendental Thomism of Maréchal by osmosis from a fellow student. In addition, he gained first-hand exposure to Thomas Aquinas, as opposed to the Thomism of the scholastic manuals. Crowe argues that during this period (1934-38) Lonergan was broadening his intellectual horizons. His writings show an interest in culture, the philosophy of history, and the human sciences (sociology, politics, economics). Still dissatisfied with the state of Catholic education, he began planning for a renewal of Catholic studies. Most of these interests would be put on temporary hold, however, while he pursued his doctoral studies, which focused on Aquinas' account of grace.

After completing his dissertation, Lonergan taught theology at Jesuit seminaries, first in Montreal and then in Toronto. From 1953 he taught at the Gregorian in Rome until diagnosed with cancer of the lung in 1965. After surgery and recovery he was went to Regis College in Toronto, and his teaching duties were reduced to allow him to concentrate on writing and research. He taught there until 1975, with a brief stint at Harvard in 1971-2. His final teaching post was at Boston College from 1975 to 1978.

It is worth noting that the last decade of Lonergan's life was spent, not in further development of his philosophical or theological work, but in exploring the field of economics. In a sense, this was not a new departure, but a return to an earlier field of interest. When Lonergan returned to Canada in 1930 from philosophical studies in England, he found his native country in the midst of a severe depression (Crowe, 132). With a pastoral impulse, he turned to economic analysis, trying to grasp the nature of economic cycles (this work is now published in For a New Political Economy). Near the end of his career, after completing Method in Theology, he briefly considered reworking his christological reflections within the framework of his mature thinking on theological method. He opted instead to pick up this earlier work on economics. While teaching graduate seminars on macroeconomics and the human good, he sought to further his work on a fundamental reorientation of macroeconomic analysis (see An Essay in Circulation Analysis). He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1983, while still engaged in this work, and died in Pickering, Ontario on November 26, 1984 at the age of 79.

2. Works (Selected List)

Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957, 1992); Collection (1967, 1988); Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas (1967, 1997); Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (1971); Method in Theology (1972, 1982); A Second Collection (1974); A Third Collection (1985); For a New Political Economy (1998); Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis (1999)

3. Themes


4. Outline of Major Works

One common view of Lonergan portrays him as a Thomist who later became interested in integrating Thomas' thought with modern philosophy, science, and history. Crowe argues (1992, 39-40) that in fact most of Lonergan's fundamental interests predate his serious engagement with Aquinas. His interest in the notion of insight can be traced to an early paper on Euclid, while his formulation of the reflective insight, or judgment, is taken from Newman's illative sense. Crowe further argues that Lonergan's early interest in history and the human sciences at Rome was put on hold during an eleven year period spent "reaching up to the mind of Aquinas." In fact, what Lonergan found in Aquinas during this period of "intellectualist withdrawal" would enable him to powerfully expand his interest in insight and judgment, and to use them as valuable resources for a return to his early interests in order to apply what he had learned from Aquinas.

Lonergan's dissertation took up the question of operative grace in Thomas Aquinas, a topic suggested to him by his dissertation advisor, Charles Boyer. This topic went to the heart of one of the more infamous debates within Catholic scholasticism: the Banezian-Molinist controversy over how to reconcile the omnipotence, omniscience, and salvific will of God with human freedom. Lonergan's exegesis of Aquinas is considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century Thomistic scholarship. He argued that it was necessary to understand the historical development of Aquinas's thought on this issue in order to grasp the intricate and dynamic synthesis which Aquinas was able to achieve. Only by employing historical methods and by paying careful attention to the shifting contexts of Aquinas' treatment could one prevent a "disintegration of Aquinas's solution into 'irreconcilable alternatives'" (Byrne, 1986, 22).


The second major piece of work during this period of 'apprenticeship' to Aquinas was the so-called Verbum articles. In a series of four articles, originally published in Theological Studies and later collected under the title, Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Lonergan explored Aquinas' Trinitarian analogy as found in the Summa Theologiae I. qq. 27 and 93. This study led Lonergan into the heart of Aquinas's cognitional theory, that is, his analysis of the human act of understanding. Aquinas's achievement was to recontextualize Augustine's psychological analogy for the Trinitarian relations within Aristotle's metaphysical psychology. As in his dissertation, Lonergan employed historical methods in order to reconstruct the various contexts of Aquinas's thought. But, in addition, something new emerged, something which resonated with the notion of insight that he had explored in relation to Euclid. He came to grasp that while both Augustine and Aquinas had used "introspective techniques" to ground their analyses of the operations of the human mind, still they had failed to work out the ground or method of those techniques. Lonergan saw the possibility that a self-appropriation of introspection could provide a normative grounding for historical thinking (Byrne, 55-57).


It was only with his next major work (some would say it was the major work of his career) that Lonergan would flesh out the implications of this discovery. Calling it an essay in aid of self-appropriation, Lonergan wrote Insight between the years 1949-1953. He originally intended it to be "an exploration of methods generally in preparation for a study of the method of theology," but had to "round off" his project when he found out he would be transferred to teach in Rome (Second Collection, 268). While impossible to adequately summarize in a brief space, the strategy of Insight can at least be indicated. Lonergan intends for the reader to begin to pay attention to his or her own knowing.

The book is structured to ask and answer two questions: What is happening when we know? What is known when that is happening? The answer to the first yields a cognitional theory and an epistemology (chs. 1-11). The answer to the second grounds a metaphysics (chs.12-17). The last chapters establish both the possibility of an ethics and a theology (chs. 18-20). The first few chapters of the book lead the reader through instances of insight, first in mathematics and the natural sciences (first because it is much easier to pin down and be precise about the character of insight in these disciplines), and later in the realm of common sense (which will become the basis for Lonergan's understanding of history). Yet throughout his discussion of math, physics, and history, Lonergan's primary focus is not the known, but the knowing. Knowing, according to Lonergan, has a compound structure. First, insight is always insight into sensible or imaginable presentations. Thus there is a distinction between experience and insight. Experience occurs on one level, understanding on another. Second, insights occur spontaneously, but it remains to determine whether they are correct or not. Thus there is a further distinction between insight and judgment or reflective understanding. Judgment takes place on a third level, separate from but related to both experience and understanding. This three-fold structure of experiencing, understanding, and judging constitutes knowing, and Lonergan's whole point in Insight is first to invite the reader to concretely identify this three-fold structure in his or her own mind, and then to show how this structure is the condition for the possibility of an epistemology, a metaphysics, a theory of interpretation, an ethics, and a theology.

Method in Theology

It has been said that "Lonergan is always sharpening his knife, but never cutting anything with it" (quoted in Byrne, 1986, 69), in other words, critiquing him for being a methodologist who never engaged in the actual work of doing theology. This is somewhat misleading. It is true that the works for which he is most well known (Insight and Method in Theology) are books about methodology. But it is also true that between 1956 and 1964 he wrote four major theological treatises on Christ and the Trinity, some 1400 pages in all. These have remained largely inaccessible, since they were written in Latin for the use of students who attended his lectures in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University. With one exception, they were neither translated nor published for wider circulation, and Lonergan did not regard them as permanently valid achievements. The reason he did not is indicative of what he thought was wrong with theology as it was then taught at the Gregorian in particular, and at Catholic schools generally.

The basic difficulty is that Lonergan was laboring to do theology in a situation which he describes as intolerable. The theologian was expected to be able to master the Old and New Testament, Patristics, medieval, Reformation, and modern theology, and contemporary philosophy. To conceive of theology along these lines was to ignore the increasing specialization brought about by the development of the historical sciences in the nineteenth century. Nor did theologians know how to incorporate the historical sciences without succumbing to an historicist relativism. Lonergan saw that theology was being inundated by a flood of historical scholarship which it didn't know how to integrate. "The new challenge came from the Geisteswissenschaften, from the problems of hermeneutics and critical history, from the need of integrating nineteenth-century achievement in this field with the teachings of the Catholic religion and Catholic theology" (Second Collection, 277). In other words, how to put the history into theology? This is the challenge which Lonergan sought to meet in Method in Theology.

While in his published work Lonergan sought to provide the methodological foundations for integrating history within theology, in his teaching duties he adapted his theological reflections as best he could to the prevailing system. Thus, while there are hints here and there of the new wine of Lonergan's methodological reflection bursting the old wineskins of a scholastic conceptuality, for the most part these remain to be developed.

If Lonergan's concern in Insight was with an exploration of methods generally, an exploration which sought their source in the dynamism of the human mind, with Method in Theology Lonergan sought to articulate the method of theology as a specification of general method. Between Insight and Method, however, he supplemented his account of knowing with a fourth level, that of deliberation and decision. In the Verbum articles, Lonergan had struggled to clarify the nature of human understanding. Insight was both wide-ranging exploration of understanding through the various fields of human inquiry and an expansion of knowing to include the notion of reflective understanding, or judgment. Method presupposes both understanding and judgment, and goes beyond them to incorporate decision. This fourfold structure of experiencing-understanding-judging-deciding thus integrates both knowing and doing, and provides the invariant component within theological method. This invariant component is a structure immanent in the theologian. Accordingly, the proper foundation for theology is the theologian's own self, understood as this dynamic and immanent structure.

At the heart of Lonergan's solution to the problem of integrating history within theology is the dynamically linked set of operations he calls functional specialties, and at the center of functional specialties is the presence or absence of conversion in the theologian. Historical research enters into the first, or mediating, phase of theology in the form of the first three functional specialties: Research, Interpretation, and History. Dialectic seeks to uncover the values which underlie the conflicts of history, and invites the theologian to decision. The theologian must shoulder the responsibility of deciding "in what manner or measure am I to carry the burden of continuity or to risk the initiative of change?" (Method, 135).

But such decisions ultimately reveal the horizon of the theologian. The theologian is the ultimate foundation and norm of theology, but theologians can be converted or not. Conversion as Lonergan understands it is three-fold. Although he never uses the explicit phrase in Insight, in fact the entire book is an exercise in intellectual conversion. It is about coming to the realization that one's knowing is commonly a mixture of two different kinds of knowing, and about the process of learning to distinguish between the two and to discern their proper roles. To this Method in Theology adds moral and religious conversion. Moral conversion is the shift from self-satisfaction to value as the criterion of one's decision-making and action. Finally, Lonergan conceives of religious conversion as a being-in-love in an unrestricted fashion. It is the gift of God's grace flooding our hearts. The functional specialty Foundations makes explicit the converted or unconverted horizon of the theologian, and, on the basis of this, chooses from the materials sorted out by Dialectics what Doctrines to carry forward. There remains Systematics, which seeks a coherent understanding of the doctrines so chosen, and Communications, which translates this understanding into each cultural milieu.

Lonergan was a philosopher and theologian deeply concerned about fundamental issues: about the nature of understanding, about the challenges of doing theology in a world of exploding scientific and historical knowledge, about the human good and economic functioning, and about the impact of theology on a culture. To these fundamental issues he committed his career, and it is unlikely that the extent of his achievement has yet been fully grasped.

Table 1: Functional specialties

Level of operations

Mediating phase

Mediated phase













(Intellectual, Moral, Religious)

5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Byrne, Patrick H. 1982. "The Thomist Sources of Lonergan's Dynamic World-View" The Thomist 46.1 (January 1982), 108-145.

Byrne, Patrick H. 1986. "The Fabric of Lonergan's Thought" Lonergan Workshop v., ed. by Frederick Lawrence. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1-84.

Crowe, Frederick E.  1980. The Lonergan Enterprise. Cowley.

Crowe, Frederick E. 1992. Lonergan. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press.

Flanagan, Joseph. 1997. Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan's Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lonergan, B. 1971. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Edited by J. Patout Burns, introduction by Frederick E. Crowe. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

Lonergan, B. 1997 [1967]. Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, CWL 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lonergan, B. 1992 [1957]. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, CWL 3. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lonergan, B. 1988 [1967]. Collection. Edited by Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, CWL 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lonergan, B. 1982 [1972]. Method in Theology. New York: Herder and Herder.

Lonergan, B. 1974. A Second Collection. Edited by William F.J. Ryan and Bernard J. Tyrrell. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Lonergan, B. 1985. A Third Collection.  New York: Paulist Press.

Lonergan, B. 1998. For a New Political Economy. Edited by Philip J. McShane, CWL 21. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lonergan, B. 1999. Macroeconomic Dynamics: An Essay in Circulation Analysis. Edited by Frederick Lawrence, Patrick Byrne, Charles Hefling Jr., CWL 15. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

7. Internet Resources

The Lonergan Website, “A virtual place for collaboration in Lonergan Studies. Sponsored by The Lonergan Centre for Ethical Reflection at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.”

Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984), article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Tad Dunne

Lonergan Institute at Boston College

Lonergan Research Institute at Regis College

8. Related Topics

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

Vatican II (1962-1965)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Grant D. Miller Francisco (1999).


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