In his doctoral colloquia on the ancients and the moderns, Fr. Lamb was fond of observing Socrates’ final line from the Apology, “But now it is time to go away, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to a better thing is unclear to everyone except to the god.” A lifelong lover of Plato and Aristotle, Fr. Lamb never hesitated, however, to affirm the newness of the Gospel and its promise of eternal life. Unlike Socrates, we now know that death has become a dies natalis, a day of birth, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word.
The Book of Sirach says, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. . . .men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding. . . .leaders of the people in their deliberations and in understanding of learning for the people, wise in their words of instruction.” Over the course of a priestly vocation and theological career spanning Vatican II and the subsequent fifty years, Fr. Matthew Lamb was indeed among such great men.
He was born in 1937 and entered a Trappist monastery just before his fifteenth birthday. For many years, he lived the Trappist life of prayer and work, silence, and fasting – and of studying the Scripture, the Fathers, Aquinas, as well as contemporary theological scholarship.
During the 1960s, his abbot suggested that he go to Rome to earn advanced degrees in theology. There he encountered Bernard Lonergan, a scholar and teacher who inspired countless Catholic theologians who would go on to impact Catholic theology around the globe. In his later years, he would describe Lonergan’s influence, especially in relation to a deepening of his understanding of the wisdom found in Augustine and Aquinas.
After earning an STL from the Gregorianum in Rome, he went to study at the University of Münster, Germany under Johann Baptist Metz. He completed his Doctorate in Theology (Dr. Theol.) “Summa cum laude” and earned the University Prize for the best dissertation in Catholic Theology in 1974.
From that time forward, he dedicated himself to a singular task: the formation of doctoral students in the Catholic theological tradition. Fr. Lamb’s doctoral instruction would span five decades, first at Marquette, then Boston College, and finally Ave Maria University, where he founded and directed the Patrick F. Taylor Graduate Programs in Theology. Fr. Lamb’s doctoral students now teach across the United States and abroad, in seminaries, colleges, and universities.
In 1990, he published an epochal essay in America Magazine entitled, “Will There Be Catholic Theology in the United States?” He went public with the beginning of what he would lightheartedly call “Lamb’s Lamentations.” He cautioned against what he termed the “Protestantization” of Catholic theology, combined with the loss of knowledge of Latin and Greek, which left students estranged from the sources of the Catholic theological tradition.
He became increasingly concerned that more and more Catholic theologians “no longer know what they don’t know.” He warned in a 1997 essay that over 90 percent of systematic theologians were doing dissertations focused on recent figures, with the result that real grounding in – as well as well as fidelity to – the dogmatic tradition was no longer being handed on to the next generation.
So he labored many years to pass along to students the intellectual patrimony he had received, culminating in his directing almost fifty dissertations and serving as a reader on almost as many others. He published over a hundred and sixty articles dealing with Augustine, Aquinas, Lonergan, theological method, political theology, modernism, communication theory, and the writings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In 2002, he received an honorary doctorate from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in recognition of his contributions to the renewal of Catholic theology.
In 2003, Fr. Lamb delivered the academic convocation address at the newly-founded Ave Maria University. He challenged the young institution to strive to unite the first millennium’s quest for wisdom and holiness within the monastic traditions and the second millennium’s search for science and scholarship within the universities, a unity that he perceived had been severed over time causing great injury to society and the practice of theology.
To issue such a challenge took much understanding of the Church’s theological patrimony and much experience of the Church’s tradition of prayer. What took greater courage, however, was that Fr. Lamb was willing to leave his established position at Boston College and join this small institution with the fixed purpose of establishing and sustaining graduate programs in theology. Fr. Lamb became a champion for an authentic reception of Vatican II as a renewal within tradition.
In Fides et Ratio, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote, “It must not be forgotten that reason too needs to be sustained in all its searching by trusting dialogue and sincere friendship. A climate of suspicion and distrust, which can beset speculative research, ignores the teaching of the ancient philosophers who proposed friendship as one of the most appropriate contexts for sound philosophical inquiry.”In Christ, Fr. Lamb fostered such relationships of friendship that sustained authentic inquiry into the realities of the Catholic faith. In addition to being a father and teacher to so many students, young and old, clerical and lay, he also became a friend.
Fr. Lamb passed through the portals of death on January 12, 2018. He died, as was providentially fitting, with two doctoral students praying and keeping vigil at his bedside throughout the night. In the many funeral Masses he had celebrated for others, he would often say that “they now see what we only believe.” He would say this with real joy, however, not with the sighs and half-hopes that one often feels. In his daily life, he felt himself in a living communion with Christ Jesus.
Let us pray that through the abundant divine mercy he is now gazing in that most loving and beatifying vision upon the most holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.