Henri de Lubac was born in Cambrai to an ancient noble family of the Ardèche. He was one of six children; his father was a banker and his mother a homemaker. The family returned in 1898 to the Lyon district, where Henri was schooled by Jesuits. A born aristocrat in manner and appearance, de Lubac studied law for a year before, aged 17, joining the Society of Jesus in Lyon on 9 October 1913. Owing to the political climate in France at the time as a result of the French anti-Church laws of the early twentieth century, the Jesuit novitiate had temporarily relocated to St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, East Sussex, where de Lubac studied before being drafted to the French army in 1914 due to the outbreak of the Great War. He received a head wound at Les Éparges on All Saints Day, 1917, which would give him recurring episodes of dizziness and headaches for the rest of his life. Following demobilisation in 1919, de Lubac returned to the Jesuits and continued his philosophical studies, first at Hales Place in Canterbury and then, from 1920-3, at the Maison Saint-Louis, the Jesuit philosophate located at that time in St. Helier, Jersey. De Lubac taught at the Jesuit College at Mongré, in the Rhône, from 1923-4, and then in 1924 returned to England and began his four years of theological studies at Ore Place in Hastings, East Sussex. In 1926, the Jesuit college was relocated back to Fourvière in Lyons, where de Lubac completed the remaining two years of his theological studies. He was ordained to the priesthood on 22 August 1927.
In 1929, de Lubac was appointed professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University of Lyon (the required doctorate having been conferred by the Gregorian University in Rome at the behest of the Father General of the Society of Jesus, without de Lubac's setting foot there or ever submitting a dissertation). He would teach there from 1929 to 1961, though with two interruptions – first during World War II, when he was forced underground because of his activities with the French Resistance, and then from 1950 to 1958, when the Jesuit order, under pressure from Rome, removed him from his teaching responsibilities and the Fourvière Jesuit residence.
During the 1930s de Lubac spent his time teaching at the Catholic University and researching, as well as teaching (between 1935 and 1940) one course at the Jesuit seminary at Fourvière (where he also lived from 1934 onwards). His first book, the now-classic Catholicisme (English title of the current edition: Catholicism: Christ and Common Destiny of Man) was published in 1938, before the war. In 1940, he founded the series Sources Chrétiennes ("Christian Sources"), co-edited with fellow Jesuit Jean Daniélou, a collection of bilingual, critical editions of early Christian texts and of the Fathers of the Church that has reinvigorated both the study of Patristics and the doctrine of Sacred Tradition.
During the Second World War, the first interruption to this pattern came: de Lubac joined a movement of "spiritual resistance," assisting in the publication of an underground journal of Nazi resistance called Témoignage chrétien, or Christian Testimony. It was intended to show the incompatibility of Christian belief with the philosophy and activities of the Nazi regime, both in Germany and also under the cover of the Vichy government in southern France, which was theoretically independent of the Reich. De Lubac was often in hiding from the Germans and several of his co-workers on the journal were captured and executed. Even in hiding, he continued to study and write.
From 1944 onwards, with the end of the Nazi occupation of France, de Lubac came out of hiding and published a number of texts (many of them begun or completed before the war but not published in the early 1940s because of the shortage of paper) which became major interventions in twentieth-century Catholic theology. These included: Corpus Mysticum, which had been ready for publication in 1939, and appeared in February 1944; Drame de l'humanisme athée, published in December 1944; De la connaissance de Dieu published in 1945; Surnaturel: etudes historiques (a book which de Lubac had started at Hastings in his student days), published in 1946 in a print run of 700 copies, because of the ongoing paper shortage.
In June 1950, as de Lubac himself said, "lightning struck Fourvière." De Lubac, who resided at Fourvière but actually did no teaching there (aside from the one course he had taught between 1935 and 1940), and four Fourvière professors were removed from their duties (in de Lubac's case these included his professorship at Lyon and his editorship of Recherches de science religieuse) and required to leave the Lyon province. All Jesuit provincials were directed to remove three of his books (Surnaturel, Corpus mysticum, and Connaissance de Dieu) and one article from their libraries and, as far as possible, from public distribution. The action came through the Jesuit Superior General, Father Jean-Baptiste Janssens, under pressure from the curial office, and was because of "pernicious errors on essential points of dogma." Two months later, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani generis, widely believed to have been directed at de Lubac and other theologians associated with the nouvelle théologie, an intellectual movement characterized by renewed attention to the patristic sources of Catholicism, a willingness to address the ideas and concerns of contemporary men and women, a focus on pastoral work and respect for the competencies of the laity, and a sense of the Catholic Church as existing in history and affected by it.
What de Lubac called "the dark years" lasted nearly a decade. It was not until 1956 that he was allowed to return to Lyon and not until 1958 that the University got verbal approval from Rome for de Lubac to return to teaching the courses he previously taught.
Although everything de Lubac wrote during these years was subject to censorship in Rome, he never ceased to study, write, and publish. During these years he brought out a study of Origen's biblical exegesis (1950), three books on Buddhism (1951, 1952, 1955), Méditations sur l'Eglise (1953 – a text which would have great influence on Lumen Gentium, the document produced at Vatican II on the nature of the Church), and Sur les chemins de Dieu (1956).
His pioneering study Exégèse médiévale (1959–65) revived interest in the spiritual exegesis of Scripture and provided a major impetus to the development of Covenantal Theology (Roman Catholic).
Just before and during the conciliar years, with the blessing of his order, de Lubac also began to write and publish books and articles in defense of the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, his older friend and fellow Jesuit, who had died in 1955. Teilhard’s ideas had influenced several of the theologians of the nouvelle théologie and had also met with extreme disfavor in Rome.
In August 1960, Pope John XXIII appointed de Lubac as a consultant to the Preparatory Theological Commission for the upcoming Second Vatican Council. He was then made a peritus (theological expert) to the Council itself, and later, by Pope Paul VI, a member of its Theological Commission (as well as of two secretariats). Although the precise nature of his contribution during the council is difficult to determine, his writings were certainly an influence on the conciliar and post-conciliar periods, particularly in the area of ecclesiology where one of his concerns was to understand the Church as the community of the whole people of God rather than just the clergy. De Lubac's influence on Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Gaudium et spes (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) is generally recognized.
In 1969 Pope Paul VI, an admirer of de Lubac's works, had proposed making him a Cardinal but de Lubac demurred, believing that for him to become a bishop, as required of all cardinals by Pope John XXIII in 1962, would be "an abuse of an apostolic office." Paul VI instead elevated de Lubac's junior colleague Jean Daniélou in that consistory, having committed to grant the cardinalate to a Jesuit theologian.
In the years after Vatican II, de Lubac came to be known as a "conservative theologian", his views completely in line with the magisterium – in contrast to his progressive reputation in the first part of his life. Contributing to this reputation, in 1972 de Lubac, alongside Joseph Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann, founded the journal Communio − a journal which acquired a reputation as offering a more conservative theology than Concilium.
In 1983 Pope John Paul II offered de Lubac the cardinalate, this time with a dispensation from being consecrated a bishop. De Lubac accepted, and became the first cardinal after 1962 who was not a bishop. In the consistory of 2 February 1983, Pope John Paul II raised de Lubac, at 87, to the College of Cardinals. He was created Cardinal Deacon of Santa Maria in Domnica. On 24 May 1990, de Lubac became the oldest living Cardinal. He died in Paris in 1991.