Dominican theologian and medievalist; b. Soisy-sur-Seine, France, Jan. 7, 1895; d. 1990. After entering the Dominican Order (1913) at Le Saul choir, then in Belgium, he was forced by the outbreak of war to study in Rome (1914–20) at what is now called the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. Assigned to teach theology at Le Saul choir (1920), he at once set himself the task of replacing what he took to be the non-historical exposition of the Thomist system (see thomism) by his teacher in Rome, R. garrigou-lagrange with a reading of Thomas Aquinas in his historical context. His first essay in historical reconstruction of an Aquinas text (1923) was followed by many others, eventually collected in La Parole de Dieu I—La foi dans l'intelligence (Paris 1964). His notes toward a medieval philosophical lexicography (never completed), as well as his research on minor figures such as Robert Kilwardby, soon established him as a respected medievalist.
Having become regent of studies at Le Saul choir, he published (privately) Une école de théologie: Le Saul choir (1937), little more than a pamphlet, justifying the historical emphasis in theological studies and including some caustic asides about "Baroque Scholasticism." Immediately delated to the Dominican authorities in Rome for "Modernism," it was finally placed on the Index in 1942. Chenu continued to teach and to publish the results of his research, the bulk of which appeared in his three magisterial books, Introduction à l'étude de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Montreal and Paris 1950), La théologie comme science au XIIIe siècle (Paris 1957) and La théologie au XIIe siècle (Paris 1957). During the occupation he became increasingly involved in projects to rejuvenate urban Catholicism. He was in effect chief theological adviser to the nascent priest-worker movement in France. Papal anxieties about this movement emerged in the apostolic exhortation Menti nostrae (1950), while the encyclical Humani generis (1950) reaffirmed official disapproval of theologians who were dismissive of Scholasticism. By 1953 Chenu found himself relieved of all teaching duties and even exiled to Rouen for a time.
He continued to write, publishing Saint Thomas d'Aquin et la théologie (Paris 1959), but from this point onward his energies went increasingly into preaching. He was theological adviser to French-speaking African bishops at Vatican II, when, not surprised at the general abandonment of Thomism, he worked behind the scenes to have his ideas about Thomas Aquinas' "evangelical humanism" incorporated into such conciliar texts as Gaudium et spes. His later years, back in Paris, were devoted to communicating, in lectures and sermons, his optimistic interpretation of the significance of Vatican II. He had the satisfaction of seeing Une école de théologie republished (Paris 1985), but he would have been the first to concede that younger theologians had almost as little interest in his work on Thomas Aquinas as in that of Garrigou-Lagrange. His unfailing optimism, as well as his historian's perspective, assured him that Aquinas would eventually return to the center of Catholic theology. While not an original thinker, and the author in his middle years of much perishable journalism, Chenu remains, with his friend Étienne gilson, a major figure in the history of the study of Thomas Aquinas.
Bibliography: a. duval, "Bibliographie du P. Marie-Dominique Chenu (1921–1965)," Mélanges offerts à M.-D. Chenu (Paris 1967). o. de la brosse, Le père Chenu: La liberté dans la foi (Paris 1969).