RIP Fr Albert Nolan o.p., author of ‘Jesus before Christianity’

Liberation theologian and former South African YCS chaplain, Fr Albert Nolan o.p. has died at the age of 88.

Born in Cape Town in 1934 in a lower middle-class family of Irish extraction, young Dennis Nolan worked as a bank clerk after finishing school until he joined the Order of Preachers in 1954. Taking the name Albert, he completed his studies for the priesthood at St. Nicholas Priory in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, before completing doctoral studies at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum, in Rome.

Because he considered the cost of publishing his thesis a waste of money, the degree was never conferred. Undeterred, he returned to South Africa to teach theology at the Dominican house of studies from which he had graduated. He combined his teaching with serving as chaplain to Catholic students at the overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans-speaking Stellenbosch University.

He would also in the 1970s onward serve as a chaplain and advisor to the Young Christian Students.

Father Nolan’s responsibilities as chaplain broadened in 1973 when he was made National Chaplain of the National Catholic Federation of Students, at a time when even liberal-minded student movements were in ferment generated by the rise of the Black Consciousness movement. Started in 1969 by the late Steve Biko, the movement encouraged black pride and self-reliance, with a view to political liberation.

Albert challenged through his writings and his life a whole generation of Catholic students and young Catholic men and women religious of many orders.

His specific contribution at this stage was theological. Prompted by a meeting in the mid-1970s with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez (who would himself later become a Dominican), Father Nolan gave a series of lectures on the historical Jesus to two N.C.F.S. national conferences, which he later turned into a book published in 1976 as Jesus Before Christianity.

After a small print run from a local publisher, the book was picked up by theological publishers in the United Kingdom and United States. It became one of the bestselling theological texts of the last 100 years and is still in print.

By the early 1980s, Father Nolan was provincial of the Dominicans in Southern Africa, which necessitated a move to Johannesburg. While in Johannesburg, he helped to found the Institute for Contextual Theology, an ecumenical network of pastors and theologians engaged in the struggle against apartheid. This brought together white and Black university professors and clergy in South Africa’s townships who had embraced Black Consciousness (which had been suppressed as a movement in 1977).

Midway through all this, in 1983 Father Nolan was elected master general of the Order of Preachers. In an unprecedented move in Dominican history, he politely turned down the appointment, believing that his work in South Africa would serve the Gospel more.

Returning to South Africa, in the decade of apartheid’s endgame, Father Nolan threw himself into his work. Crucial to this period was his involvement in drafting and editing the 1985 Kairos Document, a call from pastors and theologians to the churches of South Africa to fully embrace the struggle for democracy and to put their institutions at the service of nonviolent resistance. Although the institutions responded uneasily to Kairos, criticizing (perhaps correctly) the representation of themselves in the text, by the end of the 1980s the churches in fact took a leading role in nonviolent action.

Meanwhile within the Catholic Church, though he was controversial, Father Nolan was a major resource for the Southern African Justice and Peace Commission, advising the bishops on public statements and even at one point visiting and reporting on the state of the church in Communist countries. (The report has never been published!)

During the State of Emergency, 1985 through February 1990, in South Africa—the beginning of the end for apartheid—Father Nolan’s life took further dramatic turns. For a while, he was in hiding, hunted by the security police who wanted to detain him without trial for his work on the Kairos document.

Father Nolan saw an opportunity and wrote his second major book, God in South Africa, literally on the run. It was published in 1988. This work, in many ways his most radical, analyzed the South African situation from a perspective very close to the A.N.C.’s understanding and argued that hope lay in the very struggle for freedom that the A.N.C. and other internal resistance moments committed to non-racial democracy were waging.

May his memory inspire us all to hope and struggle onwards in new times for that reign.


Anthony Egan SJ, Remembering Father Albert Nolan, a best-selling theologian who explored the humanity of Christ (America Magazine)


Image by Ricardo da Silva, S.J. Photo courtesy of The Southern Cross.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Fr Albert was a YCW chaplain. He was a strong supporter of the movement but was in fact a YCS chaplain.