French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The mysterious death of Roman Catholic theologian and scholar Jean Daniélou in the house of a prostitute led to a scandal in the popular press and among colleagues. His life and work suggested several possible explanations for his death, including the possibilities that he was assassinated by philosophical enemies, that he died while ministering at the brothel, or that he died following an intimate encounter with a prostitute.

Summary of Event

Jean Daniélou’s background and achievements were impressive. Educated at the Sorbonne and the University of Lyon, he held doctorates in both letters and theology. Entering the Jesuit order as a young man, he was ordained priest in 1938. In 1969, he became an archbishop, and the same year his personal friend, Pope Paul VI, made him a cardinal. As his reputation grew, he was invited to lecture internationally, notably at the University of Notre Dame in the United States in 1950. At the Institute Catholique de Paris, he was professor of primitive Christianity from 1943 to his death, serving as dean in the last decade of his service there. He founded study circles and edited numerous publications. Honored as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, he was also a member of the French Academy. [kw]Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House, French Cardinal (May 20, 1974) [kw]Prostitute’s House, French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a (May 20, 1974) Daniélou, Alain Santoni, Mimi Daniélou, Jean Roman Catholic Church Daniélou, Alain Santoni, Mimi Daniélou, Jean Roman Catholic Church [g]Europe;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490] [g]France;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490] [c]Murder and suicide;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490] [c]Prostitution;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490] [c]Sex;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490] [c]Publishing and journalism;May 20, 1974: French Cardinal Daniélou Dies in a Prostitute’s House[01490]

Jean Daniélou, c. 1920.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Daniélou told his friends numerous times that, “I am naturally a pagan, and a Christian only with difficulty.” As he entered his sixties, he confided his fear that opponents in his church were plotting against him. However, he arrived at the last day of his life seemingly without premonition. On that Monday, May 20, 1974, he arose as usual, said mass, worked at his desk, and received a few visitors. At noon he lunched at a favorite restaurant and talked by phone with a Sorbonne University colleague. He then collected some mail and returned briefly to his residence, before departing again at 3:15 p.m., leaving word that he would return by 5 p.m.

Thirty-eight minutes later, an emergency call was received by the police, from Madam Santoni, who lived on the upper floor of a building in Rue Dulong, which was in a disreputable quarter of Paris. According to Santoni, Daniélou had hastened up the steps to her flat, collapsing at the top. Fearing she would be charged with his death, she quickly summoned help and tore his clothes apart in an unsuccessful attempt to revive him.

Church dignitaries, including the apostolic nuncio, the Jesuit provincial of France, and the superior of the Jesuits in Paris, along with nuns called in to tend the body, quickly arrived on the scene. Reporters from France Soir also arrived, but they were cautioned to maintain discretion. The press was informed that the cardinal had died in the street or in the stairway. Reporters quickly discovered that Santoni, who called herself Mimi, was a married woman, well known to the police as a bar host and a cabaret and striptease dancer. Allegedly, she also ran a brothel with her husband, who at the time of Daniélou’s death was in jail for pimping.

Daniélou was known for his wit and urbanity. There was something slightly bohemian about him, according to friends, a tendency to seek out social rejects. Mary Magdalene, the reformed harlot of the Bible, especially intrigued him. Possibly through sympathy with the open sexual orientation of his brother Alain, he held regular masses for gays and lesbians. With his disheveled appearance, knowledge of cinema, and his secular friends, he often resembled a new wave film critic more than a Catholic cardinal. The National Review observed that he “looked as if he had been drinking very black coffee for fifteen years in a sidewalk café with [French philosopher and feminist] Simone de Beauvoir.” He lived simply at his Paris residence, without a secretary or an automobile, yet his life was not an open book.

In earlier years, Daniélou had been identified as a Catholic progressive. He read the books of the controversial Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre Chardin and seemed to make common cause with innovative Dutch and Belgian churchmen. The best known exponent of this “new theology” was Swiss professor Hans Küng. Küng’s early admiration of Daniélou, however, would change when, with the pontificate of Paul VI, Daniélou became increasingly conservative and a staunch defender of papal infallibility. Küng came to believe that raw ambition drove Daniélou to pander to the pope to become a cardinal. When the circumstances of his death were later reported, Küng, along with other church liberals who already suspected Daniélou of expediency, put the most scandalous interpretation on the event.

Daniélou wrote voluminously, both scholarly and popular works on religious history, philosophy, ethics, and theology. Some scholars regarded him as the standard authority on the early Christian church. He explored the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, outlining parallels between the teachings of the people who produced them and early Christianity. He also was an expert in Greek patristics and Hellenistic culture. His writings were characterized by both learning and clarity.

Christianity, Daniélou believed, must be actively applied. Early in his career he had been sympathetic to the French worker-priest movement, which was later disbanded. His explorations in world religions, perhaps in part stimulated by the career of his brother Alain Daniélou, led him to conclude that, while Christianity was the lighted path, elements of useful truth could be found in all traditions. With this tolerance, not common in his milieu, he pursued dialogue not only with Protestant scholars but also representatives of all religions. He founded the Fraternity of Abraham, an interfaith group composed of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and was a strong supporter of Catholic initiatives in appointing more African and Asian cardinals.

Daniélou’s family background may shed light on his curious death. The Daniélous were a distinguished Breton family. The father, Charles, a politician who held numerous French ministerial posts, usually was absent from the family scene. The dominant influence was the mother, Madeleine Clamorgan Daniélou, descended from Norman nobility, deeply religious, and committed to female education. The institutions she founded to educate devout women took priority over her family of four sons and two daughters. Two of her sons would receive international recognition. Alain, the cardinal’s younger brother by two years, converted to Shaivite Hinduism, becoming a classical dancer, musicologist, and authority on Indian music.

The death of Alain’s brother remained a mystery, yet Church officials rejected requests for an official inquiry. Cardinal Daniélou was buried with full honors in a Jesuit cemetery. The Daniélou family accepted the Church’s explanation that he had died of a heart attack during a pastoral visit to a woman he had previously consoled. The three thousand francs found in his pocket was said to be bail money for Santoni’s husband. A Jesuit spokesperson pronounced that this was a most appropriate way for a man of God to die, on a mission of mercy to a social outcast.

Not surprisingly, leftist anticlerical newspapers took another interpretation. Le Canard Enchaine’s investigation suggested that the cardinal had been paying regular visits to Mimi for some time. His body, the paper alleged, had been hurriedly dressed, and the money in his pocket was intended payment for her professional services.

Further explanations were advanced by others. Daniélou had once referred to the liberal school of Catholic theologians as “assassins of the faith,” and some believed that this group had framed or possibly even murdered him. Another scenario, worthy of the so-called Da Vinci-code theorists, was that Daniélou had run afoul of secret societies, specifically the Grand Lodge of France.


The immediate reaction to Daniélou’s death was scandalous titillation in French popular newspapers and beyond. American publications relished the irony of a prince of the Church dying on the steps of a brothel. The cardinal’s theological enemies, who believed that he had betrayed the renewal movement in the Church, took the circumstances of his death as evidence of his hypocrisy and self-serving indulgence. Admirers, colleagues in the Jesuit order, and his family saw in his death a Christ-like ministry to the dejected of society. The mystery has never been conclusively solved.

The scandal had more far reaching repercussions. For some, it was a wake-up call, heralding the major sex scandals that would rock the Catholic Church in the last decades of the twentieth century. For Church reformers, Daniélou’s questionable death seemed further confirmation of the need for married and female priests.

The circumstances of Daniélou’s death, however, did not diminish the cardinal’s importance as a scholar, and his books continue to be widely read. His patristic writings would serve as foundation for other scholars, while his more popular books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, angels, and Christian approaches to non-Christian religions would have special relevance to the increasingly diverse populations of Europe and the United States. He would also be honored as an important pioneer in Christian ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Daniélou, Alain Santoni, Mimi Daniélou, Jean Roman Catholic Church

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boysson, Emmanuelle de. Le Cardinal et L’Hindouiste. Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1999. The most thorough examination of Jean and Alain Daniélou, within the context of their family, written by their great niece. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clinton, Farley. “The Jesuit Confrontation.” National Review 26 (October 11, 1974): 1162-1164. A perceptive examination of Daniélou’s mysterious death and its relevance to the modern Catholic Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniélou, Jean. God and the Ways of Knowing. 1957. Reprint. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2003. Daniélou wrote that this book “is not to record what I say of God, but what God has said of Himself.” This work places religions and philosophies “in their proper relationship with the knowledge of God.” A good starting point for any serious study of Daniélou and his theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Küng, Hans. My Struggle for Freedom: A Memoir. Translated by John Bowden. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003. A discussion of innovative movements in the Catholic Church, with a harsh judgment of Daniélou’s opposition to those movements.

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