Escaping the Straitjacket

‘Soldiers of God in a Secular World’
Père Jean Danielou, March 1969, France (Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Nouvelle théologie is not exactly a household term, except perhaps in some Commonweal-reading households. A report on “new theological currents” in France first appeared in L’Osservatore Romano in 1942. “New” was not then a favorable adjective in theology, and the nouvelle théologie was soon under full-scale attack in Rome. 

Associated with Jesuit scholars like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou and Dominicans like Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu, the nouvelle théologie was condemned by the encyclical Humani generis in 1950 and further impugned a few years later by the Vatican’s suppression of the French worker-priest movement. Despite these setbacks, the work of the nouveaux théologiens managed a subterranean survival, influencing German theologians like Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, the Belgian Edward Schillebeeckx, and the father of liberation theology Gustavo Gutiérrez. Ultimately it proved to be the chief theological wellspring of Vatican II.  

It is this drama of innovation, condemnation, persistence, and vindication that sums up what many Catholics know about the nouvelle théologie, whether or not they recognize the term or what exactly it entailed. For Catholics advocating further changes in the Church, the drama has planted the hope of future acceptance and vindication. For Catholics embattled against the council or what has been wrought in its name, the lesson, ironically, is much the same.  

Soldiers of God in a Secular World, subtitled “Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics,” superbly expands our knowledge of the nouvelle théologie and corrects this simple morality tale. The book describes a movement begun in exile and youthful rebellion, tested in clandestine anti-Nazi resistance, and shaken by political turmoil and ecclesiastical opprobrium before eventually remaking the face of the Catholic Church. 

At the center of Sarah Shortall’s history is the heroic action, in 1941, of a group of Jesuits who launched the clandestine publication Témoignage chrétien warning France’s Catholics against “losing your soul” to the pro-Nazi regime of Marshal Pétain’s National Revolution. Reinforcing a web of other resistance activities, Témoignage campaigned relentlessly against the anti-Semitism, nationalism, and authoritarianism of the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. This witness, Shortall writes, “was the logical extension of the theologicalwork that de Lubac and his friends had been doing since the 1920s and 1930s”—work that began in exile and rebellion. 

The exile was literal. Stung by Catholic monarchist opposition to France’s Third Republic, then later outraged by right-wing Catholic militancy during the Dreyfus Affair, France’s anti-clerical leaders banished the Jesuits and Dominicans, along with other religious orders, from the country. Young Jesuits had to begin their journey to the priesthood on the Channel island of Jersey, Dominicans across the border in Belgium.

The rebellion was intellectual—and spiritual. Although isolated in their separate institutions, these seminarians were united in frustration with the neo-scholasticism that dominated their training. Hardened in post-Reformation and Enlightenment polemics, and now cemented in place by Rome’s purge of “modernists,” this neo-scholasticism was a derivative form of Thomism. In the eyes of these future theologians, it was ahistorical. Its almost Euclidean rationalism had no place for human subjectivity and the active inquiring mind. It was closed to religious  experience and mystery. And it unwittingly reinforced the secularization it was meant to combat. The high wall of separation that neo-scholasticism erected between the natural realm of reason and the supernatural realm of grace may have been intended to protect the Church’s prerogatives in matters of faith, but it did so at the cost of rendering Christian faith otherworldly, private, individualist, and increasingly evacuated from public life. In France, moreover, the sharp distinction between natural and supernatural was used to justify the pragmatic alliance of Catholics with the anti-parliamentary and anti-Semitic Action Française, headed by the Comtean non-believer Charles Maurras.

To what extent could Catholics work with secular institutions and ideologies to achieve their ends?

Breaking out of this neo-scholastic straitjacket meant engaging currents of modern philosophy, both nineteenth-century masters from Hegel to Kierkegaard and contemporary thinkers like Bergson, Blondel, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille, and Raymond Aron. Above all, breaking out meant delving into the earlier sources of Catholic tradition, particularly the Fathers of the Church in the case of Jesuits like de Lubac and Daniélou, and the original writings and historical context of Aquinas in the case of Dominicans like Chenu and Congar. This ressourcement, which eventually became the basis for the aggiornamento of Vatican II, revealed a Church more mystical, biblical, sacramental, and Eucharistic than juridical, institutional, and Aristotelian; more communal than hierarchical; more embedded in the flux of history than immutable; more engaged in the struggles of its times than standing in judgment over them.   
It was this “new”—although in truth often old—theology that brought these theologians under suspicion in the 1950s but a decade later made them the braintrusters of Vatican II. But what did it have to do with politics? 

For Shortall, the “key question” these “soldiers of God in a secular world” confronted was “not whether to embrace modernity but which aspects of the modern settlement were compatible with Catholic teaching. To what extent could Catholics work with secular institutions and ideologies to achieve their ends? Conversely, how could they articulate an explicitly Catholic vision of community and human life without excluding non-Catholics?”

Shortall, it must be said, is much more focused on the negative than the positive side of this challenge: avoiding compromise and corruption rather than articulating a vision and pursuing it effectively. That emphasis has a lot to do with the three episodes she highlights. The first one, the Catholic attraction to Action Française, was already half resolved before the nouveaux théologiens came into their own. Although Pope Pius XI had condemned Maurras and his movement in 1926–27, controversy about his action continued to roil French Catholicism. The second episode was the temptation of Catholics to welcome the Vichy regime’s National Revolution as, in the phrase of Maurras, a “divine surprise” that finally routed their Third Republic adversaries. The third episode was the debate about whether to grasp the “outstretched hand” that the Communist party and Marxist intellectuals had periodically extended to left-wing Catholics since 1936 in the name of solidarity with the working-class and anti-capitalist revolution.  

Shortall traces two distinct theological responses to these challenges, and in doing so enriches our understanding of the nouvelle théologie’s complexity. One response was patristic and eschatological in character, the other was Thomistic and incarnational. The former, associated with the Jesuits of Témoignage, measured Catholic political engagement against the eschatological horizon of divine judgment and human fulfillment in Christ’s second coming. The latter response, associated with the Dominicans and especially their support for the post-war ministries to the unchurched like the worker-priest movement, stressed the incarnational presence of grace in human structures and milieus beyond the reach of the Church.

This is a division with important theological and political implications. Shortall is clearly a fan of Team Jesuit, the real protagonists of her book. The Dominican nouveaux théologiens are definitely the second string. Their incarnational emphasis was also compromised, as Shortall tells it, because, like Thomism itself, it came in several flavors, some of which were used in support of unsavory alliances, whether with Action Française, Vichy, or the Communist party. 

Recounting this theological complexity is essential for understanding the nouvelle théologie. But Shortall is arguing a point beyond that. Only by including theology and theological categories in their scholarly toolkits can historians achieve a full understanding of French political and intellectual life—indeed, of modern Europe generally.

Reading Soldiers of God struck a strong personal note in me. On page six, I encountered, for the first time in decades, the name Yves de Montcheuil. In the summer of 1960, between my first and second years of college, I was working on trucks delivering wooden cases of 7 Up to supermarkets, snack shops, and mom-and-pop grocery stores in the Chicago area. During the commute to work and downtime on the trucks, I was reading Montcheuil’s A Guide to Social Action, a staple of our Young Christian Students circle. Retrieved (miraculously!) from my shelves sixty-plus years and a half-dozen moves later, the booklet sits before me as I write, along with Montcheuil’s slightly longer For Men of Action. In 1960 I was alert to John XXIII’s announcement of a council, but I’m sure that I had never heard the word ressourcement or even eschatology. How exactly Montcheuil influenced my lifetime of trying to link faith and politics I cannot say exactly, but I have no doubt that he did. A close friend of de Lubac and a core member of the Témoignage resistance, Montcheuil is rarely mentioned among the nouveaux théologiens who influenced Vatican II. That is understandable. He was shot by the Gestapo in 1944.

Like any groundbreaking book, Soldiers of God stirs questions and the desire to know more. This is definitely a book about the nouvelle théologie, not the nouveaux théologiens. I longed to know more about these men beyond their common revolt against an outworn neo-scholasticism. What were their various temperaments and personal experiences? Stern or cheerful? Did they vote? Read detective stories? Love any movies? Fume at any politicians or at one another? Ever struggle with faith or prayer?  

And though Shortall’s subtitle alludes to “twentieth-century French politics,” in fact it actually concentrates on French politics from about 1940 to the mid-1950s, with a brief flashback to the condemnation of Action Française. What, I wondered, had been the responses of these theologians to the political run-up to the stark moral crises of France’s military defeat, Nazi occupation, Vichy collaboration, and post-war coalitions? What about the economic impact of the Depression, Hitler’s shredding of the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, the 1934 anti-Republican riots in Paris, the Popular Front, Spanish Civil War, Munich, and France’s military policy? I cannot believe that the nouveaux théologiens were lacking in reactions to such political challenges. What captured their attention? What did they read? Whom did they trust? How did these shape their eschatological or incarnational perspectives? 

Shortall mentions two books that Gaston Fessard—the Jesuit author of the cri de coeur, “France, Beware of Losing Your Soul,” that launched Témoignage chrétien—wrote about pre-war issues, such as pacifism, the Spanish Civil War, and the military threat of the Third Reich. A leading participant in the revival of Hegel in France as well as the spiritual director of Gabriel Marcel, Fessard is an intriguing figure who deserves more attention in English. Shortall sketches philosophical aspects of his work but not its prewar political conclusions. 

The mettle of political theologies cannot be tested, it seems to me, only in the fiery furnace of yes-or-no moral crises. Those theological perspectives must also speak to the “ordinary” politics that Max Weber described as the “slow boring of hard boards”—all the concrete, complex, fact-laden, difficult, but seemingly less existential choices that determine whether those awful moments of moral crisis ever occur. Here I do not find Shortall’s repeated references to a “counter-politics,” as developed, for example, in the work of William Cavanaugh, either clear or helpful.  

Shortall is no antiquarian. The questions she explores in fine detail “remain just as relevant today,” she writes, “as they did in the 1940s.” I strongly agree, and because I do, two features of the story she tells leave me dissatisfied. One is her treatment of liberalism. The other is her treatment of the secular. Thinking about both topics has advanced since the heyday of the nouvelle théologie; even the meaning of the terms has shifted, in some parts of the world more than in others.  

Shortall mentions liberalism only occasionally. She takes as unproblematic the rejection of it by the nouveaux théologiens (as well as, in fact, by neo-scholastic reactionaries and by Thomist progressives like Maritain). 

She does not define the liberalism they had in mind. Was it primarily the individualism and self-seeking of “bourgeois man,” the preeminent rights of private property, the disruption of community by the market’s cash nexus, plus, perhaps, Enlightenment irreligion? Did it also include parliamentary democracy, freedoms of speech, press, and religion, regular elections, majority rule, minority rights, and judicial independence? Liberalism has always been a multi-dimensional, evolving tradition. Can its rejection be unproblematic for any theology claiming contemporary relevance?  

In contrast to liberalism, Shortall frequently mentions the secular, secularism, and secularization. These words run from the book’s title to its final sentences. Here too there is a frustrating lack of precision. A secular world is clearly a world in which the Church and Christianity no longer hold the controlling positions they once did. The nouveaux théologiens welcomed the change in some respects, deplored it in others. They did not appear to agree on what brought it about, though they all thought a defensive, stultifying neo-scholasticism had  actuallyworsened the situation. Nor were they of one mind on what positions the Church and Christianity can aspire to in the changed world and by what means. Shortall is nonetheless convinced—and I tend to agree—that the nouvelle théologie, and especially its eschatological current, have much to teach us. But what? A lot depends on one’s understanding of the “secular world.”   

Shortall is well versed in the recent literature challenging the assumption of old-fashioned secularization theory that modernity and the decline of religion always go hand in hand. The reality, these analyses demonstrate, is much more complex and variously shaped by region, history, religion, and culture, but is nevertheless profound. Obviously, Shortall can rehearse only so much of this in a book about French theology, but given the importance of this theme in her story, I regret that she does not at least try to disentangle what might be meant by “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.” These terms can encompass everything from government neutrality toward religion to the emergence of spheres of activity— such as science, economics, and psychology—largely governed by internal rules apart from religion to a polite label for atheism. All these modern developments come in different shades and flavors; all are vulnerable to critique. Shortall, unfortunately, uses the terms interchangeably and without explication.  

When it comes to the contemporary political relevance of the nouvelle théologie, Shortall may be more impressed than I am with a few interlocutors in the left-wing academy who could be described as post-liberal or post-secular. She may also be more occupied with the drama of political resistance than the slog of political participation. But no one should imagine that she is not a subtle analyst. She often qualifies the binaries she sets up between eschatological and incarnational and between patristic and Thomist. She recognizes overlaps between the two camps and diversity within them. She acknowledges limitations in the eschatological theology she clearly favors.  

Soldiers of God in a Secular World is an outstanding book by a young and brilliant historian, well-launched into a career of integrating religion and theology into intellectual and political history. If this reviewer is left with some nagging questions, Shortall, should she so choose, has plenty of time to answer them.

Soldiers of God in a Secular World
Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics

Sarah Shortall
Harvard University Press
$49.95 | 352 pp

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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When Timing Is Paramount

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