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.