Unlikely Prophets


The years just before and after World War II saw breakthroughs in theology that had major impact on Vatican II. For centuries the church had been waging a defensive battle against the abuses of the Enlightenment, the challenges of the Reform, and the rise of the secular nation-state. Theology had been reduced to defending the status quo or nurturing a form of popular piety that would set Catholicism apart from rival versions of Christianity. The “new theology,” which developed above all in France, upset the calm and stagnant waters of scholasticism. It sought both to respond to the challenges of the modern world and to return to the sources of Christian faith. A vital reevaluation took place in these years, and since then nothing has been the same.

With the distance and comfort of hindsight, this theological transition can appear straightforward, even inevitable. But Vatican II did not just “happen.” It was the fruit of many related but rarely coordinated initiatives undertaken by flawed people who often bickered with one another. Each had his own intuitions, each his own ego and quirks. Yet many of them recognized that they were all traveling on the same road, and they sharpened their own thinking by confronting their fellow travelers.

In France much of the movement for renewal began with laypeople. A generation of lay mystics, artists, poets, and philosophers gradually created the spiritual and intellectual climate that would allow the “new theology” to...

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About the Author

Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.