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 flourish. Renewal came from the bottom—and seemed stuck there for a long time—before it was finally recognized as a gift of the Spirit to the church.

Among the first and most important figures in this movement was the writer Léon Bloy (1846–1917), the self-proclaimed “Pilgrim of the Absolute.” Bloy thundered against the mediocrity of comfortable Christians and the “enlightened” bourgeoisie—and thus condemned himself to a life of extreme poverty and suffering. An autodidact who depended heavily on intuition, Bloy believed that the mysteries of faith surpass all understanding. He did not pretend to resolve the paradoxes and enigmas of Christianity; he simply proclaimed them.

Bloy owed his own conversion to an idiosyncratic cast of characters. There was Ernest Hello, a sickly lawyer who never practiced law and wrote books that almost no one read. There was Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, a dandy who played at being an aristocrat and presented himself as a Catholic writer despite a scandalous private life. There was Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a penniless bohemian who claimed to be the rightful owner of the island of Malta because one of his ancestors had been the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. These laymen—each in his own way—affirmed the grandeur of Catholicism in the face of a society that had relegated religion to the sacristies. Precisely because they were not of the clerical establishment, and therefore not under its control, they were able to challenge both society and the church in an original way.

Bloy, too, was a sign of contradiction. Good at making both friends and enemies, he left no one indifferent. It was through Bloy that Jacques and Raïssa Maritain first discovered a Christian faith that wasn’t an abstraction but rather an intense engagement. Before their conversion, the Maritains had made a suicide pact: they would search for a meaning in life more satisfactory than the one afforded by the then-prevailing scientism; and if, at the end of a year, they hadn’t found one, they would end their lives. Their search led them first to Henri Bergson, whose critique of scientific determinism they found persuasive. Bergson’s philosophy made human freedom and some kind of faith seem possible; Bloy’s personal example made Christian faith seem both beautiful and necessary.

Shortly after the Maritains were baptized, with the Bloys as their godparents, another close friend of the Maritains announced his conversion. Charles Péguy, a militant socialist and poet, had a style and background very different from Bloy’s, but his intuitions were strikingly similar. The Maritains tried to bring Bloy and Péguy together, but neither wanted anything to do with the other. Bloy was a monarchist, Péguy a man of the Left. So great was their political disagreement that neither would even read the other’s works. By a strange irony, Bloy died in a house where Péguy had once lived. Bloy is considered by some to be at the origin of the modern “Catholic novel.” What is certain is that Georges Bernanos, one of the most famous Catholic novelists of the twentieth century, discovered his vocation as a writer by reading Léon Bloy in the trenches during World War I. Péguy’s work would exercise an important influence on the poet and playwright Paul Claudel and Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the magazine Esprit, whose “personalist” philosophy developed some of Péguy’s ideas.

The Maritains were not the only ones Bloy helped to convert. There were also Pierre and Christine van der Meer, Georges Roualt, Pierre Temier, and many others. It was the Maritains, however, who brought together a small informal community of artists and philosophers, some already converts, some still searching for God. Jacques Maritain was a philosopher, Raïssa a poet, but both were essentially mystics.

Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson are both closely associated with the neo-Thomist revival of the twentieth century. For them, the scholasticism that was being taught in seminaries was a closed and stagnant system, and a betrayal of the true spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas. The dynamism and depth of Aquinas’s thought were not reducible to a simple list of propositions. Aquinas’s philosophy could not be separated from his theology, and both pointed beyond themselves toward ineffable mysteries.

By its own inner logic, neo-Thomism also brought an opening to other religions and cultures. Louis Massignon and Louis Gardet dedicated themselves to the study of Islam, Olivier Lacombe to Hinduism. They tried to see the other as the other wished to see himself, according to what was purest and noblest in his tradition. There was nothing syncretistic about this approach; for Massignon, Gardet, and Lacombe, Christianity remained the measuring stick for all other religious traditions.

Another development that had a great impact on French Catholics in this period was the arrival of Russian intellectuals fleeing the Bolshevist revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church had itself been experiencing a renewal led by the laity. It involved writers and intellectuals such as Dostoevsky and Soloviev near the end of the nineteenth century and culminated in the 1917–18 Council of Moscow, which provided for massive lay participation at all levels of church governance (a reform never implemented because of the revolution).

These exiled Russians discovered what Nicolai Berdyaev would call “secret France”—the church of Bloy and Péguy, with its fools-for-Christ mysticism—and many of them recognized its similarities with their own religious tradition. Etienne Gilson’s lectures about the need to return to the sources of medieval thought inspired some Russian philosophers and theologians to undertake the same kind of return to the fathers of the church, and to distinguish between Tradition and traditions, between what was vital truth and what was historical deadwood. This, in turn, sparked a revival of interest in the church fathers on the part of Catholic theologians such as Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac. “Resourcement,” the return to the sources, began gaining momentum. The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, unofficial and discreet, was enriching both churches at a subterranean level.

It is hard even to call this development a movement, since those associated with it moved in so many different directions. The Russian immigrants included czarists and socialists, both continuing their own little civil war on French soil. There were those who emphasized the uniqueness (and superiority) of Slavic culture and those who were more open to Western influences; those who emphasized a return to the church fathers and those who sought to reinterpret their traditions using the insights of contemporary philosophy. Their attitudes toward the mother church in Moscow varied greatly and produced bitter divisions that still persist.

Alongside the neo-Thomists were Catholic existentialists such as Gabriel Marcel, and even among the neo-Thomists there were tensions about what was essential and what was historically and culturally irrelevant in the synthesis of the “Angelic Doctor.”

Some of the champions of what came to be called la nouvelle théologie were traditionalists, looking to the Middle Ages for a model of the ideal Christian society and leaning toward a sort of Christian fascism as their hope for the future. (Most of these fascist sympathies dissolved rather quickly when World War II broke out.) Many also had scandalous secrets. Some were openly homosexual; others were involved in extramarital affairs. Alongside authentic mysticism, there often existed a fascination with the paranormal and the apocalyptic. Many were intolerant of any ideas that were not their own and dismissed less zealous, more conventional Catholics as “bourgeois.”

All these unlikely and quarrelsome prophets, with all their obvious shortcomings and vulnerabilities, somehow played a part in the renewal that would find full expression in Vatican II. The early church must have been something like this—with its different communities, each with its own concerns, its bitter rivalries and competing factions. The Apostles themselves didn’t always get along with one another. Yet somehow the gospel went out from Jerusalem to the ends of the world.

The story of how French Catholicism renewed itself in the first half of the twentieth century has a lesson relevant to Christians in any era, including our own. We really don’t know the part each of us is playing in the construction of the Kingdom—perhaps in spite of ourselves.

For several years on the Fourth of July, the fireworks over Boston Harbor were synchronized to Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” It was one of the most beautiful man-made spectacles I’ve ever seen. During the days just before this event, the orchestra would practice at the aquarium where I work. I once complimented a violinist on the wonderful thing she was participating in. She had no idea whether it was wonderful or not. Her back was to the fireworks and she was concentrating on her little role without being able to see the big picture, but without her the spectacle would not have been what it was.


Related: John F. Haught, "More Being," on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and 'Gaudium et spes'

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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