Intellectual history

Interview with Sarah Shortall: Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Part One)

By Jacob Saliba

By Jacob Saliba

Sarah Shortall is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. She is an intellectual historian of modern Europe with a particular interest in twentieth-century France, Catholic thought, and the relationship between religion and politics. In addition to Soldiers of God in a Secular World, she has co-edited (with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins) a volume of essays titled Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Modern Intellectual History, Past & Present, Boston Review, and Commonweal.

Jacob Saliba is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Boston College. His dissertation research focuses on the cross-cultural exchanges between religious and secular intellectuals during the French interwar period.

Preface to the Two-Part Interview: This interview discusses Sarah Shortall’s latest book, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021). Her text covers enormous ground of significant benefit to the historian, theologian, and political theorist all at once. It has generated widespread attention in a range of academic fields, having won four book awards, including, for example, the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies and the Giuseppe Alberigo Award from the European Academy of Religion. The following interview has two parts to the exciting topography of Sarah’s book in more detail. The first half addresses her original interest in and approach to the book. We will also bring attention to a few important themes in the early portion of her narrative’s timeline that help to sharpen the focus on developments in French Catholicism that begin to unfold just before World War II and have fascinating impacts on later decades. The second part of the interview will begin with the eruption of World War II and how nouvelle théologie operated during this time period. The conversation will cover the movement’s evolution in the post-war era and conclude with its ultimate fate at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the close of this two-part interview, Sarah will make some final remarks on how to move beyond the conventional separation between theology and the political, thus providing an improved perspective on analyzing the relationship between religion and politics in the modern world. 


Jacob Saliba (JS):  In Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics, you examine the internal character and dynamics of modern Catholic theology, analyze the Church’s external encounter with the transformation of modern European politics, and ultimately challenge the presumed boundaries that scholars tend to use to separate these two domains. Instead, you argue that the evolution of French theological discourses parallel and, in many cases, positively inform changes in French politics over the last century. To demonstrate this, your narrative traces thought-provoking developments and crucial shifts in modern Catholicism by following the genesis, maturation, and culmination of a pluralist and secular-engaged twentieth-century movement of French Jesuits and Dominicans known as nouvelle théologie (“New Theology”).

As you point out in your book, the key question that united the core of this particular movement of Catholic thought was: “how to maintain a public role for [the Church] once the institutions of public life had been secularized.” Furthermore, you argue that “the separation of Church and state had a productive rather than a destructive effect on Catholic theology, inspiring new approaches to the problem of political theology and opening up new avenues for Catholic engagement in public life” (2). My first question is a basic one, but I think it is important for shedding light on why a book like yours on religion matters today in a world where it is commonplace to think of religion as a private affair or an opposing force against so-called secular values. To be sure, recent scholars such as James Chappel, Stephen Schloesser, and Ed Baring (to name a few) have shown the dynamic role of religion in the development of twentieth century European culture and its ideas. That being said, could you provide any details about how you yourself first came to imagine this book project and, in particular, what elements or ideas chiefly motivated your interest in pursuing it?

Sarah Shortall (SS): I was initially drawn to this topic in graduate school while I was preparing for my comprehensive exams. In addition, to my primary training in modern European intellectual history, I also prepared an exam field in twentieth-century Catholic theology, which is how I first came into contact with the nouvelle théologie and the figures I write about in the book. But beyond the content of their work, what was most striking to me were the many parallels and intersections I observed between the Catholic theologians I was reading and contemporaneous developments in twentieth-century European thought. And yet, I was struck by how little attention theology received in intellectual histories of the period. Whereas medieval and early modern intellectual historians seemed relatively at home in the language of theology, the same could not be said of the historiography on twentieth-century Europe. Fortunately, that has begun to change since I started graduate school, and I see my work as part of that change. In fact, I came to this project at a moment when there was a great surge of academic interest in questions of religion, political theology, and secularization. Several important works, such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, had just been published, and there was a great deal of interest in political theology and the work of Carl Schmitt in particular. It was a moment, perhaps fueled partly by the reaction to 9/11 and the so-called “war on terror,” when scholars from various disciplines were revisiting secularization theory and struggling to account for a perceived “resurgence of religion” around the world. My work was deeply informed by these discussions and this new wave of scholarly interest in the relationship between religion and politics.

JS: This book engages with a host of thinkers, camps, and schools of thought in the Catholic world. For instance, Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard were Jesuits, whereas thinkers such as Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar were Dominicans. Indeed, these differences among religious orders illuminate an understanding about each of their conceptual approaches to the life and tradition of the Church. Moreover, some, like de Lubac, dabbled in Thomism but preferred Augustinian theology. Others like Chenu followed Incarnation theology but tended to side-line frameworks of eschatology. On the one hand, these terms and religious vocabularies might sound like needless jargon or even antiquated words to contemporary ears. On the other hand, however, they provide a very important entry point into the conversations, debates, and dilemmas that so often colored the political and theological thought of twentieth century French Catholicism. Could you summarize the key groupings, thinkers, and concepts that provide decisive support to your narrative and help illustrate your book’s historical findings?

SS: At the narrowest level, this book is about what is known today as the “nouvelle théologie” (though it’s important to point out that this term was not employed by the actors usually associated with it). It was developed in the 1930s and 1940s by a group of Jesuit theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Yves de Montcheuil, Henri Bouillard, and Gaston Fessard, as well as Dominicans such as Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar. It would eventually become one of the leading theological forces behind the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Like most Catholic intellectuals in this period, the nouveaux théologiens grappled with the key problem facing the Church in the twentieth century—its relationship to the intellectual, social, and political formations of modern life. The broader goal of the book, then, is to map out the range of theological visions of what role the Church should play in public life in the aftermath of the separation of Church and state in France. I identify two broad approaches to this problem, one rooted in the Thomist tradition (based on the work of Thomas Aquinas) and one more indebted to the Church Fathers and St. Paul. These theological differences yielded very different visions of the Church’s role in public life.

Thomists, I argue, tended to be more willing to work within secular institutions and collaborate with non-believers to achieve a shared set of practical goals. This model was mobilized in the service of a range of different political projects, from the far-right Action Française, to democracy and human rights, to Catholic-communist dialogue. It was anchored in the Thomist distinction between the natural and supernatural ends of human life, which allowed for a relatively autonomous realm of temporal affairs. By contrast, theologians like the circle of Jesuits around Henri de Lubac rejected these sorts of distinctions and the notion that one could identify an autonomous sphere of human affairs directed to a purely natural end. They were therefore much more wary of secular institutions and ideologies, even as they also firmly rejected the liberal notion that religion should be confined to the private sphere. This set of theological convictions drove these Jesuits to play a leading role in the “spiritual resistance” to Nazism during the Second World War. Crucially, both the Thomist and the patristic models I’ve outlined here cut across ideological distinctions between right and left, and between modernism and anti-modernism. Of course, this distinction between Thomist and patristic models is by no means hard and fast. There was considerable diversity within each of these groups and some figures, especially Dominicans like Congar and Chenu, had affinities with both. But I think this typology nevertheless provides a useful framework for understanding the relationship between politics and theology in twentieth-century France and why it can be so difficult to make sense of Catholic politics by means of secular political categories like “right” and “left” or “liberal” and “conservative.”

JS: My next question concerns your argument that isolation (why chapter 1 is aptly entitled “Exile Catholicism”) produced an ironic stimulant for thinking about the spaces, limits, and potential updates of Church teaching in a twentieth-century climate. You find that the development of certain friendships, such as La Pensée circle of De Lubac, Fessard, and Montcheuil on the island of Jersey in the 1920s, provided special nourishment for thinking about ‘higher questions’ and sharpening their critical skills concerning religious doctrine. In what respects were isolation and friendship lubricants for undertaking intellectual questions? One could argue that the hermetic-like isolation of these priests would lead to empty theory disembodied from world affairs or even that actively consolidating a circle of friends would merely lead to confirmation-bias. Yet, as you show, this was not the case! Could you spell out the internal irony and deeper subtlety of this context?

SS: That’s a great point. One might indeed expect that the isolation these figures experienced as a result of their exile from France would alienate them even more from the modern world and the everyday concerns of their countrymen. There are good reasons why it didn’t, though. At the most practical level, as I explain in the book, the isolation imposed by exile helped to buffer these religious communities from the worst excesses of the anti-modernist campaign that consumed the Church in the first decades of the twentieth century, and it also released them from their various pastoral responsibilities so that they could focus full-time on their studies. But the more important reason, I think, is that this experience of isolation came on the heels of a profound experience of integration for these young Jesuits due to the First World War. They were among the first generation of priests and seminarians to be mobilized due to the lifting of clerical exemptions from military service, and the experience of the trenches was a formative one for them. It brought them into contact with a range of men from whom their class background and religious vocation had previously segregated them. The experience drove home for them just how deeply secularization had penetrated French society and the urgent need for new apologetic tools capable of bridging the gulf between the Church and the masses. So, when they arrived on the island of Jersey a couple of years after the war ended to complete their philosophical formation, they were painfully attuned to the inadequacies of the highly abstract and recondite neo-scholastic philosophy that they were taught there. And because they had a likeminded group of friends who had been through a similar experience, I argue that these friendships gave them the emotional and intellectual support they needed to defy their teachers and the neo-scholastic model that dominated Catholic thought at the time.

What accounts for their openness to theological innovation, in other words, was the unique combination of both isolation and integration. On the one hand, the integrative experience of the war and of their friendship group, and on the other hand, combined with the isolation they felt from their superiors as well as the Church’s isolation from the modern world more broadly (an isolation manifested quite literally in their physical exile from France). I think the tension between these two things explains how the anticlerical campaign in France, which had driven the religious orders into exile, ironically created the conditions for a major renaissance in Catholic theology.

JS: 1926 is an important year for the Church in France. Action Française—a far-right, crypto-fascist group with an extensive social base among Catholics—was officially condemned by Pius XI. You argue that this condemnation effectively disbanded royalism and Catholicism in French political culture. In brief terms, could you discuss the prior legacy of royalism and Catholicism in France, what exactly changed in 1926, and how this split-up offers a paradigm for looking ahead to later decades in French Catholicism? Additionally, there is yet another fascinating aspect to this condemnation which is that Pius XI—in today’s terms—is considered a traditionalist pope. How does one reconcile this unexpected confrontation between a conservative pope and a right-wing political organization?

SS: The history of the entanglement between the Catholic Church and royalism in France is of course a long one and had everything to do with the close association between republicanism and anticlericalism, which fueled the anticlerical campaign that culminated in the separation of Church and state in 1905. This helps to explain why the Action Française exerted such a powerful appeal among French Catholics, especially priests and intellectuals. What made this alliance slightly awkward, though, was that the leader of the Action Française, Charles Maurras, was himself a non-believer. To justify their support for his movement, then, Catholic intellectuals frequently turned to the resources of neo-scholastic Thomism, arguing that it was possible to distinguish the admirable political goals of the AF from the philosophical and religious beliefs of its leader. Support for the Action Française thus became closely associated with neo-scholasticism in clerical circles by the 1920s.

The Vatican condemnation of the AF in 1926 was a watershed moment in the history of French Catholicism, I argue, because it effectively broke the power of this politico-theological alliance, opening the way for new forms of Catholic engagement in public life and new theological models to go along with them. These included the nouvelle théologie and the various strands of personalism that flourished in France in the 1930s. The philosophers and theologians who developed these ideas helped to reorient Catholic political thought away from the goal of reversing the separation of Church and state. But that doesn’t mean they embraced liberal democracy and the secularization of public life either. Instead, they sought to articulate a Catholic alternative to both liberalism and totalitarianism, both the confessional state and the privatization of religion. In other words, they were trying to imagine a way for the Church to be in but not of the secular public sphere.

The condemnation of the Action Française thus marked a new beginning in French Catholic political theology (though it certainly didn’t bring an end to Catholic royalism, especially since the condemnation was lifted in 1939), and it set the terms for subsequent debates about the Church’s relationship to political life in France. As I try to show, Catholics in the 1940s would redeploy exactly the same Thomist principles invoked by Catholic supporters of the AF in the 1920s, to justify some form of pragmatic cooperation with a variety of secular or even atheist political projects up to and including communism. And, so the same sorts of theological arguments about the relationship between the natural and supernatural orders, temporal and spiritual affairs, and reason and revelation were recycled again and again in the service of both the right and the left.

Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, which comes out on October 3rd.

Jacob Saliba is a PhD student at Boston College where he specializes in modern European intellectual history. His primary focus is twentieth century France, studying the political, philosophical, and religious movements that become profoundly intertwined during the interwar years. Some major themes include: existentialism, phenomenology, personalism, and New Theology. He also holds an MA in political philosophy at Boston College.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Kazimir Malevich, “Supremus no. 58,” (1916) Wikimedia Commons.