Intellectual history

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

By Jacob Saliba

By Jacob Saliba

PART II – Opening Remarks: In the first part of this interview, Sarah and I discussed some of the factors that originally motivated her book project, how she envisioned particular facets of its argument, and lastly, how certain events played important roles in the early stages of nouvelle théologie’s formation in the first half of the twentieth century. The second part of this interview will focus on some core activities of nouvelle théologie during World War II, then shift into its evolution during the post-war era, and finally close with the movement’s ultimate fate at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the very end of this interview and in light of our conversation, Sarah will provide some closing reflections on how historians can effectively reimagine the relationship between theology and politics in the modern world.


JS: Moving ahead to World War II, you discuss the various tools and venues that Jesuits and Dominicans used to combat the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe. One example involved building an underground journal such as Témoignage chrétien, which distributed essays that condemned Nazism and Antisemitism and the Church’s clericalism and complicity in far-right ideology. Likewise, some priests like Yves de Montcheuil joined Resistance groups operating in France (Montchueuil served as a chaplain to the maquis fighters), while Chaillet helped to spearhead the humanitarian resistance efforts of Amitié chrêtienne. Indeed, Montcheuil himself was arrested and executed by the Gestapo in 1944. As you argue, what unites the various branches of Catholic action is their commitment to a “Spiritual Resistance” (106). In what sense was this resistance ‘spiritual’ rather than say ‘material,’ and how did these priests find this form of political action compatible with their understanding of the Church and its values?

SS: One of the things that really surprised me initially was how adamant the Jesuits who created Témoignage chrétien were that their resistance activities should not be construed as a form of political engagement, but rather as a purely spiritual project. It seemed to me that of course such work was political (which was certainly how their superiors and the Gestapo viewed it as well)! Though I don’t think it would be quite fair to say that their claim not to be “doing politics” was simply an exercise in bad faith, I also don’t think we should accept this claim at face value, since Témoignage chrétien and the various forms of spiritual resistance clearly did have political effects. Instead, I argue that their claim to remain above politics was itself politically powerful, especially in the context of the war and occupation. First, I show how encoding their resistance message in the ostensibly apolitical language of theology allowed these priests to circumvent Vichy censorship.

In addition, framing their resistance message as a spiritual one and Nazism as a religious rather than a political threat allowed them to weigh in on political matters that might otherwise appear to be beyond their purview of priests. And it also allowed them to present Christianity—rather than, say, liberal democracy—as the best weapon against fascism. So, I argue that the political power of the spiritual resistance came precisely from its claim to be something other than a political project. And this is why it constitutes a form of what I call “counter-politics,” by which I mean that it allowed these priests to engage in politics without appearing to do so and while engaging in a critique of secular political categories. This approach emerged fairly organically from the theological vision that they had begun to articulate before the war—especially their vision of the Church as a totalizing, universal, and eschatological entity. Conceived in this way, the Church could not be yoked to an earthly political project, but it also had a robust role to play in public life and couldn’t simply be confined to the private sphere. In many ways, Témoignage chrétien and the “spiritual resistance” was the practical working-out of this ecclesiology.

JS: In chapter 6, you write: “the notion that the teaching of the Church Fathers possessed uncanny affinities with modern thought, and indeed seemed somehow more contemporary than the scholastic theology that succeeded it, was a key premise of the French Jesuits’ commitment to ressourcement” (219). Can you define the meaning and original context of ressourcement? Furthermore, could you tease out this particular paradox as it relates to the retrieval of ideas from the early Church in the hopes of ‘modernizing’ the Church in the present? To put it in more illustrative terms, these priests by going backward were actually moving forward. You even mention the affinity between thinkers like De Lubac and Fessard with the philosopher Walter Benjamin and his historical reflections. What exactly is their connection?

SS: Ressourcement was in many ways the defining principle of the nouvelle théologie. It was an effort to return to the sources of the Catholic tradition—especially the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Church Fathers. By way of context, it’s important to know that when these theologians came of age in the first few decades of the twentieth century, the dominant intellectual model in the Catholic Church at the time was something called neo-scholasticism, which was based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas but filtered through his early modern commentators. Clerical formation at the time relied on a set of manuals rooted in this tradition. Theologians like de Lubac, Daniélou, Congar, and Chenu wanted to return to the tradition’s original sources, prior to these later accretions and manuals, which they felt had distorted the teachings of Aquinas and the Church Fathers.

The Jesuits I focus on were particularly drawn to the Church Fathers, and they made the somewhat paradoxical claim that it was actually by returning to the patristic sources that Catholic theology could better engage with modern thought. Daniélou in fact argued that the teachings of the Church Fathers seemed more relevant than medieval or early-modern scholasticism because they shared with contemporary philosophies such as existentialism, Hegelianism, and Marxism an emphasis on history, the social, and subjectivity that was absent from scholastic philosophy. These Jesuits also discerned an analogy between the political situation of the persecuted early Church, before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the contemporary Church, which was beset on all sides by the forces of secularization. They wanted the Church to reclaim its original in this pre-Constantinian era as a force for critique vis-à-vis the powers of this world. For these theologians, then, it was actually by turning back to the Church Fathers that the Church could engage most effectively with the intellectual and political challenges of the modern world. This same logic, I argue, was foundational to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The watchword of the council was aggiornamento—an effort to “update” the Church and bring it into the modern world—but this concern to modernize the Church was bound up with the project of ressourcement in the conciliar documents. And indeed, many of the most important innovations of the council—on religious freedom, Catholic teaching on Judaism, or episcopal collegiality—were justified by an appeal to the early sources of the tradition.

What underwrote arguments like Daniélou’s for the contemporary resonance of the patristic sources was a particular vision of time that strikes me as similar to Walter Benjamin’s concept of “now-time” and his critique of “empty, homogeneous time.” Like Benjamin, these Jesuits rejected a linear, progressive model of time in favor of an eschatological temporality that was non-linear and alive to the way certain moments from the past can suddenly become recognizable and contemporaneous to the present, unleashing critical and transformative possibilities that had previously been foreclosed. Though their politics were very different from Benjamin’s, I think they shared with him a profound appreciation for the politics of time, and I try to show how their vision of eschatological time informed their critique of a range of political ideologies.

JS:  Your book concludes with the ultimate fate of nouvelle théologie by bringing into focus its profound successes at the Second Vatican Council as well as the internal fissures that quickly surfaced soon after. On the one hand, these Dominicans and Jesuits collectively harnessed the power of ressourcement and repurposed it for a much-needed aggiornamento (‘a bringing up to date’) of the Church. On the other hand, the post-Vatican II era erupted with serious disagreements over the role and purpose of the Church. What were the nature of these disagreements? And, why were the members of nouvelle théologie able for so long to band together in the face of great adversity, but when emerging victorious their sense of unity began to dissipate? What contextual factors had changed from the inter-war and post-war eras (i.e., 1930s-1950s) to the Vatican and post-Vatican eras (1960s and onward)?

SS: On the one hand, Vatican II was the great moment of vindication and rehabilitation for the nouveaux théologiens after their condemnation in the 1950s. But on the other hand, as you indicate, it also revealed fairly significant fissures within this group of theologians, between those who are usually viewed as the more “progressive” theologians, such as Chenu, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, and Hans Küng, and a more “conservative” group that included de Lubac, Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) and Karol Wojtyła (the future John Paul II). These fractures emerged most clearly during the debates over Gaudium et Spes, the document that dealt with the Church’s relationship to the modern world. Theologians like Chenu and Schillebeeckx were determined to open the Church up to the modern world, while de Lubac, Ratzinger, and others worried that this enthusiasm for modernity risked diluting the document’s emphasis on salvation and opening the Church up to the corrosive effects of secularization. They therefore took a much more critical view of modernity and tried to insert more Christocentric language into the document.

This disagreement in many ways set the terms for the fierce post-conciliar debates over the legacy of Vatican II between those who thought the council had gone too far and those who felt it hadn’t gone far enough in the direction of modernizing the Church—a dispute embodied by the rival theological journals Communio and Concilium. You’re right to point to the significance of the 1960s context, which was indeed very different from the context in which the nouvelle théologie was first developed in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time of the council, a new generation of theologians had come of age, many of whom were deeply influenced by the nouvelle théologie (including people like Schillebeeckx and Ratzinger) and had expanded its reach beyond the borders of France. This generational shift was, I think, crucial to the rehabilitation of the nouvelle théologie and its success at Vatican II, but it also introduced a wider range of voices into the discussion, and some of these younger theologians were considerably more radical than the older generation.

At the same time, one of the things I stress in the book is that we can already see the roots of these Vatican II-era disputes in the 1940s, when the differences between the Dominican and Jesuit branches of the nouvelle théologie became increasingly apparent. The two groups diverged in part over political questions, with Dominicans like Chenu, Congar, and Féret helping to nurture the postwar Catholic left and the worker-priest movement, while the Jesuits were much more forthrightly anti-communist. And these political differences had everything to do, I argue, with their theological differences. The Dominicans remained deeply committed to the centrality of Thomism and developed what I call a theology of incarnation, which stressed the value and integrity of worldly affairs. The Jesuits, for their part, drawing on their reading of the Church Fathers, placed the accent firmly on eschatology—on the need to critique secular institutions and ideologies from the perspective of the coming Kingdom. It is this distinction between incarnation and eschatology that we see play out in the disagreements at Vatican II over the Church’s relationship to the modern world. And it still informs debates within the Church about how to strike the appropriate balance between adapting to the modern world and refusing those aspects of modernity that violate Catholic teaching; between being in the world and rising above it.

JS: My final question concerns an interesting point you make in the Epilogue of your book. The Jesuits and Dominicans involved in nouvelle théologie, as you write, “anticipated, foreshadowed, or directly influenced recent debates about the role of religion in public life, both within and beyond the Church” (248). On the one hand, they influenced, shall we say, left-wing interventions into modern religion such as Liberation Theology in Central and South America (e.g., Gustavo Gutiérrez) as well as pre-dated various post-structuralist sentiments within the Foucauldian tradition (e.g., Talal Asad and Wendy Brown). On the other hand, they provided tools for Radical Orthodox thinkers (e.g., John Millbank and William Cavanaugh) who look to nouvelle théologie for ways to construct a postliberal theology grounded in the notion that the Church represents the highest form of political life and therefore ought to set the pre-conditions for modern culture—in all its political, cultural, and economic affairs. How do we make sense of these surprising parallels? Furthermore, given the historical evidence for the compatibility and even anticipation that these French Catholics provide for contemporary scholarship, what would be some implications for wider questions of democracy, pluralism, and the modern public sphere? In other words, how might your narrative elevate or respond to fundamental concerns of political theology, modern social theory, and the relationship between the two? 

SS: The fact that the nouvelle théologie has influenced both leftwing theologians such as Gutiérrez and more conservative figures such as Benedict XVI is really telling. At one level, it’s an indication of how foundational these ideas have become within the Catholic Church since the 1960s. But more importantly, it is yet another example of the ways in which theology tends to defy the logic of the right/left political spectrum. This is one of the central claims of the book more broadly. In some cases, the theologians I follow self-consciously identified as “neither right nor left”; in other cases, the same theological model was mobilized to serve a range of competing political projects. As for the specific example of the contemporary heirs to the nouvelle théologie, what they all have in common is a profound suspicion of liberalism, rather in the same way that the ideas of Carl Schmitt have been taken up by both rightwing and leftwing critics of liberalism.

It’s precisely because of the way theology seems to fit awkwardly into conventional political categories that I think the story of the nouvelle théologie has something useful to contribute to contemporary theoretical debates about the role of religion in public life. In the first place, it should make us more attuned to the political power of ideas that are usually dismissed as politically inconsequential—something that applies not just to theology but to a host of other ideas as well. As I try to show in the case of these priests, the claim to remain above or outside politics can itself be politically powerful in certain instances. Rather than taking the distinction between religion and politics as a given, then, I try to draw attention to the way this distinction is constantly drawn and redrawn, and the ideological work performed by the act of drawing it. Doing so reveals that the distinction between religion and politics is not just a tool in the service of secularism; it can also be used by religious actors to advance their own ends.

In this way, I think the story of the nouvelle théologie invites us to rethink what constitutes a political act and where the boundaries of the political lie. It suggests the need for an expansive view of the political—one that focuses not just on the conventional sites of political action, such as the state, the law, and the economy, but also integrates the sorts of anthropological, temporal, and metaphysical questions that are central to theology. After all, politics presupposes a much wider set of ideas about the relationship between the individual and the community, the source of authority, human nature, and the structure of time. And these are precisely the sorts of questions that theology seeks to answer as well, which is why it continues to impinge on political life in even such a robustly secular society as France since 1905.

Beyond these more abstract theoretical insights, the theologians I examine grappled with a number of questions that remain deeply relevant for our own world: what role should religion and religious institutions play in a secular, pluralist democracy? How can they play an active role in public life without violating the separation of church and state and without yoking the Church to a particular party or ideology? As a historian, I certainly don’t want to suggest that we simply embrace or adopt the answers that the nouveaux théologiens provided to these questions. But I do think there is one respect in which Christians today might learn from their work, especially given the current resurgence around the world of authoritarian and nationalist ideologies that draw strength from Christianity. Whether it was the Action Française, the Vichy regime, or the Communist Party, theologians like Henri de Lubac saw clearly how dangerous it was to bind Catholicism to a particular political party or ideology. Doing so not only undermined the independence of the state, he believed; it also degraded the Church by reducing it to the level of the powers of this world. And so, even as he insisted that the Church had a robust role to play in public life, he also recognized that an irreducible tension would always remain between the demands of the faith and those of politics. This seems to me a lesson worth remembering today.

Jacob Saliba is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Boston College. He studies modern European intellectual history with a special emphasis on modern French and German thought. His dissertation research focuses on the cross-cultural exchanges between religious and secular intellectuals during the French interwar period.

Edited by Tom Furse

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