Author’s Response: Soldiers of God in a Secular World (Sarah Shortall)

21 January 2022

** This is the author’s response to a series of four reviews of her new book Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics. Each day this week one review has been published.

1. “They Saved the Church but at What Cost?” by James Chappel

2. “The Politics of Ecclesiology” by Mary Kate Holman

3. “The Politics of the Supernatural” by John Milbank

4. “Theological Malleability and the Counter-political” by Brenna Moore

The entire forum is also available in PDF form **

I am profoundly grateful to James Chappel, Mary Kate Holman, John Milbank, and Brenna Moore for these very generous reviews. It is a rare privilege to receive reviews that engage so carefully and deeply with one’s work. All four reviewers have clearly understood what I set out to achieve in the book and have represented its arguments faithfully. All four are fulsome in their praise while also offering judicious, fair, and thoughtful critiques that have forced me to think further about the book’s arguments and their implications. I’m particularly pleased that this forum includes a range of disciplinary perspectives, which reflects the diversity of the book’s intended audience. It is a true privilege to have the opportunity to discuss my book with such an eminent group of scholars, whose own work I so deeply admire, and I am extremely thankful to them for taking the time to read and review the book so carefully.


James Chappel raises a number of crucial points in his review—a testament to his own pioneering work on the history of Catholicism. He is absolutely right to raise the challenge of the sexual abuse crisis, which is without a doubt the darkest stain upon the recent history of the Church, and an issue to which historians have not paid nearly enough attention. As he suggests, a major problem that historians (including myself) encounter in the effort to incorporate sexual abuse into broader histories of the Church are the silences in the archival record. I found no mention or hint about it in my own archival work, which is why I do not include it in the book. But Chappel is right that this poses a critical methodological challenge to historians who think (rightly) that the history of the Church must grapple with the scandal of sexual abuse despite these archival omissions. Thankfully, there is much excellent work being done at the moment to correct this oversight by such eminent historians as Robert Orsi and my colleagues Kathleen Sprows Cummings and John McGreevy, to name only a few. Such work often requires scholars to look beyond conventional archival sources or to establish new archives by gathering oral testimony from victims and witnesses. Fortunately, the many recent state commissions and reports on sexual abuse in the Church—including the French one that Chappel mentions—have generated a wealth of new evidence for historians to draw on. I think we will begin to see the effects of this work in coming years, and it promises to reshape our understanding of the history of Catholicism in crucial ways. It will also be interesting to see whether the recently opened Vatican archives for the period of Pius XII’s papacy (1939-1958) might yield any insights. But as Chappel implies, grappling with this history also requires us to think critically about the kinds of structures and ideas within the Church that may have created a conducive environment for abuse and its concealment. This includes an excessive emphasis on hierarchy, clericalism, and top-down authority, of which my actors were very critical, but it also includes many other structures which they did not question or challenge.


One example of such ideas would be Catholic discourses on gender and sexuality, and Chappel is probably right that my book does not do justice to these issues. As he surmises, that is in part because questions of marriage, sexuality, reproduction, and family life were not central concerns of the figures at the center of my story. Instead, they were consumed by the problems of secularization, totalitarianism, and the place of the Church in the modern world. While I do endeavor to show how ideas about the complementarity of the sexes were central to their personalist vision of social and political life, as well as probing the particular discourse of masculinity that informed the “spiritual resistance” to fascism, the book’s insufficient attention to questions of gender and sexuality tends to reflect the silences of my actors on these questions. And yet, it strikes me that these silences are in themselves significant. Questions of reproduction and sexuality have become central to the political mobilization of Catholics around the world in recent years, and one might assume that it has always been so. To be sure, such questions were hotly debated by Catholic laypeople and theologians in the 1940s, just as they are today, but the fact that they were not a central priority for many of the leading theologians of the day is a testament to how much has changed since the mid-twentieth century. It is a powerful reminder of the contingency of our own moment. In this sense, even though my actors might not have written extensively about gender and sexuality, their silences are in themselves instructive.


Mary Kate Holman beautifully excavates the ecclesiology of the nouvelle théologie and its political implications, which is a key theme of the book, and persuasively shows how such an analysis might be applied to the contemporary moment. I entirely agree with her distillation of the central political question facing twentieth-century Catholics: how to balance the other-worldly orientation of the Catholic salvation narrative with the this-worldly demands of a faith anchored in the mystery of the Incarnation, or as John Milbank puts it in his review, “how to sustain a non-worldly politics and yet retain some sort of ‘incarnational’ impact if the social dimension of eschatological witness is to be real.” This was indeed the central predicament that my actors were grappling with and one that I think all Christian politics faces. There is, I suspect, an irreducible tension between these imperatives, but one that is also productive of new theologico-political configurations. And indeed, it may be a salutary tension, especially in an age of resurgent Christian nationalism when many Christians all too readily conflate the demands of their faith with those of a particular party, race, or nation.


Holman raises the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy as a useful way to think about the differences between the approaches represented by Henri de Lubac and Marie-Dominique Chenu. And indeed, a key difference between these two models concerns the relationship between theory and practice, and whether it is possible to separate the theoretical or metaphysical underpinnings of a political movement from its practical aims. This question was as central to Catholic debates over the far-right Action Française in the 1920s as it was to debates over communism in the 1930s and 1940s, and I agree that it gets to the heart of the differences between de Lubac’s circle and Dominicans like Chenu. I also appreciate Holman’s desire for more attention to the role of personal relationships in the discussion of Vatican II and the post-conciliar moment. Unfortunately, the demands of a strict word limit prevented me from going into more detail here, but I’m confident that works such as Holman’s forthcoming book will make up for this shortcoming and flesh out our understanding of these sorts of personal relationships, as indeed, Brenna Moore’s recent book does beautifully.


I am very grateful to John Milbank for clarifying his vision of the Church and universal salvation, which I hope I have not misrepresented in the book, and for pushing me to sharpen the precise account of historical time and the human subject articulated by the Jesuit theologians at the heart of my study. Milbank is absolutely correct to insist on the importance of distinguishing their view of the human subject from Kantian subjectivism, and he is no doubt also right to suggest that I may overemphasize the negative, anti-foundational dimension of their anthropology—their emphasis on the desire or lack at the heart of the human subject. I do so in order to foreground their affinity with contemporary existentialism and phenomenology. But it is equally important to stress that this negative aspect of their anthropology was always transfigured by a positive anticipation of the divine, and indeed, for these Jesuits, this negativity was the very sign of the supernatural calling at the heart of human nature. Negation and positive anticipation were bound up together for these figures, in other words, as they weaved the anti-foundationalism of contemporary secular philosophy with a more positive vision inherited from the Church Fathers and from Teilhard de Chardin. This is what makes these figures fit uneasily, I argue, into the humanism/anti-humanism distinction that intellectual historians often use to make sense of French thought in this period.


I also entirely agree with Milbank’s suggestion that the Jesuits’ vision of history implied a critique of both biblical criticism and the historicism embraced by historians. I try to bring out this latter point in Chapter 6, by suggesting some parallels between their approach and more recent critiques of conventional historical writing by historians associated with the “linguistic turn,” some of whom drew on the work of de Lubac’s discipline Michel de Certeau. And yet, theologians like de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, and Henri Bouillard also made frequent use of the tools of historical analysis in their own work, in an effort to historicize theology and show how it had departed over the centuries from the formulations of the Church Fathers or Thomas Aquinas. In other words, their relationship to historicism was ambivalent. They stressed the importance of reading theology in its historical context but also clearly believed that it could not be reduced to this context. What explains this ambivalence, I think, is their distinctive vision of historical time, perhaps best expressed by Daniélou in The Lord of History (1953).  “On the one hand,” he explained, “Christianity falls within history. It emerged at a given point in the sequence of historical eventuation … But on the other hand, history falls within Christianity: all secular history is included in sacred history, as a part, a prolegomenon, a preparatory introduction.” This double temporality explains why these theologians could view the tools of historical analysis as appropriate and useful for illuminating the history of theology and the Church but ultimately incapable of making sense of the history of salvation.


I am particularly grateful to Brenna Moore for her thoughtful reflections because her work has had such a profound impact on my own. She is absolutely correct to emphasize the limitations of de Lubac’s approach and I have tried to bring out these limitations in the book as well by stressing how far his vision departed from many of the basic assumptions of a liberal, pluralist worldview that many of us take for granted. But her reflections offer me a useful opportunity to clarify my own commitments and methodological approach. As a historian, my goal in the book is neither to defend nor to criticize the actors I study, nor do I wish to suggest that any of the particular models I outline in the book is superior. That I devote more space to de Lubac’s approach than Chenu’s, for instance, is a function of the depth of my archival source base rather than my own sympathies. My primary goal in the book has been to reconstruct what these actors thought they were doing, while also pointing out some of the implications of their work that they themselves might not have readily admitted. But it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what to make of these ideas. Indeed, what initially drew me to the circle of priests around Henri de Lubac was precisely the ambiguities in their work. In some ways it was remarkably progressive for its time, and in some ways it was deeply illiberal. I try to hold open that space of ambiguity as much as possible in the book because it seems crucial to gaining a fuller understanding of the historical moment.


In the case of Henri de Lubac in particular, because he was profoundly critical of many of the tendencies that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, he has gained something of a reputation as a conservative theologian and there is a tendency to read his entire work through the lens of his post-1960s stance. But the de Lubac of the 1970s was not the de Lubac of the 1930s. In the book, I try to show how much his thought changed over the course of his life and why it is so difficult to classify as either progressive or conservative. While I therefore entirely agree with Moore’s emphasis on the limitations of de Lubac’s approach, I’m not sure I would necessarily describe his position as “colonialist.” It was unquestionably ecclesiocentric and often illiberal, as I emphasize throughout the book. Implicitly, it seemed to collapse the distinction between the Church (conceived in a universal, eschatological sense) and humanity more broadly, with the result that it tended to ascribe value to that which lay outside the Church only in terms of its relationship to Christianity. As I point out, this tendency was particularly pronounced in de Lubac’s writing on Judaism. But I’m not sure “colonialist” is quite the right term to describe this. In contrast to a great many French Catholics at the time, I found little evidence in de Lubac’s writing of a particular sympathy or support for French colonialism. Indeed, he was sharply critical of Eurocentrism and the tendency among missionaries to identify Catholicism with European civilization. Writing in the 1930s about European colonial expansion in the previous century, he complained in Catholicism that it was “a century of barbarous blindness; and never more than at that time was there current among us ‘that common prejudice that the sun illuminates the West with its full strength and lets fall on the rest of the world only the reflection of its rays.’” Such views must not infect the Church, he insisted, which could never be identified with any one culture, for “all races, all centuries, all centers of culture have something to contribute to the proper use of the divine treasure which she holds in trust.”


I point this out not to defend de Lubac or to suggest that he was in any way “progressive” on this issue, by any means, but rather to indicate why his work is so difficult to classify politically. Views such as those outlined above are of course very far from the kind of religious pluralism that most of us would embrace today and they certainly did not embrace the explicit anticolonialism of Chenu or others like him. But they were also very far from the mainstream conservatism of French Catholics in the 1930s, most of whom saw little difference between spreading Catholicism overseas and advancing French or European civilization. It seems crucial to maintain these distinctions if we are to fully appreciate the internal diversity and political ambiguities of mid-century Catholic thought. Since Vatican II and the post-conciliar divisions that emerged in its wake, it has become common to categorize Catholic theologians and intellectuals as either progressives or conservatives, but it is crucial not to retroactively read these categories back onto the pre-conciliar moment. And perhaps the best proof of the way de Lubac’s work fits uneasily into such categories is that both “progressive” and “conservative” Catholics claim him as an intellectual forerunner. He is a favorite of both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis; both Avery Dulles and Gustavo Gutiérrez. To downplay the ambiguities in his thought is, I think, to risk losing sight of something significant about not just his own work but the complex relationship between religious thought and secular political categories more broadly.


The very different interpretations offered in this forum by Moore and Milbank are, I hope, evidence of the value of the approach I’ve taken and the diversity of conclusions that readers can draw from the book. I am extraordinarily thankful to them and to Chappel and Holman for this opportunity to think with them and to sharpen my thinking in response to their thoughtful and judicious critiques. Few authors could hope for a more careful reading of their work by four scholars with such deep knowledge of the field. I am deeply grateful to them for the time and thought they have put into reading and engaging with my work.



Sarah Shortall is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to authoring Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021), she is also the co-editor of Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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