The Politics of Ecclesiology

18 January 2022

** This is the second in a series of four reviews of Sarah Shortall’s new book Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics. Each day this week one review will be published. The first review (“They Saved the Church but at What Cost?” by James Chappel) was published yesterday. On Friday, Shortall will respond. **

On November 4, 2021 (just a few weeks before this review was written), Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez released a controversial pre-recorded speech for the Catholic and Public Life Congress in Madrid. While expressing sympathy at the murder of George Floyd, which he recognized as a reminder of the ongoing realities of “racial and economic inequality,” Gomez took aim at so-called “woke” movements, suggesting that they offer an atheistic “rival ‘salvation’ narrative” against the authentic truths of Christianity. Despite the fact that Christians desire a more just society, the church, he argued, must “understand and engage” social justice movements as “dangerous substitutes for true religion.”


Gomez’s speech, coupled with the flurry of criticism that it provoked, is just the latest episode in the perennially fraught story of Catholic engagement with politics. The questions it raises have been asked and argued over since the onset of modernity: Is the salvation preached by the church primarily concerned with life after death, or ought it to transform the realities of this world? Is collaboration with any secular ideology a betrayal of Christian truth claims, even when Christians share common policy goals with these ideologies? In a pluralistic society, or one that prizes the separation of church and state, does the church have anything to say to the public sphere?


In Soldiers of God in a Secular World, Sarah Shortall explores these same questions from the perspective of the twentieth-century French theologians collectively known as the nouveaux théologiens. Caught between the virulent secularism of France’s Third Republic and the paranoid anti-modernism of the Catholic magisterium, Jesuits including Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard and Dominicans like Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar forged a “new” way of doing theology. (While the nouvelle théologie moniker was originally coined by the movement’s critics for whom newness was threatening and unorthodox, the name has endured.) They made recourse to historical sources of the Christian tradition—the patristics for the Jesuits, and Thomas Aquinas for the Dominicans—with an eye toward the pressing questions of their own tumultuous age.


Shortall tells the story of these thinkers in three parts. The first, “Separation (1880-1939),” deals with their theological education, which largely occurred in the context of exile, as French laïcité laws had closed all religious houses of studies, effectively banishing seminarians and their instructors. This distance from the political skirmishes of their homeland and the watchful gaze of Rome allowed for greater creativity in their theology. The second part, “Resistance (1940-1944),” chiefly focuses on the wartime efforts of the Jesuits, whose “spiritual resistance” to fascism ran counter to the collaborationist attitude of many French Catholics towards Vichy. The third part, “Renewal (1945-1965),” explores the nouveaux théologiens’ postwar disagreement over engagement with the left, as well as the movement’s condemnation by Rome and their subsequent rehabilitation at Vatican II.


This book recognizes that theological ideas are legitimate, and vital even, for scholars of history and politics. Shortall demonstrates how theology both shaped and expressed these thinkers’ political commitments, and even (especially) when they claimed to be above politics, their apolitical rhetoric itself could serve political ends. Shortall’s explicit focus on the political dimension of the nouveaux théologiens offers a fresh take on the significance of this movement, far richer than the familiar narrative of their contributions to the Second Vatican Council.


Shortall particularly engages these thinkers’ ecclesiologies, a sub-category of theology focused on the church’s relationships to God and to the outside world. While on the surface, ecclesiology is “a domain presumed to be apolitical by definition,” Shortall argues that for the nouveaux théologiens, it “constituted a ‘counter-politics,’ a form of critique that allowed theologians to intervene in political questions while rejecting the terms of secular politics” (52). Shortall analyzes astutely how competing ecclesiologies shape these thinkers’ different frameworks for Christian political engagement.


While the political ramifications of the personalist philosophy of Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier has received much scholarly attention, Shortall argues that thinkers like de Lubac and Fessard were “personalists,” too, but rather than centering their vision on individual human persons, they were chiefly concerned with the collective person of the Church, or, as they put it, “the Mystical Body of Christ.” Contra the dangers of any totalitarian state that might annihilate the human person, these ecclesial personalists proposed a totalitarian church that celebrated the human person under the mantle of the person of Christ. While this vision bolstered resistance to fascism, Shortall demonstrates a pitfall of this way of thinking—it conflates the Catholic Church with the entirety of humanity. This theology was thus invoked to defend Jews from persecution by the Nazis, but, paradoxically, it did so by effacing the particularity of Judaism, implicitly valuing Jews because of their potential eschatological membership in the Mystical Body of Christ.


This Mystical Body ecclesiology gave way to an explicitly Eucharistic ecclesiology in de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum (1944). Shortall contends that while this move seems like a retreat from his political resistance to fascism, de Lubac’s sacramental turn intentionally disrupted “the mobilization of theological concepts for secular political ends,” emphasizing that the church was not a body among other political bodies, but an eschatological communion anchored by Christ’s temporal presence in the Eucharist (141).


Post-war theologians also made recourse to the historical example of the early, pre-Constantinian church. The editors of the journal Dieu vivant, for example, argued in 1945 that since the time of Constantine, the church had settled too comfortably into political and social structures, and the time had now come to reclaim the eschatological vision of the early church, becoming a “thorn in the side of secular ideologies.” Although Shortall does not mention this, Chenu could serve as an interesting interlocutor here. His 1961 article “The End of the Constantinian Era” similarly welcomes the demise of the Constantinian model and advocates for a return to the “missionary” roots of the early Church. Yet for Chenu this is not chiefly about critiquing ideologies, but instead transforming ecclesial and social structures to better proclaim the Gospel of good news to the poor, replacing “the myth of Constantine” with “the primitive poor community of Jerusalem.”


These different ecclesiological models led these theologians to very different conclusions as to whether or not Catholics ought to engage with secular political movements. The language of “presence” and “engagement” was embraced by many Catholics who rushed to support the Vichy government. De Lubac, horrified by Catholic collaboration with authoritarianism, rejected outright the strategy of presence for any political movement, having seen the ways it could compromise the Gospel. Chenu, who was less involved and thus less traumatized by the World Wars, later advocated for presence and engagement with communists, having seen his theology come to life in his ministry with dechristianized laborers who belonged to communist unions in the industrial slums of Paris. For Chenu, collaboration with secular ideologies in pursuit of nuclear disarmament, for example, was a perfectly legitimate strategy for realizing the Gospel ideal of peace.


The peril and the promise that de Lubac and Chenu saw, respectively, in engaging with extra-ecclesial political movements provokes a deep challenge to political theology that will linger with me long after finishing Shortall’s book. I wonder if the distinction that Gustavo Gutiérrez (who studied with both de Lubac and Chenu) makes between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, or right practice and right belief, might be helpful in thinking through what, if any, criteria Catholics ought to exercise in their discernment regarding engagement with political movements. De Lubac seems to emphasize the former (finding all ideologies wanting), and Chenu the latter (demonstrating a greater optimism about collaboration). I wonder if Gutiérrez’s realization of a more radical theology in the Latin American context, explicitly formulated from the perspective of the oppressed, might offer a way forward.


While Shortall largely focuses on the impact of ecclesiology on extra-ecclesial politics, intra-ecclesial politics are an implicit dimension of this story as well. The nouveaux théologiens constantly were navigating sensitive political dynamics within the church, as much of their work came under  suspicion, even censure, from the ecclesial hierarchy. The magisterial critique of these thinkers from the 1930s through the 1950s was in many ways politically motivated: their historical approach, it was believed, might relativize the eternal authority of the magisterium. Rome’s tactics, too, at times mirrored those of secular political actors—what Chenu called the “police procedures” and “Gestapo behavior” of the movement’s inquisitors (230). This further proves Shortall’s main argument; even when their stated concerns were chiefly doctrinal, the apolitical rhetoric of ecclesial officials most certainly did political work.


While Soldiers of God fits squarely into the category of intellectual history, Shortall’s approach lends texture and nuance to the genre by tracing not only the evolution of ideas, but the concrete intersections of these ideas with people’s lives. She insists on the importance of relationships, particularly friendships, in the development of the nouvelle théologie. For example, archived letters between Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard, including an amusing caricature illustration of their professors, reveal how their mutual annoyance with arid, rigid seminary formation at the exiled Jesuit house of studies in Jersey shaped their later commitment to a robust sense of mystery in theological reflection. This shared frustration led them to create a “para-curriculum,” and later a more established study circle, focused on foundational Christian texts of antiquity and the Middle Ages as well as modern philosophy. These youthful interpersonal exchanges prepared the soil for renewed ways of thinking to take root.


This emphasis on relationality is particularly strong in the book’s first chapter, “Exile Catholicism,” and I found myself looking for more of it as the chronology progressed. In her last chapter, Shortall presents the most compelling intellectual account of the methodological divergence between the Concilium and Communio schools in the wake of the Second Vatican Council that I have come across. She lays the groundwork for this analysis throughout the book, tracing the early formations and life experiences of their respective leaders that led to fundamental theological disagreements, even as they found themselves grouped together under the umbrella of “nouvelle théologie.” This left me wondering about the human relationships behind the more explicit intellectual split of the postconciliar age. What was the role of those men’s relationships with each other in that later moment when their very political and theological worldviews seemed to be at stake? I found myself asking how Shortall might analyze the correspondence between de Lubac and Chenu, for example, and the evolution of their (perhaps strained) friendship, as she did so presciently with the relationships among young Jesuits earlier in the book.


Overall, though, Shortall’s use of archival sources presents readers with a treasure trove of important material. In a particularly compelling passage, she literally reads “between the lines” of the censor’s pen to illustrate the subversive subtilties in Fessard’s and de Lubac’s writings during the Second World War, their contributions to the “spiritual resistance” against fascism before ultimately moving their publications underground in order to write more explicitly. In closely analyzing both the edited and unedited texts, Shortall reveals not only the Jesuits’ theological and political commitments, but also the constraining effect of governmental and ecclesiastical censorship.


This book paves the way for future study in many areas, two of which I’ll name here for my own discipline, theology. Contemporary Catholic theologians frequently make recourse to the foundations of the nouvelle théologie, and this book provides vital context for that continued work. Just as the nouveaux théologiens insisted on historical context in their use of the patristics and Thomas Aquinas, theologians today will benefit from Shortall’s close historical analysis.


Perhaps more pressingly, Shortall’s work sharply analyzes the theological foundations of political movements, an approach that could prove helpful for understanding our contemporary landscape. Catholics’ priorities in the political sphere and their tactics in addressing them are divergent and, in many cases, polarized. Applying to the present moment Shortall’s analysis of the ecclesiological foundations of political theology could illuminate how competing visions of church are shaping and being shaped by political issues as varied as climate change, abortion, migration, and religious freedom. Shortall has helped me realize that, while often reduced to papal soundbites, like Francis’s “Church of the Poor” or Benedict’s (perhaps apocryphal) “smaller, pure church,” different understandings of the church’s status, structures, and relationship to the divine hold immense political weight. What, for example, leads Archbishop Gomez to condemn engagement with secular movements to achieve justice-oriented political ends? It is his ecclesiology, but it is helpful to remember that his vision is merely one among many.


I am grateful to Sarah Shortall for this book, which has much to offer scholars of philosophy, history, and theology. She illuminates the political weight of transcendent ideas, and, in the process, establishes the practical significance of intellectual history. This account serves as an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with the nouvelle théologie, but it is a welcome contribution even for experts, richening our understanding of this important movement’s political dimensions.



Mary Kate Holman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University in the suburbs of Chicago. Her current book project focuses on the historically conscious, socially engaged theology of Marie-Dominique Chenu.

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