Theological Malleability and the Counterpolitical

20 January 2022

** This is the fourth and last 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 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

Tomorrow (Friday), Shortall will respond. **

The renowned scholar of early American religion, David D. Hall, used to tell his graduate students that if they wanted to write an interesting religious history, they had to pay close attention to theology. But, as it turns out, theology can be very easy to miss. A book about the religious past can readily be told as a narrative of priests and pastors, schisms and wars, but to truly access theological worldviews, we must tap into inner sensibilities and spiritualities. Such analysis is richer, deeper and more intimate, but it is also surprisingly hard for a historian, even one with a strong background in religious history. We may begin a historical project with our eye on a crucial theological idea that runs through it, but, almost inevitably, it dissolves into the social and political forces that we have been trained to see as the real movers and shakers of this world. If we do manage to stay attentive to theology, it can also be hard to press against the habitual understanding of it as a lofty, unified theory hovering on high, instead of as something that people take up in their hands and transform over time.


Sarah Shortall’s new book, Soldiers for God in a Secular World, is a stunning achievement, precisely because it rises to this daunting challenge inherent in writing religious history. She offers a history of what is known as the nouvelle théologie, a theological movement developed in interwar France by Jesuit and Dominican priests that expanded the Church’s political repertoire beyond far-right conservativism and made major interventions in twentieth-century debates about fascism, human rights, democracy and communism. Although it eventually laid the groundwork for the Second Vatican Council, it also had a lasting impact in spheres well beyond the Roman Catholic Church. Shortall’s book adds so much to the story that had been missing in standard accounts of this period in Catholic thought. It also gave me a completely fresh way of thinking about the political power of theological language, especially those that claim to explicitly disavow politics. I will say more about what makes her analysis so pathbreaking, and I also want to raise a topic that struck me as only implicit in her analysis, something I have come to see as increasingly central to the debates within twentieth-century Catholic theology.


For those familiar with Catholic thought, names like Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, and M.D. Chenu seem inevitably to go together, as part of a package of twentieth-century theological innovation, all of them equally hard to pin down politically. One of Shortall’s great contributions is to elucidate the internal diversity within the movement, the fissures and even dramatic infighting, as well as how they developed over time. Yet her point is not to merely show the complexity within something we otherwise have imagined as a unified whole. It is to make sense of something that scholars have never yet been able to adequately explain: why did the nouveaux théologiens, and especially the Jesuits—those rare Catholic resistors to Nazism—go on to become so critical of progressive Catholicism in the postwar period?


For instance, in chapters 3 and 4, Shortall unravels a mass of documentary evidence to show how Jesuits Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard, Pierre Chaillet, and Yves Moreau de Montcheuil defied orders of their religious superiors to resist Nazi authorities (Montcheuil was executed by the Nazis on August 11, 1944). Chaillet and Fessard helped found the underground journal Témoignage Chrétien, where they published essays urging resistance in Christian theological terms. The Catholic Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops had ordered compliance with Vichy and dismissed Témoignage Chrétien as the work of “guerrillas more or less in revolt against the authority of the Church” (111). Driven underground, the journal grew as the sole wartime theological rejoinder to ecclesiastical authorities who framed obedience to Vichy as a spiritual duty. Chaillet and Montcheuil also played leading roles in clandestine rescue operations. Along with a young woman Germaine Ribière, they made false papers for deportees and helped smuggle people into hiding in Catholic convents and schools. In contrast to this small number of resisters, Shortall shows how massive blocs of Catholic laity and leadership (even those considered center or leftist, like Catholic Action) were much more accommodating to Vichy than is generally believed. It was more than mere silence or passive acquiescence. Given this larger context which she describes in detail, the actions of the Jesuits become even more remarkable. The texture of Shortall’s narrative in these chapters was incredible to read, most of it appearing in English for the first time.


But the heartbeat of Shortall’s analysis is the theology. It raced through this world like an electrical current. As these Jesuits understood it, their resistance was spiritual, not political. The mistake most Catholics made, they claimed, was in finding spiritual “presence” in the Vichy state, accommodating themselves to it, and aiming to orient a human institution towards Catholic goals. The Jesuits asserted that that God rather than any human institution is the ultimate telos of human existence, that the thirst for the Absolute can only be met by the Absolute, not any political plan or party. The Church, they insisted, is “in the world but not of it” (114). They constructed a theological edifice out of this assertion, first with the mystical body theology, understood through eschatological notions of time, then increasingly with the Eucharist, and later with theological interpretations of humanism. They saw their theology as an alternative to the political, rather than a theological interpretation of politics. They claimed to be intervening in politics not to affirm anything but only as a voice of negative critique. Yet, as Shortall shows, it was “paradoxically by remaining detached from politics proper and bearing witness to its eternal mission that the Church could engage most effectively in temporal affairs” (107). This helped Jesuit resisters evade the censors and insist that they were acting as priests proper. Their resounding no to the demands of the state was a refusal that had deep political implications. They disavowed politics at least rhetorically, but their work cannot be classified as apolitical either. It was neither political nor apolitical. Shortall refers to it instead as “counter political” (89).


Shortall claims that it was after the defeat of Nazism that the theological drama really intensified. In the postwar period, Catholics who had been involved in resistance began to segue into other progressive experiments. But, as she explains, the Jesuit “spiritual not political” framing meant that the Jesuits were skeptical about any theology that aligned with politics, on the right or the left. She tracks early ideological splits between the Jesuit “counter political” approach and those of the Dominicans, like M.D. Chenu and Yves Congar, or philosophers like Jacques Maritain, who affirmed projects like the worker priests, human rights, and ecumenism. Henri de Lubac, in particular, had a much darker, pessimistic take on liberal experiments than they did. The chasms between these theological approaches to politics widened throughout the 1950s and into the Vatican II period. By 1972, de Lubac split from the major Catholic theological Concililium and founded a rival journal called Communio along with Joseph Ratziner and others similarly skeptical about aligning theology with leftist politics. In de Lubac’s formal letter, he refers to Concilium as “a propaganda tool in the service of an extremist school.” As Shortall eventually explains, the Jesuits’ pessimistic take on liberal politics aligned them rather unexpectedly with an eclectic set of thinkers in the next generation. This includes thinkers like John Milbank, but also critical theorists working in Foucauldian vein like Talal Asad. Shortall connects all of these dots with remarkable analytic acumen and clarity.


But there is one thing I’d like to hear more about. There are places where Shortall seems to take at face value the statements of de Lubac and Fessard—that they could not affirm politics, that they had to be critics only, that the memory of Vichy was always so close at hand. The left was too cozy with secular politics, always at risk of being duped again. Admittedly, she does a brilliant job in the epilogue unpacking how liberation theologians like Gutierrez break apart this logic, showing how de Lubac’s refusal to affirm any transformative political experiments simply sanctifies the status quo. But I wonder if there might be more to say.


Shortall’s analysis reminded me that in reading Henri de Lubac’s resistance writing, one of the features that that always strikes me is how committed he was to a truly and thoroughly colonial understanding of the French Catholic Church. It does not surface as merely incidental, like a residue of an earlier area, but it almost seems as it was the hot, active center of his theology, including his resistance writing. For example, in his essay, “Christian Explanation of our Times,” (published clandestinely in 1942), de Lubac writes: “The vocation of France is a Christian vocation. Called from its cradle to Christianity and long formed by it, France,” he explains, “carries its children either to spread this Christianity around them or to propagate in the world the great human values that we owe to Christianity” (447). He cites admiringly an early medieval pontifical tractate that read: “France is the oven in which the spiritual bread for the entire world was baked.” “Authentic French nationalism,” he writes, is “a universalism” that has given the world French literature, language, philosophy that “sprang from Christian universalism” (449).  De Lubac sees the Church as global teacher and mother, whose pedagogy was enacted at first violently through the crusades, but became “purified” through the missions, then, at last, recast as that of teacher of universal values. His writing on resistance reads Nazism as a German Protestant and secular violence enacted on French Christianity itself—its universal values and the “treasures” that lie at the foundation of its heritage (Judaism).


I say this not to emphasize some secret hegemony lurking within an otherwise emancipatory theology. (Scholars like Olivier Wieviorka and Shortall herself are well aware that those who resisted did so for a whole range of reasons, most of which had little to do with the protection of Jewish people or combatting antisemitism.) And Shortall touches brilliantly on some of these elements of Henri de Lubac’s resistance writing, i.e., the supersessionist understanding of Judaism and his understanding of the Church was the ultimate, all-encompassing framework for human life, a “good” totalitarianism as opposed to the “bad” of the authoritarian state (80).


But I wonder what difference it would make in our understanding of this religious world if we thought about the distinctively colonial flavor of de Lubac’s resistance theology. It might help us illuminate the fissures Shortall describes in the book’s final chapters and better identify the persistence of this theological imagination today. Would a greater attention to the colonialism inherent in de Lubac’s project make a difference to the story that Shortall tells? And if so how?


I think the pronounced commitment to a colonial French Church as the ground of universalism is one of the key differences between Henri de Lubac and the many theologians he split with in the postwar period. Shortall rightly claims that Dominicans like Chenu really saw that “grace was present” elsewhere in the world, outside the recognizable confines of the Church. I wonder if we might want to linger over this a bit more. This was a massive paradigm shift—shocking and new—for so many Catholic thinkers of this period, and, of course, it is where de Lubac never goes. Chenu and other Dominicans sensed stirrings of the gospel in the experiences of communist workers in the industrial slums of France. Chenu and fellow Dominicans like Georges Anawati also set in motion a totally new way for Catholics to contend with religious difference, in their case, to see Islam as containing glimmers of theological truths. De Lubac’s colleague Marie Magdeleine Davy knew that so much sin and antisemitism was inside the Church, one of the rare theologians to acknowledge as much. De Lubac’s student, the young Jesuit Michel de Certeau, sensed spiritual truth even in critiques of the Church in the student rebellions of 1968. Young students like Gustavo Gutierrez who studied in Paris (and drew inspiration from de Lubac) came to the theological table from places like Peru, not as seekers of colonial charity or education, but as intellectuals in their own right, full of theological vitality and creativity, preparing to make their own interventions. This Catholic sense of theological truth and beauty outside the Church was all so new: theologians began to see the European Catholic Church no longer as the primary mother and teacher of the world, but as one possible, imperfect embodiment of the gospel, whose history is full of beauty as well as darkness and sin (Congar was the most cogent on that last point). They sensed that outside the Church was a vast complex world where stirrings of the gospel could be sensed in utterly surprising and unexpected places. De Lubac parted ways with all of these people.


Soldiers for God in a Secular World opens with a fabulous image. Shortall depicts a scene from the early 1920s, when a group of young French Jesuits in training were cast out from France into a tiny little island called Jersey, located just off the coast of England. As a result of one of the many French anticlerical laws, these young priests in formation had been exiled from their home country. The young men found themselves in totally new surroundings, a completely new world far from the traditional seminaries of Paris. In their schooling, the regular old “theology’ they were handed by their teachers started to come into focus in new ways. They picked up on theological themes in Christian texts, like the prominence of mystery and interiority, that had been there all along but which had escaped them in France. These students of theology discovered new sorts of writings that had been understudied or overlooked, like those of the Church Fathers, and they began to crave more like it. When they finally returned back to France after their training on this little island, these exiled young priests became the most incredibly creative theologians Europe had seen in a very long time. They changed everything. When most Catholic leaders urged obedience to Nazism a decade and a half later, they were among the very few to resist.


But after WWII, these same priests must have felt cast out at sea yet again, when suddenly, for the first time, it was not just French seminarians and clergy talking theology, but now people from Latin America, Jews and Muslims, communists, women, and even secular students all at the table together. Some priests embraced this opening wholeheartedly. But many did not. One cannot help but wonder if some of them, later in life, longed more and more for theology to feel like it did in those earlier days when they were hiding out on that little island huddled together over ancient texts. Soldiers for God in a Secular World gave me such a deeper, richer understanding of why the theological trajectory of these priests turned out the way it did and provided a portal into the political risks they took, the lines they drew, and the theological imagination that animated it all.


In the academic field, it is rare for scholars to do both theology and history. Theology has a certain strangeness in it, and its textual reach is so long chronologically. History, of course, presents its own fair share of complexities and difficulties. Soldiers for God in a Secular World provides an extraordinary synthesis of a topic that raises the exacting challenges of both disciplines. I cannot think of a better guide into the political and religious worlds of the nouvelle théologie. Soldiers for God in a Secular World is a remarkable accomplishment.



Brenna Moore is Professor of Theology at Fordham University in New York, and the author, most recently of Kindred Spirits: Friendship and Resistance at the Edges of Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

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