They Saved the Church, but at What Cost?

17 January 2022

** This is the first 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. On Friday, Shortall will respond. **

The centuries-long debate over religion and modernity seems, to me, to have reached something of an impasse. This was an arena of enormous controversy and intellectual creativity a decade or two ago, when Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, and others were helping readers hungry for new and better ways to understand the God-drenched world of the early twenty-first century. While exciting work continues to be done, I can’t shake the sense that this terrain has been colonized by the likes of Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, who are more interested in crusading against liberal modernity than they are in understanding it, and understanding how it emerged (incompletely) from the religious verities of the past.


One of the many achievements of Sarah Shortall’s Soldiers of God in a Secular World is to reinvigorate those debates, showing us how to ask the big questions about religion and secularity without getting drawn towards reductive answers or binary thinking. The big questions do, after all, still matter. There are many billions of religious people in the world, some of whom have outsize influence on global politics (American evangelicals are one example but not the only one). It still matters how religious belief gets articulated, and how religious practice interfaces with race, gender, and class. It matters, too, how we understand the recent past of religion: in this case, Catholicism, which remains one of the world’s largest religions. For many historians, myself included, the twentieth century history of the Church is essentially a syllabus of errors. Many books portray a bestiary of illicit alliances, implicit condoning of racist violence, and wretched handling of the sex abuse crisis. Shortall does not, of course, deny these facts about the Church. She thinks, though, that there is another story to be told.


For all of the recent interest in the history of Catholicism, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the cluster of intellectuals who star in Shortall’s book: a group of Frenchmen, born around 1900, most of whom were Jesuits and who ended up founding the so-called nouvelle théologie (or “new theology”). The particular stars are Marie-Dominique Chenu, Gaston Fessard SJ, and Henri de Lubac SJ. It is not news that these figures mattered. Histories of the modern Church dutifully mention them as theological titans who inspired both the Catholic resistance to Nazism and the ecclesiastical innovations of Vatican II. They have never, though, been the subject of an archivally-rooted history that brings their story from the 1920s to the 1960s, asking how they related to the world that produced them, and how they shaped the one after them.


To explain why they have been historically neglected is to get at the core of Shortall’s project. These figures and their allies, dozens of whom are briefly explored in the book, were reluctant to endorse specific political projects, or locate themselves in the grammar of secular life at all. They are thus a challenge to integrate into research projects that are, in the end, about secular life: about how the Church impacted the world. Shortall believes, and with justice, that her figures did impact the world, but they did so precisely through articulating a form of Catholic theology that would abjure worldliness in the name of a connection to the ancient spirit of the Church: the spirit that reigned before the many compromises that came in the wake of Constantine’s conversion, when the vicars of Christ found itself aligned with the princes that Christ himself had been wary of.


Shortall’s overall thesis is that the anticlericalism of the French republic ended up forcing Catholic thinkers there to renovate the entire theological apparatus of the Church—in the end, saving the Church from irrelevance. And she thinks, too, that this story has been overlooked because of the overwhelming scholarly desire to understand the Church’s relationship with the world: with genocide, war, fascism, democracy, and so on. She doesn’t deny that those stories matter, but she thinks that we are missing something important if we allow them to stand in for sensitive readings of theologians who were committed first and foremost to theorizing and reforming the Church as a vessel for salvation, not political reform. She tells the story in three parts. Part I is about the early decades of the twentieth century, when the French Jesuit order had to survive in exile (after being expelled in 1880). In her telling, that expulsion backfired, because it created intellectually vibrant centers of French Catholic life just across France’s borders, in Belgium and on the island of Jersey. De Lubac and his peers were not interested in scheming for the return of the ancien régime; they were more interested in imagining what the Church might look like in the regime that actually existed.


They turned for intellectual sustenance to the Church Fathers—an orthodox move, of course, but one that was outside of a mainstream currently infatuated with St. Thomas Aquinas. In Shortall’s telling, the neo-Thomist renaissance, even in the hands of such a master as Jacques Maritain, ended up reinstating the firm division between the natural and the supernatural that was central to secular politics. Indeed, this is what made Thomism so easily susceptible for co-optation into secular projects, whether those were reactionary or (in Maritain’s case) progressive. The earlier sources allowed Shortall’s protagonists to think more dynamically about the role of the Church in the modern world.


The specific insights of nouvelle théologie can be challenging to pin down, and even in Shortall’s skilled hands it is sometimes difficult to parse what they are trying to say. In general, though, I think that their most crucial innovations involve the nature of the Church itself. They were suspicious of the grand Church of the Middle Ages, with Aquinas as its poet, and returned instead to the mercurial, fly-by-night Church of early Christianity. They did so not in order to claim that the institutional Church is irrelevant. They are still Catholics, after all. They do so, though, in order to claim that the Church is not a building, or a hierarchy, but a mystical communion between believers and God—one overseen, but not dominated, by a sacrament-dispensing institution that we call the Catholic Church.


Part II of the book covers the drama of World War II, and Shortall is to be commended for giving the war so much attention (in many trans-war studies, the war itself tends to disappear). It was only during the war that the explosive potential of nouvelle théologie became apparent. While most French Catholics fell into the arms of Marshal Pétain, the authoritarian ally of Hitler, de Lubac and his peers were steadfast in their belief that his regime, however much it trumpeted a religious renewal, was pagan to the core. Shortall’s protagonists distinguished themselves with their bravery, publishing tens of thousands of illegal newsletters; at least one of them (Yves de Montcheuil) was executed.


The bravery of these men, and the transparent power of their ideas, rocketed nouvelle théologie into newfound prominence after the war, as chronicled in Part III of the book. In the immediate wake of the war, they were swept up into the most consequential debates in French intellectual life. Gaston Fessard, especially, was concerned to bring the Church into dialogue with existentialism and Communism alike, although not in equal measure. He believed that existentialism, with its commitment to personal liberation, had a kernel of Christian truth, while the totalitarian and atheist dogma of Communism could only be anathema to the believing Catholic (this at a time when some prominent French Catholics, notably Emmanuel Mounier, were convinced that the spirit of history had galloped to the Soviet Union). All the same, these ideas were condemned by the Church in the 1950s, along with the most innovative experiments that they inspired (notably the worker-priests). As Shortall showed in Part I of the book, though, attempts to suppress Catholic ideas have a way of invigorating them. Her book concludes, triumphantly, with Vatican II, where de Lubac and others emerged as leading lights, whose influence and literal words can be found throughout the texts of the Council.


Shortall’s book is a landmark in the intellectual history of the modern Church: a well-written, archivally rooted, and persuasive account of how nouvelle théologie emerged, and why, and how it shaped the modern Church. In the spirit of dialogue, though, I would like to raise a few questions. My questions are inspired by a report has recently emerged that details the enormity of the sex abuse crisis in the French Catholic Church. There is no doubt that the issue did not appear in the archives, and it is not surprising that it does not appear as an explicit theme in this book. Nonetheless, I think it is imperative for contemporary historians of the Church to think through how our work can cast light on the issue, which was apparently at its worst between the 40s and the 60s: just at the moment when Shortall’s protagonists were finding ways to help the Church survive.


First: if we presume that the sex abuse crisis was the major historical fact about the Church in the latter half of the twentieth century, the creators of nouvelle théologie take on a less comforting role, insofar as they helped to rehabilitate the Church from the charges of clericalism and authoritarianism that were, in fact, well placed. This depiction does not emerge from the text because of the way that Shortall chooses to frame her story. Time and again, the foil for nouvelle théologie is neo-Thomism. And compared to neo-Thomists, with their addiction to systematizing and rationalist theology, the new theologians can only appear as creative, mercurial, and almost post-modern. Nonetheless, and however much they championed the laity, they ended up at the heart of the same Church—even, at story’s end, reaching the apex of that Church, which was at that very moment condoning so much evil. What if the story were framed differently? What if, for instance, we presumed that the path of mysticism was the alternative? Simone Weil, for instance, does not appear in this book, even though she was concerned with many of the same questions; Teilhard de Chardin SJ does appear, but certainly as a bit player. If Weil, rather than Maritain, was the persistent foil to nouvelle théologie, I think we would arrive at a very different picture: a picture of a group of men who were, in the end, committed to the survival and expansion of a hierarchical, male-dominated Catholic Church.


Second: to understand the sex abuse crisis requires an understanding of the particular institutional culture of the Church, but also of its unique attitude to celibacy, sexuality, and gender. These themes are almost absent in Shortall’s book. The contribution of women themselves to nouvelle théologie and to the Resistance is honored but not explored. It might be that her chosen heroes did not talk about gender or sexuality much, beyond the ritual invocation of the male-female dyad as the model for a harmonious community. This explains, then, why the book would not talk about these themes much, as it hews relatively close to the archival record. And yet, from the vantage point of 2022, the absence of these questions is itself surprising, and bears reflection. How did Shortall’s figures think about gender, sexuality, contraception, or priestly celibacy? Those issues were debated in the 1940s and 1950s. Did Shortall’s figures take a stance on these issues? And if not, what does it say about them that their theological approach led them towards high-profile debates with Sartre, and away from the issues that from our vantage point were significantly more important?


These questions are not meant to distract from the enormity of Shortall’s achievement. Her monograph is an exemplary work of intellectual history, and in fact the lacunae mentioned above are present in most intellectual histories of the Church, my own included. The issue is methodological—and even moral. How can we, as historians of the Church, find space for precisely the kinds of horrors that are erased from the archive? How can we tell a story that is attentive to the good the Church does, which is real, without denying the reality of the hundreds of thousands whose lives and psyches have been damaged? That is a question for the future, and one that I hope studies in Shortall’s wake will begin to take up.



James Chappel is the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History at Duke University. His first book, Catholic Modern (Harvard, 2018), provides an intellectual history of the transformation of the Catholic Church in the middle of the 20th century.

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