Sarah Shortall on the Counter-politics of Theology

Politics also involves ideas more broadly about the nature of time, history, the nature and ends of human life, the relationship between the individual and the community. These are also the questions that theology explores. That is why I think theology and politics always necessarily overlap in some ways.”

In this conversation with RevDem assistant editor Vilius Kubekas, Sarah Shortall discusses the history of the nouvelle théologie movement in France and brings into focus the political dimension of theology. The thinkers associated with this movement were theological innovators and developed a certain form of counter-politics that challenged both secular and neo-scholastic understandings of the relationship between politics and religion. Shortall argues for the broadening of our understanding of the history of modern political thought, asserting that certain forms of political intervention do not take the state as the primary frame of reference; the case of nouvelle théologie shows that theology must be regarded as a distinctive political language.

Sarah Shortall is an intellectual and cultural historian of modern Europe. She teaches at the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses primarily on modern France, Catholic thought, and the relationship between religion and politics. Her recent book is entitled Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology in Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021).

Vilius Kubekas: You start the book with the story about the particular institutional setting in which the nouvelle théologie was developed in France. During the anticlerical campaign of the Third Republic at the turn of the twentieth century, religious orders were forced to move their seminaries abroad. This new situation created unique conditions of study, allowing young priests, Jesuits and Dominicans, to rethink Catholic theology.

What was the nouvelle théologie and what were its theological innovations? How would you define the relationship between the nouvelle théologie and neo-scholasticism, which was the dominant philosophical and theological tradition at the time? How did the Jesuit and the Dominican versions of the nouvelle théologie differ from one another?

Sarah Shortall: First, I think it is important to understand something about the circumstances that allowed for the emergence of this movement and that dominated these priests’ formation. It was, as you alluded to, a situation of exile created by the anticlerical legislation in France at the end of the nineteenth century and turn of the twentieth century, which evicted most religious orders from France. As a result, most of these figures completed their religious formation in exile.

For the Jesuits, I focus especially on their time on the channel island of Jersey. For the Dominicans I focus on their time at Le Saulchoir, which was in Belgium. I am talking specifically, on the Jesuit side, about people like Henri de Lubac, who was probably the most famous of these figures, Gaston Fessard and Yves de Montcheuil, and, on the Dominican side, people like Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar.

The irony I point out is that the anticlerical legislation and the situation of exile actually created a uniquely fecund environment for intellectual life; isolation actually created a kind of hot-house environment in these schools. Paradoxically, the anti-clerical laws actually created the conditions for a veritable renaissance in Catholic theology.

What they were reacting against was the kind of philosophy they were taught at these institutions, which was neo-scholasticism. That was the dominant philosophy of the Catholic Church since 1879 or so, when the pope led a revival of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The tendency of this theology was to read Aquinas through his sixteenth century commentators, which led to a kind of hyper-rationalist system, and one that really emphasized the distinction between the natural and supernatural orders. And that was what these figures were reacting against.

They wanted to go back to the sources of the Catholic tradition, and especially to the Church Fathers, or to Aquinas himself, quite apart from his later commentators. They tended to emphasize the role of history in theology. They tended to have a deeply social approach to Catholicism and emphasized the mystical and less hierarchical elements of the church, and especially the unity of the natural and supernatural orders.

But as you point out, there was an important distinction between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, which emerged especially after World War II, but I think you see inklings of it beforehand. It has to do with the fact that the Dominicans were always more Thomist than the Jesuits, who tended to be more drawn to the Church Fathers. This led the Dominicans to take a more positive view towards the modern world and to the possibility of working within secular institutions. You see this especially after the war when they got involved with movements of the Catholic left, like the worker-priests.

I frame this as a distinction between incarnation and eschatology, with the Dominicans concerned with incarnating Catholic values in secular milieus, and the Jesuits instead emphasizing an eschatological distance from the secular. This split played out at Vatican II, and then in post-conciliar debates as well.

You show that there was a close relationship between theology and politics. During the 1920s and 1930s there were competing theologies that conceptualized politics in different ways: many neo-scholastic thinkers embraced the royalist Action française, while the nouveaux théologiens challenged the neo-scholastic understanding by developing a quite different vision of politics. Why were these nouveaux théologiens dissatisfied with the existing theological conceptualizations of politics? How did they reinterpret the relationship between politics and religion?

Here it is important to note that during the first quarter of the twentieth century the Action française, which was a far-right, nationalist, royalist movement led by Charles Maurras, really dominated Catholic and especially clerical politics in France. This created something of a problem for its Catholic adherents, because Maurras himself was not a believer. I argue that this put them in the unusual position of having to develop a justification for why Catholics could support this movement, despite its leader’s unbelief. They had to do so even more urgently after 1926, when the Vatican condemned the Action française. They did this by arguing that you could separate Maurras’ politics and the politics of the Action française from the philosophy that informed it. And this separation was made by leaning on the neo-scholastic distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

Interestingly, this was an approach later taken up by other Catholics who argued that Catholics could also support other kinds of atheist ideologies, like communism. But people like de Lubac or Maurice Blondel, who in many ways was his maître-penseur, totally rejected the idea that one could separate these two things, theory and practice, and argued that Maurras’ atheism penetrated every aspect of his thinking.

The problem that they were facing was that they did not want to return to the kind of medieval alliance of throne and altar which would reverse the separation of church and state in France introduced in 1905, but they also rejected the secular-liberal notion that religion and the Church should be confined to the private sphere. They thought that the Church could not simply endorse secular political movements like the Action française, but that it also could not just retreat from public life because it had a social teaching.

They were trying to find a way for the Church to be in the secular public sphere, but not of it. I argue that the way that they did this was by developing a counter-politics. By that, I mean that they turned to theology to articulate an alternative to the existing political options of the day, whether it was liberalism, communism, or fascism. Theology gave them a way of intervening in political questions, while rejecting the terms of secular politics.

For example, they looked to the vision of the Church as the “mystical body of Christ” as a kind of alternative to secular political models that privileged either the individual or the collective. They thought that only the mystical body could balance those two things.

One of the distinctive features of your book is that you devote a lot of attention to these theologians and their political choices during World War II. At that moment, many Catholics as well as the ecclesiastical hierarchy embraced the National Revolution led by Pétain and the Vichy government. However, these nouveaux théologiens chose to side with the Resistance. As you tell it, there was a rather straight line from their interwar theological commitments to their political choices during the war.

At the same time, it seems to me that the situation was more complicated and perhaps more problematic. Many people from the Catholic Action movements who not long before had followed the ecclesiology developed by the nouveaux théologiens did embrace the National Revolution. Even more significantly, you point to the German context and to the case of Karl Adam, a theologian who was an early proponent of the mystical-body theology. However, by the 1930s Adam linked his theological commitments to the racial politics of the Third Reich.

How did the nouveaux théologiens adapt their theological and political commitments, originally developed during the interwar period, to the new political situation of World War II? Why did de Lubac and other nouveaux théologiens choose to oppose the National Revolution? Why was there such a divergence in the political choices of people who embraced the mystical-body theology?

Let me explain, first of all, what the mystical-body ecclesiology was. It was developed in the interwar period, but it was also a return to St. Paul and it stressed the mystical, organic character of the Church over its visible, juridical nature. The idea was that the mystical body was something larger than the visible institutional Church. It was an eschatological entity that included all past, present, and future members of the Church, and it would only fully emerge at the end of time. In the interwar period, this vision became closely associated with the specialized Catholic Action movements, such as the Jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne, the young Christian workers, that were meant to enhance the role of the laity within the Church.

For de Lubac and others like him, like Gaston Fessard, the mystical body was a universal term that could potentially encompass everyone, because everyone was called to be a member of Christ’s body. By definition, they saw this ecclesiology as a rejection of racist or nationalist projects, for de Lubac said that the unity of the mystical body presupposed the prior natural unity of the human race.

These are the kinds of ideas that led them to enter the ranks of the Resistance during the war, and to create the journal Témoignage chrétien, which was the main voice of the spiritual resistance. It was these kinds of commitments, I argue, and not a commitment to patriotism or liberal democracy that led them into the ranks of the Resistance, because they saw Nazism as an affront to Christianity.

But the problem they faced was that other people—as you mentioned, people like Adam—did not see it this way. Some of them had a very different reading of the mystical-body ecclesiology and conflated the organic, corporeal metaphors of that theology and the notion of differentiated body parts with a kind of völkisch ideology. De Lubac even thought that secular ideologies could also appropriate this concept for their own ends and argued during the war that the Third Reich was in some ways modeled on the mystical body of Christ.

So, what he tried to do in a book called Corpus Mysticum, which he started before the war but completed towards its end, was to reformulate this ecclesiology. Instead of calling it the mystical body of Christ, he insisted that the Church was simply the body of Christ. De Lubac tried to go back to the Church Fathers here, stressing the relationship between the Church and the Eucharist and the way that the Eucharist, the celebration of the sacrament, created the Church by binding Christians to Christ and to each other. He saw the emphasis on the Eucharist as something that could guard against the temptation to translate the mystical-body concept into secular political terms or apply it to earthly institutions like the nation, because it was a reminder that there was no secular analogue to the body of Christ. So that was one way the nouvelle théologie developed and changed in response to the war.

The other way was the new emphasis that these Jesuits placed on eschatology from the 1940s onward, in contrast to the language of incarnation that was so dominant in the 1930s. Many Catholics who had supported the Vichy regime used the language of incarnation to justify that support and to say that Catholics needed to work within the institutions of the National Revolution in order to channel them in the right direction. From the early 1940s onward, we see a marked shift in the language of the nouveaux théologiens towards an emphasis on eschatology and the insistence that one should never confuse secular political projects with the Kingdom of God.

For me, these cases are evidence of the plasticity of theological concepts and the way that they can be used to serve a variety of different political ends. It is not as though one theology always leads to a particular political outcome.

Even if theological and political discussions with other Catholics had a particular importance for the nouveaux théologiens, they were also engaged with secular strands of French philosophy. You discuss their engagement with the thinkers of the left, showing in detail how these theologians also contributed to the debates on Marxism and existentialism.

There an obvious case in point is Gaston Fessard, who in the 1930s, as you note in the book, “attended religiously” the legendary seminars on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit led by Alexandre Kojève and studied Marx’s early writings. He continued to engage with Kojève and Hegel in the post-war period as well.

Can you tell us more about why Catholic theologians found it necessary to engage with Marxism and existentialism? How did these Catholic thinkers actually contribute to the seminal arguments that took place in post-war France? And what are the broader implications of this continuous interaction of Catholic theology with secular thought for our understanding of the history of twentieth-century French thought?

The main intellectual families of postwar France were Marxism, existentialism, and Catholicism. In 1945 they were locked in struggle to claim the mantle of humanism. I think it is important not to see Catholics as one separate bloc within these debates but as a group that was internally divided, with some Catholics more drawn to existentialism and some more interested in engaging with Marxism and even the possibility of some kind of collaboration with communists.

I also want to stress that Catholics were not just influenced by these debates and developments in secular intellectual life, but that they also played a key role in shaping them. The work of Fessard, Daniélou, and Marcel, for instance, was widely read by secular philosophers at the time.

The example you point to of Kojève’s relationship to Fessard is a really good one. At the end of Kojève’s famous lectures on Hegel he selected two people to stand up and give a formal response: one of them was Fessard and the other was Raymond Aron. There were also the debates between Cardinal Jean Daniélou and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in 1946, and between Daniélou and Georges Bataille on sin in 1944, which was attended by many prominent philosophers at the time.

For Catholics like Fessard and Daniélou, it was really crucial for the Church to be able to engage with modern thought on its own terms, in order to show that it had something to contribute to modern intellectual life, rather than simply retreating into a kind of intellectual ghetto, which was what they thought the Church had done, for instance, during the Modernist Crisis at the turn of the century.

When historians of twentieth-century French or European thought tell the history of intellectual life in this period, they often either leave out Catholics or underestimate the impact they had on these wider debates. In doing so, I argue, we miss something about what was going on in these debates, and especially the central role of religious questions, which were crucial to both French Hegelianism and existentialism.

Part of what I want to show is that Catholics were instrumental to the development of much twentieth-century European philosophy: Hegelianism, existentialism, the philosophy of history, totalitarianism theory, human rights theory, etc. I think that we still see this today with, for example, the recent engagement with St. Paul on the part of continental philosophers, or the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger in 2004.

We continue to see that Catholic thought and theology in particular remains in close dialogue with secular philosophy. I am trying to show in some ways the roots of that, or the fact that we shouldn’t just see this as a recent “turn to religion” in continental philosophy since religion has been there all along.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Popes were constantly drawing red lines on what was acceptable for Catholics in terms of their political stances and intellectual preferences. We see this most clearly with the Papal condemnations of French Catholic intellectuals and their movements, which you touch on in your book: first, the condemnation of so-called Modernism at the turn of the century, then Marc Sangnier’s Sillon in 1910, Charles Maurras’s Action française in 1926, and then Henri de Lubac and the nouvelle théologie in 1950. The latter one provides a quite unique case, as in later years the nouvelle théologie was rehabilitated and in the 1960s helped to shape the Second Vatican Council. All these different cases indicate an interesting dynamic between the Vatican and Catholic thinkers who actually advanced Catholic thought in new directions.

Could you tell me why nouvelle théologie was condemned by Pope Pius XII? What influence did this theological movement later have on the Second Vatican Council? And why did it have rather limited appeal afterwards?

The key moment for the condemnation was the encyclical Humani Generis in 1950, which was the culmination of a slightly longer campaign against the nouvelle théologie within France led by powerful Roman theologians like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whom many people think probably helped to write that encyclical. The main objection to the nouvelle théologie had to do with the role of history in theology—the notion that theology is subject to the forces of history and changes over time, as well as their embrace of historicist philosophies. But it was also about, I think, the status of Thomism in Catholic thought, since the encyclical suggested that these theologians were guilty of undermining the centrality of Thomas Aquinas by either trying to return to the Church Fathers or getting a little too close to modern philosophy. In this vein, they were also accused of making too many concessions to modern thought, and especially to existentialism and Hegelianism.

Those were the main objections, but it is very important to distinguish the condemnation of the Jesuits, which was instantiated in this encyclical, from that of the Dominicans, which happened a few years later, in the mid-1950s and had much more to do with politics and with the crisis over the worker-priests in France.

Despite these condemnations, both wings of the nouvelle théologie had a major impact on Vatican II. This was not at all expected at the time, largely because the draft documents for the Council were still very much in the vein of the older theological model of neo-scholasticism. But then at the first session of the Council in 1962 there was a kind of revolt when a number of the cardinals and bishops rejected the draft documents, and they were sent back to be rewritten. The theologians associated with the nouvelle théologie or people who were influenced by them ended up playing a really important role in rewriting these documents. As a result, the nouvelle théologie influenced in important respects the Council’s teaching on the Church, on ecumenism, on the role of the Church in the modern world, and it brought an emphasis on ressourcement—returning to the sources of the tradition such as the Church Fathers—into the documents as well.

We also see reflected in the documents the split that I mentioned between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, which emerged most forcefully in the discussions around Gaudium et Spes (1965), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This is where you see the beginning of a split between what are usually called the progressive and the conservative theologians, which developed even more fully after the council in the divergence between the two journals, Concilium and Communio, with the Dominicans on the more progressive side of things, adopting a more optimistic view of the modern world, and the Jesuits taking a more critical stance and aligning with people like Joseph Ratzinger or Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example.

I would push back a little bit on the idea that their influence declined somewhat after Vatican II. I do think, as I just mentioned, that the divisions between them set up many of these post-conciliar debates. I try to show in the epilogue how they impacted the development of liberation theology, for example, as well as more recent movements like Radical Orthodoxy, and their influence on Popes from John Paul II to Benedict XVI to Francis. I do not think their work has had less appeal since Vatican II, even if some of these later generations of theologians have indeed pushed back on some aspects of their theology or have transformed their thinking in ways that they probably would not recognize. I think, however, that their work has by and large become embedded in the mainstream of Catholic theology since then.

You frequently assert in your book that the political thought of the nouveaux théologiens escaped secular political categories, such as the distinction between the left and the right, or labels such as conservative and progressive, and that these categories have only limited value when applied to theology, which was consciously conceived in opposition to secular politics. You argue that their theological-political thinking was primarily a moral and spiritual project that has to be understood on its own terms.

This is an appealing view; however, the difficulty of squaring theology with our secular political categories poses a certain challenge: how to integrate theology into the wider history political thought then? Another issue relates to the difficulty of contextualization: how to contextualize a modern thinker who continually refers not to his contemporaries, but rather to the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas?

It would be interesting to hear your reflections about these matters. What are the lessons you have drawn while writing the intellectual history of the nouvelle théologie regarding how one can integrate theology into intellectual history and the history of political thought?

This is a really important question. As I was writing, I frequently came up against the lack of vocabulary that we have for speaking about people whose ideas do not really translate into the categories we usually use to make sense of political thought, like liberal and conservative, and who also claimed that they were actually not doing politics.

A term like “counter-politics” is designed to address this, maybe imperfectly – to try to balance what they thought they were doing with what I think they were doing. It tries to do justice to their efforts to critique secular politics without accepting straightforwardly their claim that they actually were above politics. I try to hold open that space rather than simply collapsing it.

I do think we need a wider range of terms to describe political phenomena than those that derive from secular political thought, like liberal and conservative, or right and left. We also need a more expansive definition of the political, one that takes seriously forms of political intervention that do not take the state as their primary frame of reference. I point out that politics also involves ideas more broadly about the nature of time, history, the nature and ends of human life, and the relationship between the individual and the community. These are also the questions that theology explores. That is why I think theology and politics always necessarily overlap in some ways.

As to the question of contextualization, I argue that we need new tools as intellectual historians to think about religious thought, because these people were responding not just to the particular moment in which they were writing, but also to much older religious traditions. We need an approach to contextualization that is temporally intensive as well as extensive and that balances these two different contexts.

I want to reiterate how important it is that we try to integrate theology into intellectual history more broadly, especially in a modern context. Medieval intellectual historians and early modern intellectual historians do this very well already. They are very used to it, but I think we are less accustomed to doing this in a modern context. Having said that, there has been a lot of really great work in recent years that is beginning to do justice to the role of religious thought, to people like Jacques Maritain or Emmanuel Mounier, for instance, but I think we need more work specifically on theology, since it does tend to get siloed as something separate from mainstream intellectual life or political thought.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos and Ferenc Laczó.

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