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Intellectual, Vital, and Apostolic

The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie: Concerning the Truth of Dogma and the Nature of Theology, ed. Jon Kirwan, trans. Matthew K. Minerd, The Catholic University of America Press, pp. 406, $34.95


Before the smoke of the Second World War had cleared, the Jesuit theologians of the Fourvière School in eastern France had begun to marshal their forces against a new adversary: the Dominican Thomists of Toulouse and Rome. Europe was soul-searching as the war ground to a halt, and already it was beginning to draft blueprints for the new society that was to be built atop the ruins of the old. In this same spirit of reflection and reconstruction, the Fourvière Jesuits, many of whom had fought in the war, energetically set to work on various reform-oriented scholarly projects. They sought to build a new Catholic theological culture on the site where the old Scholastic one had stood in some form, at least, since the high Middle Ages. But unlike the carpet-bombed districts of so many European cities, the intended building site of the Fourvière theologians’ new project was not a vacant wasteland. It was occupied by an inhabited theological structure—a colossal fortress, cobbled and baroque—belonging conspicuously to another age.

What is more evident in this building metaphor than in the story of the nouvelle théologie is why this renewal project had to involve a demolition of the old neo-Scholastic paradigm. This implicit question—and its lamented answer—animates the present volume, a collection of Thomist responses to the nouveaux theologians that appeared in French and Roman journals between 1946 and 1949 during the years of the debate leading up to Humani generis, ably prepared by Jon Kirwan and Matthew Minerd.

Alongside Minerd’s translations of these articles (which originally appeared in French), the substantive contribution of this edition is its eighty-four-page introduction. Here, with a tone that fluctuates between wistfulness and indignation, Kirwan and Minerd trace the contours of the controversy. They tell how “one of the most important theological debates of modern times” deteriorated into polemics and recriminations before it was silenced by ecclesiastical fiat.

For Kirwan and Minerd, the story is a tragedy of missed opportunity. Indeed, the debate might have clarified how truth perdures within the historical flux of its linguistic, conceptual, and cultural embodiments. These two rival paradigms of theological genius might have reached a new understanding, which, in turn, might have clarified the aims of Catholic theology in the twentieth century. A successful conclusion might have set the theological culture of the Church on a trajectory that would have enabled it to find its bearings in the modern world while avoiding the specters of radical historicism and hyper-pluralism that have haunted the post-conciliar era.

Maybe not, but who knows? In any case, the value of entertaining such counterfactuals is not to wallow in nostalgic grief. Nor is the point merely to vindicate those who have been unfairly villainized in the received narrative or arrive at a more just distribution of blame—although these are things that Kirwan and Minerd are not wrong to care about. The more important point is that the “defeat” of the Thomists—a defeat that was carried out on the ecclesio-political field and not in theological discourse—seems to have bequeathed to theologians of the post-conciliar era an inadequate recognition of the essential timelessness of truth.

In the usual telling of the story, the nouveaux theologians lost the battle of the late 1940s but won the war at the Second Vatican Council, which overwhelmingly favored their vision of theology. And yet, although they were effectively vindicated, Kirwan and Minerd highlight the ambivalence with which many of the nouveaux theologians viewed the hyper-pluralistic and progressive theological landscape which their victory had helped to usher into the early post-conciliar era. The Communio movement around which many of the more conservative nouveaux theologians rallied in the 1970s was, in part, a countermovement against the more radical contingent of the nouvelle théologie whose true anarchist colors became vivid only after the council.

In the end, as Kirwan and Minerd argue, the position of nouvelle figures such as Henri de Lubac, one of the founders of Communio, was in many ways closer to that of the arch-conservative Thomist Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange on the question of the historicity of truth than it was to the theological sappers who had helped him to dismantle the antique fortifications of early twentieth-century Thomism. In retrospect, we can see that Garrigou-Lagrange and his confrères were right to worry about where the new theology was headed.

One has to wonder whether Henri de Lubac and others, if they could have seen its outcome, might have proceeded somewhat more cautiously in what—to my mind, at least—was a necessary and inevitable challenge to the magisterial Thomism of the early twentieth century. Sometimes, the enemies of one’s enemy cannot, on that basis alone, be counted as friends. Had the debate unfolded between individual theologians in a way that avoided drawing clear partisan battle lines (i.e., between Jesuits and Dominicans, Scholastics and ressourcement theologians), cooler heads might have prevailed, and authorities might have felt less obliged to shut the discussion down prematurely.

Kirwan and Minerd take pains to assign blame to both parties for the rancor that undermined the debate, but the nouvelle theologians seem to be somewhat more to blame in their reckoning. We find in their tedious and sometimes tendentious efforts to parse culpability a reflection of the authors’ deep Thomist sympathies—which they commendably admit to at the outset—more than the sort of responsible magnanimity they wish had prevailed in the nouvelle affair. Overall, however, Kirwan and Minerd exercise admirable restraint and objectivity in correcting the often slanderously reductive characterization of the Thomist party in the usual telling of the story. They push back against the sort of picture in which a paranoid Thomist establishment lashes out unprovoked against a cohort of irenic younger scholars whose only real crime is reading the Fathers and the Bible too much when they should be reading Saint Thomas Aquinas and the commentators. “The reality,” they explain, is that “both sides were intensely engaged, with both sides ‘attacking’ and both sides looking for dialogue at various points.”

The underdogs are the natural favorite of historical spectators, and thus the Thomists’ obvious political advantage is a significant strike against them in the judgement of history—especially when we cannot be sure that the Thomists were not in any way responsible for the censures that the nouveaux theologians received both before and after Humani generis. There is nothing more embarrassing than an older son who can only defeat his kid brother by tattling to Mom.

But from another point of view, the early-twentieth-century Thomists might be considered the underdogs of the story, given how they were positioned in relation to the powerful currents of cultural transformation that were sweeping through Europe after the Great War. Throughout the long nineteenth century, some kind of return to a Catholic Vorzeit was never entirely beyond the realm of possibility, but by the end of the wars it was clear that the world was moving irrevocably away from the past. The Catholic world of the future would thus have to be something new, a nouvelle chrétienté that could not be simply modeled on medieval Christendom in the way that the nineteenth century had hoped.

This widespread sense of the need for, and the inevitability of, a new Catholicism was a driving wind in the sails of the nouvelle théologie. It finds expression in their writings, often with the bold rhetoric of a manifesto, as when Jean Daniélou declares, “Now is the time to build a new theology, new man, new Christianity, and new civilization on the rubrics of the most cutting-edge modern thought.”

Vatican II’s new posture toward the modern world and its vindication of the nouvelle théologie reflects the sea change that was already occurring in the early post-war years. In this light, it is difficult not to think that, in one way or another, this new cultural atmosphere was bound to undermine the hegemony of Leonine Thomism, given the way the latter was framed by its architects (chiefly Joseph Kleutgen) as an intellectual paradigm der Vorzeit—a medieval alternative to modern thought that went hand-in-glove with the nineteenth century’s conservative revivalist response to modernity.

The Thomists were keenly conscious of this sea change. In a letter to Jacques Maritain, Charles Journet mournfully describes the “disintegration of the world” in which Thomism had a place—now “one seems a fool for trying to remain faithful to St. Thomas.” Michel-Marie Labourdette’s vague gestures at a general conspiracy against Thomism register a similar feeling, the apprehension of a ubiquitous threat. In his anonymous response, Henri de Lubac derided Labourdette for his conspiratorial hand-waving. As Kirwan and Minerd point out, however, at least some of the nouveaux theologians were engaged in deliberate, co-ordinated efforts to liquidate Thomism. In his journal, Yves Congar describes the actual conspiracy he plotted with Marie-Dominique Chenu to this end:

One day, chatting at the entrance of the old Saulchoir, we found ourselves in profound accord—at once intellectual, vital, and apostolic—on the idea of undertaking a “liquidation of Baroque theology.” . . . We elaborated a plan and distributed the tasks among ourselves. I still have the dossier that was begun then . . . . It was not a question of producing something negative: the rejections were only the reverse of aspects that were more positive . . . . What would a little later be called “ressourcement” was then at the heart of our efforts.

It is amusing to observe that Congar and Chenu were themselves both Dominican Thomists. In fact, their approach to subverting the “Baroque” Thomism of the early twentieth century was by contributing to it with a more historically sensitive methodology. Moreover, with Étienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, and others, they demonstrated that the Thomism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was as much the product of Baroque modernity as it was of the Middle Ages.

Certainly the militantly anti-modern and anti-pluralist Thomism they so fiercely wished to sweep away could not have originated in the Middle Ages. In at least this regard, Kleutgen’s Scholastic Vorzeit was indeed a modern one. And by identifying its seventeenth-century provenance, the ressourcement Thomists sought to draw it into the scope of its own anti-modern suspicions.

If the Thomists were ever as intransigent toward the modern world as the nouvelle theologians made them out to be, the Baroque Scholastics surely cannot be given all the blame. Take Suárez, for instance—Kleutgen’s north star. Here was a strikingly original and critical Scholastic thinker who engaged distinctly modern questions, expressed modern concerns, challenged Aristotelian orthodoxies, openly parted ways with Saint Thomas at various points, and ultimately had a greater impact on the course of modern thought—for better or worse—than someone like Kleutgen might want to notice. We see in him no backward-looking intellectual isolationism, no impulse to police his peers. Suárez is something of a Catholic apologist, to be sure, but he is not a thinker under siege.

The beleaguered Thomism of the disintegrating world before the Second Vatican Council owes its tone, clearly enough, to the nineteenth century, when the last vestiges of the medieval world were being stripped away in one revolution after another. This was the century, after all, in which the Church most literally came under siege—when the pope was imprisoned in the Vatican, and his political authority was being challenged and overturned on every front.

It is a blessing of sorts that we can no longer feel besieged in quite the same way that our nineteenth-century brethren could. We Americans especially lack any vestige of a cultural memory of a world that was Catholic in any sense beyond the spiritual. If we did, we might better understand the sensibilities of the Thomists represented in Kirwan and Minerd’s volume. They lived to see nineteenth-century Catholicism melt away, and they rightly recognized an existential threat to their program of theology, which loyally served it.

In the end, Thomism didn’t die. Kirwan and Minerd are living examples of the species whom Garrigou-Lagrange would no doubt recognize with pride. While Gerald McCool argues that the Kleutgenian paradigm of Thomism was ill-equipped to appreciate certain historical dimensions of otherwise timeless truths, the story of Thomism in the twentieth century, I think, offers an illuminating case in point.

Jason Paone is editor of Word on Fire Academic, a graduate fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology, and a doctoral candidate in historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America.