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The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie
edited by jon kirwan and
translated by matthew k. minerd
the catholic university of america, 406 pages, $34.95

Exactly a century ago, in his encyclical Studiorum Ducem commending the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Pius XI drew a biblical analogy:

Just as it was said to the Egyptians of old in time of famine: “Go to Joseph,” so that they should receive a supply of corn from him to nourish their bodies, so We now say to all such as are desirous of the truth: “Go to Thomas,” and ask him to give you from his ample store the food of substantial doctrine wherewith to nourish your souls unto eternal life.

This was not puffery, but the reiteration of a program of action that had begun with Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris in 1879 and continued through the pontificate of Pius XII. The revival of Thomism and of scholasticism more generally was the intellectual heart of the pre–Vatican II popes’ approach to articulating and defending Catholic teaching in the face of the theological, philosophical, scientific, and political revolutions that defined modernity.

But Aquinas would prove to be more like Joseph than Pius XI had foreseen. For he would, as it were, be thrown into a pit and abandoned by brothers who couldn’t abide the paternal favor he had been shown. In particular, this was the fate of the neoscholastic Thomism that implemented the program of the pre–Vatican II popes.

One of the neoscholastics’ ambitions was to revive the general conception of reality and our knowledge of it represented by the greatest of the ancient and medieval philosophers, especially Aristotle and Aquinas. They argued that, rightly understood, this worldview was perfectly compatible with modern science. They also warned that the radically different philosophical assumptions represented by modern thinkers such as Descartes, Kant, and Hegel were corrosive of the Catholic faith. Pope St. Pius X gave expression to this position when he admonished Catholic intellectuals to “remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.”

Acounter-movement known as the nouvelle théologie, or “new theology,” opposed this approach as naive and reactionary, and it resented the Thomists’ dominance. The two camps conducted an often bitter dispute in the decades leading up to Vatican II. And after winning the day at the council, the nouvelle théologie thinkers consigned their defeated rivals to the memory hole. Postconciliar works of theology, when not ignoring altogether the aborted revival of Aquinas, would routinely dismiss it in a sentence or two as “sawdust Thomism” or “baroque neoscholasticism,” leaving its key thinkers unnamed and its central ideas reduced to caricature.

Recent years, however, have seen renewed interest in Thomism in general and in the neoscholastic variety in particular. Jon Kirwan and Matthew Minerd have each contributed to this renewal, and their excellent new collection The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie makes available in English translation some long-forgotten contributions to the Thomist side in the pre–Vatican II debate. A substantive introduction to the volume helpfully orients readers to the origins and main themes of the dispute.

Always lurking in the background of the debate was the specter of modernism, a heresy that spread throughout the late nineteenth century and became a target of concerted papal attack at the start of the twentieth—most famously in the encyclicals and governance of Pius X. Modernism rejects attempts to found theology in philosophical arguments and the evidence of miracles. It looks instead to sentiment and religious experience. Since these change with the times, modernism takes dogma to be mutable rather than fixed. By the same token, it rejects the view that Scripture is free from error, and takes the Church’s traditional scriptural interpretations to be open to revision. Its assimilation of revelation to experience collapses the natural and the supernatural. Unsurprisingly, modernism opposes the traditional philosophy and theology favored by the Church. As Pius X warned in the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, “the passion for novelty is always united in [modernists] with hatred of scholasticism, and there is no surer sign that a man is on the way to modernism than when he begins to show his dislike for this system.”

The crackdown on these trends during Pius X’s pontificate was vigorous and, arguably, in some quarters taken too far. In the view of the nouvelle théologie thinkers, the Thomists’ critique of modernism was likewise narrow and dogmatic, neglecting the richness of the pre-scholastic Catholic intellectual tradition and treating historically contingent philosophical notions as if they were timeless truths.

Among the influences on the new movement was philosopher Maurice Blondel, who argued for replacing the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of truth as the conformity of intellect to reality with the notion that truth is the conformity of intellect to life. Theologian Henri Bouillard held that a theology that fails to be contemporary is a false theology, and he denied that scholastic concepts enshrined in dogmas (such as the Council of Trent’s use of the notion of formal cause in its teaching on justification) are perpetually valid. Henri de Lubac criticized the Thomist notion of a realm of “pure nature” distinct from the supernatural order. De Lubac urged ressourcement, or a return to the sources of Catholic theology, especially the Church Fathers. Marie-Dominique Chenu criticized the neoscholastic Thomists for ignoring the historical context of Aquinas’s thought. As Kirwan and Minerd note, Chenu and Yves Congar held that nothing less than a “liquidation” of neoscholasticism was necessary.

Thomists such as Marie-Michel Labourdette and Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange pushed back on all of this no less forcefully—and, as the volume shows, often with greater charity than the purportedly more open-minded nouvelle théologie writers. Labourdette was happy to allow that neoscholastic theology needed to guard against complacency and refresh itself with renewed attention to the sources and to history. He admitted that it could too often be “bookish in character,” “too hastily presuming itself to be completed and perfected,” and “more the friend of formulas than of apprehension.” But he insisted that this was an argument for supplementing its insights, not abandoning them.

It is true that in a famous essay titled “Where is the New Theology Headed?,” Garrigou-Lagrange’s answer to his own question was, “It returns to modernism.” But he did not impugn the sincerity or orthodoxy of the nouvelle théologie thinkers themselves. His point was that their ideas in fact lent support to modernism, even if that was not their intention. For example, Garrigou-Lagrange regarded Blondel’s redefinition of truth as especially dangerous. But he allowed that Blondel “did not foresee all the consequences for the faith” and that he “would be perhaps terrified, or at least very troubled” by them. And Labourdette preferred to put the question of modernism to one side, evaluating his opponents’ views on their own merits. De Lubac, by contrast, was prone to “intellectual arrogance” (as Jacques Maritain observed), in one place dismissing his critics as “children.”

But their concerns were by no means childish. It is a straightforward point of logic that if we abandon the concepts by which a dogma is expressed, then we abandon the proposition built up from those concepts—and thus abandon the dogma itself. For example, since the Council of Trent solemnly and explicitly teaches that sanctifying grace is the formal cause of justification, the notion of formal cause is not merely one optional means among others of expressing the dogma; it is itself part of the dogma.

Again, if we define truth as conformity of intellect to life, then since life is contingent and mutable, all truth known by the intellect will be contingent and mutable. And if, in the name of ressourcement, we radically reinterpret or abandon the scholastic inheritance, we introduce a rupture with the Church’s past.

Unsurprisingly, then, the magisterium of the Church at the time was no less concerned about the new theology than the Thomists were. In the encyclical Humani Generis, Pius XII would caution against its excesses, and his reference to those who would “destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order” is widely understood to have been a shot across de Lubac’s bow.

Theological questions aside, one complaint the nouvelle théologie leveled against the neoscholastics was that their style was as dry as sawdust (hence the “sawdust Thomism” epithet). It is only fair to acknowledge that there is some justice to the charge, as some of the material in Kirwan and Minerd’s volume evidences. But it is not true across the board. For example, Garrigou-Lagrange’s writings on spiritual theology are widely known for their depth and appeal to those with little interest in theological abstractions. In any event, what matters most is the substance of the neoscholastics’ criticisms of the main themes of the nouvelle théologie, not the style in which those criticisms were presented.

As the points summarized above show, it was hardly foolish to worry that those themes would give aid and comfort to modernism. The history of the Church since Vatican II only lends plausibility to the neoscholastics’ concerns—as some nouvelle théologie thinkers themselves would grudgingly come to realize. After the council, the movement divided into two main currents, which have come to be known as the Concilium and Communio schools of thought (after the academic journals with which each was associated). The Concilium school is represented by thinkers such as Chenu, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and Edward Schillebeeckx. Its characteristic themes are accommodation with modernity, the reconsideration or reinterpretation of dogmas, an emphasis on politics and social justice over individual salvation and the otherworldly, and the primacy of a novel “spirit of Vatican II” over continuity with tradition.

Representatives of the Communio school include de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger. They found their inspiration more in the Church Fathers than in modern thought, emphasized divine revelation and the supernatural over politics and accommodation to the secular world, and sought to renew theology in a way that preserved continuity with tradition. Accordingly, they focused on the actual texts of Vatican II and resisted attempts by Concilium thinkers to water down Catholicism in the name of the council’s “spirit.” When elected Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger would make this “hermeneutic of continuity” the guiding theme of his pontificate. He and his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II found that they had to reprimand theologians of the Concilium stripe, just as the pre–Vatican II popes once warned of the excesses of the nouvelle théologie. In general, Communio thinkers recognized that something had gone wrong in the Church after Vatican II, but they hoped to put things right in a way that enthusiastically affirmed the project of the council and avoided a return to preconciliar neoscholasticism.

Yet only by looking at recent history through ideological blinders could one conclude that the Church has flourished under the governance of either stream of the nouvelle théologie. At the outset of Vatican II, Pope St. John XXIII famously dismissed the worries of the “prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.” But those prophets seem to have been prophetic indeed.

As, perhaps, were the words of Pope Pius XI quoted above. Like Joseph correctly predicting the famine that would afflict Egypt, Aquinas’s followers in the years before Vatican II warned of a spiritual famine that would endanger the Church and the world. They sought to counter the false rationalism of scientism with a more rigorous, updated scholasticism. They warned that the Church could be true to her nature and commission only by resisting and riding out the flood of liquid modernity, rather than by accommodating herself to it.

Just as Joseph was abandoned by his brothers, these Thomists were contemptuously thrust into the theological wilderness by the nouvelle théologie. But now that the heirs of the new theology find the Church and the world in crisis, Aquinas waits, like Joseph, ready to forgive and offer his abundance to those in need. It may be that Pius XI’s words were meant more for our times than his own.

Edward Feser is professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College. 

Image by Steve Knight, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added. 

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