Pope St Pius X: his fear of
modernism stifled intellectual
life in the Church for three
quarters of the twentieth
One of the more intellectually oriented blogs—but crazy none the less—that expressed anxiety over Pope Francis was by Marielana Montesino de Stuart, an unsuccessful senatorial candidate from the Great State of Denial, I mean Florida. I say Denial because Ms Montesino de Stuart is from that wigged out group of neo-trads including Matt Abbot. I am fascinated by the lady’s name because while the Stuart lineage died out with Henry, Cardinal Duke of York, there are all sorts of mini-pretenders to the royal Scots heritage and there are many connections between the anti-Vatican II integrists and those who embrace monarchist fantasies. Anyway, the lady expressed her apprehensions about Pope Francis because he was formed in the "Nouvelle Théologie."
So what is the "Nouvelle Théologie"? There was a movement in post World War II Europe to move away from the neo-Scholastic Theology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with its “manuals” (theological handbooks, sort of a “Doctrine for Dummies”), pat formulas, and lack of historical context to a recovery of the patristic and biblical heritage that formed Catholic thought for the Church’s first twelve centuries. It was an entirely different model of theological thinking and teaching, but not a new model—far from it, it marked the recovery of the Tradition that had provided the foundation for Thomas but was somewhat amorphously absorbed into the manuals of the post- and pseudo-Thomists. Nouvelle Théologie actually called itself ressourcement: a return to the sources (of the faith). This neo-Thomism, or better pseudo-Thomism, to which the Nouvelle Théologie found itself opposed, had been endorsed by Popes Leo XIII and Pius X in their efforts to provide a bulwark against modernism. Modernism, described by Pius X as “the synthesis of all heresies,” involved a historical-critical approach to biblical and theological studies that deconstructed the biblical texts and theological doctrines to discover their original meanings and purposes in the context of their historical origins. Such an attempt to intellectually understand the articles of religion was perceived by many, and not without reason, as undermining faith. Indeed for some it did as for those of undeveloped affect and spiritual imagination who found themselves with their Christianity deconstructed into a myriad of pieces of cold historical and textual data with nothing to breathe life into them. For others, however, the recovery of the original experience of the scriptural authors and the Fathers of the Church led them to their own participation in the Mysterium of a personal encounter with the God of the Scriptures and the Risen Lord of the Church. One cannot look at these scholars of the Nouvelle Théologie such as Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (perhaps especially Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), Edward Schillebeeckx, Louis Bouyer, Etienne Gilson, and Yves Congar among others but to see the light of the Risen Christ reflected back from their own faces.
These proponents of the Nouvelle Théologie divided into two camps after Vatican II. Rahner, Chenu, Schillebeeckx, and Congar were the more “liberal’ group. deLubac and von Balthasar were the more “conservative.” Nevertheless, in the days before that divide—and it was a division in the same camp, not an opposition—they had suffered much together. Pius XII, a Pope for whom there was no room in the Church for any theologian but himself—had condemned many of the ideas of the Nouvelle Théologie in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. Teilhard de Chardin suffered notably and died while under the ban against publishing any of his works. Pius’ Grand Inquisitor, the unbendable Cardinal Ottaviani, was zealous in his work of persecuting all who deviated from the pseudo-Thomist line. In the end, however, several of the surviving Nouvelle Théologie thinkers—Congar, Danielou, de Lubac, von Balthasar—would get red hats in recognition for their theological contributions. Today Nouvelle Théologie rather than neo-Scholasticism or pseudo-Thomism provides the basis of Catholic Teaching.
What Ms. Montesino de Stuart fears in the Nouvelle Théologie background of Pope Francis, and she is very clear about this, is that the Nouvelle Théologie opens the door to “socialism.” You see in the pseudo-Thomist manuals of the sort of “theology” that she and other Catholic neo-cons want restore, theology can be manipulated to say whatever one wants it to say. Because in the neo-Scholasticism of early 20th century Catholicism one’s methodology is governed only by the canons of Aristotelian logic and one can pick the flowers of biblical and patristic texts to arrange one’s own bouquet to taste, theology can say whatever you want it to. But serious biblical and patristic scholarship leads one back to the stark doctrines of the early Church which would make short shrift of our capitalistic consumerism as incompatible with Christian faith. It would be grossly anachronistic to claim that the Biblical authors or the Church Fathers were socialists but neither the prophets nor the evangelists nor Saint Paul nor the Fathers of the Church would have anything good to say about the economic disparity of today’s American society, much less the global economic structures. There is much to fear in authentic Catholicism for those whose comfort lies in Free Market capitalism and not only Ms. Montesino de Stuart knows it but the whole Catholic right-wing knows it and consequently is trembling at the thought of a pope whose method is the ressourcement to Biblical and Patristic foundations.
What Ms. Montesino de Stuart fails to mention, if not to notice, is that one of the leading Nouvelle Théologie theologians whom I had not named to this point is Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger is profoundly Augustinian in his theology (as opposed to Thomist or pseudo-Thomist) and while he was one of the theologians who followed de Lubac and von Balthasar in the Communio School (as opposed to the Concilium faction of Rahner, Chenu, Congar et al) he is Nouvelle Théologie to the very core of this thought. But then I have always found that the neo-trads were much like the “cafeteria Catholics” of the left whom they have been so strong in criticizing—they pick and choose from Papal teaching what they like. As for me, I respected Ratzinger/Benedict as a theologian, but I love Francis’ style. If this is the gift of the Nouvelle Théologie I can only say Merci beaucoup.