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Shock of the new

Nouvelle Théologie –New Theology: inheritor of modernism,

precursor of Vatican II Jürgen Mettepenningen

T&T CLARK, 240PP, £19.99 ■Tablet Bookshop price £18

L 01420 592974

ike many labels for intellectual movements, the expression la nouvelle

théologie was coined by its adversaries and never accepted by its supposed exemplars. On the contrary, they regarded themselves as engaged in retrieving “ancient” theology, not producing anything “new”, but returning to the past in order to undermine the hegemony of modern neo-scholastic theology. The nuove tendenze teologiche were first

identified in 1942 in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, by Pietro Parente, already entering his prime as an influential Italian theologian, who went on to play a significant part in opposing much that happened at the Vatican Council. He discussed two recent books, placed on the Index that year, one by the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu, the other by the Belgian Dominican Louis Charlier. Little more than substantial pamphlets, each was intended to liberate the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, then

mandatory in seminaries, from the abstract, non-historical exposition to which it was usually subjected. Instead of treating Aquinas as progenitor of neo-scholastic Thomism, Chenu and Charlier sought to interpret his ideas in the context of the wide variety of predecessors on whom he drew so creatively. For Parente, this approach succumbed to the genetic fallacy: it would replace a perennially valid system of clearly articulated truths by erudite reconstruction of their origins. This return to the historical Aquinas, according to Parente, would treat his views as historically intelligible but of course long since outdated. The more the history of an idea is reconstituted, the more the truth might seem to become transparent, but, paradoxically, for Parente and his allies, the exact opposite was to be feared: let history into theology and the result would be relativism. Chenu’s case was not helped by Parente’s insulting accusation that Catholic theologians were infected by the rationalist metaphysics of the eighteenth-century Lutheran thinker Christian Wolff. In 1943, the young Jesuit scholars Jean Daniélou, Claude Mondésert and Henri de Lubac founded Sources Chrétiennes, the bilingual series of patristic texts, which now runs to over 500 volumes. For Protestant as well as for Orthodox theologians, this project opened up the riches of Christian antiquity. For Catholics, back then, it began

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to destabilise the privileged authority of neo-Thomism. Unfortunately, in semi-popular articles in 1946, Daniélou assailed “rationalism” and “mummification” in the neo-Thomist system: God was treated as one object among many (an absurd accusation); Thomists had no understanding of developments in philosophy and science (perhaps less implausible). The Modernists (Loisy, George Tyrrell and so on), still haunting Catholic theologians in the 1940s, were wrong when they responded to rationalism by recommending agnosticism, so Daniélou averred, and wrong again by uncritically endorsing “scientific” biblical exegesis. If their responses were mistaken, however, the Modernists were right in their analysis of the dreary state of Catholic theology, so Daniélou maintained, thus gratuitously arousing further suspicion of the retrieval of antiquity, which Catholic theologians should have welcomed. Here again the clear and distinct ideas of Thomist theology seemed under threat by the resurgence of forgotten theological traditions, dating from long before the Reformation and the Council of Trent. In short, right up to Vatican II, the adversaries of la nouvelle théologie feared that the Thomist system, which had been sedulously constructed since the late nineteenth century to defend Catholicism against the madness of modern thought (Luther, Rousseau and Descartes, to recall Jacques Maritain’s trois réformateurs), was at risk. The form of dogmatic and moral theology taught in seminaries and frequently endorsed by the Magisterium, most recently by Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), was about to be set aside. The so-called “new theologians”, including

Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac,were among the first appointed as periti (experts) at Vatican II. Chenu, though not an official “expert”, had a good deal of influence through bishops who sought his assistance in drafting interventions. The cover of Jürgen Mettepenningen’s book pictures Chenu, listening with raised eyebrows as his colleague Yves Congar wags a finger at him. In the event, as an official peritus, Congar did more than any other single scholar to document the integration of traditional doctrine in the major Vatican II texts. By far the most controversial element in la nouvelle théologie remains the claim by Henri de Lubac, in Surnaturel (1946, significantly subtitled Etudes historiques) that, despite what most Thomist commentators maintained, Aquinas taught that human beings have a “natural desire for the supernatural”. This claim seemed to threaten the reality of grace as God’s free gift. The polemics became acrimonious, which perhaps only testifies to the importance of the issue. Mettepenningen’s exhaustively documented research recreates the issues at stake back then. As he obviously expects us to see, they remain on the agenda. Fergus Kerr

24 | THE TABLET | 2 October 2010

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