An Avant-Garde Theological Generation

The Nouvelle Théologie and the French Crisis of Modernity

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Jon Kirwan
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The story of the nouvelle théologie movement has been narrated, and counter-narrated, many times in secondary literature. On one telling, this generation of mostly French Jesuits and Dominicans boldly resisted the behemoth of Neoscholastic Thomism, which dominated Roman Catholic theology in the decades after Aeterni Patris. Theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Jean Daniélou risked their ecclesial positions by publicly calling for a renewal of the Catholic Church by bringing the questions of modern philosophy into vital dialogue with the living wellspring of the Christian tradition in scripture and patristic theology. Despite some challenges and temporary losses along the way, these brave theologians were vindicated when Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council in 1959 in which many of them were called upon to be theological advisors. On this account, the legacy of nouvelle théologie is that it overcame the rigor mortis of Neoscholasticism and paved the way for the documents of Vatican II that brought the Catholic Church into the modern world.

Another telling inverts this triumphalist narrative and sees the nouveaux théologiens as agents responsible for the Catholic Church’s fall into a cacophonous relativism. While they may have been responding to legitimate concerns with the rigid ways that priests were trained in theology—regurgitating Neoscholastic manuals to stave off the errors of Modernism—their course correction resulted in the abandonment of essential theological convictions, and paved the way for the rise of liberal, accommodationist Catholic theology in the post-conciliar years. On this account, the resentment voiced by some aging members of the nouvelle théologie over the changing direction of theology after the Council is marshaled as proof that the movement went far beyond its original intent.

In An Avant-Garde Theological Generation: The Nouvelle Théologie and the French Crisis of Modernity, Jon Kirwan wades into these contested waters, and attempts to contextualize this contested period in Catholic theology. Kirwan applies recent work on generational theory in historiography to understand not only the generation of the nouveaux théologiens—the generation of 1930—but also the two preceding generations of French Catholic thinkers, the generations of 1890 and 1912, who paved the way for nouvelle théologie (Kirwan calls them “the first ressourcement”). In the early chapters of this book Kirwan does a commendable job of considering the work of these generations of Catholic thinkers in light of the social and political developments in French life. Though he focuses on key thinkers like Maurice Blondel and Pierre Rousselot, he also incorporates many of the lesser-known figures of this period. This approach aides in Kirwan’s contention that one can deduce a certain spirit of a generation of thinkers who are marked by key events, and respond with similar concerns in their intellectual work.

The chapter on the formation of the nouvelle théologie generation in the 1920s adds detail to a crucial period of theological history. Kirwan’s use of archival correspondence between Gaston Fessard, Henri de Lubac, and others will be useful for those interested in the history of the Fourviére Jesuits. Kirwan is much less thorough in his history of the Dominicans at La Saulchoir, largely allowing the key published texts from Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar to drive his examination. Nevertheless, there is much to commend in this economical treatment of a number of important figures in light of their historical contexts. Historians and theologians interested in early 20th-century French Catholic theology are indebted to Kirwan for the work he has done.

In spite of this praise, there are a number of criticisms that should be made about this text. First, there are minor errors, such as Kirwan’s description of Johann Möhler’s 1825 text Unity in the Church as an “incarnational ecclesiology,” while that text presents a deeply pneumatological ecclesiology; Möhler’s turn toward a christological ecclesiology is seen in his later text Symbolism. Kirwan erases this shift in Möhler’s thought by trying to collapse Unity in the Church with Symbolism (1832) by simply asserting that “in addition” to his insistence on giving priority to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, Möhler also held that the church was the incarnation of Christ (164). Another error is seen in the split personality that Jacques Maritain takes in Kirwan’s narrative. In the early chapters Maritain is associated with entrenched Neoscholastic theology (128, 153). He then disappears for a number of pages, only to emerge as the most articulate member of nouvelle théologie on questions of politics (191–92). Kirwan does not explain this transition at all.

In addition to these somewhat minor errors, there are some more significant errors of omission. Despite regular references to Neoscholasticism, Kirwan barely references anything specific about Neoscholastic theology in this book. Many of the technical theological questions, such as the question of pure nature, are only discussed in passing, leaving the inaccurate perception that different figures agreed on the definitions and parameters of the debate. Kirwan also fails to include sufficient discussion of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, though he was Swiss, was trained alongside Fessard and Jean Daniélou at Fourviére, and certainly was partially responsible for the engagement of nouveaux théologiens with German thinkers. Moreover, while Kirwan acknowledges that many of the figures were engaged with ecumenical dialogue, he does not sufficiently address how non-Catholic theologians influenced their approach to theology. Especially glaring is his near total omission of the role the Russian émigré theologians had in connecting the nouveaux théologiens with the patristic tradition.

These problems do not undermine the important historical work Kirwan achieves in An Avant-Garde Theological Generation. However, the unstated but heavily implied authorial perspective threatens to do just that. At certain points throughout the book it seems that Kirwan is attempting to cast aspersion on the nouveaux théologiens. While he is not direct in his criticisms, it is difficult to read his account of their engagement with existentialists, or even more so, their dialogue on the question of universal salvation, without having the distinct impression that Kirwan is attempting to mount an argument of guilt by association. In the two pages (!) that Kirwan devotes to the question of universal salvation he moves as quickly as he can to pin the entire Fourviére movement with Balthasar’s controversial book on the subject, which was published half-a-century later.

Late in the book, Kirwan almost lays his cards on the table and presents himself as a defender of the narrative that nouvelle théologie is responsible for a decline of Catholic theology in the 20th century. He concludes his penultimate chapter, entitled “The Triumph of the Generation of 1930,” by quoting from Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wondered whether, “when all is said and done” the Neoscholastic detractors from nouvelle théologie are going to be proven right in the end, “[p]erhaps the only way to sustain Christianity as theology is on the basis of Thomism … perhaps in the end the religion of God-made-man arrives by an unavoidable dialectic at an anthropology and not a theology” (250). This is surely an odd way to conclude a chapter on the “triumph” of nouvelle théologie, unless you feel as if that triumph was a catastrophe. This impression is confirmed in the final chapter where the founder of the Society of St. Pius X, Marcel Lefebvre, who was eventually excommunicated over his schismatic actions, emerges as a hero of Kirwan’s narrative (274–77).

The implicit thesis of this book, one which is only revealed gradually, is that the generation of Catholic theologians who articulated a nouvelle théologie by calling for a ressourcement of the Christian past set the Catholic Church on the wrong path. In attempting to demonstrate the ways in which this theology is complicit in the errors of Modernism, existentialism, ecumenism, and religious freedom, Kirwan seems to contend for a return to the golden days of Neoscholasticism. In light of the way this book unfolds, the book’s epigraph from Henri Bouillard, which seems to be offering a negative judgment of Neoscholasticism, is actually used by Kirwan to denounce the nouvelle théologie of Bouillard, and his generation: “a historical study reveals, on the contrary, just how much theology is related to the epoch and intellectual milieu in which it developed, showing what in fact is contingent in it: the relativity of concepts, the evolutions of problems, the temporary obscuring of certain important truths” (xiii).

One could, of course, explicitly argue Kirwan’s implied but readily apparent conviction—that nouvelle théologie was an understandable but ultimately problematic movement. Many books have done just that. Yet Kirwan does not do this. Instead, under the pretense of a historical consideration of the movement, its antecedents, and consequences, he attempts to demonstrate its untenability. Given that this argument is implicit, it renders suspect Kirwan’s reliability as an objective historian of the movement. For these reasons, readers seeking to understand the most important movement in Catholic theology before Vatican II would be better served by finding a more reliable guide.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Lawson is Assistant Professor of Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon Kirwan is Assistant Professor of Dogmatics at St Patrick's Seminary and University. Specializing in systematic and historical theology, his main research interests lie in the area of French Catholic thought from 1890 to 1950 and the ressourcement of the nouvelle theologie and its engagements with Aquinas.


Joseph M. Hallman

I don't get it. Do you object to the author's view or the fact that he has one? Your evaluation seems inauthentic. Were you expecting a pure history of this movement, whatever that is, or do you simply disagree with Kirwin's evaluation? You ought to have "come clean."

Stephen Lawson

As I stated in the review, my central critique of the book is that the author has an implicit argument which he does not make explicit. His implicit argument is visible in the way that he tendentiously presents his material. I don't believe that such a thing as a purely objective history of anything can be written by a human being, who will always have the limitations that come with being finite and historical. But admitting that hardly justifies dispensing with the goal of historical objectivity. 


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