Volume > Issue > Dominicans vs. Jesuits: A High-Stakes Debate

Dominicans vs. Jesuits: A High-Stakes Debate

The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie: Concerning the Truth of Dogma and the Nature of Theology

By Jon Kirwan, Editor. Translated by Matthew K. Minerd

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 395

Price: $34.95

Review Author: Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, has written widely on Catholic social teaching, Catholic culture, and related topics for many years. His latest book is The Prosperity Gospel: How Greed and Bad Philosophy Distorted Christ’s Teachings (TAN Books, 2023).

As I was finishing this book and preparing to write this review, Pope Francis issued new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology. In his letter accompanying these statutes, he stated that theology is called to “a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution’ that commits it, first and foremost, to be a fundamentally contextual theology…having as its archetype the Incarnation of the eternal Logos…. From here, theology cannot but develop into a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian denominations and different religions.”

Whence came the ideas embodied in Francis’s conception of the role of theology? What might they imply? Without attempting to trace their ultimate origin, we can find their proximate source in certain theological controversies in France, controversies that accompanied the birth of what became known as the Nouvelle Théologie, or the “new theology.” This was chiefly a Jesuit initiative that arose after 1940, though its roots date to the late 19th century. This new orientation alarmed a number of mostly Dominican theologians, and this important volume contains over a dozen of their theological articles published at the time. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., is the best known, while Michel-Marie Labourdette, O.P., as shown in his six articles reprinted here, was also an important and informed theological voice of the period.

The controversy concerning the new theology, sometimes called ressourcement theology, is frequently presented as a controversy about the relationship between nature and grace, with a corresponding dispute about how to interpret certain passages from St. Thomas Aquinas and whether some of the later Thomistic commentators, such as Cajetan, had misunderstood or distorted Thomas’s thought. But this was not the chief concern of the Dominican first responders. Indeed, they began writing prior to the publication of Henri de Lubac’s 1946 book Surnaturel, often seen as the focal point of the entire controversy. In fact, the nature/grace question receives comparatively little attention here. It was on other matters that Labourdette and his colleagues concentrated, as they believed that the theological starting point of the French Jesuits was profoundly mistaken and would end up destroying the certitude of theological knowledge.

Though the Dominicans recognized that theological progress must take account of contemporary intellectual trends and developments, that “theology has the duty of observing and gathering the facts and data that can be of assistance in understanding its object, in whatever domain that such facts may present themselves,” they believed that the Jesuits, unwittingly, were making contemporary thought and individual experience their theological point of departure. Fr. Henri Bouillard, S.J., had written in 1941 that “a theology that would not be contemporary would be a false theology.” This assertion alarmed the Dominicans, who saw it as an endorsement of the notion that theology must not only take account of contemporary ideas but must take them as its starting point or confine itself to using whatever categories of thought are current. “Contemporary thought,” wrote Fr. Labourdette, “experiences the permanent temptation to judge all systems of intellectual expression first and, indeed, ultimately, in terms of the historical context and experiences of its author and the era in which he lived, not essentially in terms of their conformity with the reality of what is.”

It is easy to see that concern over the meaning of truth was central to the Dominicans’ writings. Is truth the agreement of the mind with reality, a definition that was formulated in antiquity and is not only a matter of common sense but is presupposed in the doctrinal definitions of the Church? Or does truth change and develop, because the human mind is unable to attain to reality, and therefore any attempt to embody truth in definite statements, even dogmatic statements, is always provisional and subject to revision? And are we thereby restricted to understanding, as best we can, the Church’s dogmas in terms of the categories of thought and the lived experience of contemporary man? But if the human mind cannot attain to the reality of things, ultimately it is thrown back upon itself, as has happened in much of modern philosophy. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange aptly remarks regarding Immanuel Kant, the mind can no longer make judgments about external reality but is “forever limited to rendering one kind of judgment, namely, one stating whether my knowledge of the object agrees with my knowledge of the object. Therefore, man is enclosed within himself and cannot escape therefrom.”

Another important point at issue was that of St. Thomas’s theological system, which the Dominicans saw in its essential points as embodying the correct nature of theology and of theological truths. With Thomas, theology had attained a scientific status, that is, according to the classical understanding of a science as an exact system of knowledge. But some Jesuit writers saw Thomism as having frozen theology in an outmoded intellectual model. This struck at the very foundations of any scientific theology, the Dominicans believed, for if truth cannot be embodied in words of permanent value and meaning, all language and all thought become hopelessly relativistic. The Dominicans were not advocating, however, for a static Thomism that refused to recognize that there have been changes in the world since the 13th century. Fr. Labourdette writes, “What Christian thought needs today is an immense constructive effort undertaken in order to integrate so many new data into its essential perspectives without losing anything. And we are convinced that no more solid a foundation, nor any better instrument, can be found for this constructive effort than St. Thomas’s philosophy.”

If St. Thomas and those who developed his doctrine had truly grasped any lasting reality outside the mind, then that remains true for all times and places, and to assert as much is not to remain stuck in the Middle Ages, whereas to deny it is to slip inexorably into complete relativism.

At the time of this theological dispute, the two philosophies exercising the most influence over the French mind were existentialism and Marxism. Existentialists and Marxists were seen as engaged philosophers, whose thought was relevant to the concerns of their contemporaries, and the Jesuits likewise wanted une pensée engagée, as Fr. Jean Daniélou, S.J., put it. The Dominicans had no objection to that, so long as it did not imperil the theological system of St. Thomas. They pointed out that though apologetics requires speaking to one’s contemporaries in a language they can understand, the Church’s own theological work is something different. For the latter, a precise vocabulary, worked out carefully over centuries, is necessary even if that vocabulary is foreign to modern modes of thought. For if theology itself is reduced to apologetics or to employing solely contemporary categories of thought, then the clear and stable meaning of dogmas is in danger of being lost or obscured. In fact, a genuine apologetics presupposes scientific theology, for how can an apologist translate Catholic truth into a language accessible to his contemporaries if he is ignorant or unsure of what Catholic truth really is?

The first eight articles in this volume are by Dominicans working in France, published mostly in the journal Revue thomiste, while the second group are those written by Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange and published in the Roman journal Angelicum. Although Fr. Labourdette and his collaborators avoided accusing the Jesuits of any tendency toward modernism, for fear of intensifying the already overcharged French intellectual atmosphere, Garrigou-Lagrange was not shy about pointing out the affinities between the tendencies he saw in the new theology and modernism, condemned some 40 years earlier by Pope St. Pius X. He also zeroed in on the question of the definition of truth and the Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel’s substitution of the traditional understanding with the novel formula, the agreement of thought with life. Again, we can see in this new definition the propensity to ground not merely theology but all of thought in the shifting opinions of different times and places. Blondel himself was a sincere Catholic whose orthodoxy was attested to by several popes, but however we are to understand his thought, Garrigou-Lagrange was correct to worry that its effect on Catholic theology would not be salutary.

In an activist culture, such as that of the United States, seemingly arcane disputes over philosophical or theological systems might seem unimportant. After all, do they not distract us from fighting abortion or preventing the corruption of children by wokeness? But disputes over the fine points of philosophy and theology are at the bottom of all the social and political issues that afflict humanity. All quarrels are theological quarrels, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out. Hence, the importance of this valuable sourcebook for understanding controversies that still trouble the Church.

For anyone interested in the trajectory of Catholic theology or modern secular thought and its presuppositions and implications, I recommend this important book. In addition to its generous selection of articles from the 1940s, the editors include a lengthy introduction of over 80 pages, summarizing the origins and course of the controversy. They had originally planned to include “texts from both sides of the debate,” but the publication in 2020 of Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook, edited by Patricia Kelly, which does include, albeit on a smaller scale, contributions by both the Jesuits and the Dominicans, made that superfluous. For a comprehensive study, therefore, both volumes are necessary, but the work under review here stands by itself, and the various writers themselves offer abundant quotes from their Jesuit interlocutors so the points at issue can be sufficiently understood.

This brings us back to our starting point. What is theology, and whence come the dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church? Are they subject to perpetual scrutiny and revision by an ongoing series of synods in which any Catholic potentially has a right to vote? Or are they something revealed once and for all to the Church, “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints,” as St. Jude puts it in his epistle? This is indeed a high-stakes debate, and The Thomistic Response to the Nouvelle Théologie is an excellent way to approach it, to understand its background and the contours of issues that are still very much with us today.


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