Political-Theological Diagonalizations: A Review of Sarah Shortall’s “Soldiers of God in a Secular World
Sarah Shortall. Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021.   At a time when the relationship between politics and religion finds itself under renewed scrutiny in the context of events in Ukraine, not to mention at other sites of political-theological contestation across the globe,… The post Political-Theological Diagonalizations: A Review of Sarah Shortall’s “Soldiers of God in a Secular World appeared first on VoegelinView.




Sarah Shortall. Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021.


At a time when the relationship between politics and religion finds itself under renewed scrutiny in the context of events in Ukraine, not to mention at other sites of political-theological contestation across the globe, we are reminded once again of the need to understand the complex historical interaction of Church and world, of faith and the secular, and of the supernatural and the natural. In her recent book, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics, historian Sarah Shortall provides a masterful study of one such moment of encounter, namely, the engagement of certain Catholic intellectuals and priests in French politics during the mid to late twentieth-century.[1] Crucial to this story are the lives and writings of those who formed the nucleus of the emerging nouvelle théologie movement, including the Jesuits Henri de Lubac, Yves de Montcheuil, Robert Hamel, Gaston Fessard and Pierre Chaillet, as well as (in related ways) the Dominicans Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar. Shortall argues that these figures, rather than engaging straightforwardly in either endorsement or critique of the political landscape around them, adopted (what we might call) postures of “diagonalisation”, provisionally retreating from the fray in order to retrieve a deeper and more profound theological perspective, a third way that could operate transversally to the reductive and inadequate dichotomies they believed were offered under the terms of the modern political economy. The tracing of this diagonalising movement requires patience. It means that, if we wish to understand the political engagements of these French Catholics correctly, we must first of all reckon with their interest in deep historical-ecclesiological retrievals (including pre-Constantinian), and their tendency to engage in theological speculation on matters such as the beatific vision and the eschatological unification of humanity in Christ, none of which at first glance had much to say, for example, about the widespread popularity of Action Française in the 1930s, or about worker solidarity movements in the 1950s. Shortall’s argument, however, is that this mode of (apparently) apolitical discourse nevertheless had powerful political effects. For it was precisely by elaborating the transcendent claims of faith that these figures became such original and relevant contributors to the contemporary political situation.
What results is both an illuminating and highly provocative book. It succeeds not only as an example of rigorous historiographical and archival reconstruction, but also – insofar as it describes the modelling of an entirely different conceptualisation of the relationship of politics and religion than is normative today – as a prompt for new research directions in the field of political theology itself. It is one such new direction that I wish to explore in the final section of this essay.
Shortall’s historical narrative begins in the 1920s with the arrival of a new cohort of students at the Scholasticate Maison Saint-Louis on the island of Jersey. Among their number were de Lubac, Fessard and Hamel. These young Jesuits were already products of the distinctively French experience of industrialisation, modernisation and secularisation, the latter made traumatically concrete by the expulsion of the Jesuit order from France in 1880 (although the 1910s had seen a degree of rapprochement towards a renewed form of “sacred union” between Church and State). They had also been living through the modernist crisis in the Church, especially after the promulgation of the encyclical Pascendi Domini Gregis in 1907 and the subsequent clandestine actions of the Sodalitum Pianum. But this was also the generation that had been conscripted for service in the First World War, an experience that had prompted complex theological reflection on the idea of a (sacred?) French national identity (just as had been the case for Charles Péguy in the trenches at Seine-et-Marne). In this context, these Jesuits-in-exile began to seek new resources through which to understand and convey the meaning of their faith. Years later, de Lubac would recall this period of formation-in-exile with nostalgia: “we were really quite far from the world, away for a time from all the responsibilities of the apostolate, alone among ourselves, as if in a big ship drifting, without a radio, in the middle of the ocean. But what an intense life within that ship, and what a marvellous crossing” (de Lubac writing in 1989, cited on p.19).
Crucially, however, these figures did not turn to the tools of neo-scholasticism for these resources. Why not? Because, for them, its theological system tended to generate a skewed perspective on the historical and social dimensions of faith, and thus could not offer resources for a distinctively Catholic response to the novel political challenges they faced. In particular, by enforcing a rigid distinction between the realms of the natural and the supernatural, they argued that neo-Thomist doctrine mirrored the separation of Church and State, with the ironic result that it ended up serving as “unwitting accomplice in the secularization of French society” (p.41).
Shunning the arid manualisms of neo-scholasticism, then, these young Jesuits turned instead to the Church Fathers in an attempt to retrieve (what they believed to be) an authentic reading of Thomas. But they were equally engaging at this time with modern philosophy, which they debated in a (clandestine) study group called La Penseé. Here, Biran, Ravaisson, Bergson and Koyré were read, but also Blondel, Maréchal, Rousselot and even Teilhard. In this way, the cohort began to think more dynamically about the role of the Church in the modern world. They began to conceive a more graced definition of the present order as orientated towards a supra-temporal end that could in no way be co-opted by a particular historical individual or party-political movement. And they began to advocate a more subject-centred theological metaphysics, able to encompass the idea of all humanity as participating in a transcendentally-ordered and mystical ecclesial body. Shortall shows how this new theology enabled de Lubac and others to reflect on the contemporary French situation without falling prey to the zero-sum games of left-right political allegiance. Thus, for them there was to be no nostalgic return to pre-Separation France, where the Church might expect special jurisdiction over certain areas of political life such as education. But at the same time, they were able to proclaim with confidence that the spiritual enlivens and infuses all social life, and thus that politics was in essence theological, and vice versa: “the Church is Catholic in this latter sense that nothing which is human can remain foreign to it” (de Lubac writing in 1932, cited on p.59).
Shortall shows how this theological ballast, and especially its vision of the supernatural orientation of all human life, undergirded the various political engagements of these Jesuits in the pre-, inter- and post-war years, leading up to Vatican II and beyond. Her book thus contributes to (what might be called) a new perspective on twentieth-century French Catholic history, as also represented in recent work by James Chappel and Edward Baring.[2] It also provides historical context that will inform the highly technical debates on natura pura that persist even today, for example as taken up by David Bentley Hart and others.[3] But Shortall narrates the history in such a winsome and engaging way that it will be readily grasped even by those unfamiliar with the period (indeed, the book could be used as a general historical introduction for a lay reader). Part of her skill is to interweave an account of the personal and the anecdotal – the “affective relations” (p.45) between these young Jesuits – that allowed them to work collegiately and to navigate the various institutional censorships that came their way. Of particular value is her focus on the inspiring life and work of Gaston Fessard, whose public engagements were crucial in disseminating the ideas of the group, but whose writings remain little appreciated in the anglophone theological world.[4] There are also fascinating glimpses into the local and particular situations that would have influenced the thinking of these men at crucial points. For example, it is illuminating to read about the strict instructional and pedagogical norms that prevailed at the Maison Saint-Louis under teachers like Pedro Descoqs and Gabriel Picard, which no doubt contributed to the growing sense of dislocation from the neo-scholastic tradition felt by this young cohort (it must be noted, however, that the stale methods of these instructors clearly diverged from the more nimble and charismatic teaching approach of Garrigou-Lagrange at the Angelicum in Rome, as reported and celebrated by many of his students).
The main part of Shortall’s book narrates the working-out of this theology in the context of various political and social upheavals, including the lead-up to war in the 1930s, French defeat and occupation, the National Revolution, and the post-war communist adulation. In each case, she traces the argument made by these Jesuits that a diminished understanding of Christian ecclesiology (as represented by neo-scholasticism) had in fact seeded conditions for the rise of absolutist political ideologies promising to unify their adherents into a single, monolithic bloc. What connected the Nazi vitalist discourse of blood, race and Volk to the socialist rhetoric of the worker collective, for example, was a quasi-mystical vision of communion in one body. And yet, for these figures, worldly politics (whether from the left or from the right) could offer only a distorted version of the communion fully and finally offered by Christ in the eschaton. As de Lubac put it: “for a person to find his complete fulfilment, for a person to arrive at full interiority, at the full possession of himself, he must be enfolded into a vaster and deeper community, a community of a different nature – no longer simply terrestrial, as the family and the nation still are, but a community whose essence is eternal, as the person himself is” (de Lubac writing in 1941, cited on p.101). For Christian doctrine stipulates that the universal reconciliation of man with God, and of men amongst themselves, will only come at the final consummation of all things. Catholic mystical body theology was thus able to resist attempts by secular and temporal powers to demand absolute social, cultural, or political loyalty and mobilisation in the here-and-now. That unity was sacred, to be realised only at the end of history itself! It could not be co-opted or leveraged in the present. Hence their staunch resistance to pétainisme and the Vichy regime.
Shortall is right, I think, to suggest that one of the lasting contributions of these Jesuits was to shift attention from “the opposition between liberalism and totalitarianism that informed much of twentieth-century secular politics [to] an opposition between true religion and ersatz political religions” (p.120). Whilst it seems churlish to critique a work of such scope, it would have been useful to have explored this French Catholic tradition in light of an (earlier) lineage of German political philosophy and political theology. Of course, in Die politischen Religionen, published in Vienna in 1938 in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi annexation of Austria, Voegelin had already described “the normative trend of the divinization of the worldly order of dominion” with reference to a range of historical epochs from the mystery cults of the Greek world to the corpus mysticum of Christianity.[5] Scholarly work remains to be carried out on the personal and intellectual connections between the mystical body theologies of Voegelin and de Lubac, which will also likely reveal a role for that great mediator of the Franco-German philosophical cultures, Raymond Aron.
But these Jesuits did not engage merely in critique. Nor was their stance passive in relation to concrete events. On the contrary, Shortall shows how their mystical body theology became the stimulus for a series of highly political engagements. For whilst their eschatology guarded against a premature unification of the world by secular ideologies and credos, it also set forth a vision of what Christians could and should be working for in the present, namely, the advent of a reconciled humanity. Immanent political order was thus to be desired and worked towards, but only as a shadow or proleptic anticipation of the true unity that was to come. Fessard put it this way in a sermon delivered in 1940 at the church of Saint-Louis in Vichy itself (thus under the aegis of its strict censorship regime): “the mystical body of Christ depends on you now in order to become more and more real, hic et nunc” (Fessard speaking in 1940, cited on p.100). Thus, rather than retreating from political affairs, these Jesuits were in fact accessing them by other means. Their engagement can be understood as not as apolitical, but as “counter-political” (p.89). This stance became increasingly dangerous after 1941 when writers such as Fessard and de Lubac began to offer contributions to the French resistance publication Les Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien, requiring them more and more to “clarify the relationship between their theological vision and the political challenges of the moment” (p.106).
After the war, these Jesuits were faced with a new political landscape. The collapse of Vichy and the experience of tripartisme (the three-party alliance of communists, socialists and Christian democrats) from 1944-1947 meant that Catholic post-war engagements predominantly faced the left. Some Catholics were very open to this prospect if it could lead to the achievement of shared practical goals such as international peace, anti-colonialism and labour reforms. Among their number were members of the French Dominican branch of the nouvelle théologie, including Marie-Dominique Chenu, Henri-Marie Féret and Jacques Loew. By contrast with the resistance activities of Jesuits like Fessard and Chaillot, many of these had spent the war years engaged in urban social projects. This carried through to the post-war era, where they sought to continue operating within the existing structures of worker solidarity, even if those were indifferent or even hostile to Christianity. Rather than the Jesuit eschatological horizon, then, the Dominicans’ very different wartime experience meant they preferred a language of embodiment, witnessing and “incarnation,” all of which they believed could undergird their vocation towards a working-class apostolate. Chenu, Lebret and of course Loew became influential figures in the Worker-Priest movement, which trained priests at the Mission de France seminary in Lisieux, Normandy to enter factories and other working environments in a fully “incarnational” way, often sharing accommodation and conditions of labour in these places.
Behind this lay a subtle theological modulation. As Chenu put it: since “the world itself was understood as the site of evangelical presence” the task of the missionary was to understand what was already graced in the world of nature, that is, “to discover how the world, as it is now, will be material for the Church” (Chenu writing in 1975, cited on p.161). Jesuits like de Lubac and (increasingly) Jean Daniélou resisted this trajectory. For them, language of inner-worldly “incarnational” presence risked lapsing again into neo-scholastic ideas of natura pura and thus to buy into the implausible paradox of a human community seeking its fulfilment in worldly terms apart from its supernaturally-graced end. In response, they began to redeploy the theological resources they had previously used in their battle against Fascism – the eschatological language of St Paul and the Church Fathers – for new modes of diagonalisation of the present time. They insisted that true human unity could only be conceived in light of “a properly eschatological expectation, with its triple character of a judgment taken by God upon every human reality, the transfiguration of man and the cosmos through the Resurrection, and the gathering together of all men in the unity of Christ” (de Lubac writing in 1958, cited on p.185). This doctrine alone could serve as guarantor of a social and collectivist ethic, precisely because it alone could properly dignify the individual components of the whole. In place of the “incarnational” presence advocated by Chenu, then, de Lubac preached the sacramental presence of the Eucharist, “a temporal model shot through with eschatological time” which he hoped “would permit [Christians] to be present to their political moment without compromising the transcendence of their faith” (p.142). It was only by meditation on the horizon of the not-yet that perspective could be attained for a proper evaluation of the significance of the here-and-now. Thus, as the editors of the journal Dieu Vivant (possibly under the pen of Daniélou) wrote in 1954: “considered from an eschatological perspective, the present moment is not a mere passage of time between the past and the future, but the living presence of eternity” (cited on p.212). The distant horizon provided by salvation history was always intended to call believers back to the pregnancy of the present moment, a temporal model shot through with eschatological time.
After a period of crisis in the 1950s, the Jesuit (and Dominican) architects of the nouvelle théologie, now joined by younger acolytes such as Edward Schillebeeckx and Joseph Ratzinger, would end up serving as leading theological advisors at Vatican II. Their influence marked a shift in the Catholic Church away from the hierarchical and juridical ecclesiology of neo-scholasticism, and towards a more sacramental, horizonal and communal vision of the people of God as orientated to an eschatological end. Their work would go on to influence liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Luis Segundo and Leonardo Boff, who found in their work a model capable of overcoming the separation between the natural and the supernatural order that had been reified in the political regimes of Latin America and elsewhere. And, of course, it has entered the bloodstream of the Anglo-American Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians such as John Milbank and William Cavanaugh have turned to the work of de Lubac and the French Catholic tradition in general to develop a postliberal theology that resists the dominant formations of modern political life: the nation-state and the capitalist market.
In this book Shortall provides a masterful description of the (counter-) political theologies of some of the key thinkers of the nouvelle théologie, inscribing them into the context of a specifically French history. These figures recognised that all politics presupposes a much wider set of ideas about the relationship between the individual and the collective, about authority, about human nature itself, and about what can enable political society to remain resilient, hopeful and engaged. They claimed again and again that their writings were of a purely religious and theological nature, and did not give out any political orders. And yet, as the book shows, the effort to remain above politics was itself a political act. Thus, they were able to play a highly constructive role within the present political order precisely by refusing to compromise the transcendent claims of faith.
The foundational thinking of Jesuits like de Lubac, Fessard and Daniélou took place in the pre- and inter-war years. This was a period of unique political-theological tension, in France as well as in other European countries, where political ideologies from the right and (more subtly but with equal importance) from the left advocated secular divinisation of the ethnonational body. Given this context, perhaps it is not surprising that the mystical body theology these figures developed sought to counter this, offering an alternative vision of a supra-national and transcendentally-ordered human society that would be free from the risk of co-option by earthly powers.
But do we live in a comparable moment of danger? Are we too in need of the sort of diagonalising strategies set out by these theologians?
My contention is that the contemporary environmental crisis is engendering an equivalent political-theological tension in our own time. Indeed, as French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour has pointed out, this moment is presenting a set of conditions that will require an entirely different mode of political engagement than has been thought of or put into practice before.[6] Under these new conditions, solutions proposed from both the right and the left seem inadequate. From one side of the political compass, we may hear a call to individual resilience and finance-driven, technological ingenuity. From another, a call to reactionary re-distributionism. But neither of these look like promising avenues to secure the radical change that is required. Why not? Because they work on an assumption that productivity, growth and development will continue and that the solution will come through minor tweaks at the edges. It is precisely this assumption that is being exploded by the climate crisis and by our improved understanding of the planetary boundaries within which we must live.
Hence, a “new orientation in politics” will be required.[7] This is why in his most recent book, co-authored with Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, Latour argues that traditional notions and language of political class are becoming rapidly redundant. What does it mean to talk of right and left, of tradition and progress, of reaction or revolution, at a time when all our established modes of life are under threat? Who should we see as our comrades in arms in a historical moment like this? In fact, Latour predicts that as the twenty-first century unfolds politics will be defined not by Marxist-inflected ideas of class-based struggle, but by what he calls “luttes des classements” – struggles of classification – as people from all sorts of backgrounds seek to (re-) position and ally themselves according to an entirely new set of political allegiances and energies.[8] This will generate what we might call “une nouvelle classe écologique.”
It is at this point that Latour offers a surprising piece of analysis that (perhaps) takes us back to the insights of the Jesuits described above. For he argues that religion will have a vital role to play in modelling this political re-alignment. It will do so precisely through its existential and messianic sense of time as composed of moments which transcend linearity and which can therefore cluster or aggregate to generate impetus for radical and decisive change in the here-and-now. Within this “spiritually” infused temporality, the present moment can be seen as pregnant with opportunity precisely because it is not fixed within an ideological frame that has already determined its future direction and unfolding. As a consequence, the contemporary public space becomes one in which real political interactions – political in the truest sense of the word – can finally begin to take place. Just like de Lubac, then, Latour intuits the political power of eschatological witness. And just like de Lubac, he sees how this will require radical diagonalizations of the offerings currently being made to us within the contemporary political space.[9]
There is no doubt that Sarah Shortall’s book succeeds in recasting an important chapter of twentieth century intellectual and political history. For that alone it deserves careful attention. But for me, what is more important still is the translational agenda it sets for the field of political theology itself. No doubt there are many contemporary socio-political contexts in which this agenda can be further tested and applied.


[1]    Sarah Shortall, 2021, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press).
[2]    See for example James Chappel, 2018, Catholic Modern: The Challenge of Totalitarianism and the Remaking of the Church (Harvard University Press); Edward Baring, 2019, Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Harvard University Press).
[3]    See for example David Bentley Hart, 2021, You are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (Notre Dame Press)
[4]   Although we note the influence of Fessard in the intellectual formation of Pope Francis, for which see Massimo Borghesi, 2018, The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey (Liturgical Press), p.6.
[5]    Eric Voegelin, 2000 The Political Religions in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 5: Modernity without Restraint (1938, University of Missouri Press), pp.44–45. See also Glenn Hughes, 2003, Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (University of Missouri Press), especially chapters 2 and 3.
[6]   See for example Bruno Latour, 2016,
[7]   Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climactic Regime (Polity Press), p.49.
[8]  Bruno Latour & Nikolaj Schultz, 2022, Mémo sur la nouvelle classe écologique (Empecheurs de Penser en Rond), thesis 7.
[9]   For further analysis, see Timothy Howles, 2022 (forthcoming), The Political Theology of Bruno Latour: Globalization, Secularization and the Environment Crisis (Edinburgh University Press).

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