Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today 4: The Nouvelle Theologie Opens the Door to Modernism

Here are links to the first three parts of this series:

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory” (6:50)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism” (15:55)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 3: “John Henry Newman” (21:42)

Again, I’m continuing to post these, even though the audio version is available, because not everyone will have an hour to listen to it. (There are links to the audio and an outline in the first part of this series.) Needham’s lecture provides an excellent overview of the way that Roman Catholicism adopted liberalism into the heart of its structures at Vatican II.
Now Newman didn’t write his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to justify modernism, but his ideas on how Christianity has changed and developed through the centuries were eventually to give comfort and inspiration to those Roman Catholics who wanted to reject the rigid theology of neo-Thomism, and instead promote modernist thinking. If Newman was right, and Christian doctrine had undergone this long process of development, then why should the church canonize the doctrine of one limited time period, the time of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century? Could things not develop still further? Could modernist thinking not be the development needed to meet the challenges of the 19th and 20th centuries? (21:42)

Now the official condemnation of modernism, by Pope Pius X in 1907, and the entrenchment of neo-Thomism in the official theological training of Roman Catholic priests, did not entirely halt the spread of modernist ideas. And after the first World War, a new generation of Roman Catholic thinkers emerged, who began to grapple again with the same sorts of ideas which had been condemned in 1907. Among this new generation, outstanding figures included the German theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984), the Swiss Hans Us von Balthasar (1905-1988), and the French thinker, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Henri de Lubac (1896-1991), and Yves Congar (1904-1995). (22:46)

The activities of such men gave rise to a broad school of thought known as the nouvelle theologie, “the new theology”. The movement is also known as ressourcement, which has the idea of “going back to the original sources and making them live again”, the sources being the Bible and the early church fathers. In fact, ressourcement was the name preferred by the practitioners of this school of thought. It was their neo-Thomist enemies who called it nouvelle theologie, “new theology”, meaning a novel, unheard-of theology, an invention never before seen. But nouvelle theologie was the name that stuck. (23:35)

Now the goal of these theologians was a reformation of the whole approach to theology in Roman Catholicism. In particular, they questioned three things:

1. the reigning orthodoxy of neo-Thomist scholastic theology;
2. the negative, defensive attitude of their religious communion toward modern civilization; and
3. its negative, defensive attitude towards other faiths, including both other forms of Christianity, and non-Christian religions. (24:14)

The nouvelle theologie thinkers tried to correct these errors, as they considered them, by exposing Roman Catholic theology to the liberating influences of the Bible and the early church fathers. However, what this often really meant, it must be said, was, the Bible, and the fathers, as interpreted by the nouvelle theologie. Together with this, they also advocated and practiced a broad openness to dialogue with the modern world, especially on matters of religion. Other aspects of the nouvelle theologie were a fresh interest in art, literature, and mysticism. (24:57)

Essentially, what the nouvelle theologie was seeking to do was free Roman Catholics from the strait jacket of neo-Thomist orthodoxy by making all theology relative rather than absolute. The Truth revealed by God, they argued, was not a set of ideas, but a person, Jesus Christ. Ideas were a human response to Christ, and these ideas were always inadequate, always caught up in the flocks of time and culture. There were different theologies held by different people at different times in the rich, diverse history of the church. Therefore, no one single theology, such as Thomism, could be canonized, and made absolute. (25:50)

Rather, theologians ought to engage with the different historical varieties of theology, and find tools there to construct a positive response to present-day challenges. Well, here were many of the themes of late 19th century modernism, in a new dress. This criticism was expressed in the encyclical, Humani Generis, of Pope Pius XII, issued in 1950. (26:20)

However, as Reformed theologian David Wells said, the encyclical was so mild its wording, it can hardly even be seen as a rebuke. The work of the new theologians was not imperiled, still less consigned to the graveyard of heresy. After a further decade of study, their conclusions seemed sufficiently safe and fruitful to be given papal approval. (26:48)

The opportunity for the nouvelle theologie to change the official face of Roman Catholicism came with the election of a new pope on October 28, 1958. His personal name was Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli. He took the papal name John XXIII. Unlike his predecessor, Pius XII, the new pope, although already an old man, was susceptible to the modernizing agenda of the nouvelle theologie. (27:20)


  1. Will get the audio tapes. Thanks for the notes.

    Anytime David Wells gets a mention is a good day!

    Stop the posting and look after your love! Hope she is doing well.