Nouvelle Théologie

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Nouvelle Théologie (French for "New Theology") is the name commonly used to refer to a school of thought in Catholic theology that arose in the mid-20th century, most notably among certain circles of French and German theologians. The shared objective of these theologians was a fundamental reform of the dominance of Catholic theology by neo-Scholasticism, which had resulted in the dominance of teaching by scholastically-influenced manuals, criticism of modernism by the Church and a defensive stance towards non-Catholic faiths. The influence of the movement was important as a counterpoint to the widespread neo-Scholasticism of Catholic thought, especially through its influence on the reforms initiated at the Second Vatican Council.


In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century (especially after the issuing of the encyclical Aeterni Patris by Pope Leo XIII in 1879), Roman Catholic thought was dominated by neo-Scholastic forms of thought. This, in reaction against "modernist" theology, insisted on a rigid adherence to the thought, methods and principles of the thirteenth-century thinker Thomas Aquinas. This dominance became particularly pronounced in the early twentieth century, as exemplified by the issuing of the Anti-Modernist Oath by Pope Pius X in 1910, and the publication in 1914 of 24 allegedly Thomist propositions which had to be taught in all colleges as fundamental elements of theology.

The roots of a questioning of the dominance of neo-Scholasticism may be traced to work done from the 1920s onwards. Some French Jesuit studies made in exile at Ore Place, Hastings, in 1906-26 might be seen as forerunners of the nouvelle théologie.[1] However, the nouvelle théologie movement itself is generally associated with the period between 1935 and 1960.[2] The movement in its early stages (i.e. the 1930s and early 1940s) is also particularly associated with the French language – a contrast with the Latin used in seminary teaching at the time.[3]

Theologians who are nowadays identified as early forerunners of the nouvelle théologie sought a return of Catholic theology to (what they perceived was) its original purity of thought and expression. To accomplish this, they advocated a "return to the sources" of the Christian faith: namely, scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. This methodological move is known by its French name, ressourcement ("return to the sources"). Along with this, the movement adopted a systemic openness to dialogue with the contemporary world on issues of theology. They developed also a renewed interest in biblical exegesis, typology, art, literature and mysticism.


The developing movement received fierce criticisms in the late 1940s and 1950s. A first attack was made by the influential Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in a polemical 1946 article in the journal Angelicum.[4] It is from this attack that the name for the movement, "Nouvelle Théologie", arises. While the theologians of the movement generally preferred to call their movement a "ressourcement", based on their return to original patristic thought, this enjoyed less popular coinage than the pejorative label of "nouvelle théologie", as most memorably given to the movement by Garrigou-Lagrange. Garrigou-Lagrange claimed that the theologians of the movement did not "return to the sources" but deviated from the long-standing theological tradition of the Catholic Church, thus creating a "new theology" all their own (a "new theology" which, claimed Garrigou-Lagrange, was essentially the feared "modernism" in disguise).[5]

In his essay in Angelicum, Garrigou-Lagrange quotes Father Henri Bouillard as saying, "The ideas employed by St. Thomas are simply Aristotelian notions applied to theology...By renouncing the Aristotelian system, modern thought abandoned the ideas, design and dialectical opposites which only made sense as functions of that system." Thus, Garrigou-Lagrange asks, "How then can the reader evade the conclusion, namely that, since it is no longer current, the theology of St. Thomas is a false theology? ....Further, how can 'an unchanging truth' maintain itself if the two notions united by the verb to be, are essentially variable or changeable?"

Subsequently, many of these criticisms of the ideas involved in the nouvelle théologie were developed by Pope Pius XII in his 1950 enyclical Humani generis. These are, for example, rejecting the traditional dogmatic formulations that emerged throughout Church history as a result of scholastic theology, re-interpreting Catholic dogma in a way that was inconsistent with tradition, falling into the error of dogmatic relativism and criticizing biblical texts in a way that deviated from the principles of biblical hermeneutics outlined by his predecessors (principally Leo XIII). Pope Pius XII warned that the movement approached the error of modernism, a heresy vehemently condemned by Pope St Pius X in 1907.


Although lumped together as a set by their opponents, the theologians associated with the nouvelle théologie had a great range of interests, views and methodologies, and were not themselves a co-ordinated group. In later writing, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac and Henri Bouillard all denied that the nouvelle théologie was anything but a construct of its opponents.[6] However, subsequent studies of the movement have suggested that there did exist a set of shared characteristics among writers of the nouvelle théologie. These include:

  • A tendency to ascribe a worthy place to history within the theological endeavour.
  • The appeal of a positive theology.
  • A critical attitude towards neo-Scholasticism.[7]

The theologians usually associated with Nouvelle Théologie are Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Louis Bouyer, Jean Daniélou, Jean Mouroux and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

Vatican II[edit]

Theologians from this school of thought had a significant influence on the reforms brought about in the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). In the aftermath of the Council, the movement became divided into two camps, splitting in effect into left and right wings, over the interpretation and implementation of the Council, with Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, Küng, and Chenu founding the more progressive theological journal Concilium in 1965, and de Lubac, Balthasar, Ratzinger, and others founding the theological journal Communio in 1972.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grumett, David, ‘Nouvelle Théologie, in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, (Cambridge, 2011), p348.
  2. ^ Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie - New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II, (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p4.
  3. ^ Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie - New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II, (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p10.
  4. ^ Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, "Where is the new theology leading us?", English translation of the French article, “La nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?”, Angelicum 23 (1946): 126-145.
  5. ^ The label had first been used in 1942 by Pietro Parente in an article in L’Osservatore Romano, but it acquired widest recognition as a result of a 1946 attack on the movement by the Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. See Hans Boersma, Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery, (Oxford: OUP, 2009), p8. Over time, as Nouvelle Théologie has gained widespread usage, the debate over the movement’s proper name has largely become a marginal note.
  6. ^ Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie - New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II, (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p8.
  7. ^ Jürgen Mettepenningen, Nouvelle Théologie - New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II, (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p10-11.

Further reading[edit]

Cf. also this October 2010 review from The Tablet.