Nouvelle théologie

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Nouvelle théologie (French for "new theology") is 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 13th-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 the 24 Thomistic theses 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 1906–1926 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 criticisms in the late 1940s and 1950s. A first attack was made by the influential Dominican[4] theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in a polemical 1946 article in the journal Angelicum.[5] While the theologians of the movement generally preferred to call their movement a ressourcement, based on their return to original patristic thought, Garrigou-Lagrange claimed that they 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 which, he argued, was essentially Modernism in disguise. Although another writer, Pietro Parente, had used the term "teologia nuova" in 1942, it was from Garrigou-Lagrange's article that the label entered into widespread use. [a]

In his essay in Angelicum, Garrigou-Lagrange quotes 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 encyclical 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). Pius XII warned that the movement approached the error of modernism, a heresy vehemently condemned by 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.[7] 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.[8]

The theologians usually associated with nouvelle théologie are Henri de Lubac (whose ideas were believed to have been condemned by Humani Generis of Pope Pius XII; de Lubac, however, insisted that Humani Generis did not affect him doctrinally[9]), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who argued against the traditional doctrine of the historical existence of Adam and Eve[citation needed]), Hans Urs von Balthasar (who said that we can have "reasonable hope" that all will be saved[10]), Yves Congar (who advocated against the titles "Co-Redemptrix" and "Mediatrix of All Graces" to the Virgin Mary[citation needed]), Karl Rahner (who created the modernist theory of the "anonymous christians" and denied the virginity of Mary in partu[11]), Hans Küng (who denied papal infallibility[12]), Edward Schillebeeckx, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Louis Bouyer, Jean Daniélou, Jean Mouroux [es; fr], Henri Bouillard, and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

Second Vatican Council[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,[citation needed] 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.


  1. ^ The label had first[citation needed] 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.[6] See Boersma 2009, p. 8. Over time, as nouvelle théologie has gained widespread usage, the debate over the movement's proper name has largely become a marginal note.



  1. ^ Grumett 2011, p. 348.
  2. ^ Mettepenningen 2010, p. 4.
  3. ^ Mettepenningen 2010, p. 10.
  4. ^ Peddicord, Richard, 1958- (2005). The sacred monster of Thomism : an introduction to the life and legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine's Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN 1587317524. OCLC 55588728.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Garrigou-Lagrange 1998.
  6. ^ Boersma 2009, p. 8.
  7. ^ Mettepenningen 2010, p. 8.
  8. ^ Mettepenningen 2010, pp. 10–11.
  9. ^ Healy, Nicholas J. "Henri de Lubac on Nature and Grace: A Note on Some Recent Contributions to the Debate" (PDF). Communio - International Catholic Review (Winter 2008): 552. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  10. ^ Von Balthasar, Hans Urs (1987). Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?.
  11. ^ Rahner, Karl (1986). Imhof, Paul; Biallowons, Hubert (eds.). Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965–1982. Translated by Egan, Harvey D. New York: Crossroad. ISBN 978-0-8245-0749-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  12. ^ Küng, Hans (1971). Infallible? An Inquiry.


Boersma, Hans (2009). Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald (1998). "Where Is the New Theology Leading Us?". Catholic Family News Reprint Series (309). Niagara Falls, New York. Retrieved 30 December 2018.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Grumett, David (2011). "Nouvelle Théologie". In McFarland, Ian A.; Fergusson, David A. S.; Kilby, Karen; Torrance, Iain R. (eds.). The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 348–349. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511781285.015. ISBN 978-0-511-78128-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Mettepenningen, Jürgen (2010). Nouvelle Théologie – New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II. London: T&T Clark. ISBN 978-0-567-29991-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

Flynn, Gabriel; Murray, Paul D., eds. (2011). Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199552870.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-955287-0.
Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald. "The Structure of the Encyclical Humani generis". Translated by Aversa, Alan. Alan Aversa. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
Greenstock, David L. (1950). "Thomism and the New Theology" (PDF). The Thomist. 13 (4): 567–596. doi:10.1353/tho.1950.0002. ISSN 0040-6325. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
Heers, Peter (2015). The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II: An Orthodox Examination of Rome's Ecumenical Theology Regarding Baptism and the Church. Simpsonville, South Carolina: Uncut Mountain Press. ISBN 978-618-81583-1-3.
Kerr, Fergus (2010). "Review of Nouvelle Théologie – New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II by Jürgen Mettepenningen" (Flash). The Tablet. Vol. 264 no. 8864. London. p. 24. ISSN 0039-8837. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
Kirwan, Jon (2018). An Avant-Garde Theological Generation: The Nouvelle Théologie and the French Crisis of Modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198819226.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-881922-6.
Pius XII (1950). Humani generis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 30 December 2018.