Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Hardback)
  • Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Hardback)

Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Hardback)

Hardback 352 Pages
Published: 01/11/2021
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Winner of a Catholic Media Association Book Award

A revelatory account of the nouvelle théologie, a clerical movement that revitalized the Catholic Church’s role in twentieth-century French political life.

Secularism has been a cornerstone of French political culture since 1905, when the republic formalized the separation of church and state. At times the barrier of secularism has seemed impenetrable, stifling religious actors wishing to take part in political life. Yet in other instances, secularism has actually nurtured movements of the faithful. Soldiers of God in a Secular World explores one such case, that of the nouvelle théologie, or new theology. Developed in the interwar years by Jesuits and Dominicans, the nouvelle théologie reimagined the Church’s relationship to public life, encouraging political activism, engaging with secular philosophy, and inspiring doctrinal changes adopted by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Nouveaux théologiens charted a path between the old alliance of throne and altar and secularism’s demand for the privatization of religion. Envisioning a Church in but not of the public sphere, Catholic thinkers drew on theological principles to intervene in political questions while claiming to remain at arm’s length from politics proper. Sarah Shortall argues that this “counter-politics” was central to the mission of the nouveaux théologiens: by recoding political statements in the ostensibly apolitical language of doctrine, priests were able to enter into debates over fascism and communism, democracy and human rights, colonialism and nuclear war. This approach found its highest expression during the Second World War, when the nouveaux théologiens led the spiritual resistance against Nazism. Claiming a powerful public voice, they collectively forged a new role for the Church amid the momentous political shifts of the twentieth century.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674980105
Number of pages: 352
Weight: 703 g
Dimensions: 235 x 156 x 32 mm


Superbly expands our knowledge of the nouvelle théologie…The book describes a movement begun in exile and youthful rebellion, tested in clandestine anti-Nazi resistance, and shaken by political turmoil and ecclesiastical opprobrium before eventually remaking the face of the Catholic Church…[A] groundbreaking book. - Peter Steinfels, Commonweal

Soldiers of God is rich in political and intellectual historical insights, and it paves the way for a new agenda in the literature on secularism, religion, and politics, not least for understanding the role of Christianity in European politics today. - Anders Berg-Sørensen, Contemporary Political Theory

Shortall’s long-awaited book exceeds expectations. On both the micro- and macro-levels—archival research and overarching narrative—the work marks an inflection point in the study of these twentieth-century Jesuit intellectuals (and their Dominican counterparts)…Will remain a touchstone for years to come. - Stephen Schloesser, Journal of Jesuit Studies

Demonstrates that the separation of church and state ushered in a period of creativity in French religious thought…deserves to find a wide readership among intellectual historians. - Carol E. Harrison, Journal of Modern History

A brilliant contribution to historical theology…demonstrates not only how theology is part of European intellectual history, but also points to how theology might contribute to its future. Graduate students seeking to figure out what historical theology is will find in Shortall a sure guide. By reconstructing the world in which they mattered, she brings the ideas of twentieth-century theological giants to life in ways that elude most systematic theologians. - William L. Porter, Horizons

A profound and important book. Tracing the history of the nouvelle théologie, Shortall shows how religious thinking can scramble our political categories and open up new ways to imagine the future. - Edward Baring, author of Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Across a tumultuous century, as Sarah Shortall reveals, French Catholic thinkers were able to make momentous contributions to politics precisely because they insisted on the irreducibility of religion. Restoring theology to intellectual history, this book is a remarkable debut. - Samuel Moyn, author of Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World

A pathbreaking account of how the nouveaux théologiens reshaped both Catholic theology and secular philosophy in the twentieth century. Shortall thoughtfully retells modern European intellectual history, upending conventional definitions of politics and ultimately transcending the secular–religious divide. - Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion

What happens when theology and politics mix? Sarah Shortall’s compelling study proposes an answer that is incisive and illuminating from the first page to the last. - Philip G. Nord, author of After the Deportation: Memory Battles in Postwar France

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