Rorate Caeli

A Christmastide Gift for our Readers:
- Attacks on Thomism: a special historical and theological essay

Attacks on Thomism

a special essay for Rorate Caeli by John Lamont

Thomism and neomodernism 
I: Progressives, 'manualism', and Thomism

Anyone who has any familiarity with the clerical and intellectual scene in the Catholic Church will have encountered the received 'progressive' wisdom concerning Thomism and its role in the Church before the Second Vatican Council, and concerning the preconciliar state of theology in general. Its claims and slogans are continually reiterated in theological and clerical circles, with little change since the era – the first half of the twentieth century – in which they were first elaborated. Unlike 'progressive' positions on moral questions, this received wisdom has virtually attained the status of a pseudo-orthodoxy within the Church, with some of its components being central to 'conservative' Catholicism. Its acceptance by neoconservatives is indicated by a favourable presentation of it by Fr. Brian van Hove in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review,1 a journal that is one of the oldest pillars of conservative Catholicism. Fr. Van Hove's exposition of this received wisdom takes the form of an attack on Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, an embarrassing document for neoconservative Catholics. His exposition is a naïve one, lacking the nuances that would be introduced by a clever apologist for his outlook, but it is valuable for that very reason. It is the naïve version of an idea, the simplified and readily accessible one, that gets widely adopted and that determines events; this fact is known by the clever apologists, who are aware that the nuances they introduce to disarm criticism and conceal their intentions will fall by the wayside once their position has triumphed. Together, these points make up the ideology that justified the destruction of preconciliar Catholic theology, and that is an essential underpinning of the progressive hegemony that now controls the Church. Seeing through this ideology is crucial to overcoming this hegemony; this article and its two sequels are devoted to the task of exposing it.


An important component of this ideology is an attack on 'manualism'. This attack claims that preconciliar Catholic theology largely consisted in 'manualist theology'. Allegedly, this theology was conveyed in theological manuals, and suffered from legalism, dogmatism, anti-modernism (presumed to be a fault), abstraction, and ahistoricism.

The very idea of 'manualist theology' is however a fiction. Theological manuals were indeed in wide use before the Second Vatican Council, for the purposes that manuals exist for; the education of theological students.2 The best of them were excellently designed for that purpose, as any educator who looks at them can see. But there was no such thing as a school of theology based on these manuals, let alone a dominant school. Theology before the council was carried on by the same means as other scholarly enterprises; monographs, learned journals, extensive treatises. These works, not the theological manuals, were the venues for preconciliar theology. If we were to identify a characteristic product of theology in the period that preceded the council, it would not be the manuals, but the great works of reference such as the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique or the Dictionnaire de spiritualité. The articles in these works often amounted to book-length treatments in excess of 100,000 words. They include outstanding monuments of scholarship that could never be replaced today; the depth of theological learning that went into their composition no longer exists – so much for the weakness of preconciliar theology. The idea of 'manualist theology' was a fiction aimed at priests whose theological formation did not go much farther than the manuals they had studied in seminary. Such priests were in the majority, especially in the English-speaking world where academic theology was weak. Convince them that what they had learned in the seminary was flawed and obsolete 'manualist theology', and the road to leading them away from the Catholic doctrine they had been taught was open.


Another article of the postconciliar creed has to do with the character of the Thomism that was promoted by popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII. The substantive accusations made against this Thomism are that it unjustifiably limited theology to a particular philosophical system, that theology was forced to conform to it, and that it was not the true thought of St. Thomas. These claims play a subordinate role in the criticism of preconciliar Thomism, whose main thrust lies in accusations that Thomism was 'abstract', 'rationalist', 'ahistorical', 'arid', 'frozen', 'immobile', 'obsessed', 'encouraging pure secularity', 'sclerotically hardened and furred theologically, spiritually and ecclesially', 'causing a rupture between theology and life', a 'wax mask', a 'straightjacket' that 'reduced theological speculation to sterility'. The essence of this villainous form of Thomism is supposed to be given by the 24 Thomistic theses developed by leading scholars and endorsed by the Sacred Congregation of Studies in 1914, as containing the principles and main pronouncements of St. Thomas's philosophy.3

The substantive accusations against Thomism are easily dismissed. The allegation that Thomism was imposed on preconciliar theology is without foundation, as can easily be seen by looking at the official texts that deal with it. All these texts are concerned with the teaching of philosophy and theology in educational institutions. Leo XIII and subsequent popes had decided that it was essential that the clergy be given a sound philosophical formation, and that the best philosophy for them to be formed in was Thomism. In order to achieve that end, they ruled that philosophical formation in seminaries and Catholic universities should be Thomistic in nature. This made it necessary to give some definition of what Thomism consisted in, and the 24 Thomistic theses were promulgated to meet this need.

It could be objected that students should have learned competing philosophies such as Kantianism or Scotism as well, rather than having their philosophical formation confined to one system. This proposal is an admirable one, and should certainly be followed in doctoral programs at the top 5 or 10 universities in the world. For the Catholic seminary and university system, it was (and is) absolutely impossible to implement. The most that could be achieved in this system, or in any average university system, was to get students to have some grasp of one philosophy. The average level of students, and the time available for their formation, does not permit anything else – and even this goal is very ambitious and difficult to achieve. This was the worthy goal of preconciliar legislation promoting Thomism. It was not an attempt to impose Thomism on theology in general.

The claim that the 24 theses do not accurately represent St. Thomas's philosophical thought is false; they can all be abundantly documented from his works. They give a fairly good picture of his main philosophical positions. The choice of these theses is important for understanding the subsequent history of Thomism. They were selected with an eye to identifying where Thomism differed from other schools of Catholic philosophy – and notably from Suarezianism, the official philosophical school of the Jesuits. The 24 theses placed the Jesuits in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between magisterial authority and their own traditions. Although the Society of Jesus secured a clarification from Benedict XV stating the Jesuits were not forbidden to contest some of these theses when discussing questions traditionally disputed in the schools, it remained the case that ecclesiastical authority had decreed that Catholic education was to be based on philosophical principles that were opposed to Jesuit thought. This created a rift between the Society of Jesus and the magisterium that was later to widen. Much of the opposition to Thomism in the Church took its beginning from this Jesuit hostility.

The weakness of the substantive accusations against Thomism was however no hindrance to the anti-Thomist campaign, for which these accusations were largely window dressing. The focus of this campaign, and the key to its success, was a propaganda effort. This effort concentrated effectively on the key goals of propaganda; vilifying the opponents whose destruction is sought, creating fear of these opponents, and exalting the courage, goodness and wisdom of all those who join in the attack on them. The vilification took the form of the epithets noted above – 'arid', 'rationalist', 'sterile', etc. – together with the accusation that Thomists denounced loyal Catholics as heretics, and brought about their punishment by ecclesiastical authority, in order to impose their own, flawed personal views. The fear was of the alleged malice and tyranny of Thomists, and of the alienation from the modern world that would supposedly result if their obsolete ideas were imposed or officially sanctioned by the Church. These negative themes directly led to the glorification of anyone who agreed with them and denounced Thomists and Thomism; such denunciation protected the innocent victims of false denunciations, resisted tyranny, and promoted a glorious embrace between the Church and the modern world.

This propaganda was often crassly expressed, to a degree amazing in scholarly venues. But once it had succeeded in making an emotional connection, this crassness – as is the way with propaganda – only strengthened its power. Once this power had been demonstrated, fear of being its victim added to its strength. Now that the party behind it has achieved dominance in the Church, and banished Thomist philosophy and theology from virtually every Catholic institution of higher education, this propaganda largely takes a retrospective form. The overthrow of the attempted Thomist monopoly on orthodoxy – the 'razing of the bastions' touted by Hans Urs von Balthasar – and the alleged enlightenment and freedom of thought that resulted from this overthrow, are presented as the great theological achievements of the Council. The evils of the Thomists and their suffocating ideology provide the reason for dismissing their positions unexamined, and for proceeding as if the progressive movement that replaced them is in effect the whole of Catholic theology.

Thomism made an easy target for this propaganda, just because it is a highly developed philosophy. Any advanced field of study, such as philosophy, mathematics, or physics, can be convincingly portrayed as 'arid' and 'rigid'. For most people's tastes, this portrayal will often be true. Precise and rigorous subjects inevitably have arid components. Because it deals with fundamental questions whose answers are true always and everywhere, philosophy will be 'ahistorical' and 'immutable'. It will not meet the desires and expectations of individuals or societies, because these desires and expectations are never geared towards subtle and difficult concepts. It will meet their needs – if it is true. But a demonstration of philosophical truth is a feeble counter to propaganda.

This propaganda is thus aimed not only at Thomism, but at philosophy itself, and the opponents of Thomism were only able to make use of it because they were not interested in philosophy. They would use philosophical claims to advance their agenda, but they proposed no general philosophical alternative to Thomism. They offered no account of central topics of philosophy – time, space, cause, universal and particular, body, soul, perception, and the like – to replace the Thomist accounts they had banished. Their proposed alternative to Thomism, 'Transcendental Thomism', with its 'turn to the self', has no serious analysis of such topics. Of course if they had attempted to offer a philosophical alternative to Thomism, they would have had to meet Thomists on the terrain of reasoned argument, where the Thomists were more than capable of holding their own. But they did not need to run this risk, because they were happy to dispense with philosophy rather than engage in it.

The nature of this rejection of Thomism has had grave consequences. It is not just the rejection of those characteristic theses that are advanced by Thomism but denied by other schools of Catholic thought. It is a global rejection of the content of Thomism as a whole. This content is largely shared with the other traditional Catholic schools – and indeed with traditional Western philosophy as a whole, since Thomism incorporates many of the basic Platonic and Aristotelian ideas that are central to this philosophy. Of course, rejecting these basic ideas means rejecting Western philosophy and the whole Catholic tradition of thought of which they are an essential part. But if we accept – as we should – that Western philosophy has some worth, it also means rejecting essential philosophical truths. Throwing out the basic framework of traditional Western philosophy means throwing out the fundamental philosophical insights that it contains. This abandonment has consequences for theology that were not lost on the Thomists who defended their tradition.

Although the progressive opponents of Thomism were hostile to philosophy, their attack on Thomism was not a purely negative one; it had the purpose of displacing Thomism and the Catholic philosophical heritage generally, in order to replace them with their own views. These views, which revived essential elements of the modernist heresy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, need to be grasped in order to understand the current situation of Thomism and of the Church generally.

Thomism and neomodernism 
II: The neomodernist challenge

Progressive received wisdom, with its attack on Thomism and 'manualist' theology, originates in the neomodernist movement in theology that got underway in the 1930s. A complete response to this received wisdom needs to describe and criticise the neomodernist opponents of Thomism.

The term 'neomodernist' is used here to refer to those theologians who from the 1930s onward revived essential elements of the modernist heresy of the late 19th and early 20th century. The neomodernists were members of the group known as the 'nouvels théologiens', most of whom were located in the Dominican studium at Le Saulchoir and the Jesuit scholasticate at Lyon-Fourvière; the principal Dominican figures of the 'nouvelle théologie' were Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, and the principal Jesuit figures were Henri de Lubac, Henri Bouillard, and Jean Daniélou. Neomodernism ought not to be simply identified with the 'nouvelle théologie'. The activities and theological concerns of the 'nouvels théologiens' were varied, and in some cases valuable, as for example the founding of the 'Sources chrétiennes' series of patristic texts and translations by de Lubac, Daniélou, and Claude Mondésert. Not all of the 'nouvels théologiens' argued for the neomodernist position, and some of them – most notably Daniélou – ended up being ostracised and slandered by their erstwhile friends, when they protested against the terrible consequences of neomodernism after the Second Vatican Council.4The connection between neomodernism and the 'nouvelle théologie' is that neomodernism first emerged as a substantial intellectual project among the ranks of the 'nouvels théologiens'; that it benefited from the prestige of these theologians; and that its adherents benefited from the partisan support of the 'nouvels théologiens' and their supporters, who zealously took up the anti-Thomist propaganda line.

Neomodernism was first publicly advanced by the Belgian Dominican Louis Charlier, in his Essai sur le problème théologique, published in 1938.5 It had been argued for in 1937 by the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu in a privately published (but influential) work, Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir.6 These publications were placed on the Index, and their authors were disciplined. The neomodernist positions of these Dominicans were then taken up and extended by French Jesuits; Henri Bouillard and Jean Daniélou.7 Hans Urs von Balthasar, then a minor figure, jumped on the neomodernist bandwagon in 1947,8 and it was later taken up by significant figures outside France, such as Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner.9 The francophone theologians were however the ones who pioneered it, gave it a strong foothold in the Church, and provided it with its first mature formulation.

To understand the neomodernists and their position, it is best to begin with the strategy they used to promote their thought. This strategy is based on the notion of historical consciousness. The neomodernists insisted that historical consciousness had become essential for good theology, and claimed that their theological position satisfied this essential requirement. The term 'historical consciousness' was used by them in two senses. In one of these senses, insistence on the necessity for historical consciousness is true, and in the other sense this insistence is false. In classical heretical fashion, the true claim was used by neomodernists to advance the false claim; arguments for the true one were treated as if they established the false one, and objections to the false one were treated as if they questioned the true one.

The true claim understands 'historical consciousness' to simply mean 'knowledge of history'. The need for historical knowledge was a powerful slogan for neomodernists, because such knowledge acquired particular importance in the 20thcentury. Before the Thomist revival sponsored by Leo XIII got underway, it was generally assumed that Catholic theology was summed up and perfected by 'baroque scholasticism', the work of the scholastics of the 16th and 17th centuries. The influence of the Society of Jesus, whose theologians all belonged to this period or later, strengthened this assumption. However, the intensive study of St. Thomas undertaken by the Thomist revival, and the general revival of interest in medieval philosophy that accompanied it, revealed that this assumption was a serious mistake. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Catholic theology was almost entirely dominated by Scotists and nominalists. The baroque scholastics – including those who considered themselves followers of St. Thomas – accepted Scotist and nominalist positions that had come to be taken for granted in the centuries after his death. A better historical knowledge of St. Thomas's thought was needed in order to distinguish between his views and those of the baroque scholastics, and to return to his actual positions when they proved superior to those of the later schools (as they usually did). This increase in knowledge had a transformative effect in both philosophy and theology. In philosophy, it led to a great increase of interest in the thought of St. Thomas, and established him in the non-Catholic world as a major thinker whose ideas were significant and even in some cases true.10 In theology, the gap between the baroque scholastics and St. Thomas himself was even wider than in philosophy. Returning to St. Thomas requires major changes in many fields of theology.11 The claim that historical knowledge at a high scholarly level had become essential for good theology in the 20th century was thus important and true.

The second, false understanding of 'historical consciousness' was quite different from the notion of historical knowledge. It consists in two claims; one about the nature of human thought, and one about history. The first claim asserts that human concepts cannot reproduce reality with entire and perfect accuracy. Thought inevitably falls short of the real nature of the things it is about, giving a partial and distorted picture of them. As a result – at least in philosophy and theology – a set of concepts constrains the understanding of reality that is held by those who use those concepts, in ways that inevitably produce a partially incorrect grasp of the reality that is thought about. That does not mean that reality is unknowable; it means that it can only be known in the imperfect way that human concepts can grasp it. The second claim asserts that different historical periods necessarily possess concepts, assumptions, and ways of reasoning that are peculiar to themselves. As a result, the thought of past times cannot be shared by later epochs (and vice versa), and no epoch can conceive of the world in the way that its historical forebears did.

This understanding of historical consciousness – which we can call 'historical perspectivism', a term that is coined here for the purposes of this article – is the basis for the neomodernist position. The thesis advanced by the neomodernist authors mentioned above was not always openly stated, and its implications may not have been fully understood by all of them. In the debates of the time it was associated with other positions and other criticisms advanced by these theologians and their allies. Nonetheless the thesis itself is clearly present in them, and it has had an enormous effect on the Church. The opening gambit for neomodernism, as remarked above, is an insistence on the need for 'historical consciousness'. This insistence was usually introduced in works of historical scholarship that often had considerable merit, a context that facilitated the sleight of hand in passing from historical consciousness in the sense of historical knowledge to historical consciousness in the sense of historical perspectivism. This sleight of hand accomplished, neomodernism assumes the truth of historical perspectivism, and draws its consequences for theology and faith. It asserts that the content of theology necessarily fails to describe its subject matter with complete accuracy, and inevitably differs from age to age, as a result of the differences between the outlooks of historical periods. It follows that this content cannot be identified with divine revelation. Since this conclusion is true of all human assertions, not just those of theologians, and since divine revelation itself cannot be flawed and inaccurate, it follows that divine revelation cannot include propositions that are expressed in human language and grasped by human thought. It is realities, not assertions, that are divinely revealed.

Since the teaching of the Church as well as theology is expressed in human languages (Greek, Latin, etc.) and formulated in human concepts that belong to particular eras, Catholic dogma itself cannot be identical with divine revelation. Dogma can only give a partial understanding of divine revelation itself, and this understanding must be revised to conform to the historical development of human thought. There is no such thing as immutable Catholic teaching. Thomists who claim that such teaching exists are in fact anachronistically projecting their own views – born of their own epoch – onto the quite different outlook of Church authorities in the past.

This thesis requires a revision of the notion of truth. The traditional understanding of truth is that of Aristotle, who described truth as saying of what is, that it is. The neomodernists, due to their historical perspectivism, did not think that the theology and dogma of previous epochs could satisfy this understanding, but they did not want to dismiss them as false. They accordingly held that dogma was true, but that its truth could not be understood in Aristotle's sense. Garrigou-Lagrange saw them as reviving the philosopher Maurice Blondel's rejection of the traditional definition of truth as bringing the mind into conformity with reality ('adaequatio rei et intellectus') in favour of an account of truth as bringing thought into line with life ('adaequatio realis mentis et vitae'). While this definition of truth was not explicitly stated by the neomodernists, the importance of Blondel for their thought makes this interpretation a plausible one; Bouillard, for example, wrote extensively and approvingly on Blondel.12 What they did explicitly assert was that the truth of past dogmatic pronouncements does not consist in their being an accurate description of reality, and that a theology that was not relevant to the present day ('actuel') was untrue.

The neomodernist position, when stated clearly, is not liable to attract many people. Although its conception of truth has been defended by the pragmatist school of philosophy, most lay opinion agrees with the majority of philosophical opinion in rejecting the pragmatist understanding of truth. In addition, no great philosophical expertise is needed to see that the historical perspectivism of the neomodernists is self-refuting. Historical perspectivism is a universal philosophical claim about the nature of human concepts and human knowledge, a claim that is presented as being true for all people at all times, and as being known to be true by the neomodernists. But such a claim contradicts historical perspectivism itself, which denies the possibility of knowledge of this sort. The success of neomodernism thus seems mystifying, and requires explanation.

The first key to this success was of course the fact that it was not stated clearly. There were some clear presentations of neomodernism, such as the one given by Bouillard, which were intended as guides and principles for the initiates who accepted the neomodernist program. But such clear presentations were always accompanied by denials of their content and implications, denials that were given wider circulation than the clear presentations and that were addressed to a more general public. To know that the denials were misleading, one had to follow the scholarly debates on the topic. This went beyond what most Catholics were willing and able to do, priests and bishops – and even theologians – included.

In such a situation, it is the responsibility of the highest ecclesiastical authority to investigate the questions at issue and to render an accurate judgment. The failure of the magisterium to properly accomplish this task is the second reason for the victory of neomodernism. Pius XII went some way towards doing this in Humani Generis, but he did not infallibly condemn neomodernism as heretical. As a result, John XXIII was able to reverse the effects of the teaching of Humani Generisby his statement at the opening of the Second Vatican Council: 'The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.' To the uninitiated, this statement is an unobjectionable claim. In the context of the debates over neomodernism, however, it was a clear signal favouring the neomodernist position – a signal whose intent was confirmed by the appointment of neomodernists and their allies to positions of responsibility at the council. John XXIII may not have understood the full purport of his words and actions, but this did not diminish their effect as an endorsement of the neomodernist cause. With this papal endorsement, the Thomist opponents of neomodernism were left with nothing but truth and logic as weapons to defend their thought and to uphold the faith. As their opponents well understood, these weapons are powerless if the men who wield them can be denied a hearing. Papal and episcopal support enabled the neomodernists to ruthlessly and effectively silence the Thomist position within the Church, and to ensure that Thomism was only mentioned in order to reiterate the neomodernist line of propaganda. The success of this silencing makes it imperative to revive the arguments of the most effective opponent of neomodernism; Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

Thomism and neomodernism 
III: Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange

The description of neomodernism that has been provided above will enable us to fully grasp the importance of the work of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P.. Fr. Brian van Hove attempts a not untypical character assassination of this Dominican theologian in his article on Humani Generis in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. This attempt needs to be addressed before considering Garrigou-Lagrange's theological significance.

Fr. van Hove makes much of Garrigou-Lagrange's support for Vichy France. This support was shared with the majority of Frenchmen in 1940, the majority of French Catholics, and the Catholic hierarchy. The primate of France, Cardinal Pierre Gerlier, welcomed Pétain with the words 'Pétain, c’est la France, et la France, aujourd’hui, c’est Pétain (Pétain is France, and France, today, is Pétain)'. The French bishops went so far as to condemn the actions of the French Resistance as 'terrorism', in a declaration on Feb. 17th 1944. Cardinal Suhard, the Archbishop of Paris during the Occupation, was the most important supporter of Garrigou-Lagrange's theological opponents in the French hierarchy. His pastoral letter issued in Lent 1947, 'Essor ou déclin de l'Eglise' ('Growth or decline of the Church'), was the first open act in favour of neomodernism on the part of a bishop; in it, following the neomodernists was portrayed as the key to the growth of the Church, and support for the Thomists as guaranteeing decline. He was also a supporter of Vichy, an enemy of the French Resistance (whose activities he denounced as terrorism), and a zealous collaborator with the German occupiers.13 This collaboration led the Dominican Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger, a decorated hero of the Resistance, to take part in the exclusion of Suhard from the mass in his own cathedral celebrating the liberation of Paris in 1944; but Bruckberger, a former editor of the Revue Thomiste, took the same position on neomodernism as Garrigou-Lagrange.14 One cannot therefore identify Garrigou-Lagrange's theological views with support for Vichy. Nor, contrary to Fr. Van Hove's vile calumny against Garrigou-Lagrange, can one identify support for Vichy with support for the persecution of Jews. Cardinal Gerlier was named 'righteous among the nations' by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for his efforts in helping Jews escape persecution. As Limore Yagil has established,15 Frenchmen active in saving Jews from the Holocaust were as often as not Vichy supporters. Garrigou-Lagrange had no involvement in the persecution of Jews, and did not support the anti-Semitic measures of Vichy. At the Sorbonne he had studied under important Jewish thinkers – Durkheim, Lévy-Bruhl, and Bergson – whom he respected, and with whom he kept in touch; not the mark of an anti-Semite.

As for Garrigou-Lagrange's alleged connections to the bigoted right-wing organisation Action Française; prior to 1926, he was indeed hand in glove with one of the leading figures in Action Française … Jacques Maritain. Their collaboration was however a purely philosophical and theological one. Garrigou-Lagrange, unlike Maritain, was not active in politics. Action Française was condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926, and Garrigou-Lagrange did not oppose this condemnation; after it had occurred, there was no question of his supporting Action Française even if he had wanted to. Garrigou-Lagrange's break with Maritain was not over Action Française or Vichy. It occurred in 1936, over the question of whether or not Catholics were obliged to support Franco in his struggle against the Spanish Republicans. Garrigou-Lagrange held that they were, but Maritain held that they ought not to support Franco. Since the Spanish Republic was dominated by Communists – Stalin's NKVD had a free hand in carrying out executions in Republican Spain – and was determined to destroy the Church through wholesale murder, Garrigou-Lagrange can scarcely be condemned for his position on this issue.16

The slanders that have been directed at Garrigou-Lagrange are in stark contrast to his exemplary life. In addition to his great scholarly achievement, he was outstanding in his devotion to teaching and to the liturgy, his asceticism, and his help for the poor.

Fr. van Hove's abuse of Garrigou-Lagrange is a characteristic example of anti-Thomist propaganda. His attempt to discredit any revival of interest in Garrigou-Lagrange's work raises questions in an inquiring reader's mind. Why single out this particular Thomist as a target, especially if his work was 'minor at best'?

The answer is that Garrigou-Lagrange played a crucial role in the battle over the revival of modernism in the mid-20th century. In a series of articles in the late 1940s,17 he called attention to the revival of modernist ideas, stated that these ideas were heretical, identified the principles of this neomodernism, and subjected the principles to devastating criticism. Other theologians did some of these things as well,18 but Garrigou-Lagrange was the only one to both thoroughly refute neomodernism, and to state that it was heretical and needed to be treated as such. His initiative was an important precursor to the later condemnation of neomodernism by the encyclical Humani Generis, as Fr. Van Hove states. But it is his intellectual contribution to the defence of the faith that is most significant for neomodernists today, because it makes his scholarly rehabilitation a danger to that school of thought.

The question of Garrigou-Lagrange's scholarly rehabilitation makes it important to consider whether the neomodernists were right in claiming superiority over their Thomist opponents in the first, legitimate sense of 'historical consciousness' – that of historical knowledge – and in scholarly ability in general. This claim cannot be sustained. It is of course absurd when applied to the Thomist Etienne Gilson, who rejected the historical perspectivism of the neomodernists.19 As for Garrigou-Lagrange: he certainly defended the baroque scholastics as interpreters of St. Thomas more strongly than was justified, but this stance was a minor feature of his work in philosophy, which incorporated a well-informed grasp of the historical sources of the positions he discussed. His work in spiritual theology was an important recovery of St. Thomas's own thought, demonstrating that for St. Thomas contemplation was something that all Christians were called to, rather than only a chosen few. This work was a more concrete and valuable piece of historical rediscovery than anything achieved by the nouvels théologiens. While not inferior to the nouvels théologiens in historical scholarship, Garrigou-Lagrange was greatly their superior in philosophical knowledge and ability. None of the nouvels théologiens could have given a satisfactory account of the content and importance of any of the 24 Thomistic theses, let alone provided an effective philosophical critique of them.
Garrigou-Lagrange's scholarly knowledge and ability meant that he fully understood the nature of neomodernism and the threat it posed. Part of his understanding of this movement was based on his personal experience of history; he had experienced the original modernist crisis at first hand, attending the lectures of the leading French modernist Alfred Loisy and publishing his first book in 1908 to attack the modernist Edouard Le Roy. His response to neomodernism was the exact opposite of the propaganda caricature of Thomism.

One feature of this caricature is the claim that Garrigou-Lagrange slandered faithful Catholic theologians as heretics. Since the theologians he was discussing were in fact advancing heretical positions, there would have been no slander in his denouncing them as such. But in fact he emphasised that he was considering intellectual positions and not the faith of those who held them. He expressed his entire confidence in the personal faith of Blondel, whom he had known for many years, and asserted that Blondel would not assent to the heretical conclusions that in fact followed from some of his expressions.

Thomists were attacked as distorting and misrepresenting the views of their opponents. The centrepiece of Garrigou-Lagrange's criticism of neomodernism was a detailed and accurate account of the neomodernist thesis itself. He focused on the expression of this thesis by Henri Bouillard, who had asserted that an immutable truth can only be expressed, as history advances, by changing the concepts that it contains. Bouillard stated that if concepts remain the same when knowledge has moved forward, a statement that was once true becomes false. Garrigou-Lagrange pointed out that Bouillard's position was not the same as the claims that i) when the language used to express statements changes its meaning, it is necessary to use new linguistic expressions to convey the ideas once expressed by the former language, and that ii) one cannot understand what is meant by past statements without knowing the language, ways of thinking, and historical context at the time of their expression. He observes that these facts are obvious and disputed by no-one, and that they are not what Bouillard is saying. By careful and thorough examination of Bouillard's work, he shows that Bouillard means precisely that the concepts involved in Catholic teachings must be changed.
Garrigou-Lagrange gives a clear example of a change of this sort, that was being promoted in theological circles at the time. Some theologians were claiming that although the term 'Adam' was used by Scripture and the Council of Trent as a proper name, referring to a single individual who was the father of the entire human race, the advance of scientific knowledge – which had allegedly disproved the existence of a single father of the human race – required the term 'Adam' to be reinterpreted as a collective noun, referring to the group who made up the original ancestors of humanity.

We need to be clear about the neomodernist claim being made in this case. It is not simply the claim that one meaning of the term 'Adam' should be replaced by another; it is the demand for this change, together with the claim that when this replacement is made and 'Adam' is understood as a collective noun, we are making the same assertion as was made when 'Adam' was understood as a proper name referring to a single individual, and we are not denying the truth of the Scriptural and conciliar statements that understood Adam to be a single individual and not a group.

Stated thus plainly, the neomodernist position is rightly seen as absurd by most people; but it was not stated plainly – for obvious reasons – in neomodernist polemics. Garrigou-Lagrange's contribution was to see and to prove that this was what the neomodernists believed, and to disprove the philosophical basis for their position. He pointed out that their understanding of truth leads to the denial of the principle of non-contradiction, which means intellectual suicide. The idea that we can keep the same assertion while changing the concepts that make it up is senseless; an assertion just is a meaningful subject and a meaningful predicate joined together to make a claim about reality. If you change the meanings of subject or predicate, you change the assertion being made. In response to the philosophical component of historical perspectivism, Garrigou-Lagrange defended the Aristotelian realism that holds that our concepts can grasp things as they are, because the content of these concepts is provided by extra-mental realities.

The neomodernists made essential appeal to contemporary thought, which they presented as establishing the truth of their position and as demanding its adoption. Garrigou-Lagrange pointed out that the ideas of neomodernism were in no way new. In philosophy, they were based on philosophical understandings of thought that had emerged from Kant and Hume, and more remotely from nominalism. Indeed, they shared essential features with the ancient skeptics and sophists; that is why Aristotle's positions on realism and the law of non-contradiction, which were drawn upon by Garrigou-Lagrange in his discussion, are directly relevant to the neomodernist position. In theology, Garrigou-Lagrange drew attention to the fact that the neomodernist conception of dogma revived the views of the 19th-century theologian Anton Günther, whose positions were condemned by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

By his discussion of the historical origins of neomodernism, Garrigou-Lagrange opens the door to a deeper understanding of their intellectual failure. Neomodernism is of course self-refuting, as noted above, because its assertion about the limitations of human thought is itself a universal claim of the very sort whose truth it rules out. But this assertion also rests on a basic historical failure, which belies the neomodernists' claim to historical insight. Their historical perspectivism erases the links that exist between the thought of different historical epochs, which, for all their differences, are united by a concern for some of the same fundamental questions. Sophists, ancient skeptics, and Arian heretics held positions and advanced arguments that are found in opponents of the Catholic faith today; and the contemporary Catholics whom they oppose adhere to positions that can be found in Aristotle, Athanasius, and Augustine. The historical perspectivism of the neomodernists arose from the intellectual limitations that they falsely ascribed to Garrigou-Lagrange. It is the reaction of people unable to take on board and cope with outlooks radically different from their own; who as a result are incapable of recognising universal questions and concerns when they are embodied in alien forms of thought. The neomodernist insistence on bringing doctrine into conformity with contemporary thought is partially a consequence of these limitations. In an encounter between the Catholic faith and contemporary thought, the alternative to a surrender of this kind is attaining a deep understanding of contemporary philosophical positions, determining just how they relate to Catholic teaching, and demonstrating the intellectual superiority of the faith. The neomodernists lacked the intellectual capacity for this project; so undertaking it was out of the question for them, and the surrender option was chosen instead.


The success of the neomodernists in seizing power in the Church was partly due to their tactical adroitness and to the favourable conditions that existed for them in the Church. They had learned from the first modernist crisis how to deal with magisterial opposition; there was not the will at the top of the Church to take drastic steps against them of the sort that had been successfully used by St Pius X, and there was no understanding of the necessity for such steps – Pius XII seems to have believed that his now forgotten encyclical Humani Generis had dealt with the situation adequately; for reasons that are not fully understood, the clergy and bishops were much more receptive to their message than was the case 40 years earlier.

The protean character of their position was also a key to their success. The idea that doctrine should be adapted to the thought of the day does not specify what adaptations should be made. This enabled neomodernists to be all things to all men, tailoring their appeal to the particular desires of any audience. This made possible alliances with powerful elements in the Church who were attracted not to neomodernism as such, but to abandoning particular doctrines that they found inconvenient or repellent. These doctrines were all concerned in one way or another with the exclusive character of the Catholic Church as a means for salvation; the condemnation of non-Catholic Christians as heretics and schismatics, the condemnation of non-Christian religions as paths to damnation, the insistence that the state must acknowledge and support the Catholic faith as the one true religion. These alliances were what permitted the neomodernists to achieve hegemony in the Church, and it is the support of these allies that to this day prevents any move against neomodernism by ecclesiastical authorities. Such a move would require enforcing all of Catholic doctrine, which would mean an intolerable return to exclusivism; it is found preferable in the last analysis to accept and promote those who reject all of that doctrine.

The key to the neomodernist capture of power is however also the reason for their failure to sustain a religious culture. Neomodernism is not like Protestantism, which contains ideas with a positive content as well as being a rejection of Catholicism. These ideas – justification by faith, and the like – are not correct, but they say something substantial, and have an appeal that can give rise to an important movement. Neomodernism, however, on a religious level is a purely negative thesis. As a result it has no attractive force of its own, and ecclesiastical structures that fall into its grip eventually die away – a process now visible all over the world. This is one thing that on the natural level permitted the survival of Thomism, despite the drastic measures taken to uproot it from the Church; unlike neomodernism, it has something positive and substantial to say. Moreover, what it has to say is actually true. This is in no way a guarantee of broad success, but it ensures the continued existence of Thomism in the small constituency of good scholars who are concerned with the truth and in a position to discover it. Whether it will expand much beyond this constituency in the future is unknown, but there is no doubt that its future shows more promise than that of neomodernism.


2 A useful list of the main manuals is given by Fr. Joseph Clifford Fenton in his 'The Teaching Authority of the Theological Manuals', available online at
3 The 24 theses are given here:
4 For example, Yves Congar, in his article 'Théologie' in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique and his La Foi et la théologie (Tournai: Desclée, 1962), rejects any modernist account of theology. The DTC article in particular is an orthodox one that is still valuable; unfortunately, this respectable achievement made Congar's defence of the personal orthodoxy of individual neomodernist theologians all the more influential. Congar developed problematic theological positions later in his career, but he never accepted neomodernism as a general thesis. OnDaniélou's ostracism and slandering, see Sandro Magister's article at
5 Louis Charlier O.P., Essai sur le problème théologique (Thuillies: Ramgal, 1938).
The book was eventually printed, along with essays commenting on it, by G. Alberigo et al., Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir (Paris: Cerf, 1985); see e.g. pp. 125, 139-40, for expressions of the neomodernist position by Chenu.
7 See Henri Bouillard S.J., Conversion et grâce chez saint Thomas d’Aquin, (Paris: Aubier, 1944), and Jean Daniélou S.J., 'Les orientations présentes de la pensée religieuse', Études 79, April 1946, pp. 5-21.
8 Von Balthasar did this in his book Wahrheit der Welt (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1947), which later became the first volume of his series Theo-Logik, translated into English as Theo-Logic:Theological Logical Theory vol. I, Truth of the World, tr. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000). His position on neomodernism is helpfully discussed in Hans Boersma, 'Analogy of Truth: The Sacramental Epistemology of Nouvelle Théologie' in Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (eds.), (Oxford: OUP, 2012). Boersma is part of a scholarly reexamination of the 'nouvels théologiens' that considers them as reviving modernist positions (without seeing this revival as a problem). Jurgen Mettepenningen is important in this reexamination; see his 'L'Essai de Louis Charlier (1938). Une contribution à la nouvelle théologie', Revue théologique de Louvain, 39(2), 211-232; Nouvelle Théologie - New Theology: Inheritor of Modernism, Precursor of Vatican II (London - New York:T&T Clark, 2010): 'Truth, Orthodoxy, and the Nouvelle Théologie: Truth as Issue in a “Second Modernist Crisis” (1946-1950)', in B. Becking ed., Orthodoxy, Liberalism, and Adaptation: Essays on Ways of Worldmaking in Times of Change from Biblical, Historical and Systematic Perspectives (Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2011). Mettepenningen remarks that 'It is therefore not incorrect to consider modernism as the precursor of the nouvelle théologie and to see the latter as a renewed form of modernism' (p. 171).
9 On Rahner's neomodernism see John Lamont, ‘The historical conditioning of church doctrine’, The Thomist 1996, vol. 60, pp. 511-535.
10 The impact of the rediscovery of St. Thomas was felt in metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, ethics, political philosophy, philosophical logic, and jurisprudence – a wide range. A full bibliography of this impact would be enormous. Peter Geach, Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair Macintyre, Michel Villey, John Haldane, Gyula Klima, Philippa Foot, and Anthony Kenny are important figures in this recovery.
11 These changes have been most thoroughly explored in moral theology; see John Lamont, ‘Conscience, freedom, rights: idols of the Enlightenment religion’, The Thomist 73 (2009), for discussion and further references.
12 Bouillard stated in 1973 that Blondel was a principal inspiration for his own thought, and that Blondel's positions had come to be recognised as correct: see H. Bouillard, 'Ce que la théologie doit à la pensée de Maurice Blondel', Journées d’inauguration 30-31 mars 1973. Textes des interventions (Centre d’archives Maurice Blondel), (Louvain: Éditions de l’Institut supérieur de philosophie, 1974).
13 Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Paris, reported in 1940 that ‘Cardinal Suhard assures me that the French clergy is ready to act in collaboration with Germany’: Carmen Callil, Bad Faith (London: Vintage, 2007), p. 239.
14 See M. Labourdette, M.-J. Nicolas, R.-L. Bruckberger et al., Dialogue théologique, pièces du débat entre 'La Revue Thomiste' d’une part et les R.R. P.P. de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouillard, Fessard, von Balthasar, SJ, d’autre part (Saint-Maximin: Les Arcades, 1947).
15 See Limore YagilChrétiens et Juifs sous Vichy, 1940–44: sauvetage et désobéissance civile (Paris: Cerf, 2005).
16 Another cause for the division between Garrigou-Lagrange and Maritain was the position on Church, state and society that Maritain began to advance in the 1930s. Garrigou-Lagrange thought that Maritain held the position that Montalembert had argued for in the 19th century – calling for a 'free Church in a free State' – and that had been condemned by the encyclical Quanta Cura: see Garrigou-Lagrange's letter of Sept. 28th 1946 to Fr. Jules Meinvieille. Garrigou-Lagrange's analysis of Maritain's position is a plausible one, and his fidelity to papal teaching was not a fault in a Catholic and a theologian.
17 The articles are helpfully collected here:
18 The first open reappearance of modernism occurred in the works of Louis Charlier, Essai sur le Problème Théologique (Thuillies; Ramgal, 1938) and Marie-Dominique Chenu, Une ecole de theologie:le Saulchoir (Paris: Cerf, 1985, originally printed privately in 1937). This reappearance was denounced by Pietro Parente in 'Nuove tendenze teologiche', L'Osservatore Romano, February 9-10, 1942 – the article from which the term 'nouvelle théologie' originated – and led to Roman sanctions against these scholars. The episode is well described by Robert Guelluy in 'Les antécédants de l’encyclique Humani Generis dans les sanctions romaines de 1942Chenu, Charlier, Draguet', Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 81 (1986): 421-497. René Draguet, a professor of fundamental theology at the University of Louvain, was cited by the neomodernists in support of their views, but did not accept neomodernism (as Guelluy points out). He was removed from his teaching post in theology at Louvain as part of the Roman sanctions against neomodernism, and became a renowned specialist in Eastern patristics instead; his punishment is the one and only real case of the allegedly widespread practice of unjustly punishing faithful Catholic theologians for heresy. The advocacy of modernist theses was then taken up by Jean Daniélou and Henri Bouillard. The neomodernism of this later group was criticised by the Dominicans of Toulouse in a series of articles that have been collected in M. Labourdette, M.-J. Nicolas, R.-L. Bruckberger et al., Dialogue théologique, pièces du débat entre 'La Revue Thomiste' d’une part et les R.R. P.P. de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouillard, Fessard, von Balthasar, SJ, d’autre part (Saint-Maximin: Les Arcades, 1947). The Dominicans made a powerful intellectual case against neomodernism, but they were intimidated by their Jesuit opponents, and they did not dare to plainly call for magisterial condemnation of their views.
19 For this rejection see 'Correspondance Étienne Gilson - Michel Labourdette,' Revue thomiste 94 (1994): 479-529.

[In any event, please refer to this original publication at Rorate Caeli, authorized by the author.]