The “end of history” was declared thirty years ago. With the conclusion of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many perceived capitalism and liberal democracy to be the victors, permanently vindicated. They likewise assumed that the age of ideological battles was over, that ideological fervour would subside as those in the West went about their business of material acquisition and spreading the goods of the neoliberal order around the world.
But, as R.R. Reno has argued in his recent book, our time is witnessing a “return of the strong gods.” Yearnings for thick loyalties and deep meaning—and for the recognition of both in the so-called public sphere—have resurfaced with a vengeance. You see this everywhere, from the revival of nationalism, to racialist identitarianism, to battles over gender and sexual identities, to the 1619 versus 1776 debates, and so on. As Shadi Hamid puts it in his important essay in The Atlantic, “America Without God,” more and more Westerners are making a religion out of politics; as traditional religious adherence has declined in America, a spiritual vacuum has been created that has become increasingly filled with cult-like devotion to ideologies.
It would appear that these desires are not going away. They will certainly not be eradicated by dissolving loyalties and suppressing the longing for integration between public and private, as was the strategy pursued by many Western states during the postwar period, buttressed by Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” and a politics dictated by John Rawls’s “public reason” as opposed to “comprehensive doctrines.” Really, one could see this as simply an acute expression of the entire modern project—the centuries-long attempt to manufacture a social order without reference to God, metaphysics, nature, or ultimately any obligation other than those chosen by the self. But humans have proved time and again that the pursuit of the transcendent will not be contained inside the atomized world of the individual.
According to the great French Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac (1896–1991), strategies to fight these trends are largely what got us into this mess in the first place. De Lubac is one of the most important theologians of the previous century. His thought helped set the stage for the Second Vatican Council (at which he served as a peritus, an official theological advisor) and also inspired many of the most creative theologians of the postconciliar period, such as Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, and John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy. In the first half of his career, a major element in de Lubac’s project was resisting the pernicious ideologies that were then prominent in Europe. Unfortunately, though he might be remembered for his clandestine activities against anti-Semitism and his resistance to the Nazis, the particularities of his social vision, which I summarize as an “ecclesial humanism,” have largely been forgotten. An anthropological naïveté fuelled the assumptions that won the day in postwar Western societies. As we watch the resulting social cancer spread, de Lubac’s thought represents an untapped resource for resistance and a fresh witness.
French Ideological Fervour
France in the first half of the twentieth century was characterized by intense ideological fervour. According to de Lubac’s analysis, these ideologies emerged largely as a reaction to the progressive liberalization and secularization of European societies during the nineteenth century. As religion was pushed to the private sphere, salvation was increasingly perceived as an individualistic matter: Christianity lost its social reality. De Lubac argued that this was partly the fault of Catholic theology itself, which had helped to bring about its own exile. Through the speculative apparatus of the theory of “pure nature,” Catholicism eventually produced a “separated theology” that rendered grace superfluous to creation, human nature specifically. This resulted, according to John Milbank’s interpretation of de Lubac, in a “religion without humanism” and “a humanism without religion.” Dominant strands of Christian theology were failing to convey the integral relation between nature and grace, salvation and sociality, the supernatural and human flourishing. Consequently, a “separated philosophy” emerged that deemed such theological considerations artificial and unnecessary—especially for the sociopolitical order.
In a series of publications written during World War II, de Lubac paid particular attention to the interrelation between a separated, privatized theology and the proliferation of ideologies. In an essay published in 1942 titled “Internal Causes of the Weakening and Disappearance of the Sense of the Sacred,” de Lubac argued that late modern societies have relegated the supernatural “to some distant corner where it could only remain sterile.” Having done so, they set out to organize the world devoid of any Christian influence, in a wholly secular spirit.
De Lubac expanded on the significance of this phenomenon in another essay published that same year, titled “A Christian Explanation of Our Times.” He argued that modern values such as freedom, equality, brotherhood, nationality, progress, and social justice originally emerge from Christianity and only make sense when integrated within the Christian whole. As these concepts become detached from their origin—when they become “laicized ideas”—they are transformed into dangerous “ideologies and utopias”; or, as Chesterton described them, “Christian ideas gone mad.” These ideologies isolate one aspect of Christian truth to the neglect of others, and become dangerous distortions of reality.
A privatized Christianity, de Lubac explained, offers weak resistance to such developments, and in fact leaves man prone to seek “substitute faiths” in the form of secular (often political) religions. He argued that Christians are primarily to blame for their compliance with the reduction of the faith to the merely personal, “private” sphere. Such a faith, according to de Lubac, fails to tease out its consequences and produces a vision of the world that is devoid of the presence of the living God. The world, in other words, loses its mysterious depth and divine significance. This leaves man in “metaphysical despair,” because humanity ineluctably longs for the transcendent. As Augustine says in his classic phrase, speaking to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” If a privatized faith leaves the social sphere devoid of theological resources, humanity’s transcendent longings will eventually seek fulfillment in other places. And because these ideologies are not sufficiently related to the true source of human flourishing, they can only produce inhuman results. This is the argument of his wartime masterpiece The Drama of Atheist Humanism. In that text de Lubac analyzed the major ideologies of his day, or the various forms of “humanism,” and argues that these so-called humanisms secularize Christian ideas, ultimately producing sociopolitical orders that are organized against humanity. Their error is in thinking that in order to be humanistic, they must be atheistic. De Lubac argued the exact inverse.
Ideologies of the Day
What were the toxic ideologies plaguing Europe that de Lubac and others faced? Nazism was on the rise in neighbouring Germany and would eventually come closer to home during the occupation years (1940–1944). Nazism, characterized by a Nietzschean obsession with power and strength and war between races, was willing to use violent, aggressive power to secure the interests of one’s groups at the expense of others. After Germany invaded France and established the “free zone” in the South, headquartered in Vichy, many Catholics collaborated with the Nazis in exchange for promises of the restoration of certain privileges to the Church. Many of them even saw in Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the Vichy government, God’s “providential man” to restore the status of the Roman Catholic Church and renew France in traditional values against liberal decadence.
Communism was the other major ideology of this period. In its opposition to bourgeois individualism, communism ultimately becomes a totalitarian collectivism; informed by anti-theist Marxism, it becomes willing to sacrifice individual persons for the future society. With its progressive view of history, and its goal to birth the “New Man”—the human person in full self-possession—communism relies on materialistic and technocratic solutions, which in turn fosters the assumption that with the right tools humanity can reorder society and bring about utopia.
Particular to France during this time was the ideology of integral nationalism. This political ideology, associated with the political movement Action française, originated under the leadership of Charles Maurras (1868–1952). As a nationalist and authoritarian party, it repudiated the revolutionary spirit of the republic and sought to return to monarchy and social hierarchy. Though not a Christian, Maurras sought collaboration with the Roman Church and wanted to rehabilitate it as a state religion in his program of uniting state, culture, and race—a unity he called integrisme. He was a follower of the philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857), whose positivism provided him with the conceptual tools to combat individualism with immanent, naturalistic resources. Maurras transposed Comte’s elevation of “humanity” to la patrie (country) as the most holy of things. By “country” he meant France, particularly the France of the past permeated with the “classical spirit” prior to its “fall” in the Revolution of 1789, which introduced a spirit of anarchy. Maurras perceived an affinity between his ideology and the “classical spirit” in Catholicism due to the latter’s disavowal of individualism and progress. He pursued a “throne and altar” alliance with the Roman Church to purge France of individualism and restore order, discipline, and hierarchy. His vision of France was an absolutist collectivity that would have supreme authority over individuals, subordinating their interests to those of the country.
Options in French Catholic Social Thought
In de Lubac’s day there were two main movements of French Catholic social thought that sought to reunite Christianity with the social, to retrieve the public dimensions of the faith.
First, there were many counter-revolutionary, anti-modernist Catholics who supported Action française. During the pontificate of Pius X (1903–1914), they became known as “integralists,” according to the French historian Émile Poulat. The appeal of Action française to this group stemmed largely from a desire to return the Church to a position of power and privilege in society in resistance to the secularizing forces of modernity and the hostile policies of the French Third Republic. For many Catholics at the time, this partnership was conceivable because of a version of Thomism that understood Thomas’s distinctions between the truths of revelation and reason to insinuate that supernatural considerations were not relevant to the political sphere, which was governed sufficiently by reason and philosophy. Maurras distinguished “political facts” from moral and religious realities, thus promoting a strict separation between the orders of religion and politics. In this way, he was able to present his atheistic positivism as a sort of bottom half of a two-tiered Catholicism. This bottom half could be formally separated from a theology that remained an optional upper half for society at large. Catholic supporters defended Maurras by saying that his system dealt with this-worldly matters, and that there appeared to be concordances between Maurras’s political positions and those of Catholic natural law.
Second, there was a broad movement known as “social Catholicism.” This label names the attempts begun with Pope Leo XIII (pope from 1878 to 1903) and continuing through the first half of the twentieth century to restore the social significance of Christianity. Leo wanted to bring society back to religion, but he tried to take a conciliatory path, promoting the program of ralliement. Instead of seeking to restore a monarchist regime allied to the Church, Leo called all Catholics to rally (ralliement literally translates as “rally”) to the republic as a legitimate form of government, even as he decried its current secularism. These efforts were largely derailed by the Dreyfus affair (1894–1906), which pitted the anti-Catholic republicans and anti-republican Catholics against each other more than ever before and left social Catholicism as a dead option. In response to the republic’s hostile moves against the Catholic Church, the Vatican conducted broadside attacks on “Modernism,” under which it included various movements of social Catholicism. Ralliement, and thus social Catholicism, was off the table for the time. The more urgent task, it seemed, was to defend the Church.
Social Catholicism received a second life after World War I, in what is often referred to as the second ralliement. During this time, two leading French figures—Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973)—promoted their visions of social Catholicism, each of which gained significant popularity before and after World War II.
Mounier is famous for his “personalist” political philosophy. His central sociopolitical conviction was that Christianity must be incarnated in the social sphere, without which the faith becomes disembodied idealism. But he also worried about the temptation to compromise religion through either authoritarian clericalism or absolutizing the temporal. Mounier’s proposal for how to incarnate the faith socially without either seeking to restore ecclesiastical power or idolizing particular sociopolitical arrangements was to promote the “primacy of the spiritual.” For Mounier, this entailed suffusing society with Christian values, providing the mystique, doctrine, or moral spirit for the permanent revolution, which would enable societies to progressively approximate an authentic democracy oriented to the needs of the human person. The vision is primarily geared toward the action of individuals in society, who by their witness serve as the presence of the Christian spirit in the world.
After the 1926 papal condemnation of Action française, Jacques Maritain began to promote what he called “integral humanism.” Maritain grounded his views in a radical distinction between the temporal common good of political society and the supernatural common good of the kingdom of God. The political task as he understood it was to seek the betterment of the conditions of human life and to develop the conditions of life in common that enable each person to pursue moral and spiritual progress. He embraced the formal separation of church and state, seeing it as a positive development from a sacral Christendom to a secular one, albeit Christianly inspired. According to Maritain, a secular Christendom promotes more freedom of the human person without denying a theological orientation. Such a society, and its governing authorities, must recognize the transcendent nature of the human person and thus enshrine the indirect subordination of the state to the supratemporal ends of the person. This is what Maritain meant by the “primacy of the spiritual” (a principle he shared with Mounier, though they each meant something slightly different by it). But this primacy does not entail providing temporal advantage to the church. That would be to seek to restore what Maritain labels a “decoratively Christian” society, which he distinguishes from a truly or “vitally Christian” society. Maritain understands the latter as characterized by an organic link between Christianity and civil society without religious compulsion or clericalism. But, similar to Mounier, he envisioned the impact of Christianity largely occurring through the influence of individuals in civil society, as the church, remaining in its distinct sphere, simply informed the consciences of believers.
De Lubac’s Underappreciated Ecclesial Humanism
De Lubac’s vision differs in some significant ways from all of these other options, and provides unique resources to combat the ideologies in our societies today.
For de Lubac the integralists were simply not integrated enough—particularly at the level of human nature. They did not account for the integral relation between nature and grace, and thus saw truth not as a source of life but simply as a resource for imposing constraint. Under the guise of attacking a decadent and corrupt form of democracy, integralists ended up attacking the Christian spirit. This subversion of the Christian spirit is what led them to endorse the authoritarian integral nationalism of Action française, turn a blind eye to violations against human rights (especially racially targeted), and collaborate with the Nazis during the occupation.
While de Lubac never explicitly said as much, he would likely have considered both Mounier’s and Maritain’s versions of social Catholicism to be insufficiently ecclesial. In his personalism, Mounier sought to suffuse the Christian “spirit” into society, but the church is almost entirely absent from his social vision. This deficiency helps to explain Mounier’s attraction to versions of communism as an alternative social collectivity. And although Maritain’s humanism is “integral” and “theocentric” it is not ecclesial. While Maritain’s understanding of political society might not entirely privatize religion, it unduly prioritizes the rights and liberties of persons. The church simply does not figure in any central way in Maritain’s social vision—a vision that can easily slide into a liberal individualism.
Like these other Catholic movements, de Lubac rejected a hard separation between religion and society and absolutely opposed the privatization of the faith. His earliest masterpiece, Catholicism, whose original subtitle translates as “the social aspects of dogma,” is emphatic on these points. He mentioned in the introduction that much of the material was originally developed to address charges often made by socialists of his day that Christianity was inherently individualistic and escapist. One of the fundamental ideas in that work, he explained, is the reality that Christianity “is essentially social. It is social in the deepest sense of the word.” So Christianity must “integrate” with the social. At the same time, de Lubac was adamant that he did not intend to draw up a plan of social reform—what he referred to as the “social temptation”—and he later warned against a “preoccupation with politics.” In contrast to these other movements, de Lubac envisioned the integration occurring at a more fundamental level, at the level of the relation between nature and the supernatural. This deep integration is what informed his version of humanism.
Any theology that separates the orders of nature and grace needs to be replaced with a form of integral humanism, which perceives nature as ordered to and fulfilled in the supernatural. De Lubac conceived of salvation as the social and supernatural elevation of humanity. This elevation takes place through the sacraments, and particularly the church as sacrament.
For de Lubac, the sacraments are means of salvation and instruments of unity. They are sensible bonds between two worlds—mediating or making present the transcendent realities they signify, and uniting humankind to them. The church on earth—as the ecclesial body of Christ—is the divinely ordained means of salvation, such that the entire process of salvation is worked out in it and identified with it. The church as sacrament is the site and instrument of this social elevation. It is, in the words of Susan Wood, a leading expert on de Lubac’s ecclesiology, the “social embodiment of the grace” that is necessary to bring humanity to its telos, effecting the unity and enabling the interior development in the life of grace for which humankind was created. Thus, de Lubac’s humanism had an ecclesial centre. He envisioned the person’s fulfillment in the supernatural social body that is the church. This is an ecclesial humanism, not merely an integral one abstracted from the body of Christ. Against the “social temptation,” or a “preoccupation with politics,” de Lubac focused primarily on the “society of believers.”
One way to understand what de Lubac envisioned is to return to his grounding in Augustine. For de Lubac, a Christian social vision begins with the innate restlessness, à la Augustine, that is characteristic of being human—a fundamental lack, an irrepressible desire that is not satiated by any purely natural reality. De Lubac, however, extended the restlessness of the human person to the social realm. Humanity is restless not simply for God but for the social body in which God dwells. It is this social body that is God’s divine instrument for supernatural social life. Humanity’s restless sociality, in other words, finds satisfaction only in the sacramental fellowship of the church. If humanity does not locate its social fulfillment in the divinely constituted social body—that is, the church—then it will seek to satisfy those desires elsewhere, without avail and in ways that produce inhuman results: in ersatz churches and neopagan ideologies.
So, de Lubac’s unique approach to ideologies was two-pronged: First, he critiqued ideologies for their failure to fulfill humanity’s supernatural social longings. And second, he promoted the church as the true social body.
For de Lubac, the unity that humankind seeks is found only in the catholicity of the church, which transcends all divisions (thus opposing all forms of racism and idolatrous nationalism), connects humanity with the transcendent (thus opposing Marxist communism), and honours both individual and collective (thus transcending both liberalism and communism). This message is particularly evident in de Lubac’s resistance writings, written in the years surrounding World War II, in which he sought to remind the church of its mission of being the inclusive social body in the world. The church must reach out to all people, to gather them into one and the same love. It is the only social body capable of overcoming the limitations of secular ideologies.
All other social and cultural identities need not feel threatened by the church’s universal claims; even though the church dethrones them by promoting itself as the truly human social body, these are thereby freed to be embraced in a more human way. As he would say in a later writing, the world was, in a sense, “made for the church, to be assumed into, saved, and transfigured by her.” But in order for this to occur, all identities must be humbled and purified, for the only humanism worthy of the name “Christian” is, according to de Lubac, a “converted humanism.” Applying this understanding of humanism to our national societies, de Lubac argued that within the broader sociopolitical realm in which it resides, the church “must devote herself freely to her task as educator in order to help the country remake itself by helping it go beyond itself.” In de Lubac’s sacramental logic, grace works like leaven, transforming nature from inside. The church, then, “influences” and “ennobles” the state and surrounding society—inspiring them to become more Christian and thus “more human.” A humbled nation-state, recognizing it is not ultimate, can then perform the tasks proper to it and need not solve all social needs or secure devotion to itself by opposing other bodies (whether other nations or the church).
The church is the only social body capable of overcoming the limitations of secular ideologies.
This logic can be extended to address issues of race, class, and political partisanship. The church can include those identities while reconciling them within itself. In fact, to be truly “catholic,” de Lubac argued, the church needs the contributions of all of humanity; and the various groups within broader humanity need to be incorporated into the catholic whole in order for their identities and contributions to fully flourish. Apart from this broader incorporation into the catholic whole, the knowledge and cultural creations of various groups remain fragmentary. According to de Lubac, “all races, all centuries, all centers of culture have something to contribute to the proper use of the divine treasure which [the church] holds in trust.” The church is the “only ark of salvation,” giving “shelter to all varieties of humanity”; the “banqueting hall” whose “dishes” are “the product of the whole of creation.” Nothing “authentically human can be alien to her,” and nothing can be fully human apart from her.
Also, while it is necessary for Christians to address social ills, they must not do so according to the resources of secular modernity. For example, when de Lubac addressed the evil of racism (particularly anti-Semitism), he did so not with reference to the secular conception of human rights, but rather by appealing to the common vocation of humankind and the open and universal character of the church—that is, with reference to ecclesiology. This focus on addressing social ills in and through the church also avoids the illiberal approaches to justice that are increasingly common in contemporary societies. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal are possible through the atonement secured by Christ and embodied in the sacramental fellowship of the church. Persons and relations are thereby transfigured, which reverberates out into the broader world. Also, liberation from material poverty must always be attended by a focus on liberation from sin and social alienation within the church. For de Lubac, emphasizing one need not de-emphasize the other. Salvation is incorporation into Christ’s body, the sacramental community animated by love. Among her members, there should be no needs, and her mission is to spread her love to others and to bring persons into this fellowship—the “body of charity on earth” for which humanity was destined.
In de Lubac’s sacramental logic, grace works like leaven, transforming nature from inside.
We are in an age of renewed ideological fervour. History did not come to an end with the apparent victory of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. Rather, history has its meaning and goal in Christ—what he accomplished on the cross—and his kingdom, which is coming. The church, as his body, is the sign, foretaste, and instrument of Christ in the world. It is the temporal site that anticipates the supernatural fulfillment of natural social longings. De Lubac’s ecclesial humanism helps us remember these truths and resist the pull of toxic ideologies.