Soldiers of God in a Secular World

Vincent P. Walter Room, Curley Hall, The Catholic University of America

The IHE is proud to host a book panel on Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth Century French Politics (Harvard Press, 2021) by Sarah Shortall (Notre Dame).

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.

The panel will take place on Wednesday, January 11 at 3:00 p.m. A livestream is available here.


Dr. Sarah Shortall is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. is an intellectual and cultural historian of modern Europe, with a particular interest in modern France, Catholic thought, and the relationship between religion and politics.  She teaches courses on modern French history, the history of Catholicism, and European intellectual history.  In addition to these themes, her research also explores the history of science, secularization theory, human rights, decolonization, and the global circulation of religious ideas.

Shortall’s first book, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, 2021), has received several awards, including the Laurence Wylie Prize in French Cultural Studies and the Giuseppe Alberigo Award from the European Academy of Religion.  The book examines the impact of Catholic theology on French politics after the separation of Church and state in 1905, showing how the continuing role of theology in an ostensibly secular public sphere disrupts prevailing ideas about the nature and scope of the political in the modern world. Shortall is currently at work on a second book, tentatively called Planetary Catholicism.  It explores how Catholics have imagined the global as a theological, ecological, and political problem since the Second World War, and asks how these religious visions have interacted with other forms of global consciousness rooted in international law, science, politics, and the economy.

In addition to these projects, Shortall has co-edited a volume of essays titled Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and her work has appeared in Past & PresentModern Intellectual HistoryJournal of the History of Ideas, Boston Review, Commonweal, and The Immanent Frame.  Prior to joining the faculty at Notre Dame, Shortall was a Junior Research Fellow at Oxford University.

Dr. Russell Hittinger is a leading scholar of Catholic political and social thought. From 1996-2019, Dr. Hittinger was the incumbent of the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, where he was also a Research Professor in the School of Law. He has taught at the University of Chicago, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Fordham University, Princeton University, New York University, Providence College, and Charles University in Prague. In January 2020, Dr. Hittinger gave the Aquinas Lecture at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Since 2001, he is a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, to which he was elected a full member (ordinarius) in 2004, and appointed to the consilium or governing board from 2006-2018. On 8 September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dr. Hittinger as an ordinarius in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, in which he finished his ten-year term in 2019.

He is currently a Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America, where he also serves as the inaugural co-Director of the Program in Catholic Political Thought.

Dr. Peter Casarella is Professor of Theolgy at Duke Divinity School. His primary field of study is systematic theology followed by world religions and world church. He was appointed to the faculty of Duke Divinity School as of July 1, 2020. Formerly, he was an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame from 2013-2020 and served as director of the Latin American North American Church Concerns (LANACC) project in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. He served as professor of Catholic Studies from 2007-2013 at DePaul University, where he was also the founding director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology. He has published ninety-one essays in scholarly journals or books on a variety of topics including medieval Christian Neoplatonism, contemporary theological aesthetics, intercultural thought, and the Hispanic/Latino presence in the U.S. Catholic Church. He served as president of The American Cusanus Society, The Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the U.S. (ACHTUS), and the Academy of Catholic Theologians (ACT).

He is currently serving a second five-year term on the International Roman Catholic-Baptist World Alliance Ecumenical Dialogue and served also on the Roman Catholic-World Communion of Reformed Churches Dialogue. He has published a monograph, Word as Bread: Language and Theology in Nicholas of Cusa (2017) and a collection of his own essays, Reverberations of the Word: Wounded Beauty in Global Catholicism (2020). He has also edited or co-edited: Cuerpo de Cristo: The Hispanic Presence in the U.S. Catholic Church (1998), Christian Spirituality and the Culture of Modernity: The Thought of Louis Dupré (1998), Cusanus: The Legacy of Learned Ignorance (2006), A World for All? Global Civil Society in Political Theory and Trinitarian Theology (2011), and, most recently, The Whole is Greater than its Parts: Ecumenism and Inter-religious Encounters in the Age of Pope Francis (2020). He is currently working on a book titled: The God of the People: A Latinx Theology.