Reflections on Ressourcement Theology

I’m reposting something from my defunct English Catholic blog, which I see as particularly useful. Like the medieval Church when the fragmentation was as yet latent with the Lollards and the early Reformers, much of the problem was being caught up in excessively narrow scholastic categories. This is certainly true of many of those who defend Anglicanism from the point of view of the sixteenth-century formularies. This article was originally published on June 5th 2011. I include the comments of the time.

* * *

The term ressourcement is both a neologism and a French word. As mentioned in an earlier article, the word has been derived from Sources Chrétiennes (Christian Sources) an immense collection of bi-lingual critical editions of patristic writings. If you read French, you can refer to Sources Chrétiennes online. You will see how impressive this library is. The word also refers to the notion of returning to sources, which some might interpret as Protestant archaism and the illusion of the primitive Church. We find the idea beautifully expressed by Léon Bloy:

Retour à la case départ, là où les pierres me reconnaissent, les arbres me prennent pour l’un des leurs, là où je fais partie du paysage au point de disparaître. La vie comme un cercle, la vie comme une complétude, un retour aux sources, aux racines.

A somewhat prosaic translation into English would run – A return to the beginning, where the stones recognise me, the trees adopt me as one of their own, where I merge into the landscape to the point of disappearing. Life like a circle, life like completeness, a return to sources, to roots.  Péguy, in 1912, was highly optimistic about a Catholic “renaissance” in France. It is a mystical vision we find also with the Baron von Hügel and Fr Tyrrell. Tradition needs to be given space to grow and bring about renaissance. Men of those days had had enough of the petrified and dry bones of neo-scholasticism. This was the kind of “Modernism” that had nothing to do with the secularising efforts and refusal of mystery and miracle of Loisy, Harnack, Bultmann and others who eventually influenced Hans Küng and Karl Rahner. Conservatives and proponents of neo-scholasticism conveniently plaster over the differences and lump everyone into the same basket.

In a more strictly theological context, a return to sources refers to the Fathers of the Church – all of them from Clement of Alexandria to Bernard of Clairvaux, Athanasius to John Damescene. The field of vision is as vast as the sea seen from a small boat or the universe from our planet.

The idea is that referring to the Fathers rather than narrowly focusing on the philosophy of Aristotle and the Scholastics following the methods of St Thomas Aquinas and St Albert the Great would help to restore a key of interpretation following the notion of continuity and development. Researched and worked on with intellectual rigour, the neo-patristic method and vision would help to renew the Catholic’s sense of Tradition and bring a breath of fresh air.

Anglicans are generally unfamiliar with the scholastic so-called Manual tradition entrenched in Catholic universities and seminaries since about the eighteenth century. Perhaps this “little book” way inspired Chinese Communism with the Red Book everyone had to read and meditate. Scholasticism is highly attractive to the newcomer with its mathematical precision and logical clarity. The risk is one of reducing God to rational categories in a logic of clericalism. Using reduction ad absurdam, here is a piece of work using the neo-Thomist method to demonstrate that the Papal See is “formally vacant but materially occupied”. This might seem to be complete gobbledegook to most of us unfamiliar with this system, but is very coherent. This so-called Cassiaciacum Thesis was formulated by a Dominican priest, Fr Michel Guérard des Lauriers who was a disciple of Fr Garrigou Lagrange and a professor at the Angelicum in Rome and Le Saulchoir in Paris. He was no fool! Where this kind of thing falls down is that theology is largely concerned with theological truths that transcend human reason. The reasoning is so clever that it no longer corresponds with reality, the very basis of Aristotelian epistemology!

We cannot discredit all scholastic theology through this absurd extreme, but it does serve to show us that other theological visions exist and are perfectly orthodox in terms of the creeds and the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils.

Ressourcement theology largely grew in France from the end of the nineteenth century and had a tremendous amount of influence at Vatican II. These theologians felt they had to respond to the challenges of the twentieth century manifest in secularism. This movement drew some inspiration from men like Newman, Möhler and Blondel. Men of culture like Paul Claudel and Charles Péguy (mentioned above) also left their mark. This was also a time of the liturgical movement inspired by a desire to re-sacralise the Church’s worship and bring the faithful to a higher spiritual and intellectual level.

This movement was not purely French, but Germans like Romano Guardini, Karl Adam and Dom Odo Casel were present. The French movement was led mainly by the Dominicans of Le Saulchoir and the Jesuits of the Lyons Province. The most eminent names are Jean Daniélou, Louis Bouyer, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The opponents of this movement called this tendency la nouvelle théologie, with the idea of casting suspicion of heresy on these men. However, this grouping was not actually a group or some kind of Modernist conspiracy, but simply a common tendency among many different theologians of different religious orders, universities and groupings. They were united by a common conviction that theology had to talk to men of our times and that we are called to rediscover the whole Christian tradition.

One essential aspect of this movement is the importance of Church history. The idea is to look for answers in the Fathers for contemporary questions. The other important thing is to understand doctrinal definitions in their historical context. One important thing my old church history professor, Guy Bedouelle OP, taught us was that you understand history by the values of the time. You don’t commit anachronisms like judging the Inquisition in the light of our understanding of human rights and religious freedom. For example, it is sobering to know that the Inquisition had a fairer and more disciplined legal procedure than secular tribunals of the same period. I have criticised “non-historical orthodoxy” in some of my articles on liturgical reform.

The problem is not new – the Church is playing an endgame. Humanly, the game is over and the Church is called to disappear, presumably to give place to secularism or other religions. The Church is not without fault. Here in France, the working class was lost to the Church from about the time of World War I. Ever since then, no one seems to have come up with a solution in spite of the bold initiatives like the worker priests and the Mission de France. I have for a long time been haunted by these words from an article about Julius Evola (1898-1974), the Italian philosopher who was suspected of being close to the Fascist ideology, though he never belonged to Mussolini’s party.

Evola tells us that “the decline of the modern Church is undeniable because she gives to social and moral concerns a greater weight that what pertains to the supernatural life, to asceticism, and to contemplation, which are essential reference points of religiosity.” It is certainly not fulfilling any kind of meaningful role, either: “For all practical purposes, the main concerns of Catholicism today seem to turn it into a petty bourgeois moralism that shuns sexuality and upholds virtue, or an inadequate paternalistic welfare system. In these times of crisis and emerging brutal forces, the Christian faith should devote itself to very different tasks.” (…) Evola suggests that because the Church is so inadequate, it should be abandoned and left to its ultimate doom.

This intriguing Italian thinker might not have had all the answers, but he certainly asked the right questions. The accusations may be excessive but not fundamentally wrong. Should we let go of the Church and Christianity or only the caricature that generations and whole peoples have rejected? If we are not to reject Christianity, perhaps we need to give it new value and spiritual meaning. For Jean Daniélou, a Lyons Jesuit who taught at the Institut Catholique of Paris, theology had become absent from the thought of the twentieth century and the post-war world. For this theologian neo-Scholasticism has virtually no historical sense. With its essentialist and objectivist character, Neo-Thomism is unable to relate to our existentialism and human subjectivity. It was eminently a pastoral consideration. God’s transcendent mystery was hidden by rationalistic theology against which the existentialist Kierkegaard reacted. God had no longer to be an object, but a personal God accessible through love. We can see where Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) was trying to get at by combining Thomism emphasising being with the existentialist notion of experience, producing a highly interesting system called Existential Personalism.

The ressourcement movement sought to break out of neo-scholasticism as out of a prison. The instinct of these theologians was paradoxical – go forwards by going backwards. A return to the sources was what was needed. The motivation was more pastoral than academic or “intellectual masturbation”. These sources are the Scriptures, the liturgy, the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Fathers of the Church. They are channels of grace from that one Mystery of Christ. Christ had once again to live in his Church through the Paschal Mystery. These theologians wanted to be in intellectual and spiritual communion with a kind of Christianity that would be capable of fulfilling man’s deepest spiritual aspirations. In this pastoral vision, what was the interest of the Fathers as opposed to more recent and scholastic theologians? Perhaps some of the Fathers were quite close to our own experience in our own time.

What is amazing about this movement is the Sources Chrétiennes collection. Each volume contains a classical patristic text in its original language (usually Latin or Greek) and a French translation. I constantly used these books at university. It was thanks to these men that we know something of the Greek and Cappadocian Fathers. The ressourcement theologians also worked on St Thomas Aquinas, and some of them, the Dominicans in particular, were Thomists – but they were convinced that the dry and stuffy manuals were not Aquinas.

It is important to distinguish between those who sought to open windows and doors to let in fresh air, and those who wanted to proceed like the Protestant Reformers, refusing tradition and development to resort to some idealised “primitive church”. We can return to the sources but not to the past!

Putting it as schematically as possible, we thus find a marked contrast between two theological “cultures”: classical and romantic. The “classical” theological culture gave the idea that mystery could not be admitted and that God himself was in a way under man’s control. It was a secularising movement. On the other hand, we see Newman, the “mystical Modernists” and the Ressourcement definitely in a romantic optic. The real dialectic is not between conservatism and progress, but between religion as a rational ethical code and religion as an experience of the heart and the intellect, love and beauty as much as truth.

What is Romanticism? You can click on the link for the wider cultural meaning of this concept, but what interests us is not yukky banalised sentimentalism about boys falling in love with girls and getting married. What is of interest is its dimension as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and its equivalent of our own time, against ideologies and de-humanisation, against the tendency to make society into a kind of self-policing ethical machine that counted only on reason and science to give meaning to life. The Romantic revolt, which had something of a re-run from the end of the nineteenth century up to World War I, expressed itself mostly in art, music and in education (if we look at the example of Matthew Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby). The Oxford Movement in the 1830’s was very much situated in the earlier Romantic movement, and this has definitely formed Anglican culture over the past hundred and fifty years. I suspect that Romanticism is again being revived in subcultures like the “Goths”, and in the Church. I personally identify with the aspects of Romanticism that seek to give new life to love and beauty in the Church and her liturgy.

I might be shot down for identifying with some aspects of Romanticism and relativising others like the dark “gothic” and less than healthy tendencies. Have I the right to choose from the cafeteria? If some parts are bad, does the whole have to be rejected. Did not our grandmothers take a partly bad apple, cut out the bad bit and give us the good part to eat? Is it a question of temperament? Perhaps. Some people are naturally rationalists – I grew up in a scientific family. Others are artists, writers, musicians and thinkers. Some are natural optimists and others dwell on the more melancholic aspects of life. Much as I love the joy of the baroque, I tend to prefer the Romantic to the classical “ethical” and moralising spirit. Simply, I don’t like to be policed, but prefer to be good out of love and attraction to beauty!

Romanticism was particularly pronounced in the northern countries, England and Germany in particular. It is through the duality of Classicism and Romanticism that I perceive the present difficulties of Christianity in the west, between an excessively ethical emphasis over the aspect of experience of the sacred and the mystical. Romanticism appeals to the Middle-Ages, and tends to idealise the period naïvely. The classicist would tend to emphasise the hardness of mediaeval life: violence, intolerance, obscurantism, superstition, sickness, disregard for human life, chaos. Yet, despite this “darkness”, cathedrals were built, music was composed, ordinary people were deeply religious from motives of conviction and love and not merely through threats of punishment.

Without claiming that mediaeval is good and baroque is bad (because much beauty came out of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), when confronted with the dry aridity of the Manuals, the choice was between going back to older sources or inventing something new. Probably the Romantics did a little of both. They were brought up in classicism and rationalism and aspired to the best of mediaevalism. They saw the Middle-Ages as no one from the mediaeval era did – as we do not see ourselves like people from the twenty-third century will (if nothing happens to destroy all life on earth between now and then).

From the evidence of twelfth and thirteen century writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure and so many others, we see a very fine philosophical culture largely based on Plato and Aristotle. The overriding concern was to keep the flower of Tradition alive. Theirs was an organic conception of the unity of theology and life. Thomism and Neo-Thomism seem to be two vastly different categories, and not a homogeneous development of the latter from the former.

In 1947, Cardinal Suhard (Archbishop of Paris) asked Catholic intellectuals to innovate and lead. However, ressourcement theology does not invent without first learning from tradition. Newness must be rooted in the origins and the life of the Church. After Vatican II, Louis Bouyer wrote very acidly about the excess of innovating without referring to tradition. Indeed, in his Décomposition du Catholicisme, Bouyer identified the euphoric progressivists and demolishers with the old neo-scholastic men who had simply lost the faith! The ressourcement theologians of post-war France were not motivated by the idea of adapting theology to the tenets of modern atheism and rationalism, but to establish points of dialogue and common ground between theology and the contemporary world.

Ressourcement is not so much a kind of via media between neo-scholasticism and its developments in attempts to adapt to atheism and agnosticism, but a genuine “third way” that transcends both kinds of rationalism – conservative and progressivist. It is more of a kind of radical traditionalism. Indeed Radical Orthodoxy is a constituent part of this movement. We do not need a new theology or a new Church, nor one that is no older than Vatican II or the Council of Trent.

We must learn to distinguish between Thomism and neo-scholasticism. Ressourcement represents a hermeneutic of tradition. One extremely important point is that no one period of church history is perceived as the one and only reference point. There is no “golden age”. There is good and bad in all periods of history. Much of the best of this theological movement happened exactly during the period when Hitler and his gang of psychopaths were murdering and raping Europe. That alone is a sobering thought. We need to search in the entire tradition for the writings and liturgical rites that can serve as sources of life. It should also be noted that Ressourcement theologians never applied the polemical epithet “new theology” to themselves.

Theology cannot remain sterile intellectual speculation. It has to be concerned for the present and the Church’s pastoral mission. Compartmentalising has to give way to a global and all-encompassing vision of dogmatic theology, history, spirituality and life in general.

The ressourcement vision probably comes more naturally to Anglicans for two reasons: our romantic and northern roots and coming from Protestantism, which was an earlier reaction against distorted scholasticism (based on Nominalist metaphysics). We might conveniently talk of this as Anglican patrimony, but we should have the humility to recognise that we do not a monopoly! The French and Germans, Roman Catholics and Christians from the Reformation tradition also have their fingers in the pie. We do not suffer from any dualism or dichotomy between fidelity to tradition and creative freedom. Freedom and creation are fruits of obedience to the wider tradition of the Church from its beginnings to the present day. Newman, Péguy and Blondel, among others, presented Christian tradition as something dynamic and vital that looks ahead, not something retrograde that weighs down and imprisons.

There is one final thought to express here. Beauty and creativity are often reactions against evil. We will always have evil with us, in our various national governments, business and the Church hierarchy. Men, will always want to pull us down and keep us under control. Life has always been like that. It is for us to rise to the challenge and “think outside the box”. That is the condition of progress. Some periods are more propitious for these aspirations than others, but there is no reason why we too cannot make our mark – even if it brings us great suffering.

4 Responses to Reflections on Ressourcement Theology

  1. Michael LaRue, K.M. says:

    I do believe, Father, that this is the best piece of yours I have ever read. I was quite happily taught in seminary from many of the authors you mention as part of the Ressourcement, and I very much found in then Cardinal Ratzinger a kindred spirit. Unfortunately he is such a rare bird. I presume you have read the Regensburg address. How do you think his approach therein to the question of truth and reason concerning God and theology relates to your thesis?

    Thank you very much for this piece!

    Very respectfully in Christ,
    Cav. Michael

    •   Fr Anthony Chadwick says:

      Thank you. Here is a link for the Regensburg address –

      This Pope really has a knack of making us understand the real issues, notably the consequences of Kantian metaphysics on one hand and Greek realism on the other. I just wish I could read him in German without needing translations!

  2.   Gael says:

    Thank you, Father, for these interesting articles.
    Return to the sources…hmmm. The sources are here. You surely mean that we should re-appropriate them and internalise them again. The big problem, as i see it, with the Ressourcement movement was that it was unaccompanied with a radical turn to the monasticism. In this, I concur with Evola’s point. One cannot pretend to return to the Fathers if one does not intend to live as the Fathers did. (And what about the antecedents of the Ressourcement: Migne and Gueranger, especially in the latter’s Annee Liturgique?)

    Any movement that sets out to re-vitalise the Church should, in my humble estimation, be monastic, radical in its adherence to the Rules of the Fathers, and at the same time, missionary. Of course, the bourgeois shun the notion of a Church Militant, preferring the comforts of committee rooms, etc, and therefore content themselves with the mediocre. The notion for them is to do what they can, and not what they must. On the other those animated by the spirit of Basil, Benedict, Bruno, Dominic, Francis, etc-which is indeed, the spirit of Christ’s Gospel, christians ought not to do what they can, but what they must.

    Anyway, I really like the Sources Chretiennes Books- the critical apparatus sometimes leave doubtful about the author’s orthodoxy…

  3.   Dale says:

    Once again father, a truly excellent article.

    I would posit, perhaps incorrectly, that Ressourcement might very well match the historical theology that was very much part of early Anglo-Catholicism. This return to Patristic writing and theology was very evident in the more non-Roman oriented Catholicism of certain sections of the Tractarian Movement. Unfortunately, this group was less and less an active player with the growth of Papal-Anglicanism and its psychological need to limit itself to the most recent innovations within modern Roman Catholicism.

    I have in mind especially the works of J.N.D. Kelly’s “Early Christian Doctrine,” and his studies on early creeds as well. Going along with your most recent article, I would venture to also mention Dearmer’s search for theology of beauty, within the Anglican context, found in his liturgical studies and the musical tradition explored by G.H. Palmer; this for me is in some ways the epitome of Anglo-Catholicism.

    I would also add that I do agree with you on an acceptance, albeit mitigated, of the actual texts of Vatican II; my problem has never been so much with Vatican II as with Vatican I, which I believe changed the whole direction of Roman theology away from the Patristic movement towards that of Papalism and autocracy (long after such issues ceased to be political movements); in this respect I believe that von Doelinger was the real hero of Patristic Catholicism over that of the papal party. Eventually, I feel, that the exterior life of the new Romanism founded by Vatican I would, and needed, a liturgical expression; hence, the new liturgy, reflective of new theology and the victory of the cult of ugliness that seems universal in most modern Roman parishes.

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8 Responses to Reflections on Ressourcement Theology

  1. Pingback: Fr. Chadwick on Ressourcement | Foolishness to the world

  2. ed pacht says:

    Fr. Chadwick. I will take exception to your characterization of your translation of the Bloy quote as prosaic. Presented with linebreaks as below it is a truly lovely little poem. I don’t read French, and don’t have the breadth of reading necessary to discuss this truly challenging post, but did find myself moved to write a somewhat longer poem inspired by this quote/translation:

    Retour à la case départ

    Retour à la case départ, là où les pierres me reconnaissent, les arbres me prennent pour l’un des leurs, là où je fais partie du paysage au point de disparaître. La vie comme un cercle, la vie comme une complétude, un retour aux sources, aux racines. (by Léon Bloy)

    A return to the beginning,
    where the stones recognise me,
    the trees adopt me as one of their own,
    where I merge into the landscape
    to the point of disappearing.
    Life like a circle,
    life like completeness,
    a return to sources,
    to roots.

    (Translation by Anthony Chadwick)

    A return
    to home,
    where I am known,
    where I fit as nowhere else,
    where the stones have waited for my presence,
    holding open spaces where I belong,
    providing shelter for my life,
    providing places where I may sit and rest;
    A return
    to home,
    where I am known,
    where the trees acknowledge brotherhood,
    and take me in as part of life,
    to breathe the same air,
    to bask beneath the same bright sun,
    to be nourished by the same deep soil;
    A return
    to home,
    where I am known,
    where I am barely seen,
    for I am part of all that is,
    melting into the place where I belong,
    where I can be as I was meant to be;
    A return
    to home,
    where I am known,
    having circled through a broken world,
    having sought completeness I did not find;
    A return
    to home,
    where I am known,
    to the sources of my life,
    my mind,
    my heart,
    my roots,
    and I shall grow.

    ————————————————ed pacht 5/24/2013

  3. Stephen K says:

    Yes, I must say I agree with you, Ed. I didn’t think Father’s translation was prosaic at all. But you said it.

    And I think your own poem says this deep and yearningful thing very strongly.

  4. Jim of Olym says:

    ‘These theologians wanted to be in intellectual and spiritual communion with a kind of Christianity that would be capable of fulfilling man’s deepest spiritual aspirations.’

    But what about those with no spiritual aspirations? Those are the ones that are truly ‘post-Christian’ and who have to be evangelized anew, since they mostly come from a Christian background which they have rejected.

    PS you mention some people I’m familiar with, Conger, Daniélou, Bouyer, de Lubac, von Balthasar. Where does von Hildebrand fit into all this?

    • ed pacht says:

      But are there those truly without spiritual aspirations? At least among thinking people I’ve never met one. Even the atheists I’ve known seem to me to be hungering for — something — without knowing what. This inchoate hunger is, I think, what they may mean by ‘aspirations’. Christianity, as it has been presented, does not address such questions, and thus they have ceased to look there. What a pity.

      • I think the contemplative way is the model that can be the most credible kind of Christianity to sceptical people in quest of “spirituality”. Of course many monasteries have wandered away from this ideal and look to the outside like “prisons”. Another thing the sceptics look for is sincerity, and that is a rare commodity in Christian Churches. If we can judge ourselves more severely than the sceptics judge us, then they might find something that attracts them.

  5. Jim of Olym says:

    Also, another PS: I thought that von Hugel and Anglicans like Evelyn Underhill were too ‘mystical’ and perhaps even anti Church in its institutional form to be accomodated.

  6. William T. Sublette says:

    What an education for me. I belong to a book club meeting weekly. We’re somewhat educated but not too smart. We would like to read about Vatican II. We passed around John O’malley’s book What Happened at Vatican II but most thought we’d get lost in following the the cast of characters and the evolution of schemas through to the official documents. Father Anthony’s article, short compared to a book, would be excellent to familiarize us with a key concept of Vatican II’s preparation. Combined with an equally good article on aggiornamento, we’d be on our way to appreciating the power of the Holy Spirit through Pope John’s developing vision of his Council.

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