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  • Western European Liberation Theology: The First Wave (1924-1959)
  • John W. Hellman
Western European Liberation Theology: The First Wave (1924-1959). By Gerd-Rainer Horn. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. Pp. x, 314. $120.00. ISBN 978-0-199-20449-6.)

Gerd-Rainer Horn tells us that Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard of Paris was so taken by France: Pays de Mission? (Paris, 1943) of Fathers Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel that he spent a sleepless night devouring every word. This tract helped inspire the Mission de France initiative to "rechristianize the working class" and the tragic saga of the worker-priests. Horn might have added that 1943 also had the popular daily broadcasts of well-known politician Philippe Henriot—"the French Goebbels" nurtured by the Catholic Action movement— preaching Christian Crusade against Bolshevism. Would French workers, with the Communist Party outlawed, welcome an effort to "rechristianize" them? In 1944, not long before the liberation of Paris, Henriot was assassinated at his Paris apartment, and Suhard presided at his funeral in Notre Dame (deeply offending General Charles de Gaulle). Catholics promised to "liberate" all mankind, but how? [End Page 853]

The preface declares an intention to help "revalidate the progressive variant of twentieth-century Catholicism"(p. 4), and the monograph presents successive portraits of representative (often anti-Liberal) liberation theologians attractive to the author who, he argues, were of considerable socioeconomic importance. This is a new effort to present a European Catholic Left—if not liberation theology—in a transnational framework.

As in his book on May 1968, Horn is idiosyncratic in what he includes and excludes. He discusses important "progressive" figures faulted for earlier Pétainist or fascist sympathies (e.g., Suhard, Jacques Maritain, and Emmanuel Mounier) without mentioning this issue (p. 102). He describes the Italian Christian Marxists as remarkably original and important (p. 130) but does not mention young Frenchmen such as Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; the Terre Nouvelle, Témoignage Chrétien, or Économie et Humanisme groups; and the Chrétiens progressistes involved with the PCF and the Christian Trade Union (CFTC) or their attitudes toward Stalinism (p. 244). His focus on France and francophone Belgium is mostly on dynamic Action Catholique movements in France and Belgium such as the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC) founded by Joseph Cardijn in 1924.

This book discusses the Italian Catholic Left from its growth in the 1930s to its peak during the immediate postwar years (1944-46). Horn examines the Christian Democrat "Dossetiens"—Giuseppe Dossetti, Amintore Fanfani, and Giorgio La Pira—the Sinistra Cristiana (Christian Left) of Felice Balbo and Franco Rodano; and the small Christian-Social Party inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mounier. Horn describes iconoclastic local prophets—particularly the charismatic Don Zeno Saltini, whose efforts to form "base communities" were suppressed by the Vatican in 1950-51.

The final chapters describe the Mouvement Populaire des Familles, established in 1941, which, with 100,000 members, became the most important mass-based social movement of the early French Catholic Left. Also covered is the militant collective worker-priests' manifesto of 1953, which alarmed the Vatican and so contributed to the group's demise.

Why were the French Left Catholic intellectuals and theologians so important? Horn does not address this question (or describe the remarkable variety of "Christian renewal" efforts undertaken under Pétain). The book does link European liberation theology to the famous Latin American bishops' conference at Medellin in 1968. Although it is true that liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez had studied in Europe and been influenced by the "first wave" of French and Belgian Left Catholicism, the European context before the Second Vatican Council was very different from that of Latin America after the Cuban revolution. Bishop Karol Wojtyla drew inspiration from the theologians of the first, but became extremely wary of the second. [End Page 854]

However inaccurate its title, this book is based upon extensive research and offers rich new material about movements of Catholic laypeople in the mid-twentieth century, particularly the Catholic Left. Since Horn sets out to revalidate this tendency, he does not feel an obligation to make sense of liberation theology in general or of...


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