Making Prayer a Political Problem Once Again

Few heeded Jean Daniélou’s warnings in his own time, so his work remains fresh and vital today. Sadly, the forces working against Daniélou in 1965 remain vital, if somewhat less than fresh.

(Image: Josh Applegate/

In 1965, the Church finally made peace with modern politics through Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s statement on religious freedom. The meaning of religious freedom and the nature of Catholic politics within a pluralist democracy remains contested. The last eighteen months have obscured any clarity Catholics might have achieved over the last fifty-five years.

Passionately pro-life Catholics embraced a secular libertine as their champion; pro-choice liberals who once insisted on their private opposition to abortion now affirm abortion as a positive good and embrace a much broader sexual ideology of transgenderism. Those seeking guidance as to what the Council Fathers could have possibly meant by a Catholic politics would do well to read Jean Daniélou’s Prayer As A Political Problem. Originally published in France in 1965, followed by an English translation in 1967, Daniélou’s classic text is now available once again through a 2021 re-issue published by Sophia Institute Press. It remains the most profound gloss on the challenge of Dignitatis Humanae and the meaning of Catholic politics after Christendom.

American Catholics have long, and rightly, understood Dignitatis Humanae as their distinct contribution to the Council. John Courtney Murray, S.J., the American Jesuit and primary author of the document, did indeed draw on the experience of the Catholic Church in America to argue that the faith could thrive in a climate of religious pluralism. What the hundred years prior to 1965 seemed to prove, the ten years following the Council would call into question. Murray perhaps too naively assumed that what had worked in America could now work for the whole Church; he quickly came to realize that it no longer worked even in America.

Born in 1905, raised in the suburbs of Paris, Daniélou came to the issues of democracy and religious pluralism from a political environment at once less and more hostile to the idea of a Catholic politics: through the first half of the twentieth century, a significant portion of French Catholics longed for the restoration of a Catholic monarchy, while just as significant portion of French liberals saw the Church as the single greatest threat to modern republican politics. The Second World War would put an end once and for all to the fantasies of royalists, yet the appeal to pre-1789 ideals of organic social unity in pre-war debates would bequeath to French theologians such as Daniélou a more capacious understanding of politics than that generally available to American theologians schooled in political debates limited by the terms of post-1776 modernity.

Daniélou experienced the extremes of French politics directly from a very early age. His father, a wine merchant of modest means, came from a politically active family steeped in the anti-clericalism of the Third Republic, while his mother was raised in a traditional Catholic milieu. Daniélou’s mother became even more devout as an adult and dedicated her life to education, with a special emphasis on developing schools that fostered an environment at once rigorously intellectual and compatible with a strong faith. In his 1974 memoir, Et qui est mon prochain? (And Who is my Neighbor?), Daniélou credits his mother with providing him a model for the Catholic intellectual life; still, he notes an equally strong, if less direct, debt to his father.

Despite his father’s ambivalence toward the Church, his family roots in Brittany exposed young Jean to another, and equally important, aspect of the Catholic faith: the folk practices of traditional popular Christianity. On trips to Brittany as a child, Daniélou experienced a nearly pre-modern, peasant culture in which the Catholic faith imbued the full range of everyday activities and gave shape to major public celebrations such as the Grande Troménie at Locronan, a Christianized version of an old Celtic harvest festival similar to that of Lughnasa in Ireland. From these childhood experiences, Daniélou, one of the greatest Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century, learned that the life of faith is lived first and foremost in community, a community bound together less by ideas than by practices.

Respect for peasant traditions in no way entailed a retreat from the intellectual life. Daniélou came of age in the Paris of the 1920s and sampled many of secular delights that time and place had to offer. Despite moving freely in the modernist art circles of figures such as Jean Cocteau, Daniélou retained his basic faith and by 1929 began his ten-year formation in the Society of Jesus. Those ten years, coinciding with the Great Depression, would see attempts to link the Catholic faith to radical politics, particularly the Catholic personalism of Emmanuel Mounier and those associated with the journal Esprit. Daniélou wrote for Esprit and had a profound interest in Marxist theory, if not Marxist politics; still, he remained suspicious of efforts to recruit the Church into the service of any particular political party or program.

This suspicion of confining the faith to a neat little box carried over into his intellectual formation as a Jesuit. Daniélou was repulsed by the neo-Thomism that dominated Catholic intellectual life in the decades following Pius X’s condemnation of modernism. Closed and defensive, this Thomism struck him as a misguided effort to respond the challenges of modernity by reducing the faith to an air-tight, hermetically sealed system of ideas.

For Daniélou, the proper response to modernity lay less in refuting errors than in living the Christian life. For this, he drew inspiration from the emerging ressourcement movement, which looked beyond the scholastics back to the earlier traditions of the Church Fathers. As Thomism reflected the intellectual rigor of Aristotelian philosophy, ressourcement theology drew its orientation from Scripture, liturgy, and history.

The contrast between these two traditions was on display in the differing approaches to the relation between prayer and politics in the era of the Second Vatican Council. John Courtney Murray, schooled in mid-century Thomism, defended American constitutional principles of religious liberty on the basis of a shared natural law philosophy that linked Catholic intellectual traditions to the thought of the American Founders. In Prayer as a Political Problem, Daniélou wondered and worried whether the Catholic faith could survive at all in a world that offered no public support for Catholic life. To be clear, Daniélou accepted the principle of disestablishment and in no way endorsed a return to the Christendom of the past; rather, he understood public support in terms of society and culture, not politics.

The great danger of the modern understanding of religious freedom and pluralism is the privatization of faith:

It would appear that today there are too many Christians who see no incongruity in the juxtaposition of a private religion and an irreligious society, not perceiving how ruinous this is for both society and religion. But how are society and religion to be joined without either making religion a tool of the secular power or the secular power a tool of religion? This book invites the reader to join in the search for an answer to this problem which is vital for tomorrow (vii).

Prior to the legalization and establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the fourth century, Christianity remained confined to a small, underground elite. With Constantine, Christianity became the faith of the masses—or, in Daniélou’s terms, “The Church of the Poor.” Daniélou understands poverty in spiritual rather than material terms: that is, the poor are the mass of people who lack sufficient grace and/or will to live a Christian life like those in the age of the martyrs. He fears that modern privatization might have the same consequences as ancient persecution: the reduction of Christianity to a small elite. This, for Daniélou, is the political problem of prayer.

Daniélou’s politics of prayer requires a complete rethinking of the meaning of religious liberty:

The principle on which religious liberty rests is that not only are individuals not to be prevented from following their consciences in religious matters, even if they are in error, but also they are to have the right to group themselves into communities and ask for whatever is necessary for their continuance and development. Religious liberty, in other words, has no meaning unless it is concrete; unless, that is, the material conditions for its existence are assured (11-12).

This communal understanding of religious liberty flies in the face of the modern primacy of individual freedom in all things, an individualism that in Daniélou’s time as in our own has infected far too many Catholics. American Catholics in particular all too often conflate “community” with some version of Tocqueville’s idea of the voluntary association: thus, the existence of Catholic parishes shows the continued vitality of communal Catholicism despite disestablishment and privatization. True, canonically and spiritually, a parish is more than a voluntary association. Still, outside of perhaps a few residual ethnic enclaves in older urban areas, it is hard to see that Catholic parishes shape the life of a geographic community beyond the walls of official parish buildings. Daniélou’s standard of communal faith is much closer to the Grande Troménie at Locronan than a suburban parish potluck circa 1965.

Such a standard certainly opens Daniélou to charges of nostalgia. But even a cursory reading of Prayer as a Political Problem will absolve him of that charge. Like his fellow theologians in the ressourcement movement, Daniélou dedicated his life to drawing on just those traditions of the Church that best offered a possibility for a fruitful engagement with the modern world. His sense that there is something disordered about the social organization of modern life, something that works against natural human relations and inhibits man’s openness to transcendence resonated with the views of many secular critics of modernity. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, Daniélou saw these common cultural concerns as the most fruitful opportunities for evangelization—a reversal, in many ways, of the conventional priority placed on disseminating the theological truths of the faith. For Daniélou, the social and cultural conditions of modern life have rendered those truths irrelevant and/or incomprehensible to all but the most heroically spiritual. Again, his concern is that the faith be a real possibility for the unheroic, the poor.

The issue of technology offers one specific example of how this reversal might affect evangelization. Daniélou devotes two chapters to technology. Some of his treatment seems a bit dated, if only because the modern West has embraced and affirmed so many of the social consequences of modern technology that once gave thoughtful people like Daniélou such cause for alarm. To be clear, Daniélou is not anti-technology. He insists that technology is not bad in itself, but that modern science is incapable of guiding it to deeper and higher truths:

It is not human values themselves that are set vibrating by the shock of modern technology but the scientific matrix in which they are embedded. It is the matrix that we must allow to be broken up. It is this of which we must be rid if we are to confront all the circumstances of modern science while continuing to hold that man has an intellect capable of reaching metaphysical as well as scientific truth (52).

The conventional, modern Catholic gloss on this problem has been to assert that Catholic values guide the use of technology. Thus, in our own time, it is not unusual for parish priests to devote a few homilies a year to the dangers of the internet, warning the faithful to stay away from “bad” sites, usually a euphemism for pornography. Daniélou’s great reversal, his emphasis on the social and cultural conditions of faith, would flip the emphasis from content to form.

Were Daniélou alive today, I suspect that he would argue that the problem with the internet (not to mention “smart” phones) is less the way we use it than how it uses us: a restructuring of our life, not just our work life but our leisure and social life as well, to conform to the demands of the technology. Thus, disembodied “social” media increasingly becomes the norm for human interaction, even for formation in the faith. Were the internet to be purged of all morally objectionable content, it would still corrode the bonds of community that Daniélou judges essential to the survival of the faith of the poor. The Church is always something more than face-to-face relations, but the Mystical Body of Christ should not be confused with its simulacrum, the Virtual Body of Christ.

Few heeded Daniélou’s warnings in his own time, so his work remains fresh and vital today. Sadly, the forces working against Daniélou in 1965 remain vital, if somewhat less than fresh. Modern Catholics are, for the most part, all too comfortable with the social and cultural conditions of modern life. Liberals might wish for a more equitable distribution of wealth, conservatives might wish to see an end to abortion, but the majority see the material prosperity of middle-class Western life, either as aspiration or achievement, as a non-negotiable. Thus, half of American Catholics vote Democratic, while the other half vote Republican.

Those looking for a deeper politics should start with Daniélou’s Prayer as a Political Problem.

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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 22 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World was published in June 2022 by Ignatius Press.


  1. The paradox Dr. Shannon notes is directly the result of a flawed social and economic paradigm that assumes as a given that the only possible alternatives for structuring the social order are individualism/capitalism, or collectivism/socialism. What is not even considered is personalism and what may be termed “economic personalism.”

    This is not the “anarcho-Christian” personalism of Mounier, but the Thomistic personalism of Pope St. John Paul II. It is outlined in a short book, “Economic Personalism: Property, Power and Justice for Every Person” (2020), free e-copies of which are available from the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice:

  2. And there are those Catholics (like myself) who chose not to be involved in politics at all. Catholics who now chose not to participate in a corrupt and empty charade such that voting in elections has become. I am here not advocating a disengagement from culture or society because as morally bankrupt as this culture is, it is where Christ is needed most to be found. The culture needs to be converted not accommodated.

  3. This is a most exceptional article. Having read Danielou more than once, I still did not fully get it. A marvelous synthesis by Dr. Shannon.

    To add a footnote by another, first we read: “Sadly, the forces working against Daniélou in 1965 remain vital, if somewhat less than fresh.” Then, on the “forces,” this comment by a Rev. Gino Dalpiaz on a 2012 article about Daniélou:

    “The eminent Italian Vaticanist, Sandro Magister, wrote a disturbing article in your June-July issue [Inside the Vatican, 2012] on the evil machinations of the Jesuit Order against their confrere, Cardinal Jean Daniélou (“The Quarantine Has Ended”). For years I and millions of Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide were convinced this brilliant Jesuit theologian had had a heart attack and died in the house of a prostitute whom he was supposedly frequenting. Instead, now—after forty years—we finally know the truth the Jesuits have known for 40 years and never told the world: He was on an errand of mercy.

    “Cardinal Daniélou had gone to bring her money to pay for a lawyer capable of getting her husband out of prison. ‘The Jesuits conducted exhaustive investigations to discover the truth,’ Magister writes, ‘They ascertained his innocence. But they also shrouded the case in silence that did not dispel the suspicions.

    “I think the Jesuits are now paying for their nefariousness. The are no longer the revered religious order they were for 500 years. They are a shadow of their former greatness. I say this with great personal pain and regret because, for six years of philosophy and theology, I received a superb education from the Jesuits at the Gregorian University in Rome. Shame on the Jesuits for their hostility to this holy man, this cardinal of Holy Mother Church, this brother who had the John-the-Baptist courage to tell his brothers the truth about themselves. I hope that some day the Church will canonize this holy man who spoke truth to power” (Rev. Gino Dalpiaz, C.S., Santa Maria Addolorata Church, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Inside the Vatican, August/September 2012).

  4. I think that America has proven that Dignitatis Humanae was a big mistake and a surrender to the American culture of narcissism and selfishness. This controversy over pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Holy Communion is indicative of that. It is simple: They should not! No matter where Catholics live or in what century, we are not allowed to compromise when it comes to the Sovereignty of God, of His Laws which include the Laws of Nature. Sadly, Catholics in politics are leading the parade that diverts from the Way of the Cross. Dignitatis Humanae should be ignored. Every Catholic should learn more about Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ. America’s distinct contribution to the Council? More like a trojan horse.

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