26 July 2021
26 Jul 2021

Mission, Church, Money, Nation: Re-interpreting  Fr. Leo Dehon

As a scholar, Neuhold has presented an innovative methodological ground-breaking and scientifically objective picture of the life and works of one of the central figures of French Catholicism in the late 19th and early 20th century This scholarly work can be read in thought provoking way.

by  Jürgen Strötz

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The life and works Leo Gustav Dehon ( 1843- 1925) founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart (SCJ) and has been the subject of changing, partly contradictory perceived history, which has as its purpose not just in the symbiosis of mysticism,  nation, politics that came to light in his person.

Previous biographies written so far for the most part by members of the SCJ community has raised more questions than answers. Therefore it is commendable that Richard Neuhold’s research ,submitted to the University of Freiburg in 2018 now in publication  opens up new and multiple approaches to this complex research project. Therefore it makes a contribution to a scientific approach to insight into Dehon’s biographical sources This can not be overstated. As the author repeatedly emphasizes, this is by no means a definitive complete presentation.

The author attempts to approach his subject in ways which defines his study of Dehon namely: Within Dehon’s Congregation, within the institutional and internal workings of the Catholic Church, within the environment of Economics and Religion, and finally (4) with the discussion of the tension between Religion, Nation, and Politics.

In this regard , the presentation of his multi-perspective which he “metaphorically “ titled “gaze and contact “ (17-68) is of great importance for understanding what follows as what the author sets out to do . Also of interest, because they go beyond the subject matter and yet indispensable to the author ,  are the influences on Dehon’s person and his work. These are the influences upon him  the world of Catholic Thought especially in the French speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is not familiar with many readers.

This provides a backdrop to present research which has a common thread, looking at at the tension between his undeniable successes, areas of friction and failures.

In the first chapter ( 69-125) the author presents Dehon’s position in his congregation as Superior General, his desire to start a mission in Tunis, which became a great disappointment and for which he received much strong criticism. However in his research regarding the events in Tunis, he does not arrive at a independent interpretation but refers to and evaluates only the judgements of previous biographers.

The second chapter (127-219) makes an attempt to analyze the momentous decision of the Holy Office to abolish Dehon’s institution in 1883, because of fundamental disciplinary, theological, and Ecclesiastical criticism (129). To this end Neuhold not only analyzes the individual details of the process but also shows the basic structures of Dehon’s conflict-management of accompanying symptoms. In this way the author succeeds in correctly interpreting the “terrible “ year presenting new views about it.

Money and it’s use is the topic that Neuhold addresses in chapter 3  “Religion and Economy” (221-309). He deals with the “economic” thought and action of a wealthy Dehon in the context of a rapidly changing economic structure in France at the end of the 19th century. After exploring a great number of excellently selected sources also identified as authentic, Neuhold undertakes to address ,the little know up to now of the concrete, every day and well grounded economic situation of Dehon’s Foundation.

In this section it becomes clear that for Dehon , the poles of Economy and Religion were not opposites but formed a unity that Dehon interpreted, elaborated on and kept together as a spokesperson

In the integral thinking of Catholicism regarding the socially inspired Christian Democracy., in religious circles (299). Here Neuhold arrives at a conclusion that has been formulated so clearly in the literature that reveals a new perspective beyond the topic.

“Fatherland and nation in the context of religion and the meaning of French imperialism are the key concepts to which chapter 4 is dedicated (311-390) Again the study of French National symbolism, especially in the tri-color flag, is of paramount importance . Dehon’s discussions and statements on the topic may seem to be a bit  odd to today’s readers, but they complete and accentuate the biographical picture of the man whose beatification process was suspended in June 2005 because anti-Semitic  statements in his writings.Neuhold unfortunately addresses this aspect only in a brief sub-chapter ( Chapter 4 ,5,9  378-384) and this is one aspect of the”national” discourse of that time.

In conclusion, (391-471) At the end the book the author offers  a complete synopsis, more in the sense of an open question than a final judgement. In this sense Neuhold  achieved his original purpose. The book includes an index of figures (418), and diagrams (419). A somewhat skimpy timeline (420), a meticulous comprehensive lists of sources and literature (421-443), a helpful register of people and places. There is also register of biblical passages that completes the survey.

Neuhold has presented an innovative, methodically ground breaking and scientifically objective picture of the life and works of one of the central figures of French Catholicism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The author knows how to make Dehon’s complexities and contradictions transparent and thus creates a human document that does great justice to the subject. The figures and graphics are expressive but not always of good print quality. The lack of a more thorough examination of Dehon’s anti-Semitism can be disappointing and therefore this will be reserved for further scholarly research. In short Neuhold’s book is a work of a high theological caliber. His analysis and evaluation of the sources can be described as extraordinary and the book is highly recommended

Theologische Revue 116 (2020)

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