Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Catholic Modernism (1896-1914)
by Michael Morton, a Catholic Priest serving in the UK

"Controversy, at least in this age", wrote John Henry Newman in 1839, "does not lie between the hosts of heaven, Michael and his angels, on the one side and the powers of evil on the other; but it is a sort of night battle, where each fights for himself, and friend and foe stand together".

Perhaps it was ever so. Nevertheless the temptation is strong, in present controversy as in our interpretation of the past, to clarify complexity by dividing the wheat from the darnel, the light from the dark, "us" from "them".

Accounts of the Modernist crisis have suffered notoriously from this tendency. This is unfortunate, because the contemporary world of Catholic faith cannot be understood without reference to the confused events of a hundred years ago. The Modernist crisis marked the painful and often tragic beginning of a significant success, of a rich and fruitful revival of Catholic life, thought and spirituality which came to near-fruition in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this near-fruition came too late and contained the seeds of its own dissolution. Therein lies a clue to the disillusionment and confusion which is undoubtedly one of the more striking and disturbing aspects of the mood of Catholicism today.

Modernism itself is hard to define. Even the name was conjured up and made to embrace a whole array of what were considered unacceptable ideas and subjects of study.

For it was a movement which tried to bring the tradition of Catholic belief into closer relation with modern outlooks in philosophy, history and social science. It was a response on the part of some Catholic scholars to the age of transformation and ideas in society that evolved during the course of the nineteenth century.

Broadly speaking, it can be explained with reference to three areas. 

The leading ideas in the movement were, first, an adoption of the critical view of the scriptures which by the end of the nineteenth century were generally accepted outside the Catholic Church. The scriptures were to be understood as the record of an unfolding of divine truth in history.

Abandoning artificial attempts to harmonise inconsistencies, scholars recognised that the sacred authors of the scriptures were subject to many of the limitations of other historians. In 1893, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus seemed to give encouragement to this field of study, although it was really a warning to the more enterprising scholars.

The second broad area of research was to set aside the intellectualism of the revived scholastic theology from the Middle Ages, and to find the essence of Christian faith in life and action rather than an intellectual system or creed. Theologians such as Maurice Blondel in France studied and welcomed the pragmatism of William James and the work of Henri Bergson.

Last, there was a serious interest in history and the historical process, in its ending rather than its origins. Scholars wrote that since the growth of the Church takes place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the essence of the Gospel will lie in its full expansion rather than in its primitive historic kernel.

This line of study led to critical examination of the historic origins of the Gospel and the early Church. Of course, to traditionalists the Bible is a divine and holy book whose author is God himself. Any critical attitude is unsuitable because it is question-begging, assuming in advance that the Bible is not God's word but human writing.

During the nineteenth century, there had been a great deal of controversy on this very issue amongst Lutheran and Anglican scholars. 

In Germany, D F Strauss published a book called The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Essentially he said that the gospels are strange works whose contents call for interpretation. His understanding was that Jesus was a Jewish teacher and martyr whose life was made into a myth by his followers using supernatural ideas from the Old Testament. So the whole of the supernatural in the gospels is not history but religious symbolism which can be understood by tracing its Old Testament sources.

The book had great success, but it cost Strauss his career. He never taught again, and his book could only be sold in England as an anti-religious work. Some Anglican scholars such as Edward Pusey and Benjamin Jowett from Oxford also got their fingers burned when they tried to introduce ideas similar to those of Strauss.

But Strauss's old university at T�bingen in W�rttemburg, which is one of the chief intellectual centres in Europe, became associated with new, liberal ways of looking at the scriptures.

Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church the orthodox had long had their eye on the historians. The German church historians - especially those from the Catholic faculty at T�bingen - had opposed the infallibility decree at Vatican I. Yet the Church could not abandon biblical studies to the Protestants, and that was the reason for Pope Leo's encyclical.

Unfortunately, few people of importance in Rome or Catholic academia knew enough to understand the premises and methodology of modern biblical exegesis and its related disciplines. The few who did were already suspect, like Abbe Alfred Loisy of the Paris Catholic Institute and Pere Albert Lagrange from the Biblical Study Centre in Jerusalem.

Pope Leo XIII never followed up his warnings by a systematic persecution, but his successor Pope Pius X did.

Many scholars were forced to make their submission. Alfred Loisy, a Hebrew and Assyrian scholar whose book The Gospel and the Church was a reply to the great Protestant church historian Adolph von Harnack, was less pliant. Five of his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1903 and he himself was excommunicated in 1908.

Pope Pius X was determined to prevent the clergy from being contaminated by the errors, as he saw them, of the historical and natural sciences. He wrote:

We will take the greatest care to safeguard our clergy from being caught up in the snares of modern scientific thought - a science that does not breathe the truths of Christ, but by its cunning and subtle arguments defiles the mind of the people with the errors of Rationalism and semi-Rationalism.

Hence the condemnation did not stop at biblical scholars. Fr George Tyrell SJ, a Thomist scholar, was attacked because he upheld

the right of each age to adjust the historico-philosophical expression of Christianity to contemporary certainties, and thus to put an end to this utterly needless conflict between faith and science which is a mere theological bogey.

Tyrell was expelled from the Jesuits in 1906 and suspended from the sacraments the following year. He was given extreme unction on his deathbed in 1909, but denied burial in a Catholic cemetery. His was one of many sad cases. (A priest who was present at the burial made a sign of the cross over Tyrell's grave. For this act he was suspended a divinis by Bishop Peter Amigo of Southwark).

In 1907 Pope Pius published the decree Lamentabili, a sweeping condemnation which distinguished sixty-five propositions of the Modernist heresy. (The United States Catholic bishops were very relieved to discover that "Americanism" was not one of them.)

Broadly speaking, Modernism as Pius X saw it was the attempt to illuminate the history and teaching of Christianity by the objective use of academic disciplines which had been developed during and since the Enlightenment. But by denying objectivity in study, the decree inhibited the pursuit of truth wherever it might lead, and thus appeared to draw a distinction between faith and truth which went against the essence of St Paul's teaching.

But this was not an objection that could have been put at the time. And anyway, none of the leading participants in the modernist movement endorsed every theoretical position condemned in the decree. In that sense there were no Modernists, or rather there were as many modernisms as there were Modernists.

On the other hand, every one of the leading participants held some views which were touched by the condemnation. For all concerned, especially the more conservative, and those most deeply respectful of ecclesiastical authority, there were agonies to be undergone and a steep price paid.

The decree was followed two months later by the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis which imposed a compulsory anti-modernist oath on all Catholic bishops, priests and teachers. It was the beginning of an anti-modernist hunt which damaged many ecclesiastical careers.

In fact, the clergy were investigated thoroughly whilst laymen such as Blondel or Baron von Hugel, were largely left alone. There were also notes made of those who were considered suspect, including the future popes Benedict XV, who succeeded Pius X, and John XXIII. Pope John, when elected in 1958, demanded to see his Holy Office file. He is reported to have returned it with a characteristically humourous sentence on the cover: "Yes, but now we are infallible".

A word chosen by Pope John XXIII to characterise that phase of the Catholic renaissance which culminated in the Second Vatican Council was aggiornamento ("bringing up to date").

If Catholic thought needed to be brought up to date, it must have fallen behind the times. When did it begin to do so? Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan's answer was:

It began to do so at the end of the seventeenth century ... When modern science began, when the Enlightenment began, then the theologians began to reassure one another about their certainties.

Perhaps we can say that the twentieth-century Catholic renaissance (from the Modernist affair to Vatican II) marked an heroic and largely successful attempt to bring Catholicism "up to date" with a world that had come to birth between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

To men who had worked and suffered during the dark decades that followed the condemnation of Modernism it must have seemed as if that vision of a reformed Catholicism, critically engaged with the world in which the Gospel is proclaimed and embodied, had received official expression.

It did so, however, just as the world was beginning to disintegrate and disappear under the pressure of new forces, new problems, new patterns of association and frameworks of experience. Hence the exhilaration was rapidly followed by back-pedalling and disarray.

If a cultural revolution-and-transformation born in the nineteenth century represented a profound crisis for Christian faith and theology, it is not really surprising that we should find ourselves today deprived of familiar landmarks, of conceptual and institutional securities.

But maybe the darkness of the "night battle" is only one aspect of Gethsemane, of the experience of the Christ who taught us once for all the true attitude towards suffering. Which for the Christian faithful would be grounds for hope and not for despair.

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