Catholic Modernism (1896-1914)
by Michael Morton, a Catholic Priest serving in
"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
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
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
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
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
("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
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.