Modernism a Century on
by Aidan Nichols O.P.
Historic Modernism is a phenomenon of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though later in the twentieth century it acquired a certain after-life. If we ask, ‘What was Modernism?’, the most coherent reply is furnished by the 1907 encyclical of Pope St Pius X, known in the usual curial style from its opening words, Pascendi dominici gregis: ‘Feeding the Lord’s Flock’. As we shall see, Pius X makes plain his awareness that in the writing, or editing, of this encyclical he was constructing an identikit picture which, in its completeness, fitted no one individual. Since I am not one of those who, for this reason, regard the Modernism identified by Pius as an Aunt Sally, straw man, or bogey, ideological projection or at any rate phenomenon with a low reality-quotient, I am happy to define the Modernist Weltanschauung in broadly – though not, I hope, uncritically -- the terms the encyclical suggests. It will be helpful, then, in the first part of this essay to present the main lines of Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis which, like many writing or speaking on this topic, I will refer to for brevity’s sake as simply ‘Pascendi’.
Pascendi: introducing Modernism
The connexion between the title and the body of the document is simple enough. Feeding the Lord’s flock as pope, that is, acting as supreme pastor in the Church, entails first and foremost, so claims the preamble, guarding with ‘the greatest vigilance’ the apostolic ‘deposit’, the faith committed to the ‘saints’, the heads of the new community.  The situation, explains Pius X, is grave. Laymen and clergy who lack the protection of sound philosophy and theology are setting themselves up as would-be reformers of the Church and her faith. Typically, they are men of erudition and strict moral probity. But they also, in his words, ‘double the parts of rationalist and Catholic, and this so craftily that they easily lead the unwary into error’.  Although their contributions lack order, system and unity, this, says the pope, in the historically most dubious claim of the encyclical, is a feint, a pretence. They know perfectly well at what they are aiming which is a total ‘make-over’ (in our contemporary parlance) of revelation as hitherto understood. They present themselves under diverse hats, specifically, recounts the pope, as philosopher, believer, theologian, historian, critic, apologist, and reformer. Pascendi will seek to show that, when their contributions in these various roles are connected up, a system of thought emerges. A series of principles with wide-ranging consequences stands forth. The rest of the encyclical pursues this analysis, under the seven headings – from philosopher to Church reformer – by which Pius identifies the various formalities in which Modernist writers view the substance of the faith. 
The Modernist as philosopher
The problematic quality of Modernist writing begins with its philosophical convictions, or lack of them. Modernism is characterised by metaphysical agnosticism; it regards human reason as confined to examination of phenomena, and denies its capacity to move from sense experience to an affirmation of the existence of God. Modernists draw the inference that, in the pope’s words, ‘God can never be the direct object of science [i.e. of natural human knowledge of the cosmos], and that, as regards history, he must not be considered as an historical subject [i.e. a real, though transcendent, initiator of historical action]’.  The consequence is that natural theology flies out of the window, and along with it any attempt to present a reasonable case for the occurrence of a revelation of God within history: what the pope calls the ‘motives of credibility of external revelation’.
The phrase ‘motives of credibility’ – meaning: reasons for believing -- is classic in Catholic teaching; by contrast, the qualification of revelation as ‘external’ is an innovation of the pope’s, the purpose of which we shall see shortly. Modernists – probably the Anglo-Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell was in mind here -- decry as ‘intellectualism’ the attempt to show the rationality of belief in God’s existence and perfection, and the reasonableness of the act of faith in an historic revelation climaxing in Jesus Christ. Their denial of the value of apologetics can also be called, says the pope, an assertion – an assertion, namely, of the necessarily atheistic character of both science and history.
The Modernist as believer
How, then, do Modernists, who after all are practising Catholic Christians, propose to commend religion – to explain it in positive terms? They do so, says Pius, by appeal, in effect, to a principle of ‘vital immanence’ – words which to some readers immediately summoned up the name of the French philosopher of ‘action’, Maurice Blondel. If natural theology is non-viable, and no arguments for external revelation in history can be proposed, then the only route left open is by appeal to human interiority: which is the converse of externality in public narrative space. Modernists find the origins of religion in a sense of need for the divine which wells up from the subconscious into sensibility, where it takes the form of religious feeling or sentiment. In a key sentence of the letter, Pascendi goes on:
[T]his sentiment possesses, implied within itself
both as its own object and as its intrinsic cause, the
reality of the divine, and in a way [it] unites man with God.with God.
The Modernist as theologian
Modernism is not, then, merely a humanism, nor does it deny divine agency in the world. But it confines this agency to subliminal impact on human interiority, an impact best described as ‘sentiment’. Such divinely originated sentiment is not only the foundation and essence of the act of faith (that would merely be fideism, an attitude well known from earlier centuries). For the Modernists such sentiment is itself revelation as well. In different respects, it is both the subjective act of faith and the objective content of faith. Religious feeling is God’s real though indistinct self-manifestation. Religious consciousness is revelation from which Modernists draw the conclusion that every religion is both human and divine -- natural and supernatural -- at the same time. To be sure, we must seek to distinguish between religions, and, come to that, degrees of adequacy of the expression of the same religion. But the criterion for doing will be the degree of development of religious consciousness implied. As Pius remarks: for Modernists the Catholic religion is no exception in this regard. As he writes:
perhaps an attempt to capture the background presuppositions of the French Modernist New Testament exegete Alfred Loisy. How, then, will a Modernist approach Scripture and Catholic dogma, with their accounts of revelation in Jesus Christ, involving such concepts as (for Scripture) Jesus Christ the Word and Wisdom of God, the Son of Man, the Only-begotten Son of God, and hence (for Catholic dogma) Incarnation and Trinity, and more specifically the hypostatic union of two natures, with their respective wills, in the single person of the God-man. The characteristic Modernist reply is as follows: the mind ponders the sentiment revelation generates, and produces initially spontaneous statements of a naive first order kind (compare Scripture), and then subsequently, more elaborated second order statements (compare dogma) which typically draw on the modes of thought of a given age. Neither the first order nor the second order statements can be said to possess absolute truth, in the way that the theses of scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, on the one hand, dogmatic infallibility on the other, would have it. Rather, the first, the Scriptural statements, are symbols of the revelation expressed in sensibility, the second, the dogmatic definitions, are instruments of it. Both, but especially the second, are to be judged by the extent to which they conduce to vitality of religious feeling. A doctrinal or theological formula, in order to be true, has only to correspond to the religious sentiment of the believer.
For the Modernist as doctrine-man, the key principles are, accordingly, symbolism and immanence. First, them, symbolism. Since doctrinal formulae only symbolise their object, the sensibility which is God’s indistinct self-revelation in human consciousness, they should be used when they are found helpful and otherwise discarded. As Pius puts it, Modernists would:
Secondly, still on the principles of the Modernist qua theologian, there is the principle of immanence. Pius admits that an appeal to immanence can have an acceptable sense. Semi-quoting Augustine, it can be a way of saying God works in a way even more intimately present to me than I am to myself. But Modernists mean more than this: they mean that divine action always invests itself in the activity of nature: so revelatory divine action doesn’t differ in principle from any other manner in which creative processes have divine causality behind them. The implication, thinks the pope, is pantheism – presumably of the kind associated with the seventeenth century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza where ‘nature’ and ‘God’ are treated indifferently as synonymous terms. Thus the Scriptures and the sacraments are expressions of a religious impulse based on the God who is within the human heart, as he is in all natural processes; and the Church herself simply represents the common consciousness of those whose religious vitality is shaped by the experiences of the first Christian believer, Jesus himself. And as that consciousness changes under the impact of new cultural epochs, so the meaning of her doctrines changes likewise – in order for them to continue to act as instruments of the religious sentiments originally found in the New Testament writings.
The Modernist as historian and critic
Speaking of the New Testament, what then about the Modernist as historian? Starting from the presupposition that divine action in external history is impossible, or at any rate cannot be registered by us, Modernist exegesis distinguishes between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith. In the New Testament texts the human reality of the persons and events concerned has been in the pope’s word, ‘transfigured’ by being raised above its proper historical conditions, which is as much as to say that from the historical critic’s viewpoint that reality has been disfigured. According to his real history, Christ was ‘not God and never did anything divine’; moreover, ‘as man he did and said only what they [the Modernists], judging from the time in which he lived, can admit him to have said or done’.  It is only in ‘internal’ history, in the movement of faith consciousness, that Jesus speaks and acts divinely, above all in the Gospel according to saint John: that may be a reference in particular to the Anglo-German auto-didact Baron Friedrich von Hügel whose Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Fourth Gospel took very much this line. ‘From beginning to end’, declares the pope, ‘everything in it [i.e. Modernist exegesis] is a priori and a priori in a way that reeks of heresy’.  The sacred books, and Pius singles out the Pentateuch and the Gospels, have simply grown up incrementally – in a word, evolved -- in order to adapt some primitive text to meet perceived changes in the needs of faith.
The Modernist as apologist
The Modernist as apologist naturally takes his own principles – agnostic, immanentist, evolutionist – into major account. Here Pius gives in effect a summary of Loisy’s defence of Catholicism over against the German Lutheran historian of doctrine Adolf von Harnack. Modernist apologetics consists in showing that the seed planted by Jesus in his proclamation of a new divine Kingdom on earth has remained permanently immanent in the bosom of the Church: immanent but nor dormant, since, in Pius’s words, it:
has gone on slowly developing in the
course of history, adapting itself
successively to the different mediums
through which it has passed, borrowing
from them by vital assimilation all the
dogmatic, cultural, ecclesiastical forms that
served its purpose…
No matter that the Church’s Scriptures contain egregious errors in science and history: they were not designed to convey science and history but religious and moral experience. No matter that her dogmas contain flagrant contradictions: they were not designed to convey philosophical truth but to act as symbols for the Infinite. And Pius adds a coda: Modernists also employ an apologetic which some Catholics who reject immanence as a doctrine have imprudently made use of as well.
They endeavour to persuade the non-believer
that down in the very deeps of his nature and
his life lie the need and the desire for religion,
and this not a religion of any kind, but the
specific religion known as Catholicism, which,
they say, is absolutely postulated by the
perfect development of life. 
What’s wrong with that? The objection is that, in the manner in which they present this apologetic, they
seem to admit that there is in human
nature a true and rigorous necessity with
regard to the supernatural order – and
not merely a capacity and a suitability
for the supernatural, such as has at all
times been emphasized by Catholic
Clearly, Blondel is in view here.
The Modernist as Church reformer
Lastly, there is the Modernist as Church reformer. Largely, what is at stake here is the reform of the Church education: first and foremost, the abandonment of Scholasticism; the reconstruction of rational theology on the foundation of modern philosophy as represented by Modernism; the basing of positive theology on the history of dogma understood in the Modernist perspective. Church authority must re-model itself on principles of governance found in the modern civil order, and, in accordance with the spirit of the contemporary world, the active virtues be stressed above the passive – meaning, presumably the contemplative.
Pascendi: Conclusion and remedy
All in all, so Pius concludes, Modernism means the ‘destruction… of the Catholic religion’, and indeed of ‘all’ religion, inasmuch as the disproportion Modernists posit between human intelligence on the one hand, and the unknowable divine reality on the other, sets up an ultimately unsustainable tension. Modernism, so Pius predicts, will finish in atheism.
The remedy Pius proposes is closely allied to his analysis of the causes of Modernism. Modernism is ‘born of the alliance between faith and false philosophy’. Modernists recognise, says the pope, that the three chief difficulties for them are first, scholastic philosophy, secondly the authority of the Fathers and Tradition more generally, and thirdly the magisterium of the Church, and on these they ‘wage unrelenting war’. 
So Pius’s first remedy is to renew the call of his predecessor Leo XIII for the use of Thomist philosophy in seminaries and religious study-houses. ‘Let professors remember that they cannot set St Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment’.  Dogmatic theology should then be built on this foundation, incorporating positive theology from the Fathers and the ecclesial magisterium, but not in such a way as to replace systematics by historical theology.
To the end that Modernist thinking be eliminated from the Church, the pope concludes by setting out a formidable programme of legal constraints: voiding for the future any theological doctorates awarded to those who have failed to study Scholastic philosophy; encouraging bishops to use the ‘utmost severity’ in granting permissions for the publication of theological works, and setting up diocesan ‘watch committees’ charged with ‘noting the existence of errors and the devices by which new ones are introduced and propagated’.  Neo-Scholasticism from the pontificate of Pius X onwards, being framed as it generally was in terms of a response to Modernism, inevitably became associated with the mechanisms of doctrinal control put in place by the encyclical. This goes a long way towards explaining the damnatio memoriae it subsequently suffered, and the presumption that, if a more generous theological attitude were, with the Second Vatican Council, deemed desirable, it would have to turn its back on the inheritance of the immediate past.
Why Lamentabili is here omitted
It seems to me that an analysis of Pascendi of the kind I have just offered you suffices as an exposition of what Pius X understood by Modernism. I therefore consider myself excused from any obligation to fulfil the same office for what it is often treated as its companion document, Lamentabili sane exitu, and for this omission I can give four supplementary reasons. First, as a decree of the Holy Office, simply, it lacks the authority of Pius’s encyclical. Secondly, to understand its 65 condemned propositions in the sense in which they were found defective an adequate survey would have to take into account their contexts in the writings of contemporary Modernists: a task which, so far as I am aware, no one, surprising as it seems, has yet performed. Thirdly, to show in any coherent way the inter-connexion of these propositions would involve a substantial effort of doctrinal criticism which in the end would look remarkably like the text of Pascendi. Fourthly, as Lamentabili (promulgated on 3 July) precedes Pascendi (promulgated on 8 September) we can reasonably assume that anything substantial St Pius wanted to say or to have said on this subject should be sought in the later document more than the earlier.
Neo-Modernism: does it exist?
So without further ado I turn in the second part of this article to the topic which represents its more piquant if also impressionistic element, and this is, in what sense or senses can we regard Modernism as redivivus in the second half of the twentieth century, the period from which we have only just emerged and when the vast majority of Catholic clergy and laity received their formation? Is there such a thing as Neo-Modernism, and if so where is it to be found?
To read traditionalist literature – which up to a point is a good thing to do, since in an age when Church life has been invaded by bureaucratic new-speak and pastoral emollience it is sometimes the only place to find a spade called a spade – one might get the impression that the entire intellectual life of the post-Conciliar Catholic Church has been an expression of Neo-Modernism from beginning to end. That is why I say it is a good thing to read traditionalist literature up to a point. The breaking point comes when the literature in question – as not infrequently -- starts to flail about misdirecting its punches and indulging generally in wild rant.
In what sense, then, can we speak of a revival of Modernism in the last fifty or so years, and especially in the wake of the Second Vatican Council? A favoured term of Scholastic debate is distinguo, ‘I distinguish’; and I would in fact like to distinguish here various senses in which that question might be understood. At least four come to mind.
The first sense is, Neo-Modernism understood as a comprehensive revival of what I called earlier ‘the Modernist Weltanschauung’ – comprehensive because embracing all, or virtually all, the aspects which Pius X ascribed to that view of things. I think it would be difficult, though not impossible, to find the occasional post-Conciliar author for whom this would be the case. To reproduce historic Modernism in all its main aspects, albeit with some additional late twentieth century spin is quite an achievement, may I say, given that the papal portrait of historic Modernism is what I called an ‘identikit picture’. My most plausible candidate for this accolade would be the German priest-theologian cum psychologist Eugen Drewermann, a tardy disciple of Carl Gustav Jung, and the reason for saying so would be the key theme of his writing, namely, that we encounter divine revelation in the depths of the psyche, where it functions as a transformation of psychic archetypes.  If dogma or Church discipline fail to correspond with the felt experience of revelation, registered in shifting human sensibility, then so much the worse for them. At Drewermann’s hands, exegesis, metaphysics, Christian doctrine, Church life – in fact all the interlocking dimensions with which Pascendi deals -- have to ‘morph’ in order to meet this new paradigm which alone, Drewermann holds, does justice to human reality. 
A second way to take the question, Where if anywhere is Neo-Modernism to be found would be to ask after the common factor in the multiple dimensions identified in Pascendi and ask where if anywhere that common factor is alive and kicking. That common factor could be represented, it seems to me, by saying that where the objective patrimony of Catholic tradition appears no longer to suit human needs, then it is the patrimony which must be jettisoned – despite its claim to embody Tradition in the theological sense, that is, the transmission of divine revelation. If that is the heart of the Modernist attitude then I’m afraid I would have to agree that over the last forty years in particular a Neo-Modernist mind-set, in this limited but crucial sense, has been extremely common in the Catholic Church of the West. It is, I find, no pleasure to accumulate such references. But, through recent reading, one relatively authoritative example happens to be at my fingertips, and it comes from a publication of the French episcopate’s pastoral centre for sacramental ministry, the Centre des pastorales des sacrements. In a 1975 document emanating from that Centre we reading a statement that at any rate has the virtue of conciseness:
More widely, the reformation – better, deformation – of catechetics in the same period has been woefully affected by a negligence of, not to say hostility to, doctrine, on the grounds that the aim of catechesis is to disengage the implicit experience of grace already found in the depths of infant or adolescent or adult life – an experience which takes precedence over the doctrinal deposit entertained by the Church.  That attitude captures the kernel of Modernism even if it fails to find or chooses to ignore opportunities to follow through that basic option in all the subject areas to which Modernist thinking and sensibility could, if one wished, be applied.
So far, then, we have collected two senses in which we can, without massive exaggeration, detect Modernism revived: either a replication of the comprehensive Modernist attitude with its consequences for a variety of theological specialisms as well as Church life at large, or a reproduction of the kernel of the Moderist attitude, but shorn of its full range of reflective applications.
A third sense in which we can locate Neo-Modernism in the Church today can be called sectorial. It may be that a writer or school of writers have bought into Modernism in some particular aspect without necessarily either extending that to all areas described in Pascendi – comprehensive Neo-Modernism -- or for that matter accepting as a key to Christian reality the subordination of the transmitted revelation to contemporary experience which I cam going to call ‘kernel Neo-Modernism’.
The most obvious manifestation of sectorial Neo-Modernism can be found in biblical studies, especially the study of the Gospels. The American Catholic exegete Luke Timothy Johnson, a laicized Benedictine priest teaching at a Methodist University and not, therefore, likely to exemplify ‘right wing trash’, has recently been expending most of his authorial energies on seeking to persuade Catholic exegetes not to ape the methods and consequently conclusions of their Protestant or more likely secular colleagues in the academy but to adopt a form of study of the Gospels more in keeping with the mind of the Church.  Centrally that means for him not contrasting the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith but to treat as our best historical guide to how it really was, wie es eigentlich geschehen ist, the portrait of Jesus as the God-man bringing salvation through his life, death and resurrection, mediated in a Spirit filled Church, which is the overall upshot of the New Testament witness as a whole.  Much Catholic exegesis has become Modernist, in the sense in which the author of Pascendi would use that word in this area, even when the exegetes themselves in other respects may fully share the faith of the Church. Apart from any other considerations it can’t be intellectually healthy to be so schizophrenic on the subject as to treat Jesus as a wandering charismatic in the office from Monday to Friday, and the uncreated Light from Light of the Nicene Creed on a Sunday morning. But that is an example of what I shall call sectorial as distinct from comprehensive or kernel Neo-Modernism.
My fourth and final sense of Modernism redivivus I shall call ‘negative Neo-Modernism’, and by that I mean theologies, philosophies, and spiritualities which signal departure from the mind of the Church by egregiously failing to meet the list of desiderata given by Pius X at the close of his encyclical. You may recall that the pope proposed three criteria for authentic catholicity if one wishes to be sure that, unwittingly or otherwise, one is not slithering into the mess of Modernist pottage described in the bulk of the letter. And they were: an ontology indebted to St Thomas; an expressive register in which the texts of the Church fathers and the other monuments of Tradition commonly accepted by the Church’s approved divines; and a docility to the doctrinal leadership furnished by the magisterium.
Each of these three criteria merits a very brief comment.
The ontology – the understanding of basic reality -- of St Thomas, because it is a creation metaphysic which opens the way to a doctrine of God and the creature admirably suited to the further affirmations of the Creed, and represents in that regard a distillation of the wisdom of Christian antiquity in a perennial valid – which is not to say un-improvable-on – form. Ontologies highly different from his generally turn out to have major disadvantages for articulating Catholic truth.
The Fathers and Tradition: the Fathers, considered in their overall witness -- the ‘consensus’ of the Fathers -- provide the organ of reception in the Church of the biblical revelation. The Fathers register aright the content of that revelation, in its principal aspects and overall proportion. The other monuments of Tradition bear this out, as for instance the historic Liturgies of East and West, the primitive Creeds, iconography and so forth.
The magisterium: just as without Tradition, including crucially the patristic witness, the Church would be disabled in her reception of Scripture, so without the magisterium she is disabled in her interpretation of Tradition. Scripture, Tradition and magisterium constitute for Catholicism an unbreakable circle, and distinctively Catholic theology recognizes this and makes sure it always moves in their ambit.
One can see why on Pius’s death in August 1914 Hilaire Belloc could write in The British Review:
The note of Pius X’s reign was simplicity. It stood composed
of a few very clear principles like a carefully constructed
classical thing of cut stone standing against a flood. 
What I am calling ‘negative Neo-Modernism’ (and I accept that the phrase is not a particularly perspicuous one) labels forms of thought in the Church that ignore Pius X’s therapy for Modernism and in this way reproduce Modernism’s lacunae, its gaps, though not its peculiar tenets, its positive if wrongheaded statements. Take the example of radical liberation theology. It would be difficult to think of a theology more at the antipodes from historic Modernism in what it positively asserts. Historic Modernism arises from a disproportionate emphasis on human interiority, on the importance of (especially) inner religious experience. Radical liberation theology, so far from reproducing this emphasis, abhors it, for it places divine agency not in the depths of the psyche but in the public square, in Kingdom-oriented socially transformative political activity. However, classical Christian ontology is as likely to be absent in such liberation theology as it is in Modernism, just as the Fathers are largely silenced in both, the other monuments of Tradition neglected in both, and the role of the magisterium marginalized in both. A great deal of contemporary Catholic theology commits these sins of omission of negative Neo-Modernism, typically lacking a strong metaphysical side, overleaping the Fathers and subsequent Tradition to join Bible and contemporary society in a would-be direct covenant, and leaving little place for papal and conciliar formulations. Among the post-Conciliar popes the teaching activity of John Paul II in particular could be described as governed by the imperative to neutralize negative Neo-Modernism by putting in place doctrinal instruments – such as the Catechism promulgated in 1992 -- which emphasise a classical Christian ontology, the Fathers and other monuments of Tradition, and the teachings of Councils and previous popes.
A final paradox
I will leave readers with a paradox. On my definitions, Neo-Scholastic theology is itself to a degree guilty of negative Neo-Modernism. I say that on the ground of its poor record in including within its own corpus texts from the Fathers, references to the Liturgies, to iconography and to other instruments of Tradition. In that sense, the movements of patristic and liturgical ressourcement which feed into the so-called Nouvelle Théologie of the 1940s and 50s belong properly to Pius X’s anti-Modernist reaction. Yet traditionalists remain suspicious of those movements as generating a theological culture that prepared the way for comprehensive Neo-Modernism, kernel Neo-Modernism, sectorial Neo-Modernism. Something has gone seriously wrong there with their judgment. But then something went wrong with the development of Catholic thought itself. It is our job now to put it right.
16. This prolific author has provoked a correspondingly copious literature in Germany: thus A. Sobel, Eugen-Drewermann-Bibliographie: Primär- und Sekundärliteratur, Rezensionenverzeichnis, Bibliographie zum Fall Drewermann, Einführung (Wiesbaden 1992).
17. Centre Jean Bart, De quel Dieu les sacrements sont signe? (n.p., 1975), p. 15, cited R. Amerio, Iota Unum. A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century (Et Kansas City 1996), p. 118.
18. M. J. Wrenn, Catechisms and Controversies. Religious Education in the Postconciliar Years (San Francisco 1991); idem., with K. D. Whitehead, Flawed Expectations. The Reception of the ’Catechism of the Catholic Church’ (San Francisco 1996).