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A Meditation on Modernism
by Fr. Thomas Crean O.P.

   One hundred years ago, on the feast of our Lady’s nativity, 1907, Pope St Pius X issued his renowned encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. He wrote the encyclical to protect the Church against a new movement that was starting to develop among a certain number of Catholic intellectuals. For want of a better name, the Pope called this movement ‘Modernism’. He stated that it threatened ‘to destroy the vital energy of the Church’ and to spread poison through the whole of Catholic life. In fact, he went so far as to say that its proponents were ‘the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church’, since they harmed her from within and not from without.

   What was the danger that prompted so vigorous a papal riposte? What were the ‘Modernists’ saying? In various ways, they were saying this: Catholicism should be based not, as hitherto, on reason, but rather on experience. The exaltation of experience above reason is the essence of the Modernist heresy.

   Why is this so serious an error? The Church holds that her faith is rational. The First Vatican Council solemnly taught that the human reason is capable of knowing the existence of God with certainty. It also taught that even before coming to faith, a man can discover by the correct use of his reason that God has made a revelation to mankind. He does this by carefully considering the ‘external signs’ that bear witness to divine revelation, especially miracles and fulfilled prophecies. Vatican I, in fact, anathematised those who claim that we must be drawn to faith in God simplyby personal, internal experience or by private inspiration’.

   The Modernists, however, did not accept that rational argument could show that Catholicism is the true religion revealed by God. There were various reasons for this. In philosophy, they were influenced by Immanuel Kant, who had argued that it was impossible for anyone to prove the existence of God. In theology, they were influenced by attacks on the historical reliability of the Bible, attacks led by men such as the German Protestant Julius Welhausen (for the Old Testament) and the former Catholic seminarian Ernest Renan (for the New). More generally, the Modernists, as their name suggests, were strongly influenced by the spirit of their times, which put forward inevitable progress as a ‘law of history’. This led them to reject as impossible the notion of a religion revealed from heaven once and for all. A fortiori they rejected the notion that one should discover by the good use of reason what this religion is and then embrace it.

   Now the Modernists, at least in the beginning, wished to help the Church. There seems to be no reason to doubt that men such as Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) and George Tyrell (1861-1909) were at first sincere in desiring the Church to be immune from the attacks of non-believers. Thinking that she could no longer be defended by reason, they called experience to her aid. In the middle of a sophisticated and unbelieving world, religious experience would henceforth justify the existence of the Catholic Church.

   Like all heresies, Modernism begins with the distortion of some part of Christian truth. It is quite correct to say that apologetic arguments by themselves can never bring anyone to Christ. A preparation of the heart is necessary for someone to embrace the faith. Likewise, there is a proper place in the Christian life for the category of ‘experience’. Who will deny that being present at a High Mass or looking after a sick person may be a profound experience that strengthens one’s hold on some Christian teaching or other? But none of this means that ‘experience’ is the ultimate guide to religious truth. Before conversion to the Catholic Church, natural reason is the guide; after conversion, our guide is the teaching authority of the Church, accepted by that same reason now enlightened by faith.   

   It would have been bad enough if the Modernists had simply denied the possibility of apologetics. In fact, their exaltation of ‘experience’ led the more radical among them to go further, until they drained the Creed itself of meaning. These radical Modernists taught that man has an innate religious sense, active in some people, dormant in others, and that a believer is simply someone whose religious sense has been somehow awakened. He has had ‘an experience of the divine’. When a group of believers reflect together on their various experiences, dogmas gradually result. Yet these dogmas are not truths publicly revealed by God and passed down without change from apostolic times. For a radical Modernist, a dogma is just a symbol of the religious experience of the believers. A dogma is therefore true insofar as it expresses these experiences in a fitting way.

   But what particularly disturbed Pope Pius was that the Modernists continued to use the Catholic formulas of faith even when they had ceased to believe in them. Among themselves, they might interpret the Church’s doctrines in a purely ‘subjective’ way. But among non-Modernists they would continue to use the ordinary expressions of faith, no doubt justifying themselves by the thought that these formulas were, after all, true: that is, truly useful symbols.

   For example, when a Catholic declares, ‘Christ is God’, he means just what he says. A Modernist, in using the same words, might mean, ‘in meeting Christ, or belonging to the community that he founded, one experiences the presence of the divine’. Again, if a Catholic says, ‘Christ was born of a Virgin’, he means exactly that. If a Modernist said it, he might mean ‘in contemplating Christ, one has a sense of radical newness, of something without a fully satisfying natural explanation’.

   It will be seen at once that Modernism is essentially foggy. Whereas the Catholic creed consists of statements that are simple enough for a child to understand – for God Himself is simple – Modernism thrives on ambiguity and unclarity (Belloc said that Maude Petre, an English Modernist, had written a book to prove that God was not a Person but a Vagueness.)

   Was the Pope a victim of paranoia in supposing that the men he had in mind emptied the creed of meaning whilst continuing to profess it? Let the most famous name among them, the French priest Alfred Loisy, be our witness. In a letter written in 1904 to Cardinal Merry du Val, the Vatican Secretary of State, he declared ‘I accept all the dogmas of the Church’. But in his private diary at the same period, he noted, ‘I have not been a Catholic in the official sense of the word for a long time’, and again, ‘Pius X, the head of the Catholic Church, would excommunicate me most decidedly if he knew that I hold…the virgin birth and the resurrection to be purely moral symbols’.

   From the beginning of his pontificate in 1903, St Pius had attempted to persuade the Modernists, whether moderate or extreme, to abandon their system, but when this failed, he acted swiftly and decisively. In the encyclical Pascendi, he exposed their motives and methods to the broad light of day. At the same time he promulgated, through the Holy Office, a list of 65 condemned propositions taken from the books of the leading Modernists. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he issued the ‘anti-Modernist oath’, to be taken by all clergy and others with teaching posts in the Church. This oath affirmed with crystal clarity that the Catholic faith is founded on reason, and that the Church’s dogmas do not depend on religious experience, but were revealed by God to the apostles and so cannot change. Although the imposition of this oath led to much public controversy, in the end only about forty priests refused to sign it. By this means were Catholic seminaries and universities preserved from Modernism at least until the time of the Second World War.

   So far, we have considered two general features of the Modernist movement: its abandonment of apologetics and, at least among its more radical representatives, its denial of the obvious meaning of the Creed. We can now consider a third characteristic of the movement, one that makes it peculiarly hard to eradicate, namely its attitude towards the magisterium or teaching office of the Church.

   St Pius X noted that the Modernists of his day considered conflict between the magisterium and the laity to be a normal and healthy state of affairs (today this is sometimes called ‘creative tension’.) They considered that the pope and the bishops ought to act as a ‘conservative’ force within the Church, maintaining the traditional expressions of doctrine intact: until the ‘common consciousness’ of the faithful had so ‘evolved’ that it became necessary to replace some traditional doctrine with a new one. Accordingly, the Modernists claimed that men such as themselves, who were in the vanguard of this ‘evolution’, must inevitably clash with the pope and the bishops. The Pope’s ironic description of this Modernist attitude is worth quoting at some length:

   ‘[When condemned by the Church] they reflect that, after all, there is no progress without a battle and no battle without its victims; and victims they are willing to be like the prophets and Christ Himself. They have no bitterness in their hearts against the authority which uses them roughly, for after all they readily admit that it is only doing its duty as authority. Their sole grief is that it remains deaf to their warnings, for in this way it impedes the progress of souls, but the hour will surely come when further delay will be impossible, for if the laws of evolution may be checked for a while they cannot be finally evaded. And thus they go their way, reprimands and condemnations not withstanding, masking an incredible audacity under a mock semblance of humility.’

   In other words, even when condemned, the Modernist would not feel compelled to choose between faithfully accepting the Church’s teaching and openly leaving the Church. In such circumstances, there would seem to be no other option than to act as Pope Pius did: to administer an oath of fidelity, relying on the natural human horror of perjury to prevent it from being taken insincerely in more than a very few cases.

   It is a commonplace that Modernism returned to the Catholic Church after the Second World War and particularly from the time of the Second Vatican Council. If the Modernism of St Pius’s day may be compared to a dangerous tumour, removed by the prompt action of a skilful surgeon, this later Modernism might be compared to a great flood of water pouring into a house with devastating effects. Many eloquent and acute authors in various lands have chronicled this ‘flooding’ of the Church. One might name, for example, Romano Amerio (featured in the May Mass of Ages); the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand; Jean Madiran, in France; and our own Michael Davies. Such writers as these have amply shown how the spirit of Modernism re-entered the Church when the vigilance of the ‘watchmen’ was relaxed.

   This ‘neo-Modernism’ has presented the same features as the original Modernism. First, it undermined apologetics. Apologetics presupposes a clear distinction between the knowledge that our natural reason can have of God and the knowledge that comes from the grace of faith. But during the second half of the 20th Century, a marked tendency developed among Catholic theologians to blur the distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ (this is why many of them, today, stumble at the venerable doctrine of Limbo, or the natural happiness prepared by God for unbaptized souls who have never known the use of reason.) As a result, apologetics, which had previously been taught not only in seminaries but also in Catholic secondary schools, fell out of favour.

    This decline of apologetics was accelerated when seminarians ceased to be instructed in the perennial philosophy perfected by Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and their heirs, in favour of a rather superficial acquaintance with ‘modern thought’. Accordingly, the traditional proofs of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, proofs that show the rational basis of Christianity, were devalued in the eyes of many. The rout was completed by ‘developments’ in biblical studies. From the 1960’s, it became fashionable in many Catholic circles to accept the scepticism about the Gospels that had previously been the mark of liberal Protestants. At the same time, many Catholic exegetes came to embrace the idea, repeatedly condemned by the Popes and by Sacred Tradition, that there are errors in the Bible.

   (The best modern work of apologetics that I know is Fr Peter Joseph’s revision of Archbishop Sheehan’s classic Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine. This was published some years ago by the Saint Austin’s Press; I hope very much that they, or some other publishing house, will soon bring it back into print.)

    The second Modernist characteristic mentioned above was that of using Catholic language without Catholic convictions. The most devastating example of this in recent times perhaps concerns the real presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist. It is not common for any one with a teaching position in the Church to deny that Christ is present in the celebration of the Mass. But probably many seminarians in different countries have been exposed to accounts of this doctrine which claim that transubstantiation is an ‘outmoded’ concept. The alternative explanation of Christ’s presence which is then given is likely to be a Modernist one. That is, the physical presence of Christ will often be at least tacitly denied, and the experience of the ‘worshipping community’ invoked to take its place.

   Another example is the doctrine of the Resurrection. It would be very surprising if anyone with the title of a Catholic theologian should ever say, ‘Christ is not risen’. Yet one sometimes hears or reads that the resurrection does not necessarily mean that Christ’s tomb was empty on the third day, but simply that Christ has been glorified or ‘vindicated’ by God the Father. Of course, this is a self-contradiction: how could it be our Lord who was glorified if His Body had not risen again? Either those who say such things are simply very confused (that is what we should hope); or else, they are reducing the resurrection to an experience, either an experience of the apostles or an experience of the contemporary ‘believing community’.

   The third characteristic that I, or rather Pope St Pius, distinguished in Modernism was the habit of ignoring the immemorial teachings of the Church in the name of an alleged evolving Christian consciousness. It would not be hard to find evidence of this within the Church today; one can simply read the Tablet. But not only is the habit of ignoring the magisterium more widespread than in the days of Pascendi, it also extends to a greater range of Catholic doctrines. St Thomas Aquinas, discussing tyranny, remarks that when there is a succession of tyrants in a land, the later ones will usually be more tyrannical that the earlier ones. This is so, he explains, because the later tyrants ‘do not relax the burdens inflicted by their predecessors, and also invent new ones out of the malice of their hearts’. In the same way, Modernism has a tendency to grow with the years. All 65 propositions condemned by the Holy Office in 1907 are alive today; but any list of contemporary errors would need to include many others too, for example about the maleness of the ordained priesthood, the abrogation of the Old Covenant and various moral questions.

   At the end of his encyclical, St Pius states that the two great causes of Modernism’s spread are pride and ignorance. It follows that if we are to be free in spirit from the continuing influence of Modernism, we shall need humility and knowledge. Humility preserves us from supposing that we know better than our Catholic forebears and from the fear of seeming old-fashioned. It therefore defends us against the doctrinal deviations current at any given time (in our day, perhaps the worst such deviation is the denial of the seriousness of being outside the visible Church.) Knowledge is necessary because false ideas often spread not from ill will but from confusion. Pascendi insisted that the philosophy of St Thomas was the great remedy against such confusion, and that it must therefore be the basis of all seminary studies: but there is no reason why it need be confined to the seminaries (for those wishing to become acquainted with ‘scholasticism’, the best short work that I know is Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy, recently brought back into print.) More generally, continual contact with the works of the Doctors of the Church is surely a powerful way to protect ourselves against what the spiritual writers call ‘the presumption of novelties’, and so to root ourselves in the Tradition of the Church.

   Finally, in his outstanding work The Devastated Vineyard, Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, ‘we must storm heaven with the prayer that the spirit of a St Pius X might once again fill the hierarchy’. If that is true, and I do not doubt that it is, we might like to use the following prayer, given in the Dominican missal as the collect of the Mass ‘for preachers’:-

   Enlighten, O Lord, the hearts of thy servants with the grace of the Holy Ghost: give them a tongue of fire; and on those who preach thy word, bestow increase of power.

Copyright ©; thomas crean O.P. February 2009

The above article first appeared in the Mass of Ages published by The Latin Mass Society and appears with the publisher's kind permission.

Version: 5th February 2009

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