Back to Contents Page



Chapter Fifteen

In Chapter One, I said that the purpose of an intellectual or cultural aggiornamento, was to sift the wheat from the chaff in contemporary thought and life in order to keep the faithful from opposing what is naturally good, and to put the good at the Church's service. The chief hazard or occupational disease to which those taking part can succumb is trying to force the Church to eat chaff as well as wheat. We are about to see both things happening.

The Holy See's major changes of attitude and policy towards the under­taking fall conveniently for our purposes into four periods: from 1815 to the death of Pius IX in 1878; from the accession of Leo X111 in 1878 to his death in 1903; from St. Pius X's accession in 1903 to his death in 1914; and from the accession of Benedict XV in 1914 to the death of Pius XII and Pope John XXIII's election in 1958.

Up to 1958, these changes of policy were never total reversals of policy. They were a more or less vigorous putting on or letting off of the brakes, the strength of the pressure being dictated, on the one hand, by the necessity for adaptations of some kind, and, on the other, by the need to protect the beliefs of the bulk of the faithful.

Pope John XXIII initiated a fifth period the one we are still in by letting off the brakes with unprecedented suddenness. It was a complete reversal of policy, and Pope Paul who succeeded him touched the breaks so lightly, when he touched them at all, that the results were scarcely noticeable.

Returning to our starting point, by the mid-summer of 1815, the upheavals of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era being over and Europe at peace once more, the effects of what could be called the "new realities" the changes in men's ways of living and thinking and the factors responsible for them that mark off pre-revolutionary from post-revolutionary Europe began to make themselves felt. The revolution did not cause these changes. They had been in preparation for a long time. But by overthrowing the ancient but now decrepit political institutions which had been holding them in check, the French revolution and Napoleonic invasions let them out of the bag like the winds of Aeolus to blow about the world at gale force.

The most significant of the "new realities" for the Church was her loss of intellectual and cultural leadership. A high percentage of the most gifted thinkers, writers, artists, and scientists abandoned her. So too did large numbers of the actively enterprising middle classes. The departure marked the beginnings of the Church's long struggle with different forms of organised unbelief (liberal, masonic, socialist, communist) already referred to. It was the beginning of the end of Christendom as history had hitherto known it.

The other major new realities were: the spread of democratic or republican political ideas; the industrial revolution and the accompanying exodus of the farming populations from the countryside to the towns with their devastating social effects; the consequent growth of movements to win or defend the rights of workers, spear-headed by various forms of revolutionary socialism, as the century advanced, mass education; the spate of new scientific discoveries and inventions; and finally the torrent of scholarly and philosophical theories which in different ways seemed to undermine the foundations of belief.

How much of this immense collection of notions, speculation and reputed facts was true and to which could the Church therefore give her blessing?

Like nearly all important new initiatives, the beginnings of the movement for coming to terms with them were small. It was less a concerted undertaking than a tentative tackling of this or that topic by isolated individuals which at first seemed to be part of the general religious revival sweeping across Catholic and Protestant Europe. Nevertheless, though the same men were often active in both ventures, the objectives were different.

The religious revival was concerned with reawakening spiritual fervour (dulled by the tepid deism of the previous century); with restoring or preserving what is perennial in the Church's life; and, under the stimulus of the romantic movement, with rediscovering the treasures of the Church's past not only what had been swept away by war and revolution, but things which had fallen into disuse through the attrition of time.

The aggiornamento, on the other hand, was concerned with ideas and practices originating outside the Church. For reasons which lie in their different histories it took a rather different form in the two countries, France and Germany, where the demand for it has always been strongest.

In France, for the greater part of the 19th century, political activity of some kind was possible, but the Church was excluded from the universities. In France, therefore, the movement's leaders were mostly writers, orators, or public figures of some kind, not university men; and what they sought was a measure of accommodation with 19th-century liberal theory and practice. Hence the name "liberal Catholicism" for this branch of the movement. The most representative figures were the abbé de Lammenais, the Dominican Fr. 2 Lacordaire, the Vicomte de Montalembert, and the Archbishop of Orleans, Msgr. Dupanloup. Although they differed about which items of liberalism's stock in trade were most valuable, they were at one in wanting the Church to approve political constitutions, government by elected representatives, equality before the law, the right of free association and so on. (There was in principle no objection to any of them). They also wanted the Church to speak well of individual liberty, particularly liberty of speech and opinion, and to accept religious freedom and the separation of Church and State as absolute goods, always and everywhere. These were a different matter. The agenda as a whole has been called "baptising the principles of 1789".

In Germany the opposite state of affairs prevailed. The royal and princely governments gave little scope for political activity. Interest in liberal theory and practice was in consequence relatively weak. Catholic writers of the period, like Görres, were more interested in the corporate freedoms of Germany's medieval cities. On the other hand, the Church still had a foothold in some of the universities. So it was mainly in the universities that the movement developed, the leaders were mostly professors, and what they chiefly wanted from the Church was her blessing on elements of German idealist philosophy and the use of the historical and literary critical method.

German Idealism

There are two main branches of this immensely influential school of thought. The first stems from Immanuel Kant's "Copernican revolution in philosophy" or "critical idealism", as he called it; the second from Hegel's "absolute" or "objective" idealism.

Building on the ideas of Descartes, Locke and Hume, Kant (1724-1804) decreed that we cannot know things as they really are, only as they appear, these appearances being the creation of our minds. Our minds impose on the incoming stream of impressions we receive through our senses a pattern of their own making. The world looks the way it does, not because that is how it is, but because that is how our minds make it look. Between the world of things as they appear (the world of phenomena) and the world of things as they truly are (the world of noumena or "things in themselves") a great gulf is fixed. The "noumenal" world remains forever unknowable.

It is not necessary for our present purposes to explain Kant's reasons for advancing these surprising ideas. We need only mention two of the more important consequences of his "Copernican revolution".

In the first place, it destroyed the foundations of natural theology. If the  apparent order and design in nature are creations of our minds, they cannot be used as arguments for the existence of God. Nor can we have any knowledge of the kind of being that God is by reflecting on his works. The shape and form of things are dictated by us. The voice of conscience is the only evidence we have for the Deity's existence.

Although a Lutheran, Kant was in fact contradicting what St. Paul had plainly told the people of Lystra (not to mention a great deal that is said elsewhere in the Bible): namely that God, his purposes and the kind of being he is, can be known from his works. Kant is, in this respect, the father of modem religious agnosticism.

Kant's idealism is called "critical" because it calls into question the common-sense conviction that the appearance of things, for the most part, reveals rather than conceals what they essentially are.

Kant's theories about the relationship of the mind to reality were also responsible for the strongly subjective approach to religion and the great questions leading to religion with which we are all now familiar. "The way I feel about things is the way they are".

Hegel, on the other hand, rather than shutting men up in their minds, made us minuscule particles of God's mind. We and everything else in the universe are aspects or thoughts of a great universal Mind as it endeavours to reach a fuller understanding of Itself. The consequences in this cast were to cast much of modern European philosophy into a strongly evolutionary pantheistic mould.

The Historical and Literary Critical Methods

This, the second of the two disciplines it was hoped the Church would bless, is the system of rules for testing the documents on which our knowledge of the past is based in order to determine their authorship and value as evidence, and to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the author's meaning. Already used in classical times, they were revived at the renaissance by humanists like Valla. Their development and application reached its apogee in the 19th-century under the name of "the higher criticism".

These rules are not unlike the rules of evidence in courts of law. The object is to determine whether the reputed authors really wrote the documents under examination, how truthful they were, and if they can be shown not to have been the authors, just how and when the documents were composed. Conclusions are reached partly by studying the documents' language, style and contents for inconsistencies and anachronisms (internal evidence), partly by bringing external information to bear. Does the language and style seem to be all from one hand or not? Does it fit the document's supposed date? Are the facts recorded consistent with each other? Do they agree or conflict with other historical evidence?

The critic, it is presumed, will not only have a good knowledge of the necessary languages, but also a good understanding of the conditions under which the texts were written, and, in so far as possible, of the ideas prevailing at the time. All this helps him to throw light on the meaning of obscure passages as well as the date of the texts. The method was also used for determining the date and authorship of literary works like the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Initially, the "higher criticism" had a stimulating effect on Catholic historians. The higher critics' industry, exacting standards and command of their materials, represented a challenge. Of the several Catholic historians matching them in erudition and industry, probably the most distinguished was the historian of Church Councils, Fr. Karl Joseph von Hefele (1800-1893).

These different focuses of interest on liberal theory and practice west of the Rhine, on philosophy and critical scholarship to the east were still to be found among the experts at the Second Vatican Council.

Outside France and Germany, curiosity was less compartmentalised. In Italy, Frs. Rosmini and Gioberti tried in different ways and with different degrees of success to come to terms with both liberalism and German philosophy, while in England Lord Acton was an apostle of liberalism and the higher criticism.

The Catholic social movement the Catholic response to the evils of urbanisation, rapid industrial expansion and unchecked economic liberalism developed separately. In France, most of the early social reformers were not political liberals (Armand de Melun, Albert de Munn, René de la Tour du Pin); nor was Cardinal Manning in England, or Bishop Ketteler of Mainz, the
movement's chief protagonist in Germany. Ketteler was also distrustful of the rising pretensions, as he saw them, of the German Catholic scholarly world.

Unfortunately, the social movement and the liberal Catholic attempt to baptise the principles of 1789 introduced into French Catholic life, and later throughout the Catholic world, an internal struggle which eventually became as heated and bitter as the external conflict between Catholics and organised unbelief.

In this internal struggle, as in the external one, class, economic and political interests and prejudices again helped to confuse the issues. Nor were the faults all on the side of the liberal or "social" Catholics. If the liberals tended to see the principles of 1789 through rose-tinted glasses, and later generations of  "social Catholics" came to idealise socialism, their opponents often tried to give monarchical government the appearance of an article of faith, or represented any attempt to correct social evils as support for revolution. Liberal and social Catholics were frequently at loggerheads too. Liberals like Montalembert and Dupanloup inclined to see the championship of workers' rights either as a violation of liberal principles, or as socially and politically dangerous.

Ultimately, however, the conflict came to be about more than straight­forward questions like "Should France be a monarchy or a republic?" or "Do workers have rights vis-à-vis employers?" Gradually a deeper question came to the surface. Should the laws and customs of nations express the mind and will of God, or the outlook of the majority of the inhabitants? In the long run, of course, a country's laws and customs always reflect the majority outlook (they also help to form it), whether or not they reflect the law of God as well. The question was only a burning one because the nations of Europe and the Americas were in a state of transition from being publicly more or less Christian, to being (what they mostly now are), publicly nothing, or atheist. The debate will eventually therefore be about whether to oppose the anti-Christian tendencies and save as much of Christian public law as can be saved, or whether to bow to what is regarded as a fait accompli, and, out of respect for majority opinion, surrender the field of public law to the anti-Christian tendencies without a fight.

The dispute is now of course at its height in regard to abortion and euthanasia, with modernism favouring co-operation in the work of demolition or surrender.

Such were the beginnings of the attempt to come to terms with the "new realities" the first steps on the path leading to the Second Vatican Council's "new orientations".

Back to Contents Page

Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 27th November 2017


Home Page

Book Information

Reflections on Scripture