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Chapter Sixteen


That trouble lay ahead could have been foreseen in the way some of the scholars we have mentioned spoke about the work in hand Gioberti, for example. The Church, it was said, must be reconciled with "modern times" or the "spirit of the age" as though the two things could receive a blanket blessing.

If the age is thought of as being run by a variety of spirits, a chaotic parliament of them so to speak, the problem is less intractable. Catholics can then make friends with the good ones and shun or shut the door on the bad the guiding principle of all true aggiomamento.

There was also much talk about "bringing together faith and reason" or "faith and science". One knows what was meant. A naturally established fact, if it really is a fact, remains a fact. Our religion does not require us to deny it. But it may be a long time before the import of a particular fact is understood, while the mysteries revealed by God often seem to contradict what we take to be natural facts or appearances   as do certain scientifically established facts like the earth's movement round the sun. Things are not always as they seem at first sight. When we talk about reconciling reason and faith, is our object really to make the mysteries revealed by God appear what is considered reasonable by the avenge man, scientifically trained or otherwise?

There is another difficulty. Since faith is widely regarded as a matter of vague intuitions or feelings, while "science" has the reputation for dealing only with facts and being infallible, this kind of talk instantly gives the advantage to "reason" and "science" whether thought of as representing the claims of natural knowledge or the unbelieving point of view before discussion of the problems of trying to harmonise faith and reason has so much as started. The issue might have been easier to handle if, instead of talking about faith and reason or faith and science, Catholics had talked about supernatural and natural knowledge two sources of information, the first being the more precious because it teaches man about his final end.

The first and most famous casualty in this opening period was Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854). A convert, a priest and a brilliant polemicist, he started by championing the papacy against the surviving Gallicanism of the restored French monarchy and hierarchy. But gradually, captivated by the  notions of popular sovereignty and progress, he started trying to refashion the Church as a Rousseauistic compact between Pope and people at the expense of the bishops, then transforming her mission into promoting temporal welfare of the faithful. The Church was to be their liberator from oppresive rulers, employers and foreign governments.

"Catholicism delivers man from the yoke of man", he was to write after his break with the Church, and "the day is approaching when (the Church) will mould all nations into one great society", appearing "between heaven and earth as a consoling sign".1 But first she must regenerate herself by stripping herself of worldly goods and entanglements. For the first time we hear the accents of today's liberation theologians. It is an age-old dream.

Later still he was to make "the people" the source of religious truth. Christianity is true because what is essential to it agrees with what the generality of men has always believed about life's meaning and origins.

While Lamennais was still championing the papacy, Pope Leo XII is said to have thought of making him a cardinal. If the Pope really had such an intention, Providence must have intervened to make him change his mind. His successor, Gregory XVI, had to condemn Lamennais' principal theses in the encyclical Mirari vos, and in 1834 he was excommunicated. Excommunicating a cardinal would have been a considerable embarrassment.

The brushes with authority of other Catholic thinkers and scholars were less dramatic. At different times both Montalembert and Lord Acton were rebuked for pressing liberal ideas beyond the point of acceptability. Most of Gioberti's books were put on the Index of forbidden books, for philosophical or political reasons. His religion having become entangled with his passionate Italian nationalism, he wanted the Pope to see himself as a divinely appointed instrument for Italian liberation and unification. However, Rosmini's fidelity and holiness were never seriously in doubt, in spite of the censured propositions in his philosophical writings.

Scholarly pride seems to have been the undoing of the German historian Döllinger, who refused to accept the definition of papal infallibility in 1870. How could an ignorant Italian bishop be right about papal authority and a master of the higher criticism wrong? (Even Hefele, by this time Bishop of Rottenburg, had hesitated for a year before subscribing to the definition). Earlier, at a congress which he had organised in Munich, Döllinger had demanded total freedom from ecclesiastical control for Catholic scholars.

In retrospect, however, perhaps the most significant figures who got into deep waters before 1878 were the two philosopher-theologians Fr. Georg Hermes (1775-1831), a seminary professor in Bonn, and Fr. Anton Günther,  a priest of independent means living in Vienna. 2

Hermes, whose faith had been shaken as a student while reading Kant, and Kant's disciple Fichte, wanted to make belief easier for the highly educated. To  this end he divided the faithful into philosophers and non-philosophers, justifying the step by adopting Kant's distinction between theoretical and practical reason. Philosophers, or the well-educated, only have to accept the truths of revelation in so far as they satisfy the demands of theoretical reason. In contrast, the uneducated, or anyone incapable of understanding the objections which theoretical reason raises against belief, are bound to accept the Church's teachings without question once they have a sufficiently strong practical inner conviction that there has been a revelation. He seems to have ignored the role of grace in believing. He also taught that theology should start with methodical doubt.

Günther thought that with a judicious mixture of Kant and Hegel, mysteries like the Trinity and the Incarnation could be demonstrated by reason alone. Revelation was not absolutely necessary. Furthermore, with the progress of science and philosophy, such mysteries would become ever clearer and more easily demonstrable. The Church's doctrinal definitions were therefore always subject to revision and improvement.

For a time,"Hermesianism" had a following in the Rhineland important enough to cause serious anxiety in Rome, while Günther's ideas had repercussions throughout Catholic Germany. Both died in the Church, but their efforts to put Kant's and Hegel's idealism at the Church's service were condemned in 1835 and 1857. Several of Günther's disciples left the Church after the First Vatican Council, some joining the Old Catholics?

What was the attitude of the magisterium to these first attempts at making German philosophy, critical scholarship and the "principles of 1789" into handmaids of divine revelation. 3

If, to most of the Popes and bishops of the time, there did not seem to be much in what then passed for modern thought that could be reconciled with the faith, it is hardly surprising. The struggle to preserve the Catholic character of Catholic Europe was at its height; they were having to fight off attacks on the Church and the faith from half a dozen different directions. Many of the new ideas, moreover, seemed to be bound up with atheism, materialism, naturalism, or some other equally undesirable philosophical position. In these circumstances, attempting to make fine distinctions about the merits and demerits of the enemy positions seemed likely to confuse the faithful about essentials. It seemed better to stick to the condemnation of manifest errors and wrongs.

The high point of this policy was Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1864), with its famous final condemnation of the proposition that the Pope should be reconciled with "liberalism, progress and modern civilisation". Pius IX meant civilisation and progress as continental liberalism understood them: no divine revelation, no religious influence on government or in education, legalisation of divorce, expulsion of religious orders, conscription of seminarians in order to destroy vocations, confiscation of Church property.

*           *           *

With the death of Pius IX came the first policy change. In Leo XIII, Pius's successor, the Church received a Pope sympathetic to some kind of coming to terms with contemporary ideas for the first time since Pius VII had tentatively acknowledged the possibility of baptising the principles of 1789 shortly after his election in 1803, and Pius IX had trifled with liberal theory and practice during the first two years of his pontificate (1846-8). The burned fingers which the latter pontiff received in the course of his experiments explain his determination not to repeat them.

Among the more conspicuous signs of Leo XIII's change of policy were his decision to open the Vatican archives to the world's scholars, and his call to French Catholics to accept the Third Republic as a legitimate government. The call was not well received by many of the children of the Church's eldest daughter.

In 1879, at the request of the Duke of Norfolk, Leo made Newman a cardinal, an indirect way of removing doubts about his theology, which would have included his theories about the development of doctrine and the role of the laity.

The first encyclical of Leo's reign, Aeterni Patris (1879), was devoted to "the restoration of Christian philosophy". By Christian philosophy he meant the philosophical realism of the high middle ages, of which St. Thomas Aquinas is regarded as the greatest exponent. For Pope Leo, a lover of philosophy as well as a skilled diplomat, sound philosophy was the necessary starting point for any successful grappling with contemporary ideas and ideologies. To this end he encouraged the foundation of the higher institute of philosophy at the Catholic university of Louvain in Belgium, under the direction of Msgr. (later Cardinal) Mercier. A restoration was necessary because the scholastic and Thomist traditions were considered to have been distorted by the introduction of alien philosophical ideas during the 16th and 17th centuries. The editing and publication of accurate texts of St. Thomas was part of the restoration.

Louvain, swept away during the revolution and re-founded in 1834, was by now the chief centre of Catholic scholarship in Europe outside the German universities. Although the institute of philosophy subsequently interpreted the philosophy of St.Thomas in a way with which it is hard to think Leo XIII would have sympathised, the Pope's support for the "restoration of Christian philosophy according to the mind of St. Thomas", the sub-title of Aeterni Patris, can be seen as providential. Catholic scholars who have tried to come to terms with contemporary philosophy without their feet firmly planted in Christian philosophical realism, have nearly all been swept away in the powerful currents of German subjectivism.

Later came the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), on the rights and duties of capital and labour, the first of the modern papal "social encyclicals" Written at the urging of leaders of the social movement, like Bishop Ketteler and Cardinal Manning, its doctrine of co-operation, "capital needs labour, and labour needs capital", was the Church's answer to Marx's doctrine of social progress through class warfare. It laid the foundations for the social teaching of the popes of the 20th century.

However, Leo XIII's change of policy was no naïve "opening to the world" of the kind favoured by modernism. He was no less aware than his predecessors of the problems raised by the new learning and of the need to mark out the danger zones. Nor, despite his diplomatic tact, was his pontificate without political troubles. The campaigns against the Church, launched by the recently founded German imperial government under Bismarck, and the statesmen running the new united Italy during the early 1870s, persisted; and in 1877, when deputies of liberal-masonic affiliation won control of the French Republic, that government too embarked on an aggressively anti-Catholic policy. 4

Meanwhile, the movement for intellectual and cultural aggiornamento was growing in strength and becoming more consolidated.

In the late 1870s the Church realised that she was not going to recover control of the universities in the foreseeable future, but that to reply effectively to the intellectual attacks on her beliefs she must train scholars capable of meeting the masters of the new historical scholarship and philosophy on their own ground. A group of French bishops set about founding five Catholic institutes of higher studies or free universities (the Instituts Catholiques) at Paris, Toulouse, Lille, Angers and Lyons.

Other centres of Catholic scholarship in France and the Low countries at this time were the Jesuit houses of studies in Paris and at Fourviere outside  Lyons, and the Jesuit College of St. Michael in Brussels The latter, whose members are known as the Bollandists after one of the college's founders, had been established in the 17th century to collect and edit the sources for the lives of the saints. Dispersed, when the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773, and coming together again for the same purpose after the restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814, the Bollandists had been applying the historical-critical method to their work with increasing rigour. 5

A series of international congresses for Catholic scholars organised by Msgr. d'Hulst, rector of the Paris Institute between 1888 and 1900 also helped to consolidate the movement. There were six congresses in all: at Paris in 1888, 1891 and 1892, at Brussels in 1894, at Fribourg in 1897, and at Munich in 1900. They enabled scholars who had hitherto only known each other through their books or by letter to meet and talk informally. Their object was, to use their own words, "the reform or renewal of Catholic studies". By this they meant a greater use of the critical method in Bible study and Church history, acceptance of a greater or lesser number of the higher critics' conclusions, and admission of "modern philosophy" into the curriculum of Catholic universities and seminaries in place of, or alongside, the reigning scholasticism.

These were the circumstances in which modernism made its first appearance in the Catholic Church. The aggiornamento was about to give birth to its illegitimate child. But, as a system of ideas, modernism was not a Catholic invention. Its foundations had been laid a good sixty years earlier in Germany when Lutheran scholars started applying the critical method to the Bible. Why were the results to be so devastating? To answer this question, we must first say something about Bible study in general.

Notes to Chapter Sixteen

1. Rops, The Church in an Age of Revolution. Dent. London, 1965. p. 202.

2. Msgr. Eugene Kevane has suggested that the cases of Hermes and Günther should be seen as a kind of curtain-raiser to Catholic modernism. See his Creed and Catechetics, Westminster, Maryland, p. 279.

3. Old Catholics, a fusion of two schismatic groups: the Jansenists of the "Church of Utrecht" who broke with Rome in 1724, and the groups of Catholics who left the Church after the definition of papal infallibility in 1870.

4. Bismarck's campaign, known as the Kulturkampf, aimed at the complete subjection of Church to state. The need to ensure the unity of the new German empire was the supposed justification. Catholic resistance led Bismarck to reach an agreement with  Leo XIII, by which the laws were modified. The campaign in France reached its climax between 1901-4 with the suppression of religious orders, the closing of Catholic schools, and the wholesale confiscation of Church property.

5. The Society was suppressed by Clement XIV under pressure from the kings of France, Spain, Portugal, and Naples, and their Voltairean ministers. The Empress Maria Theresa, hitherto pro-Jesuit, but influenced by her chancellor Kaunitz, remained neutral.

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Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 28th November 2017

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