Home Page

Book Information

Reflections on Scripture

Chapter Eighteen


In the Catholic Church, the first modernist outbreak ran from about 1875 to 1910, and, unlike the eruption after Vatican II, was confined to the well-educated. France, Italy and England were the countries mainly affected. What came about was one of those intellectual brotherhoods of like-minded men which seem to arise spontaneously; men who are reading the same books, thinking the same thoughts, swimming in the same sea of ideas.

England's part in the drama is surprising, considering how few Catholics she had. It can perhaps be explained by the prestige she enjoyed as head of a world empire, and the fact that modernism already had a hold on that empire's established church. The relatively modest part played by Germany is even more puzzling, given the dependence of modernism on German scholarly and philosophical ideas.

The most active figure was Baron Friedrich von Hügel, a naturalised British subject, Austrian by birth, who lived most of his later life in England.

Highly cultivated, widely read, a prolific writer of books on mysticism and the spiritual life, a devotee of Schleiermacher, von Hügel devoted himself to putting priests and laymen with doubtful or extreme ideas in touch with each other, encouraging them to persist in their work when they showed signs of flagging, and generally trying to keep them together as a group. No doubt he sincerely wanted to bring about a spiritual and intellectual revival, but too much according to his own ideas.

As a writer, he has always enjoyed a considerable reputation among cultivated English Catholics and Anglicans, some minimising his modernism, others being unaware of it. Misunderstandings are largely due, I think, to his strange and bland (one is tempted to say, intellectually slippery) personality. In addition to writing, he devoted a considerable amount of time to acting as a spiritual guide to troubled souls.

Exactly what he believed at different moments between 1880 and 1910 is not easy to determine. But that he can be classified as a modernist, at least during this period, is beyond dispute. Fr. George Tyrrell, after listening to him talking one evening about religion, summarised his viewpoint thus:"Nothing is true, but the sum total of nothings is sublime". 1 Although Tyrrell was obviously exaggerating, the testimony of other contemporaries is not dissimilar. 154

According to one of his closest friends, Professor Clement Webb, von Hügel did not subscribe to the doctrine of a "kernel" or "hard nucleus" of revealed truth, which for believers must be beyond criticism, and "was to the end wholly impenitent in his adherence to modern critical views of the sacred books".

Maude Petre, herself deeply involved in the movement, was of the same opinion. Without the Baron, she wrote to Alec Vidler, "Fr. Tyrrell would have been a spiritual and moral pioneer (sic), but not strictly a Modernist". In spite of all this, von Hügel was rather conspicuously pious, to the surprise of his more logical French friends. 2

Although he cannot be called the movement's leader, his knowledge of languages, social position, and financial independence did enable him to act as its impresario in a way that would have been impossible for any of the other members. Vidler calls him the movement's "chief engineer", while von Hügel's contemporary, the French liberal protestant Paul Sabatier, referred to him as its "lay bishop". In particular he helped to keep the French, Italians and English in touch with what was going on in German historical and biblical scholarship. He thus gave the movement a cohesion it might not otherwise have had, and without which the measures taken by St. Pius X to put an end to it might have been unnecessary.

Msgr. d'Hulst's congresses also unwittingly helped to consolidate the movement. Participants with modernist inclinations discovered there were more people inclining to their way of thinking than they had realised.

Von Hügel was never publicly reproved, but the censure and excommunication of some of his friends came as a shock, suggesting that he perhaps only half understood what he was involved in. Before his death in 1925, he seems to have returned to more Catholic views. Perhaps his piety his daily saying of the rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament was responsible.

Of the other key figures, the scripture scholar, Alfred Loisy, (1857-1949) is probably the best known. An exceptionally bright seminary student, and, like von Hügel, pious to match, he was sent by his bishop, the Bishop of Chalons, to complete his studies at the Institut Catholique in Paris. After a brief spell as a parish priest, he returned in 1881 to become lecturer in Hebrew and then professor of biblical exegesis. Many years later (1930), when he came to write his memoirs, he admitted that, in spite of his repeated claims to the contrary, he had begun to lose his faith around 1880. About the time he took up his lectureship at the Paris Institut, he had started attending Renan's lectures at the College de France.

Fr. Laberthonnière, an Oratorian, and Edouard Leroy, a layman, were 155 philosophers. Fr. Hébert was head of the Ecole Fénelon, a well-known Parisian boys' school; his interests included philosophy, scripture and history. Fr. Houtin, a teacher of history in the diocesan school at Angers, became a self-appointed and perhaps not very reliable historian of the movement, and the Protestant Paul Sabatier just referred to, author of a highly successful life of St. Francis of Assisi, gave support from without.

The chief Italian modernists were Frs. Minnocchi, Bonaiuti and Semaria, and the novelist Antonio Fogazzaro. Minnocchi and Bonaiuti edited reviews. Semaria, a member of the Bamabite order, was a scripture scholar. As a successful writer, Fogazzaro was able to introduce the general public to the modernist religious outlook. The hero of his novel, Il Santo, did for modernism what the Vicaire Savoyard of Rousseau's novel Émile had done for the 18th-century Enlightenment provide the movement with an ideal holy man.

In England, Fr. Tyrrell, northern Irish and protestant by birth and upbringing, had entered the Society of Jesus in 1880 about a year after becoming a Catholic at the age of eighteen. Ordained in 1891, he worked a few years in a parish before being put to teaching philosophy at Stonyhurst, the Jesuit college and boys' school. The turning point in his life was his meeting with von Hügel in the mid-90s. Von Hügel introduced him to the writings of Schleiermacher, Loisy, Bergson and Blondel. Before their meeting he had been an enthusiastic Thomist, but, with characteristic abruptness, became henceforward an equally ardent devotee of religious and philosophical subjectivism and Loisy's scepticism about the Bible. Among his friends he had a reputation as a mystical thinker and reformer of the philosophy of religion. 3

In both Loisy and Tyrrell there was a strong dash of the enfant ternble the gifted child with an uncontrolled urge to shock, attract attention and annoy the grown-ups.

These were the men who made a noise; who were prepared to say openly what others were only thinking, or to take to their limits and beyond, ideas which these others were only beginning to touch.

More worldly-wise men, like the English liturgical scholar, layman and convert, Edmund Bishop, only expressed their views in letters to friends but otherwise lay low. The abbé Brémond, historian of 17th-century French spirituality, another religious enfant terrible, darted in and out of the game, but mostly ran up and down the touchline keeping out of serious trouble. Meanwhile the French Church historian, Msgr. Louis Duchesne (1843­1922), could be said to have sat in the grandstand, watching the sport without getting sunburnt or wet, at one moment egging a man on, at others crying a warning. 156

This famous, enigmatic figure, who in 1877 became professor of Church history at the Paris Institut, was the first important French Catholic scholar to apply the principles of the higher criticism to ecclesiastical history in a thoroughgoing way. A whole generation of young Catholic scholars and teachers were trained by him. Loisy, his most gifted pupil, seems to have acquired from him his uncritical belief in the infallibility of the critical method.

For a time Duchesne's views led to his being suspended from his professorship. However, he recognised early on that the Church was not going to meet any of the modernists' demands and quickly shed any appearance of leadership. In 1897 he was made director of the Ecole Française in Rome (a government appointment), where he remained till his death. His apartment became a centre where dissatisfied visitors to the Eternal City could express their resentments against the Holy See or make it the butt of their wit. His reputation rests chiefly on his edition of the Liber Pontificalis, and his three-volume History of the Early Church.

Unquestionably learned, his attitude to the reigning authorities seems to have been mostly sardonic contempt. Hebert said that Duchesne helped him to see the "reasons" for not believing in the Resurrection. Duchesne later denied this. On his instructions, his papers were burned after his death. Loisy always stressed Duchesne's scepticism, but rather than a sceptic, the surviving letters suggest a man moving uneasily in a kind of no-man's-land between scepticism and faith. Here is part of a letter to Hébert, dated 18th January 1900, urging him not to give up the headship of the Ecole Fénelon:

"Religious authority counts on its traditions and the most devoted members of its personnel, who are also the least intelligent. What can be done? Endeavour to reform it? The only outcome of such attempts would be to get oneself thrown out of the window . . . Let us then teach what the Church teaches . . .We need not deny that in all this there is a large part of symbolism that calls for explanation. But leave the explanation to make its own way privately. It may be that despite all appearances the old ecclesiastical edifice is going one day to tumble down . . . Should this happen, no one will blame us for having supported the old building for as long as possible?" 4

On the other hand, after Hébert's resignation, Duchesne urged him to take a country parish which he said would revive his faith, as he found that his own invariably was by his annual visits to Brittany. And in 1903 he was to write to Loisy. "On the whole, I do not think that Catholicism is irreconcilable 157 with the kind of criticism you practise . . . but I cannot see cardinals and theologians presiding over the feast you will serve up to them . . 8.In fifty years' time, so I am told, everyone will find these ideas natural. Possibly but will this 'everyone' still be Christian?" 5

Finally in Msgr. Mignot, the Archbishop of Albi, the modernists had a cautious episcopal patron.

The philosopher Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) acted as an intermediary, trying to bring the wilder spirits back within bounds, while explaining to authority what the more moderate ones who were unjustly suspected of modernism were actually saying. Without subscribing to modernist principles himself, like others pressing for a "reform of Catholic studies", he sympathised with some of the modernists' practical aims, such as their demand for an end to the privileged position of scholastic philosophy.

According to Blondel, traditional metaphysics (classical Christian realism) "is impotent when it is a question of bringing modern spirits to Christianity . . . If there is one conclusion to which modern philosophy attaches itself as a certainty, it is the idea, basically justifiable, that nothing can enter into a man which does not come from him". 6 Because of this, all future philosophy should start with some aspect of man's inner life. In other words, he was the first prominent Catholic to ask for what has come to be called a "shift to the human subject".

His own philosophy, which he, perhaps rather misleadingly, called a "philosophy of action", focused on our acts of choosing and willing. If we analyse what happens when we will something, he claimed, we inevitably arrive at the supernatural. The most minimal act of will is made with a view to some good, but no good achieved in this world exhausts the will's capacity for willing something more a supreme good only found elsewhere. The natural order therefore presupposes the supernatural order, towards which the will has a natural tendency, as its necessary fulfilment.

Blondel named his method the "method of immanence". His aim was to undercut the materialism and atheism prevailing in the majority of French university philosophy departments. It was probably the term "method of immanence" and the assertion that for modern times this was the only effective philosophical method, which initially drew on him the suspicion of modernism. To his philosophical opponents it smelled of Kantian subjectivism. The idea that the natural order in some way requires the supernatural order for its completion or fulfilment was another philosophical and theological hot potato. In spite of this, at different periods of his life he was commended for his work and fidelity by Leo XIII, St. Pius X and Pius XII, 158 and after his death acquired a positive admirer in John Paul II.

Blondel's theories about the relationship between the natural and supernatural orders ("the natural presupposes the supernatural"), taken up in the 1930s by Fr. de Lubac, were to become central to the new theology. In this respect, he is a key figure. His relationship to modernism anticipated that of the orthodox new theologians to neo-modernism; the relationship we have already seen of "This, yes, but not that; thus far, but no further".

Notes to Chapter Eighteen

1. Alec Vidler. A Variety of Catholic Modernists. Cambridge University Press, 1970. p. 117. The author, an Anglican. who has written extensively on "Catholic" modernism, is far from unsympathetic to von Hügel. For the other figures mentioned in this chapter, see also, Jean Rivière, Le modernisme dans l'église, Paris 1929, the first in-depth study of the movement, and Michele Ranchetti, The Catholic Modernists, Oxford University Press. 1969.

2. For Prof. Webb and Maude Petre, see Vidler, op. cit., p. 111.

3. Philosophy of religion: what used to be called natural theology.

4. Vidler, op. cit., p. 71. It is possible that by the "old building", Duchesne meant the Church as it was then run, not the Church as such.

5. Ranchetti, op. cit.. p. 33.

6. Les premiers écrits de Maurice Blondel, Paris 1956, quoted John K. Ryan, Twentieth-Century Thinkers, New York, 1967. However, a few decades later. Maritain's conversion was to falsify the dictum. 159


Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011

Version: 11th May 2011

Home Page

Book Information

Reflections on Scripture