Chapter Nineteen


How did Catholic modernism differ from the modernism of Schleiermacher and his followers?

Fundamentally they were the same. Radical biblical scholarship shook or destroyed belief, and some kind of philosophical subjectivism was then called in to shore up the ruins, with dogmas as symbolic expressions of personal experience. However, in the fifty years since Schleiermacher's death in 1834, there had been developments both in the critical movement and in philosophy, and some new arrivals of a different kind had made their appearance. Their impact gave "Catholic modernism" its somewhat different colouring or flavour. Of these new arrivals, "evolution" was by far the most potent.

Darwin and Evolution

By giving an apparently different account of the creation of species from the Bible, and a manifestly different account of the origin of men, Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) seemed directly to challenge the Bible's truth and reliability. And since, by the same act, a number of fundamental doctrines constantly taught by the Church like original sin appeared to be called into question, belief in the Church as a trustworthy teacher also began to be shaken. If Adam and Eve, the Garden, and the Fall were myths and had to go, where did the process stop? A thread had been cut and the whole fabric of revelation seemed about to come apart.

As for the idea that living things came into existence through the inter­play of accident (natural selection), it seemed to reduce God, when not extinguishing belief in him altogether, to a cold and remote First Cause and implicitly to repudiate his providence. What room was left for him to care about sparrows?

Finally, if the philosopher Herbert Spenser was to be believed, evolution was a universal law governing everything: life evolves, history evolves, civilisation evolves, religion evolves. Religion is perhaps after all just another natural phenomenon like music and dancing, a way in which man expresses himself. 1

Although, in the destruction of belief, the part played by radical biblical  scholarship was in the end to be greater, it took longer for the consequences to be felt. The effect of Darwin's books was instantaneous. For many of von Hügel's generation, of whom the young Teilhard de Chardin will be typical, those theories seemed to be empirically proven facts in terms of which the whole Catholic faith must be reinterpreted.

New Testament Studies

In this field the most momentous event since Schleiermacher's death had been the publication in 1835 of the Leben Jesu (Lift of Jesus) by David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), a pupil of the critic Ferdinand Baur, who taught theology and philosophy at Tübingen before being compelled to retire to private life. Leben Jesu carried the critics' theories beyond the scholarly and clerical worlds to the general reading public. The novelist George Eliot translated it into English, and the Prince Consort Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, was an enthusiastic admirer. Strauss did for the Anglo-Saxon educated classes much what Voltaire had done in the previous century for educated Europeans of French culture.

For Strauss, the origin of the New Testament myths was no problem. The essence of religion is clothing universal spiritual truths or ideas in concrete imagery. In all religions, myth and fact are interwoven from the beginning, Christianity being no exception. Clothing ideas in myths was as natural to the early Christians as distinguishing myth from fact is natural to men today. Moreover, in the apostles' case, the work was already half done for them. They simply took over the myths about the Messiah current among the Jews at their time.

In this way Strauss presumably justified to himself his otherwise disingenuous claim that his assaults on the Gospels' historical value did not endanger Christian belief. "The supernatural birth of Christ, his miracles, his resurrection and ascension remain eternal truths, whatever doubts may be cast on their reality as historical facts." 2 In his last book, The Old and the New Faith (1872), he declared Christianity to be dead and called for a new religion built on art and science.

Just under thirty years after Strauss's Leben Jesu, Renan's Vie de Jesus (1863) brought the critical movement's doubts and denials to the French-speaking Catholic public.

What, I think, those doubts and denials chiefly show is that the path to unbelief has not been a linear one, starting with tentative inquiries, followed by serious suspicions, leading in turn to absolute conviction. Nothing said by  Bultmann or Tillich in the twentieth century would have shocked or startled the earliest members of the movement. The most extreme positions were taken from the start.

However, around 1850, a reaction set in. The more moderate critics may have been as little willing to believe in miracles as Reimarus, Eichorn, Baur or Strauss. But they were not prepared to see Christ vanish altogether in a mist of scholarly doubt. In their view, when the myths and miracles were stripped away, enough historical material remained in the gospels to construct a reasonably accurate picture of the kind of man Christ was and what he taught, or, as will from now on be said, to distinguish the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith" (the product of early Christian imagination). The search for the historical Jesus had begun.

What the searchers with all their learning and labour eventually discovered was an ethical teacher like Confucius or Buddha preaching a simple religion of the heavenly Father's love and a kingdom of interior righteousness freed from dogmas and what were claimed to be Hellenistic philosophical accretions. Their view of Christ and Christianity, which was dubbed the "liberal" view, is now the "orthodoxy" of the 20th century's occasionally church-going Protestant. In the scholarly world it held the field from about the mid-1860s to the end of the century. The pillars of the liberal position were Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and the famous Berlin court theologian and scholar Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930).

But by the 1890s the tide of opinion in the critical movement was turning again. A pamphlet (1892) by Johannes Weiss heralded the change. According to Weiss, who was teaching at Göttingen, the liberals' Jesus was an historical anachronism, the product of wishful thinking, not historical evidence. The liberals' Christ was an enlightened 19th-century Lutheran pastor dressed in first-century clothing. The totality of "reliable" gospel texts give us a quite different figure a typical rabbi of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, who believed in the rapid arrival of the end of the world and the inauguration of a supernatural new creation which his death would hasten. His world-view had passed away for good and all.

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was to give these views their classic expression in his Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), whose basic message was that the quest was over: as historical documents, the gospels were almost worthless. The critical movement had come full circle back to where it started. 3

It was into these currents that von Hügel, Loisy and their associates were being swept in the 1890s.


Between 1890 and 1914 the fashionable philosophies in France were the creative evolution of Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the pragmatism of the American William James (1842-1910) neither of them directly in the German idealist tradition. The two philosophies complemented each other, the philosophers themselves becoming friends. Their success was partly due to their charm as speakers and writers, but still more to the fact that they were challenging the determinism and materialism of which the more refined elements of the European cultured classes were momentarily wearying. Both philosophers spoke well of religion, recognised some kind of "higher power", and insisted on the spirituality of the soul and the reality of free will. Believers of all varieties therefore welcomed them enthusiastically.

Bergson, who had first made his name in 1889 with his Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, became almost the object of a cult after the publication of his l'Evolution créatrice (1900). Had he not reconciled evolution and religion by giving evolution a mind (the élan vital)? Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment many Catholics tended to overlook some of his ideas' more serious deficiencies.

Bergson's notions of creator, creation and creature were in fact deeply ambiguous. Nothing is ever completely made, but always on the way to being made, or if already made, made differently. This applies to the élan vital or vital impulse, Bergson's pantheistic "creator", as much as to his creatures. Being incomplete, the elan vital has need of its creatures both as objects of love and co-operators in the work of creation. It also creates without foresight or plan since these would limit is freedom, and what limits freedom kills life. Perpetual process and change are the necessary consequences. 4

If all this had not been sufficiently appreciated before, that for Bergson was because European philosophy had overvalued the intellect. By cutting up reality's indivisible continuity into separate categories and things, the intellect obscures its fundamental nature, which can only be discovered by empathy or intuition. To know reality as it truly is we must sink ourselves in the flow of consciousness and the experience of duration. It is these which reveal that the substance of reality is change.

Bergson also set up a dichotomy between "closed" and "open", or static and dynamic, religion and morality. Closed or static religions and moralities depend on fixed beliefs, principles and practices. These may have a certain social usefulness, but basically impede the creativity and upward ascent of the vital impulse. Open and dynamic religion and morality are the work of free  religious spirits like Christ and Buddha. Such free spirits, and their disciples (was Bergson thinking of Tolstoy?) can dispense with fixed beliefs and practices because they are in tune with the evolutionary creativity of the vital impulse. (In fact, if beliefs are true and practices good, one of the first things they do is protect religion and morals from becoming the playthings of private whim and personal eccentricity.)

While Bergson was providing his contemporaries with an evolutionary metaphysics, William James was supplying them with an evolutionary ethics. An experimental psychologist turned philosopher with a special interest in the practical consequences of religious belief and its accompanying phenomena, his Principles of Psychology had appeared in 1890, to be followed in 1902 by his much more widely read Varieties of Religious Experience.

The burden of the latter work is that, while some of the phenomena described can be put down to emotional disturbance or mental illness, it is reasonable to suppose that at times the believer or mystic was in touch with another order of reality. For the sake of convenience, James was prepared to call this other something "God". But he preferred to think of God, or "otherness", as something finite and limited rather than infinite and sovereign, and of the universe as in a state of being experimentally put together, since an omnipotent God with a pre-existing plan would mean a "dead, static universe".

However, for our present purposes, the important thing is James's view of truth. In James's philosophy an idea is true not when it corresponds with reality, but if (a) it is alive, or (b) has what appear to be beneficial results. An idea is alive when a lot of people believe in it, and beneficial when it makes them better, or happier, or gives them spiritual satisfaction. Belief in Moloch was therefore presumably once alive and in this sense" true". For the Canaanitcs, as they flung their babies into the furnace, Moloch worship was, as people now say, "meaningful". When there were no more Moloch worshippers, people having turned to other forms of spiritual satisfaction, the idea was dead and no longer true. Christian beliefs are true in so far as they make people unselfish or act as psychological stabilisers. The worth of ideas is to be judged by their "cash value". Such is the heart of his pragmatism.

(People who use the word truth in this way are not really talking about truth but about utility or human convenience, though they will mostly claim that what they see as useful is also good and right.)

Bergson's view of truth had equally unfortunate implications. Since everything that happens is part of reality as it makes itself, more or less anything can seemingly be justified.

Needless to say, neither philosopher acted strictly in accordance with the logic of his ideas. Both were thoroughly upright men. Their influence on the Catholic modernists will appear shortly. 5

The Higher Criticism and Church History

By the 1880s the critical method applied to the records of the Church's past was generating the same doubts about the divine origin of the Church as its use on the Bible had been generating about the Bible's inspiration and inerrancy. The causes in this case were largely psychological.

From the time of the renaissance a crowd of part-time scholars, doctors, lawyers, monks, parish priests, eccentric nobles and country squires along with professional historians had, as never before, been searching libraries and lovingly collecting manuscripts dispersed by wars and revolutions. By the mid-19th century their labours, which are one of the glories of European civilisation, had produced an avalanche of specialised studies and rediscovered facts.

However, in any subject, the sudden appearance of a mass of new information can bring about a temporary increase of darkness rather than light, and something like this happened to Catholic scholars as they applied themselves to sorting and assessing the deluge of new documents and monographs about the Church's past. Rather as Christ's divinity became less visible under the blows and bruises of the Passion, so the Church's supernatural character started to fade from view as she was looked at through a thicker and thicker screen of natural and human appearances. "Behold the man", Pilate had cried to the crowds. "Behold the purely human institution", seemed to be the message of the mountain of historical records. There was also a temptation to adopt a neo-Protestant view of Church history; the true nature of the Church has been lost, but it can be reconstructed from the surviving documents though fewer and fewer were being judged trustworthy.

The temptation to lose sight of the Church's supernatural dimension was aggravated by a factor of a different kind the spirit of the German higher critics, the leaders in the field, who for the most part, when not Protestant, were unbelieving. By the mid-19th century they had turned the higher criticism into something like a religion and themselves into a ruling class able to batter down all but the toughest opponents with their erudition and self-assurance. 6 Because of their prestige, Catholic scholars were tempted to treat the Church's historical records, oral traditions and devotional life in the same iconoclastic spirit.

We have noted the influence of this aspect of the higher criticism on Döllinger, Acton and Duchesne (though, being French, Duchesne affected an amused Voltairean manner rather than the imperial style of the university autocrat). It also influenced the Bollandists, and left its mark on the Thurston-Butler Lives of the Saints. 7 The intentions were praiseworthy: to show that the Church is not afraid of genuine facts. Moreover, the facts in this area were not on the same level as those in the Bible. Divine revelation was not involved. But too often the authors left their readers with the impression that "science" was the protector and preserver of truth, while the Church was the mother of forgeries.

I am not suggesting that Catholic scholarship should be served up under an artificial coating of piety. But there are aspects of learned debate the acid footnote, the sardonic aside, the coldly clinical approach which may be appropriate for disputes about Ptolemaic tax records but become seriously harmful when holy things are at stake. The damage to the faith and reverence of the scholars themselves was often bad enough. When this spirit reached the non-scholarly, the consequences could be ruinous. The rough handling by Catholic scholars of the traditions relating to the origins of many French dioceses was one of the factors contributing to the abbé Houtin's loss of faith.

Historicism, the History of Dogma, and Doctrinal Development

The great increase in historical knowledge, by focusing minds on the factor of change, intensified the evolutionary climate of the age which in turn prepared the way for historical relativism or "historicism", whose chief representative at this period was the German philosopher and historian Ernst Troeltsch.

Historicism is not the same as being sensitive to the fact that most things, whether ideas, practices or institutions, come to fulfilment over the course of time, being to some degree both influenced by the times they exist through, while at the same time helping to shape them.

By historicism, I mean the notion that our thoughts and acts are largely or entirely determined by the period we live in. Our minds are incapable of reaching a kind of knowledge unconditioned by their times. The ever-moving times make men, ideas, and institutions what they temporarily are, before the never-ceasing river of time and change turns them into something different. Only the historian, for unexplained reasons, is assumed to be capable of standing outside the flux and forming a judgement which is not conditioned by his times. 8

At the turn of the century, the scholars perhaps most subject to the seductions of historicism were the historians of dogma.

For the Church, the history of doctrine and dogma is the history of her ever-deepening understanding of divine revelation. When God committed his revelation to the care of the apostles and their successors, it was not in a neat tidy form, as we have already remarked in relation to the Bible. It was a cornucopian torrent in an almost bewildering variety of forms history, prophecy, poetry, parable, proverb, law, letters, meditations, religious instruction, sacred rites, along with what Christ had told the apostles to do and teach and all they had learned through simply observing and living with Him. All this, if one can say so without irreverence, God poured into the Church's lap in what one can only call a vast confused heap. The main features stood out clearly enough. The rest was unmapped virgin forest. It was left to the Church, who is herself part of the revelation, to organise this vast accumulation (the "deposit of faith" as it is called), interpret it, and draw out its implications with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The catalyst for the process was to be ordinary human curiosity. Since the divine communication was not only largely unorganised, but was mainly about supernatural mysteries, it was natural that as soon as the faithful started telling the world about it, their hearers started asking questions. So did the faithful themselves. Thus was born Christian theology. Christian theology is the attempt to give as rationally intelligible an explanation of the different aspects of revelation as is compatible with the mysterious nature of what is being explained.

From the start, however, not all explanations proved satisfactory. Some the Church rejected as heretical. Those she approved became part of her official teaching (doctrine). Dogmas are simply doctrines that have been proclaimed with a greater degree of solemnity usually because they have been challenged in some way.

This is why there is doctrine and dogma, why they have a history and why they develop. However, not all points of belief develop simultaneously, nor continuously. Development is not an "open-ended" process. Dogma is the end point of development in regard to a particular point or area of belief. The fact, for instance, that in the One God, there are three persons, one in substance and equal in majesty, is in itself incapable of further development, even if further light can be shed on subordinate aspects of the mystery. Around 1900, the question at issue was whether the history of doctrine was to be regarded as a development (the moving towards a deeper, fuller, clearer understanding of the meaning of a belief and its implications) or an evolution (a constant change of meaning). It is also the question at the heart of today's crisis.

Von Harnack dominated the field. His seven-volume History of Dogma (1894-99) presented that history as an evolution. The work also had a prac­tical purpose: to liberate Christianity from dogma altogether, by showing how far Christian doctrine had deviated from the original meaning. The French Sulpician, Fr.Tixeront replied with his three-volume history from the Catho­lic standpoint (1904), and the Jesuit Fr. Jules Lebreton with his Histoire des ongines du dogme de la Trinite (1910,6th ed. 1927), but not before a number of Catholics had been influenced by von Harnack's view.

Comparative Religion

From the time Columbus discovered the Americas, the merchants, colonists and missionaries of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British and French empires had been providing the West with a knowledge of other peoples and religions such as it had never possessed before. The input reached its climax in the mid-19th century. The comparative study of religions was the result. By the 1890s one of its best known products, Sir James Frazer's now largely discredited study of primitive religion and magic, The Golden Bough, was replacing the Bible on the bedside tables of cultivated Anglo-Saxons.

The object was not to discover whether one religion rather than another was specially sanctioned by God, or which contained most truth. The aim was to determine what the beliefs and practices of each religion meant to its members, and to find psychological and other natural explanations for them. If in the process faith went into decline, it would seem to have been partly because common sense was affected too.

To conclude that because all religions have certain features in common (the members pray, fast, give alms, or offer sacrifice to an unseen Being or beings), therefore one of them cannot be unique, is like thinking that, because all houses have certain common features such as windows and doors, there is nothing special about the White House or Buckingham Palace. The common features are simply traces of the natural religious truths (the seeds of the Word we met with earlier), knowable in principle by all men, even if frequently distorted or lost from sight.

Students of comparative religion are easily led into regarding the boiled-down residue of these common features as the essence of religion, ending as devotees of some kind of one-world ethical monotheism towards which, they consider, the religious consciousness of mankind is evolving. This idea too made an important contribution to the development of early modernism.  

Notes to Chapter Nineteen

1. It is well to remember that Spenser propounded his evolutionary philosophy before Darwin published The Origin of Species.

2. Life of Jesus, London 1906 xxx quoted in Livingston, op. cit.

3.  But why should the texts used by Weiss and Schweitzer be considered more historical than those preferred by Ritsch and von Hatnack? Weiss and Schweitzer were in fact just as selective as their opponents.

4. Later, in censuring "immanentism", the Church would no doubt have Bergson as well as Hegel in mind.

5. From the Catholic standpoint there is something mysterious about the providential role of thinkers like Bergson and James, whose writings led some towards the faith, others away from it. In his will, Bergson declared his moral adherence to Catholicism. He did not ask for baptism only because, as a Jew, he did not want to seem to be deserting his people at the height of the Nazi persecutions. For useful summaries of Bergson and James, see J. Macquarrie, Twentieth Century Religious Thought.

6. For protests by distinguished contemporary historians against the higher critics' over­weening self-confidence, see Hodgkin. Italy and her Invaders, seven volumes, London 1892, and Freeman. History of Sicily, London 1881.

7. See Feb. 5th. St. Agatha, where the accounts of her martyrdom are stated flatly to be of no historical value", while the 1911 Catholic Encyclopaedia says of them that their "details have no historical credibility". This could mean one of three things. That the information is all false; but how can anyone know? That where there is no corroborative evidence, recorded matter is not to be considered historical; in this case much accepted history has to be jettisoned. Or that the content of the account seems to the authors improbable. But what may have seemed improbable to scholars living in the relative security of the early 20th century may well not seem improbable to generations familiar with the history of the Nazi and communist regimes. Indeed, the behaviour of St. Agatha's torturers has a decidedly contemporary ring. See also the martyrdom of a newly baptised American Indian chief, witnessed by the Jesuit St. Isaac Jogues in 1638. Had that chief's incredible sufferings been recorded of an early martyr, they would have assuredly been dismissed as fantasy. (Saint Among Savages: the Life of Isaac Jogues, Francis Talbot S.J.. Image Books 1961, pp. 136-7; republished in 2002 by Ignatius Press, San Francisco).

8. In What is Christianity, von Harnack had tried to reach the "essence" of Christianity. Troeltsch's final conclusion was that there is no such essence. Christianity is a formless historical process. "The essence of Christianity can be understood only as productive power . . . to create new interpretations and adaptations." Livingston, op cit., p. 305.

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Version: 29th November 2017

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