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Chapter Twenty


How much of what we have been describing in the last two chapters could the Church agree to? In particular, how many, if any, of the biblical critics' theories about the origin and dating of the biblical books were allowable at least as hypotheses?

By the late 1880s, a number of Catholic biblicists were pressing the Church to abandon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; to allow that the flood was not of universal dimensions; recognise the second half of Isaiah as the work of a prophet living after the exile and therefore after the events it appeared to foretell; admit the dependence of the authors of the synoptic gospels on a vanished source document of unknown authorship, designated "Q"; permit the idea that St. John was not the author of the fourth Gospel, and that that Gospel was more "theology" than history.

In 1893 Leo XIII issued his encyclical on Bible study, Providentissimus Deus. It was the Church's first official response to the critical movement. In it the Pope called on Catholic scholars to answer the critics on their own grounds and with their own weapons. Nine years later, in 1902, he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission to give authoritative answers to questions about the Bible. In 1909 the Biblical Institute was established as a department of the Gregorian University in Rome for training teachers conversant with the new methods and problems. Meanwhile the French Dominicans under Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange had founded the Ecole biblique in Jerusalem (1890), and in 1892 started the Revue biblique.

But in von Hügel's circle there were deeper doubts.

In 1881, about the time he had taken up his lectureship at the Paris Institute, Loisy had started attending Renan's lectures at the College de France. "I instructed myself at his school," he later wrote, "in the hope of proving to him that all that was true in his science was compatible with Catholicism sanely understood". 1

What a "sane understanding" meant for Loisy began to show in 1890. In that year he completed a thesis on the canon of the Old Testament (which books came to be held as divinely inspired, and why) that proposed a view of divine inspiration incompatible with that of the Church. This was followed by a history of the canon of the New Testament (1891) and a work on the  early chapters of Genesis (1892) raising questions about their historicity. As a result, the students of St. Sulpice, the major seminary for the archdiocese of Paris, were forbidden to attend his lectures. To protect his professor, reassure those in authority, and defend a controlled use of the critical method, Msgr. d'Hulst, the rector of the Institut catholique, published an article entitled It question biblique. But it only attracted more attention to Loisy, and d'Hulst was forced to dismiss him. 2 The encyclical Providentissintus Deus appeared shortly afterwards. In 1900 Cardinal Richard of Paris condemned a series of articles by Loisy on the religion of Israel, whereupon the government, ever happy to embarrass the Church, offered him a post at the Ecole des hautes études (School of higher studies) at the Sorbonne.

Loisy was by this time a figure of major importance. Having been appointed chaplain to a convent of nuns at Neuilly just outside Paris, he had time to develop his ideas which were moving more and more in the direction of Weiss's and Schweitzer's. In 1902 he published L'Evangile et l'église (The Gospel and the Church). Purporting to be a critique of Ritschl's and von Harnack's scriptural"liberalism", he used it to expound his own much more radical views.

Loisy now saw Christ as an apocalyptic visionary, fallible in his knowledge and judgements, who had had no intention of founding a Church or teaching lasting truths. Since Christ clearly expected the instant end of the world, founding a Church would have been pointless. Christianity as we know it was the invention of the early Christians. Christ's achievement was launching a new religious ideal or spirit, which the Church incarnates and perpetuates. That is the value of the Church. But to survive, she must continually change the teaching in which that spirit finds expression in each generation as the world and men's experiences change. "Reason never ceases to put questions to faith, and traditional formulations are submitted to a constant work of interpretation". 3

"The incessant evolution of doctrine" Loisy wrote towards the end of the book, "is made by the work of individuals . . . and these individuals are they who think for the Church while thinking with her". 4 But that Loisy was thinking with the Church was just what the Church would deny. And it was clear that in thinking so, Loisy was not a lone figure. Von Hügel and the English Catholic writer Wilfred Ward, among others, found The Gospel and the Church a valuable apologetic for Catholicism.

Fr.Tyrrell's views started coming to light in a series of signed and anonymous or pseudonymous books and articles over a period of roughly ten years starting in 1899 with A Perverted Devotion, which called for agnosticism about the punishment of the damned.

For Tyrrell, what mattered in the Church was not doctrine or hierarchy, but the "collective subconscious of the populus Dei, through which the Christian religious idea "unfolds itself and comes into clearer consciousness in an infinity of directions and degrees." But "from the nature of the case, its presentiment of the transcendent order . . . can never be more than symbolic . . . the transcendental can never be expressed properly".5

Nevertheless, as long as the Church's doctrines or "symbols" continue to promote the spiritual life of the soul, the Church has a duty to protect them, even if demonstrably false. What the Church says "is often absolutely wrong, but the truth (or spiritual idea) in whose defence she says it is revealed . . . That a lie should be sometimes protective of truth is a consequence of the view of truth as relative to the mentality of a person or people". 6 Only when a doctrine or symbol ceases to be beneficial, when it starts to suffocate spiritual life (as Tyrrell now believed to be the case with most of the Church's dogmas) should they be jettisoned.

What is the essential Christian idea always seeking new forms of expression? "Otherworldliness". Christ and the Church both see this world as "but a preparation and a purgatory". The other world is the one that really matters. But in Jesus the idea was in a primitive stage of development. Jesus thought the purgatorial period was soon to end. Now we know better.

To this one could reply that, even if it were right to protect truth with lies, we would still be left wondering why the Church needed to erect such a bastion of myth and falsehood to protect such a very simple idea.

In the development of "Catholic" modernism, Loisy and Tyrrell played much the same pan as Eichorn and Schleiermacher had played in the development of Lutheran modernism. Loisy's radical biblical scholarship, like Eichorn's, destroyed belief. Tyrrell, like Schleiermacher, tried to rebuild belief of some kind on subjective experience.

In Fr. Laberthonnière we chiefly see the influence of Bergson and James. Philosophy, in his view, "gets worked out in living . . . it is not a set of abstract propositions . . . derived from certain axioms or fundamental principles. Its truth is to be viable."

In support of this opinion he contrasted Greek "idealism" (meaning presumably Platonic metaphysics) with Christian "realism" to the disparagement of the former. His Christian realism ultimately led him to see the fall of Adam, not as a past event, but as the symbolic expression of something we are aware of in ourselves, and Christ himself as a reality the believer experiences in his daily life more than as an historical person living at a particular date. 7

Le Roy's "philosophy of action" was a synthesis of Bergson's evolutionary view of reality and James's opportunistic view of truth. Here is an example of the way he applies his philosophical principles to the interpretation of Catholic dogmas. Dogmas, he argued in Dogme et critique, do not give information; they are not truths to be believed but guides to action. The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, does not tell us anything about God, but is a way of teaching us to value personal relations.

In another passage, after saying "I believe without restriction or reserve that the resurrection of Jesus is an objectively real fact", he starts whittling down this bold profession of faith by declaring that no Council has defined what a real fact is. The Resurrection, we are told, has nothing to do with the "vulgar notion" of the "reanimation of a corpse". How then can he say it is a real fact? By reinterpreting the word "real". Things are real (he is actually talking about ideas not things at this point) if they can be put to use without breaking down, and if they are "fertile for life". The belief that Christ rose from the dead has inspired generations of men to lead self-sacrificing lives. In this sense it is real and a fact. Macquarrie calls Le Roy "the most radical pragmatist among the modernists".8

All these equivocations show us, I think, how old most of the "novelties" of today's modernism are beneath their wigs, rouge, and eye-shadow.

In 1905, in a famous article Qu'est-ce qu'un dogme? (What is a Dogma?), Le Roy publicly demanded that the Church commit herself to regarding her doctrines as merely symbolic expressions of ineffable intuitions. Shortly before, Hébert had made the same demand.

Taking modernism as a whole, in so far as it tended to reduce the faith to a refined and watery theism under a Christian veneer, we can see it as part of the fin de siècle decadence of cultured European society. In the twenty-five years leading up to World War I it was both rationalistic and anti-rational, sceptical and superstitious at the same time, uniting "scientific unbelief' with an interest in mysticism and psychic phenomena, while craving for spiritual experiences of more or less any kind, religious or non-religious. The German poet Rilkc and his patroness Princess von Thurn und Taxis typified these tendencies, which are also well portrayed in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.

Why, given their doubts and denials, did the modernists not leave the Church? For the same reason as others who have set themselves to reform Christianity according to their own ways of thinking. They saw themselves as an elite destined to save the Church from herself. The ordinary rabble of Catholics, including St. Pius X (often snobbishly referred to as the "peasant pope") and most of the episcopate, might not understand their high purposes.

But for the good of the Church and the world they must be made to do so. Accepting the modernist thesis that Catholic doctrines are only blundering attempts of the religious sense to express the inexpressible did not mean the Church would have to go into retirement. Myths, like parables, can have a spiritually uplifting effect. While leaving the hard business of objective facts and practicalities to science, she could still be the "moral educator of mankind".

If she accepted this view of her role as the wife of science and modern thought, though you may think a rather abjectly submissive one, and the midwife of man's "religious sense" she still had a great future ahead of her. But if she ignored modernist warnings and insisted that her teachings be taken literally, then she and the modern world would meet in a head-on crash and she was doomed to succumb.

For highly educated men, yesterday's modernists like today's had a strangely naïve attitude to science both what it is and what it can achieve. They were in some ways like bright schoolboys who have discovered science with a big "S" for the first time.

On the other hand, they were totally unlike the sceptical abbés of the century before, who were contented with their unbelief while living comfortably off the Church's revenues. For the sceptical 18th-century abbé, religion was superstition and that was that. Why make a fuss? The modernists, many of whom had their psychological roots in happy pious childhoods, were fascinated by religion. As a universal phenomenon it was of all-absorbing interest to them. Whether a particular religion was true or false mattered less and in some cases not at all. This partly explains their hostility to Rome. Rome not only blocked their efforts to bring modern man to their new re-interpreted Christian faith which he would at last find acceptable. Its opposition seemed to challenge their claim to be spiritual men. Rome was harsh, brutal, ignorant. The rest of the faithful were silly, superstitious or purblind. They themselves, in the words of Msgr. Mignot, were âmes sincères et intelligentes. From their lofty view of their role the more perceptive developed the practical principle we have seen Duchesne recommending. Stay put. Transform belief from within.

By 1900, they seemed to be succeeding. Their ideas were spreading to the cultivated clergy and penetrating the seminaries. Priests started having crises of faith. (Von Hügel's daughter had had a crisis of faith in 1899 when her father disclosed his spiritual doubts to her and his hopes for a change in the meaning of certain doctrines. Fr. Tyrrell was called in to settle her mind).

To contain the damage, the authorities started issuing warnings, books were put on the Index, reviews prohibited. In 1902, Cardinal Richard of Paris condemned Loisy's L'Evangile et l'église. Loisy made a qualified submission,  but without changing course. The following year he published Autour d'un petit livre, a defence of L'Evangile et l'église which treated the beloved disciple's memories of his master as a theological fantasy. Rome responded by putting five of Loisy's books on the Index of forbidden books. Tyrrell, who had been retired from active work, likewise continued to pour out books and articles. In 1906 his Jesuit superiors dismissed him from the Society. He was also suspended from acting as a priest.

Then in July 1907, the Holy Office issued the decree Lamentabili listing and condemning sixty-five modernist errors. Von Hügel hurried to Italy where he met Fogazarro, Bonaiuti and others in order to decide their terms of submission. Lamentabili was followed by the Pope's encyclical Pascendi, which analysed and synthesised modernists' teachings, showing how they hung together as a system.

Tyrrell attacked the encyclical in two letters to the London Times, and was excommunicated shortly afterwards. He died two years later. 9 Loisy's response was an abusive little book about the authorities in Rome, which led to his excommunication in 1908. After 1910 priests were required to take a special anti-modernist oath, and bishops were instructed to make sure that none of their seminary teachers held modernist views. They were also asked to set up diocesan vigilance committees.

St. Pius X is often bitterly criticised for these measures. But the Church has to think of the ordinary faithful as well as of her scholars and theologians. Who can blame a Pope for condemning theories which led to the denial of Christ's divinity, the rejection of the Church's authority to teach and rule in his place, or the reduction of her doctrines and dogmas to being merely symbolic? One does not have to be a scholar to imagine what St. Peter and St. Paul would have said.

The Pope in fact showed great forbearance. Six years passed in the case of Loisy, five in the case of Tyrrell between the appearance of the books in which their disbelief became manifest and their condemnations. Semaria was allowed to take the anti-modernist oath with reservations. 10 And when Fr. Romolo Murri, whom we shall meet in the next chapter, later fell on hard times, St. Pius secretly provided him with an annuity.

The clergy and laity leading the opposition to modernism have also been severely criticised. Much is made of the Sodalitium Pianum, an international network of committees for informing authority about clandestine cases of modernism or supposed modernism, founded and directed from Italy by a Msgr. Benigni, whose activities resulted in suspicion being unjustly cast on a number of scholars and clerics. Writers sympathetic, if not to modernism, at  least to some of the modernists' aims, speak of a "white terror". But the fact is that, however regrettable or deplorable, in any really serious conflict, whether about ideas or material things, a proportion of people, even with right on their side, are going to act badly, and in the heat of the contest give blows below the belt. In this case, given what was at stake, when all the incidents have been accounted for where individuals flung accusations at the wrong target, took advantage of the crisis to work off grudges or advance their interests, or in other ways acted badly or over-hastily, the strength of the anti-modernist reaction should cause no surprise. In the third century, the Alexandrian faithful responded in a similar way to certain of Origen's ideas. Although those ideas were not condemned by the Church until long after his death, he had to leave Alexandria. The faithful, says Newman, writing about the Arian crisis in the fourth century, when they truly are faithful, experience heresy as something utterly repulsive.

However, when reaction to heresy is too violent, there can be a danger that portions of the faithful will start setting themselves up as the arbiters of orthodoxy and unorthodoxy in place of the magisterium, and be carried out of the Church in the opposite direction. 11

Something like this started to happen in France, where the reaction to modernism was strongest and gave birth to the movement or tendency which both its opponents and exponents called "integral Catholicism" or "integralism". Integralists saw themselves as defenders of the faith as it had been traditionally expounded. They viewed with suspicion any concessions, real or apparent, to contemporary scholarship or philosophy. The only question was whether everything they regarded as traditional was traditional in the sense of being unchangeable.

The movement also had a socio-political side. For integralists, "full or complete Catholicism" meant the conjunction of the Catholic faith with a fully Catholic society or state, preferably monarchist. Attempts to baptise the principles of 1789 would, they believed, not only undermine belief but end by destroying the Christian character of French life and culture.

It was from this reservoir that the political movement L'Action Française, founded in 1908, drew much of its support. Charles Maurras, its leader and moving spirit, was an unbeliever with a talent for rhetoric and polemics, who valued monarchy and Catholicism as inseparable parts of the national way of life and, after the fashion of Napoleon, as indispensable forms of social cement. In 1929 Pius XI forbade Catholics to belong to the movement under pain of excommunication. His chief reasons were its aggressive nationalism, subordination of religion and morals to the state, and harmful influence on Catholic  youth. Not a few French monarchists and integralists ignored the ban. Any enemy of the Republic, it seemed, was to be regarded as a fitting ally. They were often as severely punished for their disobedience as the modernists for their heresies. Many leading French Catholics publicly dissociated themselves from the movement, and a reconciliation began in 1937 when Maurras wrote the Pope a letter of apology. Pius XII lifted the ban at the outset of the second World War. 12

On the socio-political plane, integralism can be seen as the counterpart of Maritain's integral humanism.

The rift between these two viewpoints, their disputes about which was right, were a continuation on a more theoretical plane of the quarrel we have noticed disturbing the inner life of the French Church during the previous century. Eventually the conflict will engulf the whole Church, with modernism as the tertius gaudens or chief beneficiary.

Notes to Chapter Twenty

1. Mémoires I, 1930, p..118. quoted Livingston. op cit., p. 277.

2. Msgr. d'Hulst, although keen on the scholarly aggiornamento, was politically a monarchist, another example of how unsatisfactory the categories "progressive" and "conservative" can be.

3. L'Evangile et l'église, English translation. 1908. p. 211 (Livingston op cit., p. 281).

4.  lbid., p. 224 (Livingston p. 282).

5. Christianity at the Crossroads, reprint, London, 1963, p. 25 (Livingston p. 286). In 1963 the Council is only in its second year. A reprint suggests a revival of interest in Tyrrell already under way.

6. Ibid., p. 59 (Livingston. p. 286

7. Oeuvres. Vol. I, pp. 1-2 (Macquarrie, p. 183).

8.  Dogme a critique. p. 25 (Macquarrie, pp. 184-5). Le Roy. as we shall see shortly, was to transmit his viewpoint to the young Teilhard de Chardin.

9. Of Bright's disease. Its onset may partly account for his intellectual and psychological instability.

10. According to Ranchetti, op. cit.. p. 31, only Semaria was granted this privilege.

11. For a case in point, see the schism in northern Italy after the second Council of Constantinople, brought to an end some 50 years later by St. Gregory the Great.

12. Daniel Raps, A Fight for God. Dent, London 1965. pp. 296-303. In Jan. 1914, a condemnation of seven of Maurras' books and his newspaper was drawn up on instruction from St. Pius X. But he delayed publication so as not to divide French Catholics still further in view of the approaching war.

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 29th November 2017

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