Chapter Twenty-One

Before leaving early modernism, we must glance at three related movements. They too provide examples of aggiornamento going off the rails, foreshadowing things that were to happen in the late 20th century.

France and Italy

The first was the attempt by French and Italian Catholics interested in the
rights and conditions of workers to move from social action to political action through the creation of Catholic political parties acting independently of the hierarchy.

By the 1930s they had come to believe that social action by itself the founding of trades unions, co-operatives, night schools, loan banks, educating the public in their social obligations could not work the desired changes.

State intervention was necessary, and that, in states with parliamentary governments, meant winning elections.

At the same time, on the theoretical plane, they began searching for an ideal political system, which, while securing everyone's rights, would perfectly incarnate liberty, equality, and fraternity This meant corning to terms with the meaning of democracy, and its realisation in practice. In part, it was a taking up again of the work Lamennais had attempted and so conspicuously failed at sixty years earlier. In it we see the liberal Catholicism of Montalembert and the "social Catholicism" of de Munn and Kettcler flowing together, and the birth-pangs of 20th-century "Christian democracy".

Matters came to a head in France with the Sillonists and the abbés démocrates, and in Italy with the Opera dei Congressi.

Le Sillon was a Catholic lay association founded around 1894 by a group of university students in Paris in order to re-evangelise young working men by showing that as Catholics and Christians they were sympathetic to their needs and claims and anxious to help satisfy them in a Christian way. Their leader, Marc Sangnier, had an apostolic soul, a gift for organisation and oratory, exceptional charm, and a large private fortune. The name, Le Sillon (The Furrow), came from a small periodical which the association took over. 1

Once launched, the movement spread rapidly and soon reached the provinces. Reading rooms, study circles, people's institutes were set up. By 1904 there were 50 study circles in the Paris area alone. L'Eveil démocratique, a popular paper, reached a circulation of 60,000 within a year of its founding in 1905. There were frequent public debates and lectures and a yearly national congress. Annual retreats fostered the members' spiritual lives. The obvious good the movement was doing won the approval of numerous bishops. Leo XIII gave Sangnier the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and in 1903 St. Pius X received a Sillonist pilgrimage in Rome.

Trouble only began as Sillonist publications and public utterances increasingly showed signs of the influence of unacceptable secular political ideas, and Sangnier himself took the first steps towards founding a political party. To give himself more freedom of manoeuvre, he announced that Le Sillon was "not properly speaking and directly a Catholic work". In his encyclical Graves de communi of 1901, Leo XIII had forbidden Catholics to form or join a Christian democratic party. 2

Close in aims and outlook to the Sillonists, and eventually succumbing to the same influences, the abbés démocrates were a loosely linked group of priests anxious to spread the social teachings of Leo XIII. They were not an organised body. They aired their views as journalists, public speakers, editors of periodicals, and in a few cases as members of parliament.

The Italian association, the Opera dei Congressi, was an early example of what later came to be called Catholic Action organised lay action under the guidance of a bishop or bishops. Growing out of a series of public meetings in the early 1870s, and officially approved in 1874, the association was formed to enable Italian Catholics to defend and promote their rights as citizens and members of the Church against the anti-Christian policies of the new government in Rome, dominated by extreme liberals and freemasons. This they could not do by ordinary means. Since participation in politics would look like tacit recognition of the new Italian state and its right to Rome and the old papal territories, the Church had forbidden Italian Catholics to stand for parliament or to vote in elections.

But in the 1890s the association fell under the control of Don Romolo Murri, a priest with a gift for fiery political oratory. An enthusiast for Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, like Sangnier and the abbés démocrates, Murri started an agitation for the Holy See to lift the non expedit, the ban on taking part in politics, and made the defence of workers' rights vis-à-vis their employers, rather than the rights of Catholics and the Church vis-à-vis the government, the association's main concern. The shift of focus split the association. Murri's opponents appealed for the intervention of the Holy See.

We can call the members of these three groups the Sillonists, the abbés démocrates, and the Italian Congressisti   "Catholic democrats". Not all the democrats' aims and ideas were unacceptable to the Church. With the passage of time, and changed circumstances, she has allowed or endorsed many of them. Those she immediately objected to were the ambiguous or ill-defined use of the word democracy; treating it (however defined) as the only legitimate form of government; teaching that the authority of governments comes from the people rather than God; suggesting that the government of the Church should in some way be made democratic; rejecting the guidance of the Church in social and political matters, questioning the right to private property and identifying democracy with socialism.

The Sillonists were also censured for encouraging the discussion of conflicting moral and religious opinions at their meetings (in keeping with the ideal of freedom of expression) and for encouraging their working-class members to join unions affiliated to the anarchist Confédération Générale du Travail, rather than Catholic trades unions, on the grounds that the former better represented working-class interests.

Leo XIII had tried to control the situation by de-politicising the notion of Christian democracy, which he had defined in Graves de communi as "benevolent Christian activity with regard to the people". But as time went by the rhetoric of the democrats grew ever wilder. The theories of Robespierre and Danton were described as "of the substance of the Gospel", and the "mystic-souled Russian anarchists" as "witnesses of Christ". No one, it was said, had "embodied the republican idea so perfectly as Jesus Christ". The Holy Trinity was proposed as the archetype of democratic equality, and the eucharist of democratic brotherhood. 3

In 1904 Pius X decided there was no way of extracting the Opera dei Congressi from Murri's control. At the association's meeting in Bologna the year before, the majority of members had given him an ovation. The Pope therefore dissolved the organisation, replacing it with a new one, the Italian Catholic Movement, from which Murri was exduded. Murri thereupon founded his own National Democratic League. He was suspended from his priestly functions in 1907 and excommunicated in 1909. In 1908 the abbés démocrates' two leading journals were condemned. Le Sillon was suppressed in 1910. The reaction of Sangnier and the Sillonists was exemplary. There was no opposition or rebellion of the kind there had been among the scholars condemned by Pascendi. Most of the abbés démocrates submitted too. Only Murri held out. He was reconciled to the Church shortly before his death in 1944.

Can the Catholic democrats' attempts to make democracy, however understood, an absolute good or article of faith be described as "social and political modernism"? In the opinion of most writers, not in the strict sense. Von Hügel and his circle had no noticeable interest in social and political questions, while the democrats were for the most part uninterested in the theories of biblical critics or the relationship of religious experience to doctrine. Any ties of sympathy seem to have been due to both having attracted Rome's disapprobation.4 As yet there was no true convergence of aims and ideas. The incorporation of social and political utopianism into the evolutionary experience-based Christianity of early modernism will only begin in the late 1930s, and not reach its climax until the appearance of liberation theology in the late 1960s. Murri seems to have been the only democrat with a real interest in theological modernism; he was the only democrat at the meeting called by von Hügel in August 1907 to work out terms of submission to Pascendi.


The second of the three related movements was the German phenomenon known as Reforrnkatholizismus. To distinguish it from modernism proper, Jean Rivière, author of the first major history of modernism, describes it as "university liberalism." Inspired by a professor of history at Freiburg, Franz Xaver Kraus, and a professor of apologetics at Wurzburg, Herman Schell, it seems to have been chiefly a manifestation of 19th-century German nationalism, fortified with a strong dash of the older 18th-century Gallican or Josephite spirit.

19th-century German nationalism owed much of its original force to a national inferiority complex about the long dominant cultures of Italy, Spain and France. An insistence on the superiority of German culture to inferior "Latin civilisation", especially to everything emanating from its centre, Rome, was one result. Protestant sentiment and Germany's scholarly, scientific and military triumphs during the course of the 19th century also helped to fuel these prejudices, which eventually affected Catholics too. 5

The adherents of Reforrnkatholizismus declaimed against Roman centralisation, scholastic philosophy, the Jesuits, the Index, ultramontanism, the oppressive use of ecclesiastical authority, and Church involvement in politics, while calling for freedom of research, the "progress of religion and culture","Germanism" , and the acceptance of modern art. They also liked to describe themselves as "progressive Catholics", possibly the first use of the term.

All this sounds not unlike Fr. Hans Küng on the rampage. Enough of the  movement's spirit seems to have survived the war and inter-war periods to fuel the developing German modernism of the 1950s when it began testing its engines, and, with Pope John's announcement of the Council, taxied towards the take-off. Of the movement's less preposterous demands, some will find a place on the new theologians' agenda.

The United States

Completing our trio of quasi-modernist movements was Americanism. Americanism, like Reforrnkatholizismus, was a form of religious nationalism. It could be described as the absorption by the American Catholic mind of the dye of the secular American spirit. At this stage, like integralism, it was more a tendency than a movement.

The quintessential element of the American spirit is, presumably, the belief that every man is as good as his neighbour, that there are no difficulties he cannot surmount by himself if he is the kind of man he ought to be, and that he needs no help from outside authority. It is the independent, practical, self-sufficient spirit of a pioneering people, which in the right place is admirable. But in the raw, it is not easily reconciled with Catholicism and the spirit of the Gospel.

The French translation of the life of Fr. Paul Haecker, founder of the American Paulist order, and still more that translation's introduction by the French abbé Felix Klein, first alerted the Holy See to the dangers. Leo XIII explained what he saw those dangers as being in his apostolic letter, Testem Benevolentiae (1899) to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. They were: making good works the heart of religion, rather than obedience, humility and union with God; downplaying the role of grace; and the idea that certain aspects of faith and morals should be adapted to suit the culture of each people. He had previously warned the American hierarchy against taking the American constitution as the model for relations between Church and State always and everywhere (Longinqua oceani, 1895). Separation of Church and State was not to be considered the ideal. The best state of affairs was when a people was religiously largely of one mind, and as a politically organised body acknowledged and worshipped God according to the one true religion. 6

Since few Catholics gave explicit voice to the ideas censured by the Pope, it was easy to deny that anyone held them. Americanism in consequence used to be laughingly called "the phantom heresy". The Holy See, it was said, did not understand how the American mind worked, or, in today's parlance, "the American experience". However, the last twenty-five years have made it  clear that the phantom had more substance than was supposed. It also seems to have had holiday homes in a number of other countries.

Notes to Chapter Twenty-One

1.The founders had been pupils of Blondel at the Collège Stanislaus, a Parisian Catholic high school.

2. The Church's reservations about specifically Catholic parties were due to the possibility of their seeming to commit her to ideas and policies which she could not endorse, and to the term "Christian democracy" because of the ambiguities surrounding the term.

3. Daniel-Rops, A Fight for Cod, Dent, London, 1965, pp. 194-5.

4. Although Vidler (op. cit., p. 195) notes that Le Roy was associated with Le Sillon in its early days, and that Laberthonnière became a friend of Sangnier and a contributor to the movement's paper, he attaches no particular significance to the fact.

5. French nationalism and English nationalism had no less preposterous aspects. They were merely expressions of different prejudices and illusions. For Reforrnkatholizismus in general, see, in addition to Rivière (op. cit.), Fliche et Martin, Histoire de L'église, Vol. XXI.

6. In 1939, in the encyclical Sertum Laetitiae, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the American Hierarchy, Pius XII, while praising the great achievements of the Church in the U.S.A., felt it necessary to draw attention once again to the aspects of U.S. culture incompatible with a truly Catholic outlook.

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 30th November 2017

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