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Chapter Twenty-Two


Although the spread of modernist ideas had made a partial reversal of Leo XIII's policies unavoidable, it was only a temporary reversal. In his first encyclical Ad Beatissimi, Benedict XV, who succeeded St. Pius X in 1914, began to relax the pressure on the brakes. Referring to modernism as a "manifest heresy" and speaking of its "monstrous errors", he nevertheless said that "in regard to questions on which the Holy See has as yet given no ruling . . . no one is forbidden to put forward and defend his opinion".

Even while the crisis was at its height, the aggiornamento had continued. Orthodox Catholic scholars had been applying the critical method to the Bible and Church history without losing either their faith or their sense of proportion. Among more notable examples were the Jesuits Frs. Jules Lebreton and Léonce de Grandmaison, the Dominican Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, Frs. Battifol, Tixeront, and Labriolle, Ludwig von Pastor, and Horace Mann.

Fr. Henri Pesch was developing a social ethics based on the principle of "solidarity", an idea later made use of by Popes Pius XI and John Paul II. Pierre Duhem, the theoretical physicist and historian of science, was demonstrating that the foundations of modern physics were laid in the late middle ages not the renaissance as previously assumed, pulling the rug from under the idea that the advances of modern science were in some way connected with the growth of atheism.

The careers of Pesch and Duhem show that it is not always thinkers who make the most noise during their lifetimes who do the most valuable work. Only recently have they become names outside their own countries.

In the social field, Marius Gonin and Adiodat Boissard were founding the semaines sociales (1904), annual conferences for stimulating interest in Catholic social teaching.

The 1890s and 1900s also saw the beginnings of the 20th-century Catholic literary revival. Péguy was in full career, and Claudel's first books were appearing. Léon Bloy too was already exerting an influence. They would be followed a decade or two later by Mauriac and Bernanos. Nor is there any sign that the condemnation of modernism checked the flow of prominent literary converts to the Church. 1

Then came the First World War, at the conclusion of which the Church, like everyone else, found herself in a new world.

The Russian, German and Austrian monarchies had been swept away, long established patterns of economic life broken up, old nations brought back to life, new ones created. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had established the first officially atheist state. Elsewhere, through the influence of the victors, parliamentary governments mainly hostile to Catholicism were in the ascendant. But their leaders seem to have lacked the moral fibre or political acumen for dealing with the economic stagnation and resulting social unrest of the post-war years. The inclusion in their number of a humiliated Germany and a discontented Italy, did not contribute to making them a force for international stability either.

The devastation to souls was greater still. Millions of men and women, who had grown up in villages where belief was taken for granted and protected by custom, had been suddenly uprooted and thrown pell-mell among men of other ways of thinking and into sufferings and moral evils for which the faith of the majority was no match. Europe was still Christianity's heart­land, but there was now a hole in the heart more than half the size of the heart itself, and it was only a question of time before something else came to fill it.

This is why the twenty inter-war years were a time of uneasy peace and why the partisans of totalitarian ideologies posed the threat they did to the tottering democracies, with Italian fascism and German national socialism step by step gaining the lead over Soviet-led communism. More and more the West was looking to politics rather than religion for salvation. 2

The success of the totalitarians was due as much to continental liberalism's philosophical bankruptcy, as to its economic and political inefficiency. To give meaning to life the liberals could only offer more irreligion (now like a drug on the market), increased material prosperity (which they were failing to provide), or promises of still greater individual freedom (useless to men and women on the breadline and, as a philosophical ideal, one of the root causes of social disintegration). Why should men live together in harmony if individual liberty and gratification are presented as the supreme goals? In other words, they could fill neither the hole in the heart, nor the hole in the stomach, while as a motive for social cohesion they could only offer a vague and ineffective doctrine of universal brotherliness.

The totalitarians, on the other hand, offered ideology and party discipline. Ideology (meaning, in this case, deification of the nation, race or working class) would temporarily fill the spiritual vacuum. By lifting the individual's  sights above personal self-interest, it gave to life an at least quasi-transcendent meaning. Party discipline and total state control, it was thought, would solve the problems of material well-being.3

In these respects, the totalitarianisms, whether of left or right, had more in common with each other than with their victims, the enfeebled democracies. Their successes were also due to their novelty. The peoples of Europe were like invalids running desperately from one medical practitioner to another. The totalitarianisms had the advantage of not yet having had their incompetence tested.

The autocracies which won control in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere where something sui generis. If ideology was present it was something peripheral.

To try to explain all this as a simple conflict between right and left, rich and poor, dictatorship and democracy, or good and evil, as is too often the custom in England and the USA, is like trying to get light out of a torch with the wrong kind of battery.

European Catholics found themselves confronted with three social, economic and political systems or philosophies liberal, fascist and communist all godless, all from the Catholic point of view in divergent ways and degrees deficient or undesirable. This is the key to understanding much of the papal teaching during the inter-war years and the Holy See's diplomatic activities. It explains too the shifting alignments of many Catholics, intellectuals included, before, during and after the second World War. It was a question of deciding which of three ugly sisters was the least repulsive.

Then came the six years of World War II, which, by throwing groups of Catholics and Protestants together in Germany against Hitler, and groups of Catholics and communists together in France against the Vichy regime and German occupying army, stimulated interest in Christian reunion, and sympathy towards Marxism. It was also responsible for much guilt and heart-searching. Why had not more Catholics been openly on the Allied side? The lunacy and wickedness of the Nazi regime, coupled with Allied propaganda in favour of Russia, helped to disguise the vileness of the Soviet Union's equally brutal but less demented and far more universal and long-lasting form of totalitarianism, as well as the ambiguous nature of a "triumph of freedom and democracy" which left Europe split down the middle with the eastern half subject to Stalin.

Western Europe, propped up by the power and wealth of the United States, was now committed to economic and political liberalism modified by semi-socialist welfare policies, with the United Nations replacing the League of Nations as, in theory, the cement holding the international community  together. The resulting economic recovery, this time benefiting nearly all classes, eventually produced the mood of euphoria that was moving towards its climax just as Pope John announced his plans for calling a Council. Could it be that a world of plenty for everybody really was just round the corner?

The dismantling of the French, English, Portuguese and Dutch empires mainly affected missionaries. Anxious to identify themselves with their flocks, sensitive to the charge of having been agents for the colonial powers, many were inclining to see only virtues in the local culture, and only defects in European culture and the colonial past, including the way Church affairs were run.

These were the main factors influencing the aggiomamento from without, which, once it got going again after World War I, took three forms.

First there was the kind of adjusting to the times which Catholics of all periods make without waiting for papal encyclicals or episcopal pastorals. New ideas and events overtake them before the magisterium has had time to assess their significance and give guidance. It is therefore usually a hit and miss affair. Sometimes the faithful's Catholic sense points to the right solution. Sometimes weak faith or moral imperfection lead to the kind of worldly compromise or "social modernism" reproved by Pius XI. In the latter case, the magisterium's subsequent verdict is likely to be ill-received. In the dramatic social and political upheavals between 1920 and 1958, there must have been a great deal of this ad hoc adjusting to the times, preparing the ground in good and bad ways for what was to come.

Secondly there was a continuation of the kind of steady aggiornamento, stimulated or guided by the popes, that had begun with Leo XIII.

Over a period of 38 years, in a stream of encyclicals and addresses to pilgrims, Pius XI and Pius XII instructed the faithful in almost every aspect of modern life, from the obligations of governments to the duties of midwives, pointing out what was and was not compatible with Catholic belief and practice. They also began opening the door to some of the ideas and initiatives that would triumph at the Council. The teachings of Pius XII are among the most frequently cited authorities in the conciliar documents.

But Popes do not teach in isolation. Their teaching incorporated the work of scholars in many fields. This was the third form taken by the interwar aggiornammuo.

In theology, men like the Belgian Jesuit Fr. Emile Mersch were preparing the ground for the more organic, spiritualised conception of the Church described in Chapter 9. It was officially approved by Pius XII in his encycli­cal Mystici Corporis Christi (1943).

In philosophy, the Thomist revival was probably this moderate aggiornamento's most striking achievement. Outside the Church, St.Thomas and the scholastics had for centuries been treated as philosophical non-persons. But by the 1940s, sixty years after Leo XIII's call for the restoration of Christian philosophy, the situation had been completely reversed. Thinkers like Gilson and Maritain had forced even diehard adherents of the "religion equals superstition" school, represented by Bertrand Russell, to admit that St.Thomas, even if wrong, was a figure of world stature. 4

War and revolution having shaken belief in the inevitability of progress, the first half of the 20th century also saw the publication of a number of influential philosophies of history, with Spengler's Decline of the West and Toynbee's Study of History in the forefront. These sought to determine the laws governing the rise and fall of civilisations and whether, if decay had set in, there was any way of arresting the process. The 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher, Giovanni Batista Vico, with his cyclical vision of history, became fashionable. If, for Marxists, history was to end in the triumph of the proletariat, others, inspired by Vico, saw it as endlessly repeating itself. This was the background to the new theologians' interest in the meaning of secular history. The English Catholic social and cultural historian, Christopher Dawson, made one of the best contributions to this debate.

The dramatic social and political changes helped to stimulate the development of the Church's social teaching. Pius XI had stringent things to say about unbridled economic liberalism as well as about communism, fascism and national socialism. He proposed a "sane corporative system" as the best basis for a just and peaceful social order. By "corporative" he did not mean the Italian fascists' system of state-regulated industries. He meant taking into account the natural hierarchical order of men's talents, encouraging them to form self-governing professional associations at every level, and getting those associations to co-operate with each other instead of trying to do each other down.

During the inter-war period, the Italian priest Don Luigi Sturzo, founder of the Italian Popular Party suppressed by Mussolini in 1921 and revived as the Christian Democratic Party after 1945, made important contributions to the theory of "Christian democracy" or Catholic parliamentary republicanism. 5 So too, both before and after World War 11, did Jacques Maritain, an even more influential figure in this field. In the 1950s, Pius XII recognised the legitimacy of nationalising a limited number of industries and services where the common good required it.

By this time, the number of governments that could be called remotely  Christian having dropped to near zero, and of governments actively hostile to Christianity mounted into the two-figure range, a shift in papal teaching began from the duties of states towards the Catholic religion to the right of Christians to worship God without state interference.

Meanwhile, the first steps had been taken towards Catholic participation in the movement for Christian unity. In 1924, Pius XI called on the Benedictines to work for reunion with the Orthodox. A centre for studying the questions responsible for the separation was set up at Amay-sur-Meuse in Belgium (later moved to Chevetogne) under Dom Lambert Beauduin. Shortly afterwards, the Dominican Fr. Christophe Dumont opened a similar house of studies, the Istina centre, in Paris. Later, both houses extended their work to include Catholic-Protestant relations.

Reunion with the Protestant churches was likewise the aim of the Mohler Institute and the Una Sancta fraternity begun in Germany by Fr. Josef Metzger, who was later executed by the Nazis. In 1935 the abbé Couturier started the "week of universal prayer for Christian unity". All Christians were to take part. Two years later, unofficial Catholic observers attended the Protestant ecumenical Faith and Order conference in Edinburgh. After World War II came the Holy Office's "Instruction on the Ecumenical Movement", laying down guidelines for Catholic participation, and the foundation of two more houses for ecumenical study and work: Unité Chrétienne in Lyons in memory of Couturier, and Fr. Charles Boyer's Unitas in Romc.

The 1950s likewise saw the first liturgical changes: the restoration of the Easter vigil service, "dialogue"Mass (with the faithful making a number of responses), evening Mass and relaxation of the fasting laws for receiving Holy Communion (to make weekday Mass attendance easier for city workers).

Other changes of practice or policy were: the settling of the dispute between the Holy See and the Italian government about the one-time papal states, and the establishment of the present Vatican City State (by the Lateran Treaty of 1929); the consecration of more and more native bishops in mission territories; and the conclusion of the centuries-long Chinese rights controversy (could Chinese converts continue to venerate their ancestors, i.e. was ancestor worship in the strict sense "worship"? Rome finally decided it was not).

The 1920s '30s, '40s and '50s were notable too for the growth of international lay movements: Schoenstatt, the Legion of Mary, Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Foyers de Charité. Less directly under the control of the local bishop, they were also less socio-political than the Catholic Action movements like the Young Christian Workers which had sprung up in the previous century in Italy and France.

Even without the Council, there is no reason to think this moderate updating would not have continued.

Meanwhile, the new theologians' plans for a more far-reaching aggiornamento were taking shape. Pius XII tried to keep it on track during the 1940s and 50s with three major encyclicals, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) on Bible study, Mediator Dei (1947) on divine worship and the liturgy, and Humani Generis (1950) on new theological and philosophical ideas, but with only partial success. Why, in addition to providing the Church with new insights, did the aggiornamento of the new theologians become the vehicle for a revived modernism?

Partly, it is now clear, because modernism as a way of thought or temper of mind did not, as was widely assumed, die under the blows of the encyclical Pascendi.6 Scholarly young men, touched by modernism while having their minds formed in the seminaries around 1907, were, at the end of World War II, still only in their early sixties. Where faith survived, it was often with disgruntled feelings or a grudging attitude towards authority. Meanwhile, throughout the 1920s and 30s, leading modernists were pouring out books and apologies, thereby enlarging this pool of discontent.

Loisy, whose memoirs appeared in 1930-31, lived on until 1940. Laberthonniêre, although forbidden to publish, continued to write, and these later works appeared after his death in 1932. Le Roy survived until 1954.

As a layman and professor at the College de France, Leroy was not prevented from publishing. His books were merely censored as they came out. Each time he submitted, but without changing course. The same ideas would be developed in the next book. Official formulas, he maintained, should receive only official submission and be interpreted to bear an acceptable meaning; he was not dealing with an infallible authority.

Other modernist or semi-modernist writings circulated in the scholarly world in mimeograph. One of the most influential contributors to this ecclesiastical samizdat was Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard's speculations also got into circulation through his friendship with Le Roy. Le Roy confessed that he and Teilhard had discussed their ideas together so often that he could no longer say which were Tcilhard's and which his own.

But it would be a mistake to attribute modernism's persistence solely or even mainly to a handful of survivors from the first phase. Modernism persisted because the causes which had originally brought it into existence persisted: the increasingly secularised culture in which the bulk of Western Catholics now lived, and the complexity of many of the questions raised by "modern thought".

How much neo-Protestant biblical scholarship, how much evolutionary theory, could be incorporated into a genuinely Catholic Christian world-view? Which aspects of modern philosophy, which democratic social and political ideas? How far can personal experience throw light on doctrine and dogma, or is it only in the light of divine revelation that personal experience becomes fully intelligible?

These questions and the theories giving rise to them are examined, discussed and explained more fully in a sequel to this book which it is hoped will appear shortly. Along with a study of the movement for liturgical reform, and the unique role played by Fr. Karl Rahner in the conciliar and post-conciliar dramas, it will include topics like existentialism and the human sciences, which, although they played little or no part in the early modernist crisis, had an impact later on Catholic thinking. The arrival of these newcomers is what justifies speaking of today's aberrations as "neo-modernism".

Notes to Chapter Twenty-Two

1. The Maritains came into the Church in 1906, drawn to a great extent by Bloy. Other well-known converts to the Church between 1900 and 1960, included Ernst Pischari (Renan's nephew), Jacques Rivieredulien Green, Alexis Carel, Gerund von Le Fort, Edith Stein. Sigrid Undset, Johannes Jorgensen, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Maurice Baring, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy.

2. Today the word "fascism" usually has one of three meanings: (a) the anti-communist political movements which sprang up in Italy, Germany and Spain after World War I in response to the economic and political crisis in those countries the original and historically accurate meaning: (b) any authoritarian regime or nationalist reaction to the universalising tendencies of the political philosophies stemming from the Enlightenment; (c) a term of abuse in the vocabulary of the political left for anyone opposing or criticising their policies or practices.

3. Ideology: a political or social theory acting as a substitute for religion, while claiming to be capable of solving life's problems, down to the last detail.

4. For the French historian Octave Hamelin, Descartes was "in succession with the ancients, almost as if . . . there had been (philosophically) nothing but a blank between". Quoted, One Hundred Years of Thomism, Houston 1981, p. 34.

5. See Luigi Sturzo, Church and State, 2 Volumes, Notre Dame, 1962, and Richard Webster, Christian Democracy in Italy, 1860-1960, Hollis and Carter, London. 1961.

6. Writing about half a century after the first modernist crisis, Fr. Creehan S.J. speaks of "this now half-forgotten heresy" (Father Thurston, Sheed and Ward 1952. p. 48); Daniel Rops (op cit., p. 238) citing fellow author J. Rouquette, calls it "a completely outmoded phenomenon"; while in his A Short History of the Catholic Church, (Burns & Oates, London, reprinted 7 times between 1939 and 1967), Msgr. Philip Hughes says of the modernists "within a very short time the Church was rid of them".

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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 1st December 2017

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