Under the Ban: Modernism, Then and Now

On July 3, 1907, in a decree bearing the lachrymose Latin title Lamentabili, the Vatican’s Holy Office, predecessor of today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, condemned 65 propositions that it had found contrary to Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius X followed up two months later, on September 8, with an encyclical named Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), in which he linked the condemned propositions to a heresy called Modernism and went on to identify its philosophical and theological roots. In conclusion, the encyclical specified stern disciplinary measures for stamping out the heresy.
Considering these events from the pope’s point of view, he could hardly have done less. For according to St. Pius X, who was to be canonized in 1954, Modernism was the very “synthesis of all heresies.” Its condemnation and eradication were essential to protecting the Faith.
Still, a century later three questions about Modernism do need answering: Did it actually exist? What was it all about? What difference does it make?
Whether there really was something corresponding to what Pius X called Modernism isn’t so easy to say. After all, it was the pope himself who gave Modernism its name and provided theoretical coherence to what up till then had been a gaggle of ideas identified with a loosely linked group of Catholic intellectuals in France, Italy, and England. Modernism’s leading figure, the Scripture scholar Alfred Loisy, was not entirely wide of the mark when he complained that Pius X not only had condemned Modernism but “invent[ed] the system” he condemned.
Even so, it would be foolish to dismiss Modernism as a figment of the papal imagination. Pius X’s account, as Loisy conceded, was drawn from actual sources. These he identified as “[Maurice] Blondel and [Lucien] Laberthonniere’s philosophy of immanence . . . intimate religious experience and moral dogmatism, into which had penetrated a certain Kantian element . . . [George] Tyrrell’s mystical theology, which exhibited a certain Protestant individualism and illuminism,” and especially evolutionism, as it was reflected in Loisy’s own “evolutionary history of the Hebrew religion and Christianity, of Catholic dogma, cult and constitution.”

Regarding the threat that all this posed, it is necessary to begin with some historical background.

Descartes, Kant, and Darwin

Modernism’s remote origins are usually traced to Descartes and Kant and their theories of knowledge, especially knowledge of a religious sort. In holding that we cannot know things directly but only as they are presented to us by our minds, Descartes and Kant inserted radical subjectivism into the heart of the epistemological question, including the question of what can be known about God and spiritual realities. Shortly after Modernism’s condemnation, Rev. Arthur Vermeersch, S.J., an important Roman theologian of the day, remarked that while in Kant “dogmas and the whole positive framework of religion are necessary only for the childhood of humanity,” Modernists went further still and took faith to be “a matter of sentiment, a flinging of oneself towards the Unknowable.”{mospagebreak}
Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing through the century that followed, the epistemological revolution launched by Descartes and Kant merged with developments in archaeology, history, and biblical study to produce a radical shift in the thinking of some theologians. Among other things, the historical value of the Gospels and the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) came under attack; while in his influential book The Christian Faith, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) sought a foothold for belief in the notion that the essence of religion is piety, and piety is feeling. This is to say that to be genuinely religious it is sufficient to feel dependent on God.
In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species erupted on an already shaky religious scene, spewing the ideological equivalent of lava and ashes far and wide. T. H. Huxley, an aggressive publicist for Darwinism, was soon exulting that one of the best things about it was its “complete and irreconcilable antagonism to that vigorous and consistent enemy of the highest intellectual, moral, and social life of mankind—the Catholic Church.” But strange to say, it was Protestantism, not Catholicism, that suffered first and worst.
Attempts to salvage something from the collapse of faith reflected in literary works like Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Dover Beach ranged from biblical fundamentalism to liberal Protestantism. “The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith” became a favorite slogan of the liberal Protestants. The catchy expression is shorthand for a supposedly unbridgeable split between the human Jesus—a historical figure said to have been concealed from sight by the early Christian community’s practice of shrouding Him in pious fictions—and a divine being upon whom believers project their subjective religious impulses. (In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI calls this history-faith dichotomy “tragic” for Christian belief. The Gospels present “the real, ‘historical’ Jesus in the strict sense of the word,” he writes.)
Although comparatively slow to infiltrate Catholic circles, the new thinking began to appear there in the latter years of the 19th century. Men like the historian Louis Duchesne, the novelist Antonio Fogazzaro, the philosopher Blondel, and the pietistic German-British intellectual gadfly Baron Friedrich von Hügel led the way. Not all of them were full-fledged Modernists, and some, like Blondel, later were genuinely horrified at being thought at odds with the Church. Nevertheless, they exchanged ideas, encouraged one another in their work, and formed a network that over time came to have an influence beyond its numbers in seminary and clerical circles. Several Italian pastoral letters warning against Modernism by name appeared in 1905 and 1906.

Loisy, Tyrrell, and Friends

The two most visible members of the group were the Frenchman Loisy and the Irish Jesuit Tyrrell.
Alfred Loisy was born in Ambrieres, France, in 1857; studied at the diocesan seminary of Châlons-sur-Marne; and was ordained in 1879. A gifted linguist, he taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris until his criticism of traditional views led to his removal as professor of Sacred Scripture; thereafter he taught at the École Pratiques des Hautes Études. His best-known work, L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church), published in 1902, was a response to the historian Adolf von Harnack, whose liberal Protestant understanding of Scripture reduced Christianity to a handful of basic principles. But although he wrote to refute von Harnack, Loisy simultaneously denied that Christ meant to establish a Church or teach a body of lasting religious truth, and argued instead for “the incessant evolution of doctrine.” L’Évangile and his other works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Loisy refused to submit to Pascendi and was excommunicated in 1908. He taught at the Collège de France from 1909 to 1930, and continued writing in defense of Modernism until his death in 1940.{mospagebreak}
Born in Dublin in 1861, George Tyrrell grew up an Evangelical Christian, studied at Trinity College, and entered the Catholic Church in 1879. He was accepted into the Jesuits the following year, ordained in 1891, and in 1896 transferred to the Jesuits’ Farm Street church in London. There he launched his career as a writer and was introduced by his great friend von Hügel to the work of men like Loisy and Blondel. Tyrrell’s increasingly radical critique of orthodox theology led to his expulsion from the Jesuits in 1906. His rejection of Pascendi was public and violently worded. Excommunicated in 1907, he received absolution before his death in 1909, but was refused Catholic burial on the grounds of not having retracted his heretical views. In the posthumously published Christianity at the Cross-Roads, Tyrrell expressed his hope that Christianity would not be the last stage of humanity’s religious quest but an intermediate stage on the way to a new universal religion.
In fairness to Loisy, Tyrrell, and the rest, it is important to bear in mind that they had an unobjectionable, even commendable, aim in mind at first. In a 1908 book, Simple Reflections (i.e., on the Holy Office decree and the papal encyclical), Loisy described himself and the rest of “the avowed modernists” as “a fairly definite group of thinking men united in the common desire to adapt Catholicism to the intellectual, moral and social needs of today.” Had there been no more to it than that, Modernism might have been more deserving of praise than condemnation. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit more.
In his carefully documented and nuanced study of Modernism, Critics on Trial (Catholic University of America Press, 1994), Msgr. Marvin R. O’Connell calls an anonymous document titled Il Programma di Modernisti “perhaps the most succinct and coherent statement of the Modernist position ever attempted.” Published “virtually before the ink on Pascendi was dry” in a forceful translation by Tyrrell, it almost certainly was written by an Italian philosopher and editor named Ernesto Buonaiuti. Boldly flaunting its immanentism, it contains such declarations as: “Religious knowledge . . . is our actual experience of the divine which works in ourselves and in the whole world,” and, “Religion is . . . the spontaneous result of irrepressible needs of man’s spirit, which find satisfaction in the inward and emotional experience of the presence of God within us.”
Of Pascendi and Lamentabili, this manifesto says: “The Church and Society can never meet on the basis of those ideas which prevailed at the Council of Trent. . . . The Church cannot, and ought not to, pretend that the Summa of Aquinas answers to the exigencies of religious thought in the twentieth century.” Only evolution provides a basis for believing in “the permanence of something divine in the life of the Church.”

The Condemnations of 1907

Drawing on the works of Modernists, the 65 condemned propositions in Lamentabili include: The Church’s Magisterium “cannot determine the genuine sense” of Scripture even by dogmatic definitions (no. 4); the Gospels contain “only a slight and uncertain trace” of Christ’s teaching (no. 15); divine revelation is only “the consciousness acquired by man of his relation to God” (no. 20); Christ’s resurrection is “not properly a fact of the historical order, but a fact of the purely supernatural order, neither demonstrated nor demonstrable” (no. 36); the sacraments originate not in Christ but in “the apostles and their successors” engaged in interpreting “some idea and intention of Christ” (no. 40); the only purpose of the sacraments is to be reminders of “the ever beneficent presence of the Creator” (no. 41); “it was foreign to the mind of Christ to establish a Church” (no. 52); “truth is no more immutable than man himself” (no. 58); Catholicism “cannot be reconciled with true science, unless it be transformed into a kind of nondogmatic Christianity, that is, into a broad and liberal Protestantism” (no. 65).{mospagebreak}
Then Lamentabili states the pope’s judgment: “condemned and proscribed.”
Then–Rev. Joseph Ratzinger, in an essay published in 1966, criticized some of the formulations used by the Holy Office—for example, that found in proposition 22, which states that so-called revealed dogmas aren’t “truths fallen from heaven” but interpretations of religious facts worked out by human effort. “It is certainly very difficult to determine the meaning and binding force of such a condemnation,” the youngish German theologian, today known to the world as Benedict XVI, remarked. Indeed, he went on, some of these individual propositions, “in themselves, can have an altogether acceptable meaning.” The real significance of Lamentabili, he then declared, can be found in “its meaning as a whole, insofar as it condemns a radically evolutionistic and historicist tendency.” This remains a useful interpretive principle for reading the decree today.
Appearing two months later, Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis is remarkable in several ways. An extremely long document—nearly twice the length of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum—it is bluntly, even harshly worded, as if its author had taken personal offense at the ideas it condemns. But it is important to grasp that Pascendi really is about ideas, not personalities. The Modernists viewed Pius as an ignorant bumpkin who as pope found himself in over his head (“a peasant of simple seminary training,” von Hügel remarked condescendingly), but his encyclical is a sophisticated analysis of Modernist views.
A few highlights: Saying he aims to give a systematic account of Modernism—something the Modernists themselves deliberately failed to do—the pope situates its philosophical basis in “agnosticism.” By this, he makes it clear, he means the idea that the fundamental source of religion is “vital immanence.” In other words: “It is . . . to be sought within man himself . . . in a need for the divine.” Here, too, in “religious consciousness,” is where Modernists locate revelation. It follows from such principles, Pius says, that dogma “not only can but ought to be evolved and changed,” and that “all religions are true” to the extent they reflect the human psyche.
Moving to theology, Pius pinpoints key Modernist ideas. Christ did not establish the Church and institute sacraments directly, but only in the sense that His example inspired later Christians to do so. The Church is “the fruit of the collective conscience” of the Christian community. The idea that the Church’s authority comes from God is “obsolete.” In order to avoid “internecine war,” the Church must adopt “democratic forms” of government. In sum: “In a religion which is living nothing is without change, and so there must be change.”
From here [the Modernists] make a step to what is essentially the chief point in their doctrines, namely, evolution. Dogma, then, Church, worship, the books that we revere as sacred, even faith itself . . . must be bound by the laws of evolution. . . .
The Modernists’ reading of the gospels flows naturally from their agnosticism. . . .
Any divine intervention in human affairs must be relegated to faith, as belonging to it alone. Thus, if anything occurs consisting of a double element, divine and human, such as are Christ, the Church, the sacraments . . . there will have to be a division and separation, so that what was human may be assigned to history, and what divine to faith. Thus, the distinction common among the Modernists between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith; the Church of history and the Church of faith; the sacraments of history and the sacraments of faith.{mospagebreak}
Pascendi Dominici Gregis concludes by spelling out practical steps to take: removing Modernists from seminary faculties, new censorship norms, and the creation in every diocese of a clergy council responsible for ferreting out nascent signs of Modernism. Three years later the pope published the text of an oath against Modernism that priests were required to take; it remained on the books until Pope Paul VI did away with it in 1967.
Reaction to Pascendi and Lamentabili was mixed. Bishops generally accepted Pius X’s judgment and prepared to carry it out. Publicly at least, the strongest words of defiance were probably those of Tyrrell in the Times of London: “Neither the engineered enthusiasm of la bonne presse, nor the extorted acquiescence and unanimity of a helplessly subjugated episcopate, nor the passive submission of uncomprehending sheeplike lay multitudes will deceive [the Modernists] into thinking that this Encyclical comes from, or speaks to, the living heart of the Church—the intelligent, religious-minded, truth-loving minority.” The writer André Bremond, an ex-Jesuit like Tyrrell, called this outburst an example of his friend’s “Irish frenzy.”
Then something shameful happened—something that even conservatives today regard with abhorrence. Instigated by a Vatican official, Msgr. Umberto Benigni, a campaign began to neutralize anyone suspected of Modernist tendencies. It was carried out by a secretive group created by Monsignor Benigni called the Sodality of St. Pius V. A network of spies and informers went into action in dioceses searching out supposed Modernists and Modernist sympathizers—bishops, pastors, professors, editors—and reporting them to the authorities. Reputations were blackened, careers damaged, innocent people hurt. The intellectual pogrom continued until Pope Benedict XV finally put an end to it. But the bitter taste lingered in many mouths.
So much for Modernism and its condemnation. The question remains: A century later, what difference does it all make?

The Modernist Legacy

In attempting to answer that, we need to begin by recognizing that some ideas associated with Modernism are part of today’s orthodox Catholic consensus. Certainly this is true in the area of Scripture study, where much that looked like avant-garde thinking around the turn of the last century has come to be taken for granted. Today, for instance, hardly any knowledgeable person would argue that Moses was the immediate human author of the Pentateuch. Nor do Catholics have any difficulty accepting the idea that the Bible embraces a variety of literary forms and that the four Gospels reflect the early Christian community’s theological understanding of Christ as well as the events of His life. In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI calls the critical-historical method an “indispensable” tool for understanding Scripture, though certainly not the only one.
Today, too, it is clear that although the condemnations of 1907 and the events that followed drove Modernism out of sight, Modernism and its offshoots survived. For one thing, the Modernists and their sympathizers kept on writing. Moreover, as Rev.—now Cardinal—Avery Dulles, S.J., pointed out in 1971 in The Survival of Dogma: “Driven underground but not solved by the condemnation of Modernism, the problem of dogmatic change surfaced again in the nouvelle theologie of the 1940s.” (As the Second Vatican Council demonstrated, Newman’s principle of doctrinal “development” offers an approach to this question whose usefulness has not been exhausted even now.)
Eventually, too, changing times and circumstances allowed Modernism and its cousins to emerge from hiding. Modernism persisted, says historian Philip Trower, “because the causes which had originally brought it into existence persisted: the increasingly secularized culture in which the bulk of Western Catholics now lived, and the complexity of many of the questions raised by ‘modern thought.’”
The case of Rev. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., is instructive. Forbidden to publish by his superiors, under pressure from the Holy See, the Jesuit paleontologist continued writing, with his works circulating in mimeographed form for years. When it was finally published after his death, The Phenomenon of Man (French edition 1955, English edition 1959) and other books enjoyed cult success among readers who relished their quasi-poetic, quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific synthesis of evolutionism and Christianity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Teilhardian evolutionism occupied an important place in the stew of ideas and sentiments that shaped the troubled reception of Vatican Council II.
And now? Major elements of today’s progressive Catholicism bear more than a small family resemblance to things condemned by Pius X in 1907. Consider Pascendi on the Modernists’ program of Church reform:
They . . . demand that history be written and taught according to their method and modern prescriptions. Dogmas and the evolution of the same . . . must be brought into harmony with science and history. As regards catechesis, they demand that only those dogmas be noted . . . which have been reformed. . . . As for worship, they say that external devotions must be reduced in number and that steps must be taken to prevent their increase. . . . They cry out that the government of the Church must be reformed in every respect. . . . Both within and without it is to be brought in harmony with the modern conscience . . . which tends entirely towards democracy. . . . The Roman congregations they likewise wish to be modified in the performance of their holy duties, but especially. . . the Holy Office. . . . Finally, there are some who. . . desire the removal of holy celibacy itself from the priesthood.
Leaving aside the pros and cons of such proposals, it’s a fact that they have been items on the progressive Catholic agenda for years.
But the Modernists of a century ago aren’t the only ones with counterparts now. The integralists who launched a witch hunt after the publication of Pascendi and Lamentabili have successors, too. These include people who believe—or at least strongly suspect—that the Church hasn’t had a real pope since 1958, when Pius XII died (sedevacantists, they’re called), who hold that Vatican II wasn’t a valid council of the Church, and who at this very moment are very likely somewhere on the Internet trying to make the case that Benedict XVI is a Modernist. Just like Loisy and Tyrrell, Benigni also has spiritual heirs.
In summing up Modernism and its legacy, however, it’s only fair to give the last word to Loisy: “The Catholicism of the pope being neither reformable nor acceptable,” the excommunicated ex-priest and Modernist luminary wrote in 1931, “another Catholicism will have to come into being, a humane Catholicism, in no way conditioned by the pontifical institution or the traditional forms of Roman Catholicism.” A century after Modernism was condemned, Loisy’s successors are still working hard to bring that about.{mospagebreak}

Russell Shaw, a crisis contributing editor, is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. His most recent book, written with Rev. C. John McCloskey III, is Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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