'Critics on Trial - An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis', O'Connell

'Critics on Trial - An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis', O'Connell

Fr John Parsons

How the Modernist crisis began

CRITICS ON TRIAL: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis
by Marvin R. O'Connell
(Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1994, 394pp.)

The decline of faith in Christendom over the last three hundred years might be summed up like this:

Question: What do you get around the year 1700 if you cross a Christian with someone who doesn't believe in divine revelation? Answer: a Deist.

Question: What do you get around the year 1900 if you cross a Christian with a Kantian or Hegelian philosopher? Answer: a Modernist.

The first of these cross-breedings removes the supernatural element in Christianity, but leaves intact a philosophical belief in God and the natural law. The second hybridisation makes the whole of belief in God and religion, whether supernatural or natural, a mere product of the evolution of human culture and psychology, so that, as St Pius X puts it in one of the condemned Modernist propositions: "Truth is no more unchangeable than man himself, for it evolves with him, in him and through him."

Human development

Thus even the truth that God exists is seen as merely an idea necessarily symbolising a phase of human development. As Alfred Loisy (1857-1940), the French secular priest and chief Modernist writer, put it in 1906, two years before his excommunication, and some months before he stopped saying Mass: "It appears evident to me that the notion of God has never been more than a sort of ideal projection, a replication of the human personality, and that theology has never been, nor could it ever be, more than a mythology that becomes with time more and more sanitised."

George Tyrrell (1861-1909), the other principal Modernist writer, an Anglo-Irish convert and ex-Jesuit, put it in his characteristically more rhapsodic style in 1905, almost three years before his excommunication, and one year before he stopped saying Mass: "The parochialism of Christianity gets very oppressive. Its ridiculous little world scheme and its fussy little god (sic) and above all its deplorable history. I suppose it is better than that of the (primitives), but it is only a question of more or less." All this in the same letter in which he said he longed for "the religion of Jesus" rather than "that about Jesus."

No wonder that in his encyclical Pascendi of 1907, St Pius X called Modernism not so much a heresy, as the synthesis of all heresies. It was certainly the synthesis of all that German Idealism will do if one attempts to re-express Christianity in its categories.

Nonetheless, there were, at the beginning of this century, at least three areas in which genuine scholarly progress was temporarily impeded by the understandable conservative over-reaction against the Modernist philosophy of religion.

The first was that of modern philosophical apologetics of the sort pursued by Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), a layman and academic at Aix-en-Provence; the second, Biblical, and particularly Old Testamental, criticism of the sort pursued by Marie-Joseph Lagrange OP (1855-1938), the founder of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem; and the third, the history of doctrine of the sort pursued by Cardinal Newman and Pierre Batiffol (1861-1929), the French secular priest and eminent ecclesiastical historian.

The Modernists' belief in a sort of pan-cultural moral evolutionism led ultra-conservative Catholics to smell a rat whenever any contemporary scholar challenged a conventional opinion. They were unjustifiably suspicious if anyone suggested that sound philosophising need not stop dead in the thirteenth century despite the excellences of St Thomas, or maintained that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses, or that there was a large development in the explicit formulation of the apostolic deposit of faith during the patristic period.

One might sum up the commendable but confused reaction to Modernism by some people in authority in the Church, by saying that they failed to distinguish in individual cases between a development in knowledge that was compatible with orthodoxy, and an evolutionism that spelt, and still spells, the end of genuine Christianity.

Marvin O'Connell's book is a well researched and very informative account of all this. Its chief merit, apart from its sheer abundance of facts, is its attempt to follow synchronically the careers and connections of all the principal characters involved in, or associated with, the Modernist movement. It opens artistically with Loisy's miserable funeral, and closes with Tyrrell's almost equally sad exequies. The cast of characters hardly exceeds two dozen. The whole thing took place on a very small scale; in France chiefly, and to a lesser extent in Italy and England, and virtually nowhere else.

Those sometimes accused of being Modernist heretics fell, I think, into four categories: firstly, those who indeed were Modernists, and who sounded in public as if they were (like Loisy, Tyrrell, Minocchi and Buonaiuti); secondly, those who were, but who avoided sounding so in public (like von Hugel, Duchesne and Bremond); thirdly, those who were not, but who sometimes sounded as if they might be (like Blondel and Laberthonniere); and lastly those who (like Lagrange and Batiffol) were not, and did not even sound to a reasonable man as if they were, but who were suspected as Modernists all the same by reactionary and obscurantist Catholics.


O'Connell traces the careers of these principal actors through the 1880s and 1890s. The crescendo begins in 1902 with the publication of Loisy's L'Evangile et L'Eglise, and the placing of that and several other of his publications on the Index of Forbidden Books at the end of 1903. In July 1907, 65 Modernist propositions were condemned in the Holy Office's decree Lamentabili. In September 1907, the great encyclical Pascendi Gregis, written in the main it seems by Joseph Lemius (1860-1923), the procurator in Rome of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, summed up and condemned the whole Modernist philosophy. In 1910 the Oath Against Modernism was imposed on candidates for ordination, and remained in force until it was unwisely abolished by Paul VI in 1967.

The disasters that have befallen the Church in the latter part of the twentieth century show how grateful we should be to St Pius X for issuing a clear doctrinal analysis of Modernism, and for his firm disciplinary action against Modernist priests in teaching positions. Having myself been taught by a Jesuit at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome that the belief that Christ's body slowly rotted away in the tomb like anyone else's is fully compatible with saying "he rose again on the third day", it seems we need a new campaign against the Modernists who now dominate Catholic seminaries and universities in much of the western world.

Perhaps the best summary given in O'Connell's book of the reaction and occasional over-reaction to the Modernist heresy, is that made by the Master General of the Dominicans in Rome, (presumably the saintly Hyacinth Cormier, though O'Connell does not tell us so) writing to the great Père Lagrange in Jerusalem: "We are witnessing a kind of terrorism [from the anti-Modernist spy network privately approved by the Pope]. I neither understand it, nor support it, nor exercise it myself."

But the serious reasons behind it were "Fears for young ecclesiastics, weak in knowledge and virtue, who appeal to exegesis in order to exalt their independence of spirit and to mock at tradition, just as they appeal to democracy with a secret longing to see it used as a way to overturn ecclesiastical discipline. Fears also for those who possess more talent and priestly virtue, but who are threatened - without willing it, without suspecting it even, perhaps denying it in all good faith - with losing, or at least having diminished, their proper sense of divine things."

With whatever imperfections, the anti-Modernist campaign gave the Church that splendid Indian summer, lasting over half a century, in which it basked until the frosts of aggiornamento signalled the winter ahead.

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