A Modicum of Modernism

This post arises from one of the issues raised in Nitsav’s Apologia. (Since it’s now, like, 130 comments long, I am sure we’ll never need any other identifier for that post.) At some point in the middle of all those comments, we got on to a discussion of how others handle the problematic issues raised by close study of the Bible, and from there to the modern Catholic approach to scripture. Since I come out of the Catholic intellectual tradition with respect to scripture, I decided I’d venture some thoughts. So by the end of this we’ll be at Dei Verbum and so forth, but right now we’ll start with the Modernist Crisis.

Modernism is one of those terms whose definition sometimes depends on just who is speaking. For our purposes, we’ll start with the idea that modernism is a way of thinking about the world that holds that folks can shape and improve their situation with the help of science, technology, and experimentation. What follows from this is that pretty much everything is examined, with the aim of determining what might be holding back progress. When something is identified as impeding progress, changes are advocated in order to bring about the desired outcomes. Therefore, modernism is in tension with traditional forms of art, thinking, religion, literature, etc., etc., and especially with the authority that supports these traditions. Since religions are typically pretty traditional with vertical authority structures and all, I am sure you can already see the train wreck in the distance.

Although Protestants made the leap into modernism first, the movement and the crisis it generated was not limited to them. Among Catholics, modernism was a pejorative expression first used about 1905 to describe a very loose association of scholarly trends in Catholic thinking. After examining the current state of the Catholic world, the modernists became convinced that Catholicism was not inherently incompatible with modernity and a synthesis was possible. Progress, however, was being held up and Catholics were behind Protestants.

Although the issues that influenced the Catholic Modernists are decidedly complicated, four factors stand out:

1) philosophic interaction with Neo-Kantianism, pragmatism, and the works and students of Frederick Schleiermacher

2) rising dissatisfaction with “too static” Neo-scholasticism

3) acceptance of evolutionary biological theory and the the modern historical method

4) the evolving relationship between the Church and the sociopolitical order.

Before we head into the intersection of modernism and religion, I want to say a bit about the fourth point, that is, about the Catholic socio-political issues that were hot in the last half of the 19th century. Two things were on pretty much everyone’s mind: the French Revolution and the emergence of the United States. As you know, there were some very new, and to the traditionally minded, erroneous ideas embedded in these events. The then-current pope, Pius IX (1846-1878 ) was indefatigable in opposing them. In 1864 he issued the encyclical Quanta cura, along with the Syllabus of Errors listing eighty propositions that Catholics must reject. I have reproduced a few below, to give you the flavor of the document.

5. Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to a continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the advancement of human reason.

7. The prophecies and miracles set forth and recorded in the Sacred Scriptures are the fiction of poets, and the mysteries of the Christian faith the result of philosophical investigations. In the books of the Old and the New Testament there are contained mythical inventions, and Jesus Christ is Himself a myth.

13. That the method and principles by which the ancient scholastic doctors developed their theology are not compatible with present needs or with scientific progress.

15. That each person is free to adopt and follow that religion which seems best to the light of reason.

21. That the Church does not have the power to declare as dogma that its religion is the only true religion.

24. That the church has no authority to make use of force, nor does it have temporal power.

30. That the immunity of the church and of ecclesiastics is based on civil law.

Remember, he’s CONDEMNING these ideas that have been published elsewhere…

38. That the arbitrary behavior of the popes contributed to the break between the Eastern and Western churches.

45. That the entire management of the schools in which youth are educated in a Christian state, with the sole and partial exception of seminaries, can and should be in the hands of the civil power, in such a manner that no other authority be allowed to intervene in the management of schools, the direction of studies, the granting of degrees, or the selection and certification of teachers.

55. That the church ought to be separate from the state, and the state from the church.

77. That in our time it is no longer convenient that the Catholic religion be the only religion of the state, or that every other religion be excluded.

79. That it is false that, if all religions are granted civil freedom, and all are allowed to express publicly their opinions and ideas, no matter what they may be, this will facilitate moral and mental corruptions, and will spread the plague of indifferentism.

80. That the Roman pontiff can and should be reconciled with, and agree to, progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.

If you are like me, you are accustomed to churches as rather liberal institutions and so some of these condemnations might come as something of a surprise…

Pius IX was expelled from Rome as part of the revolution of 1848. This in itself was no big deal: in previous exiles, some one of Europe’s leaders had always intervened and restored the papacy. In this case, the French did intervene in his behalf. Unfortunately, Pius IX was tone deaf to the Italian desire for unification and tried to rule Rome and Papal States as an absolute monarch. In the end, he crossed Cavour, the eminent statesman of the Kingdom of Piedmont, and in 1870 the Kingdom of Italy took the Papal States, leaving the pope with no temporal power. The upshot of all this? Religion and religious authority were “pushed back” with impunity in favor of a perceived secular advantage. This was the end of the temporal power of the papacy; henceforth the popes will have only moral authority.

But what kind of moral authority? Ah!! This is where Vatican I comes in. Although Pius IX no longer had temporal authority, Vatican I (1870) promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility in Pastor aeternus. This document carefully clarifies that the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, from the chair of Peter in his role as “pastor and doctor of the church.” The interesting thing, however, is the fact that this attracted surprisingly little attention. There were some protests, and some withdrew from the Catholic Church, but with the loss of political power absolute assertions of papal authority were not taken as seriously as they once were.

In the end, papal infallibility has only been used once, by Pius XII in 1950, to declare the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary. Paul VI was the last pope to be crowned with the triregnum, the triple crown that is the papal tiara, and that had been part of the papacy since Clement V (d. 1314). Invested in 1963 following the death of John XXIII, at the conclusion of Vatican II Paul VI symbolically laid the tiara on the altar of St. Peter’s and donated its value to the poor. No pope since then has worn it.

Now there is absolutely no doubt that today’s popes speak with great authority and it is foolish to fail to listen to them carefully. But it is a very different sort of authority than that enjoyed by popes before the modern era. The whole modernist movement and crisis fall within the transition so briefly outline above. And in dealing with a crisis, uncertain authority is a liability. This does not mean that the popes involved did not react strongly, but you will see that they were ultimately unable to stop what started in the last decades of the 19th century.

OK. Back to Modernism. Here is an expansion on the definition of Modernism, including some of the more significant implications in religion:

“…for those who employ it in an approbative sense, it means that the modern mind is entitled to judge what is true or right in accordance with its own experience, regardless of whether or not its conclusions run counter to tradition and custom. In this sense, therefore, Modernism could fairly be defined as the attempt to synthesize the basic truths of religion and the methods and assumptions of modern thought, using the latter as necessary and proper criteria. Hence, a “modernist” interpretation of Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic, will be one which seeks to reconcile the essentials of doctrine with the scientific outlook characteristic of the modern world. And since Christianity is an historical religion, claiming that certain alleged historical events are of vital significance for the relations of God and man, a special problem will be that of determining the historicity of its original traditions by the light of historical criticism. Further, it is obvious that from correlating old beliefs with new knowledge, a wide variety of views is likely to result, depending partly on what is taken as valid in the modern standpoint. Hence we have some modernisms which are more “advanced” than others, in so far as they are ready to concede more to criticism when it happens to conflict with tradition, as well as modernism identifiable in terms of one or another of the historic Christians divisions. For Modernism, like Liberalism, connotes an attitude of mind which is not necessarily tied to a single inheritance of faith or practice.” (Reardon, Modernism)

So…for religious folks, there’s a rejection of Church authority in matters that have to do with science and history. And in the act of determining the historicity of Christianity’s traditions you see historical criticism of the Bible. Finally, there’s a significant amount of pluralism and something of a constantly changing focus as the elements of modern thought evolve and shift in their interaction with Christianity. Very interesting stuff, but once again you can see the train wreck in the distance.

Who were the Catholic Modernists? If we restrict this definition of Modernism to the thought in the Catholic Church that began around 1890, under the pope who followed Pius IX, Leo XIII, then here are some names of note:

Maurice Blondel is the first name that pops up. His dissy argued against the “extrinsicism” of Neo-scholastic dogmatic theology and in favor of an understanding of revelation that “respected the autonomy of the human subject.” IOW, revelation has a human component. Blondel also upset Catholic apologists, who were heavily invested in the miraculous, because this human subjectivity leaves very little probative value for miracles. Blondel was never excommunicated.

George Tyrrell was an Anglo-Irish Jesuit. He expended much of his energy separating the concept of revelation from its virtual identification with the propositions of scholastic theology as it was then understood. To Tyrrell, revelation belonged to the realm of experience and the dogmas in which it was expressed were symbolic. The great dogmas were those that dealt with conduct rather than speculative matters lying outside human experience.

Alfred Loisy is the most famous of the Catholic modernists. He was a fine exegete, one of the best in the world. He asserted the primacy of historical investigation of the origins and nature of Christianity over against dogma, tradition, and whatever else might impede investigation. Historical documents, in which category he placed the Bible, were to be investigated first by historical methods because their content had been conditioned by the time and place of composition. For Loisy, criticism must precede theology and edification because it might show that ancient texts did not teach quite the pious ideas traditionally attributed to them. Specifically, Loisy contended that the following were anachronistic and untenable:

1. The OT idea of God and creation as integral to Christian theism.

2. The OT had predicted Christ and the Church under the guise of the Messiah and his Kingdom.

3. Catholicism, with all its organization, dogma, and ritual, was personally established by Christ.

A bit later he wrote on the religion of Israel, concluding that the Hebrew religion should be understood as progressive. It had clearly changed and developed over time rather than simply being plopped down perfect from the start. The primeval history of Genesis was purely mythological and without scientific or historical value. Finally, “the idea of God may have been humble enough in origin ‘without religion automatically ceasing to be a great thing.’” Loisy felt it unwise and even dangerous for the church to teach with its authority on matters that were false on appeal to science.

For all this, Loisy never repudiated the Catholic Church, even when excommunicated. For him, faith must be preserved by transmission, but the Church’s ideas were not “fallen from heaven” and maintained in their original purity. They are the outcome of human need and they register changes in the human outlook. For Loisy, all churches were caught up in a crisis engendered by the modern situation in its political, intellectual, and economic conditions. The proper response was not to destroy the traditional forms of worship, but to recognize how much good the Church had accomplished and continue by adapting to the modern situation.

Although Leo XIII (1878-1903) didn’t buy this, his response was not confrontational, or at least not by the standards of his successor, Pius X (1903-1914). On one hand, he opened the Vatican archives to scholars, which was a major step forward. On the other hand, he also published Providentissimus Deus, which condemned higher criticism.

This, however, did not satisfy Leo XIII’s successor, Pius X. The fact that the new pope took the name “Pius” indicates that he intended to govern after the tradition and fashion of his predecessor, Pius IX. In 1903 Pius X placed five of Loisy’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books because they contained “very grave errors” with respect to primitive revelation, the authenticity of gospel history, Christ’s divinity and knowledge, and the institution of the Church.

Loisy submitted, but did so rather ambiguously. He also offered to resign his teaching position, but Pius X required that he confess his errors and subject himself “fully and without restriction” to the judgment of the Holy Office (that, folks, is the new name for the Inquisition). Loisy refused because this would have required recanting very central beliefs, including the idea that science is autonomous and not to be inhibited by external authority even when that authority is called divine revelation by those who employ it. Loisy was excommunicated on March 7th, 1907. Because of his loyalty to the Catholic Church, he refused Protestant overtures and died describing himself as a humanist. (And I think Tyrrell was excommunicated for giving him a Catholic funeral…).

NEXT TIME: The impact of Pius X’s response…

17 Replies to “A Modicum of Modernism”

  1. “…we got on to a discussion of how others handle the problematic issues raised by close study of the Bible, and from there to the modern Catholic approach to scripture. Since I come out of the Catholic intellectual tradition with respect to scripture, I decided I’d venture some thoughts.”

    Mogget, I was wondering where you are attending graduate school and what your focus is (if you feel comfortable sharing, that is.) My e-mail is EDITED OUT BY MOGS AFTER DOING AS REQUESTED.

    Oh, and your posts are always very interesting and informative. Thanks much!

    Best wishes,


  2. Here is the thing I have thought about on this issue. Mormonism is theologically open to Modernism save tradition. Modernism, however, is theoretically opposed to Mormonism, keeping Mormon traditionalism alive.

  3. Mogs, I appreciate this write up. I’ve been doing a lot of reading in Roman Catholic liturgical history, especially the various unctions. The literature from the early twentieth century up to the mid-twentieth century reminded me in many ways of the New Mormon History and some of the reactions to it. Especially with regards to the extreme unction. This helps contextualize that for me.

  4. Mogget, thanks for the post.

    very interesting, I had never read anything about modernism and religious scholarship.

    Do you think that the harsh reception that many modernist thinkers received from traditionalists necessitated or at least precipitated the greater pluralism of Postmodernism?

  5. Jettboy,

    I’m not sure I’d characterize Mormons as open to Modernism. What makes you think so?

    J. Stapley,

    I agree about the parallels with the reception and appreciation of NMH. In both cases, it’s very much a matter of how we are to handle our history.

    Trevor M.,

    My thought is that the PoMo guys reject Modernism out of a sense that the latter cannot really achieve its designs. But, I’ll throw the question open to others, including my homies, because I’m not well-informed on the matter.


  6. Trevor, “Do you think that the harsh reception that many modernist thinkers received from traditionalists necessitated or at least precipitated the greater pluralism of Postmodernism?”

    This is a tough question to answer because it isn’t entirely clear what you are asking, but I think that Mogget’s response points in broad brushstrokes in the right direction. Post-modernism, again broadly defined, arose out of some of the failures of modernism. While it rejects some of the assumptions of modernism, it is still on the side of modernism, rather than a return to the pre-modern.

  7. I would contend that postmodernism (from my perspective in political and moral theory) itself is a failure (I would actually say that it is rubbish but that is not very nice). Instead of addressing the debate, it tends to reject the debate, leaving those of us in the modern/analytical school little to say to them (or learn from them).

  8. Postmodern isn’t a post to modernism. Rather it is the claim that modernism is insufficient but that we can’t escape modernism. (TT alluded to this but I wanted to make this explicit) Of course postmodernism is one of those terms I try not to use since it encompasses so many different movements. (To a degree modernism does as well)

    One should also note that the religious use of modernism and postmodernism don’t necessarily map directly to the philosophical use.

    One could say postmodernism is a failure since what usually gets referenced under the term is rubbish. However typically these are stereotypes or misrepresentations of thinkers who do make very good points or arguments even if one ultimately disagrees with them.

    In generally though I think the term one that would be helpful to abandon.

  9. I will take quotes from one of your definitions of modernism where I believe Mormonism can agree:

    “modern mind is entitled to judge what is true or right in accordance with its own experience, regardless of whether or not its conclusions run counter to tradition and custom.” In Mormonism that would be the concept of personal revelation.

    “will be one which seeks to reconcile the essentials of doctrine with the scientific outlook characteristic of the modern world.” Any truth belongs to God and is for our benefit. God’s laws, in fact, are scientific if we understand them or not.

    I believe the strongest proof of accomidation of modernims is “acceptance of evolutionary biological theory.” Although there is significant anti-evolutonism in Mormonism, it seems to be dying among the new generation. In Utah ID was rejected as something to be taught in schools and it isn’t hard to find Orthodox Mormons who can incorporate evolution into their beliefs about the Creation and Fall.

    Of course, I said that Modernism in theory is not accepting of Mormonism, because it is not accepting of religion. It’s over-arching philosophy is that since religion claims ” . . . certain alleged historical events are of vital significance for the relations of God and man, a special problem will be that of determining the historicity of its original traditions by the light of historical criticism.” Too often the determination is that God is *Not* in the details. Modernist concepts of humanism and historical criticism leads to the conclusion that the Divine can be explained and often explained away.

    I can concede that I am thinking too hard about the possible connections. Mormon concepts of Scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon, come off at times sounding post-modern.

  10. Jettboy,
    I agree with some of what you have said. Of course, Mormonism cannot be anti-modern, or even pre-modern, and survive and thrive the way it has. Mormonism and modernity must be carefully examined to see how modernity constitutes Mormonism, rather than just acknowledge that it does in a few instances.

    I have suggested numerous times that Mormonism is situated squarely in the modern project. Of course, this has to be done carefully because at the same time there are many aspects that reject modernity. The notion of personal revelation, for instance, in complex because on one hand it rejects reason as a basis for truth, but appeals to “experience.” Most recently, I have discussed this here: http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/experience-or-doctrine/

    At one point, I suggested a symposium on the topic of Mormonism and modernity here: http://faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.com/2007/12/13/announcement-all-blog-symposium-on-mormonism-and-modernity/

    For an even more explicit discussion of the most potent modern project, humanism, see here:

  11. Yeah! The idea of an all-blog symposium on Mormonism and Modernity is a great idea!! We could post some ideas for reading so folks who know little about it can get up to speed, and then go for it!

  12. TT certainly many Mormon thinkers have embraced modernism in various ways. One can point to the near scientism of some thinkers in the early 20th cenutry (the Roberts, Widstoe, Talmage triumvirate). Even their foes who were so fearful of evolution and higher criticism really embraced modernism via the Protestant strain.

    I’m not sure this is ultimately that significant though since I think it says little beyond they were a product of their times. Ditto for today. It remains to be seen whether the many LDS thinkers who adopt something akin to “postmodernism” do this because of something within Mormonism or simply because that was a feature of late 20th century academics.

  13. Clark,
    It remains to be seen whether the many LDS thinkers who adopt something akin to “postmodernism” do this because of something within Mormonism or simply because that was a feature of late 20th century academics.

    I think that this sentiment illuminates the point that I am trying to make. I don’t think that there is “something within Mormonism” that is somehow outside of modernism (or post-modernism). We cannot help but be products of our times, so rather than dismissing various strains of Mormonism as merely “products of their times” (whether it be magic, restorationism, scientism, or post-modernism) in contrast with a true, stable, core Mormonism, I am inclined to allow the “true” Mormonism of our times emerge through the lens of our concerns.

  14. Well, I agree with what you say there. (Very postmodern — grin) Let me rephrase it to be more of whether the popularity among many Mormon thinkers is a fairly transitory popularity more due to academic fads or is something that stands the test of time and represents something more stable within Mormonism less tied to the movements within the academy.

  15. I have been trying for several days to effectively reword my question. It is not easy for me to do.

    What I was trying to ask where does Postmodernist religious thinking come from, and what does it look like.

    Postmodernist music and art is often, at least in my experience, a strange mix of the spiritual and the agnostic. I was wondering if rejection of modernist thought slowly pushed Modernist thinkers to the periphery resulting in more agnostic lines of thought. This would be different from where I see Postmodernism in music and art as developing from(I see it as a stark reaction to tragedy and human suffering during the middle of the 20th century leading to the rejection of some modernist ideologies).

    It would seem from Mogget’s further posts that such was not the case and that modernism was embraced rather than further rejected, at least in the Catholic community.

  16. Questions like the origins of PoMo thought in religion deserve their own post — there’s no way to get to that here.

    The Catholic embrace of Modernism is actually something of an attempt to interact with the real world. As you will see, in the 1990s they shifted from talking about “the meaning” and they broadened their approaches to include critical approaches beyond the historical-critical. So there are, in fact, Catholic PoMos! But there weren’t any in 1943!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *