The End of Modernism?

When last we met to discuss the world of Catholic Biblical scholarship, Pius X had just excommunicated Alfred Loisy in an effort to suppress Modernism…

What else did Pius X do about Modernism? In addition to excommunicating Loisy, et. al., he called the Catholic faithful to reject Modernism root and branch. The first encyclical published was Lamentabili sane exitu, dated July 3, 1907. It listed 65 propositions, taken mostly from Loisy’s work but also including ideas from Tyrrell and a few others. What follows is from the preamble. Notice the negative evaluation of the idea that Biblical scholarship should go beyond the efforts of the “blessed past,” as also the condemnation of the idea that the doctrines of the Church change and develop:

With truly lamentable results, our age, casting aside all restraint in its search for the ultimate causes of things, frequently pursues novelties so ardently that it rejects the legacy of the human race. Thus it falls into very serious errors, which are even more serious when they concern sacred authority, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and the principal mysteries of Faith. The fact that many Catholic writers also go beyond the limits determined by the Fathers and the Church herself is extremely regrettable. In the name of higher knowledge and historical research (they say), they are looking for that progress of dogmas which is, in reality, nothing but the corruption of dogmas.

Then Pius X condemned 65 specific points, a few of which I have reproduced here. It’s pretty safe to say that now, one hundred years later, most of what Pius X condemned is accepted, albeit with some degree of nuance:

2. The Church’s interpretation of the Sacred Books is by no means to be rejected; nevertheless, it is subject to the more accurate judgment and correction of the exegetes.

3. From the ecclesiastical judgments and censures passed against free and more scientific exegesis, one can conclude that the Faith the Church proposes contradicts history and that Catholic teaching cannot really be reconciled with the true origins of the Christian religion.

4. Even by dogmatic definitions the Church’s magisterium [teaching authority] cannot determine the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures.

11. Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error.

13. The Evangelists themselves, as well as the Christians of the second and third generation, artificially arranged the evangelical parables. In such a way they explained the scanty fruit of the preaching of Christ among the Jews.

15. Until the time the canon was defined and constituted, the Gospels were increased by additions and
corrections. Therefore there remained in them only a faint and uncertain trace of the doctrine of Christ.

22. The dogmas the Church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort.

23. Opposition may, and actually does, exist between the facts narrated in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s dogmas which rest on them. Thus the critic may reject as false facts the Church holds as most certain.

31. The doctrine concerning Christ taught by Paul, John, and the Councils of Nicea, Ephesus and Chalcedon is not that which Jesus taught but that which the Christian conscience conceived concerning Jesus.

43. The practice of administering Baptism to infants was a disciplinary evolution, which became one of the causes why the Sacrament was divided into two, namely, Baptism and Penance.

44. There is nothing to prove that the rite of the Sacrament of Confirmation was employed by the Apostles. The formal distinction of the two Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation does not pertain to the history of primitive Christianity.

49. When the Christian supper gradually assumed the nature of a liturgical action those who customarily presided over the supper acquired the sacerdotal character.

52. It was far from the mind of Christ to found a Church as a society which would continue on earth for a long course of centuries. On the contrary, in the mind of Christ the kingdom of heaven together with the end of the world was about to come immediately.

55. Simon Peter never even suspected that Christ entrusted the primacy in the Church to him.

Pius X also published Pascendi dominici gregis. The first part of this document was supposed to be a systematic account of the Modernist perspective. The language was pretty wild: speculations in philosophy since the Middle Ages were described as “the ravings of philosophers” and the Modernists themselves were traitors to the Church, “thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by her enemies” and “lost to all sense of decency.” In fact, historians almost uniformly deny that Catholic Modernism was an organized movement in any sense. Instead, the Modernists had more or less arrived at the same or similar conclusions about the Church’s need to engage modernity from some very different directions. Pascendi was quite a piece of propaganda!

The second part of Pascendi is, however, the most interesting. In it, Pius X indicated the measure he wished taken against Modernism. Organizations called “vigilance” committees were established in every diocese. Although it sounds intemperate, the fact of the matter is that the folks in these groups spied on the rest of the diocese and rendered secret reports to Rome. (Yeah, they did this in America, too! Can you imagine?) Joining these groups was one good way to official favor. Teachers suspected of Modernism were fired from Catholic schools and seminaries. Books on Modernism were prohibited and periodicals were censored. Finally, in 1910 the pope required the clergy and professors in seminaries to take this anti-Modernist oath:

To be sworn to by all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries.

I ____________________ firmly embrace and accept each and every definition that has been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of the Church, especially those principal truths which
are directly opposed to the errors of this day.

And first of all, I profess that God, the origin and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of reason from the created world (see Rom. 1:90), that is, from the visible works of creation, as a cause from its effects, and that, therefore, his existence can also be demonstrated.

Secondly, I accept and acknowledge the external proofs of revelation, that is, divine acts and especially miracles and prophecies as the surest signs of the divine origin of the Christian religion and I hold that these same proofs are well adapted to the understanding of all eras and all men, even of this time.

Thirdly, I believe with equally firm faith that the Church, the guardian and teacher of the revealed word, was personally instituted by the real and historical Christ when he lived among us, and that the Church was built upon Peter, the prince of the apostolic hierarchy, and his successors for the duration of time.

Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.

Fifthly, I hold with certainty and sincerely confess that faith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source. By this assent, because of the authority of the supremely truthful God, we believe to be true that which has been revealed and attested to by a personal God, our creator and Lord.

Furthermore, with due reverence, I submit and adhere with my whole heart to the condemnations, declarations, and all the prescripts contained in the encyclical Pascendi and in the decree Lamentabili, especially those concerning what is known as the history of dogmas.

I also reject the error of those who say that the faith held by the Church can contradict history, and that Catholic dogmas, in the sense in which they are now understood, are irreconcilable with a more realistic view of the origins of the Christian religion.

I also condemn and reject the opinion of those who say that a well-educated Christian assumes a dual personality-that of a believer and at the same time of a historian, as if it were permissible for a historian to hold things that contradict the faith of the believer, or to establish premises which, provided there be no direct denial of dogmas, would lead to the conclusion that dogmas are either false or doubtful.

Likewise, I reject that method of judging and interpreting Sacred Scripture which, departing from the tradition of the Church, the analogy of faith, and the norms of the Apostolic See, embraces the misrepresentations of the rationalists and with no prudence or restraint adopts textual criticism as the one and supreme norm.

Furthermore, I reject the opinion of those who hold that a professor lecturing or writing on a historico-theological subject should first put aside any preconceived opinion about the supernatural origin of Catholic tradition or about the divine promise of help to preserve all revealed truth forever; and that they should then interpret the writings of each of the Fathers solely by scientific principles, excluding all sacred authority, and with the same liberty of judgment that is common in the investigation of all ordinary historical documents.

Finally, I declare that I am completely opposed to the error of the modernists who hold that there is nothing divine in sacred tradition; or what is far worse, say that there is, but in a pantheistic sense, with the result that there would remain nothing but this plain simple fact-one to be put on a par with the ordinary facts of history-the fact, namely, that a group of men by their own labor, skill, and talent have continued through subsequent ages a school begun by Christ and his apostles.

I promise that I shall keep all these articles faithfully, entirely, and sincerely, and guard them inviolate, in no way deviating from them in teaching or in any way in word or in writing. Thus I promise, this I swear, so help me God, and these holy Gospels of God which I touch with my hand.

May God help us to keep this oath until death. Pray for the Restoration to come.

How was all this received? The bishops didn’t protest, although it would seem that many cooperated only with a great deal of hesitation. Among the rest of the Catholics, “many Modernists left the Church, while greater numbers of Catholics decided to remain in the Church while paying little attention to pontifical directives” (Gonzalez, Christianity, vol. 2, 302.) Bottom line: When folks were forced by the Church to choose between dogmatic proclamations and evidence that they found convincing, it was the Church that ended up retreating. That’s what Loisy meant when he pointed out that it unwise and dangerous for the Church to teach things that could be proven false by scientific and historical inquiry.

Next Up: Prelude to Vatican II and Divino afflante Spiritu

2 Replies to “The End of Modernism?”

  1. I recognize that Roman Catholicism is remarkably diverse and is a true world religion, but I am curious about the general lay response. I can imagine that the scholar class was obsessed with these actions, but what about the average Catholic on the street? Being pre-Vatican II was there only limited exposure?

  2. Very, very, limited exposure. Modernism was confined to the seminaries, the universities, the clergy, and such members of the general public as had the education, interest, and money to become observers or participants. These are also the “opinion-makers” in any religious society, but the weight of their opinion will not become apparent for another fifty or so years. In the meantime, Catholics were, as Father Fitzmyer puts it, a very Eucharist-oriented people. The other side of the nourishing word of God, the scriptures, played no role in the life of an average Catholic. Indeed, many would have considered evidence of much interest in scriptures as something of a Protestant aberration.

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