Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Modernism’s Dirty Secret: A Case Study

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 23, 2010

Sometimes good things come in strange packages. I was looking through Derek Hastings’ new book Catholicism & the Roots of Nazism (Oxford University Press, 2010) to figure out what his arresting title could possibly mean. Hastings demonstrates beyond doubt that before the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, significant segments of Catholic clergy and faithful in Munich were among the most important supporters of National Socialism, very much in tune with its increasing emphasis on Aryan racial supremacy and its contempt for Jews.

It turns out, however, that this Catholic support was prevalent in Munich precisely because Munich’s Catholicism was significantly different from the Catholicism of most other areas of Germany. Many Munich Catholics intensely disliked the ultramontane perspective of most other German Catholics, who increasingly saw the Holy See as their one hope against an increasingly anti-Catholic German state. The more irenic Catholic leaders in Munich often dismissed this tendency to look toward Rome as “political Catholicism”. Instead, they attempted to articulate what they euphemistically called “religious Catholicism”, which would concentrate on non-controversial spiritual affairs, would seek to define a more broadly acceptable national presence, and would champion the rights of the lower classes.

It has been frequently and truthfully admitted that the European Church in the 19th and early 20th century had a tendency to cling to what might be called old European politics—the power and privilege of the aristocracy—in a Europe which was giving way to the sometimes religiously-hostile control of the middle class. It took Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum Novarum to reawaken the Church to both the errors and the dangers of an excessive attachment to the old order. It is also true that Catholics in southern Germany (including Munich) were more numerous and felt less isolated and ill used than those in the north. So there was, as there always is, room for differences in opinion about Catholic political strategy.

But the most important factor in Munich was that Catholics there were infected with a strong strain of Modernism. As famously articulated early on by Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger, this Modernism held Neo-Scholastic orthodox philosophy and theology in contempt, it regarded Roman culture as “feminine” and inferior, and it prized the superior spirit and power of the German people. In other words, like Modernism everywhere and in every form, this strain latched on to the prevailing spirit of the times. Such ideas, and the vehemence with which they were expressed, led Döllinger to be excommunicated, but his followers and successors quickly learned the value of staying within the Church if they hoped to have the influence they thought they deserved.

Thus it was that many Catholics in Munich began to downplay their ties to Rome and to shape a Catholicism which they believed could effectively harness the zeitgeist—the growing sense of German superiority and the superiority of the Aryan race, the need for national unity and strength, and the scapegoating of those regarded as serious obstacles to Germanic progress, namely Jews. In the wake of Germany’s difficulties in World War I, these feelings and this Catholic movement intensified. To a considerable degree Catholic sentiment in Munich favored Hitler in his earliest period. It was widely thought that a new “religious Catholicism” would play a leading role in a new, powerful and vibrant German nation. “Religious Catholicism” gradually morphed into National Socialism’s broader early association with what it called “positive Christianity”.

After the failed Putsch in Munich, however, it became increasingly clear that National Socialism was going to head in an anti-Catholic and ultimately anti-Christian direction. Catholic influence waned rapidly. So did Catholic participation.

The key point in all this is that Catholics got involved in the first place primarily through the perversion of their Faith known as Modernism. Modernism reinterprets religion in terms of the “signs” or “spirit” of the times and so Modernists continually redefine the meaning of Catholicism to ally it with those dominant cultural movements which appear so certainly to be the wave of the future. As a rule, Modernism has no analytical power whatsoever. It accepts prevailing opinion as an ongoing revelation through the lived experience of each new age, and it seeks to accommodate it. Again, insofar as it remains attached in some way to the Church and the Faith, Modernism reinterprets the Faith according to these leading cultural ideas.

In today’s world, therefore, Modernists seek always to give a religious veneer to sexual liberation, international power, and the persecution of Fundamentalists. But in early twentieth-century Munich, Modernism gave a religious veneer to Aryan eugenics, national power and the persecution of Jews. Its manifestations vary with time and place, but its alliance is always with the spirit of the world.

Note that Modernism’s dirty secret is not that early-20th century German Modernists threw their quasi-Catholic support behind ideas that now seem particularly repulsive, but that Modernists always throw their quasi-Catholic support behind whatever is fashionable, without the least capability of discerning whether it is also good. Modernism is driven by what “everybody knows”; as such it has no need of cogent arguments. But this also means it can be right only coincidentally, when the leading ideas of the current culture are right. And so Modernism’s dirty little secret is that, apart from coincidence, it is always arrogant, always destructive and always wrong.

[Note: Although Derek Hastings’ study falls well outside the normal range of recommendations for, Catholicism & The Roots of Nazism: Religious Identity & National Socialism is a sound scholarly account of the links between Modernist Catholicism and National Socialism up until 1923. Though the book is provocatively titled, Hastings knows the difference between orthodoxy and Modernism. Specialists will find his work valuable.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Feb. 24, 2010 6:26 PM ET USA

    Modernism! Let me translate: laziness. Always it is easier to follow along with the fashionable and elite. After all, they are clearly intellectually gifted so they must be right. Why is it so hard to start with the premise that Rome is correct. Before abandoning Rome, try to understand why something is characterized as good or bad or right or wrong. A good Irish Catholic Priest once told me, "It's easy to be Catholic - it's just easier not to be". The result of this choice is eternal!

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Feb. 23, 2010 7:45 PM ET USA

    My German/Polish wife [Her Ladyship] will like this. Because of her heritage she has read German history. Best from her library was Stones from the River [Hegi, 1995], but she may be adding to her library now. Her grandfather was an American intelligence officer [WWI] and got the Silver Star for parachuting behind enemy lines at Muse Argonne. Spoke 7 dialects of German. Note to Jim: Open dictionary with Jeff's commentary..."irenic" great word. No response expected. I know you are busy. Thanks!!!

  • Posted by: marttywinston6762 - Feb. 23, 2010 7:38 PM ET USA

    It seems that, by your definition, the Americanism of 1895 would also be classified as Modernism. But wasn't much of the "heresy" of Americanism just American Catholic attempts to integrate into a democratic, religiously diverse, society? Of course, there is legitimate inculturation; not all of it is Modernism.

  • Posted by: sparch - Feb. 23, 2010 2:01 PM ET USA

    As is described in your essay, it sounds amazingly similar to the American Church and our bishops today. These bishops, in the name of social justice, turn their back on Rome and claim not to hear the voice of the Church. Social welfare, public education, fake civil rights. How do the bishops come out against the Healthcare provision of abortion while accepting without comment the idea of national healthcare to begin with. As long as social justice is bowed to, it is all right.