Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The First Modernism

by Philip Trower


Chapter One of the booklet, The Church Learned and the Revolt of the Scholars.

Larger Work

The Church Learned And The Revolt Of The Scholars


3 - 11

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Press, 1979

Chapter One

Many Catholics, one finds, react to the events in the Church over the last 15 years as though a rock had dropped out of the sky with nowhere for it to have fallen from — not even a passing jumbo jet.

What could possibly have caused such an explosion of anger, rebellion, heresy, apostasy and hatred of all things Catholic? It is as though the order of nature had been turned upside down: effects without causes, explosions without explosives or anyone to ignite them.

Underlying these feelings there is usually the belief that Catholic life before the Council was — leaving aside the usual shortcomings — "in a pretty good state." Any defects there may have been were certainly not serious enough to account for subsequent calamities and disorders.

This belief is, I am sure, mistaken and only increases unhappiness and bewilderment.

Turning back to the time before the Council, I think we can now see more clearly than was possible earlier the two principal evils. An understanding of them will possibly help to make clearer why an apostasy is taking place simultaneously with an attempted movement of reform.

These two evils, I would say, were a tremendous decline in spiritual vitality among the faithful of all ranks, clerical and lay (i.e. ourselves), masked by a grand-looking/arcade of religious practice — I do not see how the present rebellion could have happened were this not so: and the spread of heresy, or of ideas tending toward heresy among a much wider section of the higher clergy than anyone had realized.

By higher clergy I do not mean cardinals and bishops, but theologians, scholars, thinkers, and teachers at Catholic universities and institutes of higher studies: the Catholic intelligentsia, in fact, at its top level. It is this second factor I want to talk about here.

What had been going on in this world of the higher clergy for the last 100 years? Why did most of this rampart of Jerusalem so tragically collapse in heaps of rubble when the modern world marched around it and blew its trumpets?

However, first of all a few words of a general kind about the place of learning and scholarship in the Church.

Treading A Narrow Path

Any Catholic who devotes his talents to expounding the Faith, or engages in study, which will result in making the Church and its teachings better understood, is plainly doing a noble work. One has only to recall the immense good achieved by faithful Catholic scholars and theologians to feel grateful to God for their gifts, which made the books possible and to the men themselves for having used those gifts so well.

While the chief work of Catholic scholars of this kind is to explain and defend Revelation and any truths that bear on it, they have a subordinate but connected work, which is also very important: to investigate the new ideas which men are always propounding, inside and outside the Church, in order to separate what is true from what is false, and to see how exactly the elements of truth harmonize with Revelation.

This is probably the most difficult part of their work. The world of speculative ideas and massive accumulations of fact is the place where it is easiest to take a wrong path and fall into a pit, and they are frequently investigating new territory.

First among the pitfalls, I think, is the inclination of experts to fall in love with their subjects. For the Catholic student of Buddhism, Buddhism, and Buddhists start to rank highest in his heart; the same will be true of the student of the Stone Age or Marxism. (The archaeologist Sir Leonard Cottrell, commenting on this weakness, remarks good-humoredly that he had known Assyriologists who found even the ancient Assyrians, as depicted on their bas-reliefs, handsome.) When this happens, "my subject" becomes the interest, which gives zest to life, and the Faith is seen as a boring extra. The consequences are especially damaging if the scholar is a priest. There will also be an urge to make "my subject" and the Faith look as much alike as possible.

Equally, learning itself or the intellectual life can become the great love — a kind of alternative and higher religion — and the fellow intellectual, even if atheist seems spiritually closer than the main body of the faithful.

It is strange, when one considers it, that Catholics are not taught to think more about what might be called the Church Learned, and that there are not special orders of contemplatives to pray and do penance for its welfare, since its work is so necessary and its members occupy what, in regard to faith, is one of the most exposed positions in the Church. They are like men in an observation post continually under heavy shellfire. As they study new books and learned publications they live under a barrage of temptations of a kind most of the faithful never experience.

"Oh, what a brilliant idea. But what happens to the doctrine of grace? Perhaps I should pray before reading any more. No, I haven't time. It's more important to get on with my work. Laborare est orare. The Church could be wrong; it's never been defined. How could a stupid bishop understand such complicated ideas."

The chief danger is not so much that they will take a wrong path — anyone can make mistakes — but that having taken it they will insist in pressing ahead along it in spite of warnings.

Humility Of Submission

For Catholic scholars, their unfailing protection, as we know, is obedience to the Church's teaching authority, and readiness to submit their conclusions to its judgment. Provided they are willing to do this, and recognize that in spite of their intelligence and learning they are not the final authorities in matters of belief, or in deciding how far and in what way any particular branch of research that touches on faith and morals is to be carried out, they are safe.

Part of the mystery of the Church is that God in designing it and arranging how His truth is to be handed on, made Greek philosophers, or anyone resembling them, subordinate to Galilean fishermen. The three Wise Men bowing before Divine Wisdom made visible as a baby provided a prototype. A Pope or a bishop may be personally learned, but his learning does not add anything to his authority. His authority to pass judgment on the ideas of even the most brilliant thinker comes solely from the fact that he is a successor of one of Our Lord's working-class and little-educated apostles. (St. Paul, the "university graduate," was brought in later, but only after a big dose of humiliation.)

The purpose behind this plan is not difficult to see. Everything in God's designs is directed towards keeping us small in our own esteem, since this is the only way into the Kingdom of Heaven, and no one needs help in this matter more than men and women with intellectual gifts. (Over the entrance of every Catholic university could well be carved the words of St. Therese of Lisieux: "God has no need of any human instrument, least of all me.") But it is an arrangement, which the clever do not naturally find easy to accept. With faith they do; but as faith declines, it begins to stick in the throat. Then instead of seeing themselves as servants of Christ and His Mystical Body, without realizing it they become servants of this-worldly powers — as Occam did when he fled from Avignon to the court of Louis of Bavaria — or of their own careers.

One of the most unattractive aspects of the theologians who have made names for themselves since the Council is, I think, their callous vanity and selfishness. Their infidelity is, of course, worse, but it is not so instantly repulsive. The confusion and bewilderment into which they have plunged the lowly and simple, the vast numbers they have caused to abandon belief altogether, plainly leave them cold; as long as they can write what they please and make reputations for themselves, nothing apparently troubles them. If doctors had behaved like this, leaving behind a trail of corpses and invalids, they would have earned not reputations but infamy.

But then the revolutionary theologians do not accept God's plan for the Church. The world having entered the age of the expert, they believe the scholar or theologian must occupy in the Church the same place the scientist expects eventually to occupy in secular society — running it. This is the great dream and delusion of the revolutionary theologians; also, incidentally, of scientists and secular intellectuals. Real intellectuals almost never rule — except briefly in periods of disaster and chaos. The very nature of their gifts incapacitates them for it. Thinkers who are also natural rulers, like Calvin and Lenin, are rarities (thanks be to God) and the world usually sighs with relief when they are taken away.

The Truths Must Remain Intact

A second fact, which the learned in the Church are tempted to lose sight of is that Revelation is unlike other kinds of knowledge; that being a body of truth coming directly from God, complete and absolutely certain, it has to be kept intact. It is not a naturally acquired pile of information, continually being added to and repeatedly having to be picked over so that any errors, which have crept in can be thrown out. (The meaning of the development of doctrine and periodical renewals of theology — those much-abused subjects — cannot be discussed here, but they do not alter what I have just said.) This is why Catholic theologians and scholars cannot enjoy the academic freedom claimed by scholars who deal in purely natural things, however much they may long for it.

On this point the Catholic scholar is exposed to another temptation; not pride or selfishness this time but fear of his non-Catholic colleagues; of the raised eyebrow, the amused little laugh at the learned meeting or in the university common-room. "Oh, I apologize, Father, I was forgetting you have to ask the Pope's permission before you agree to that. . . " Father, instead of answering that he is happy to submit his ideas on any subject touching faith and morals to the Pope, since if God has made a revelation it obviously has to be protected from the vagaries of human opinion, wilts interiorly. Why should he have to take into account a lot of Italians in Rome who know nothing about science? What a burden it is, having to cart the Faith around with one in these civilized academic surroundings, like a shabby old trunk filled with worn-out clothes.

If Catholic scholars are to remain faithful today they are going to need an extra strong formation in detachment from human respect.

Revelation differs from other kinds of knowledge in a further fashion. In secular studies, intelligence and hard work are mostly sufficient. Defects of characters and lack of belief are certainly not without consequences. Freud's atheism and imperiousness, for instance, evidently blinded him to much that would have seemed obvious to a different kind of man. Nevertheless, natural gifts and qualities alone can achieve striking results. But for the study and proper understanding of Catholic theology, Holy Scripture, and Church history other things are necessary.

Faith Is Needed

First, to understand one must believe. Unbelieving historians who study the Church know far more about its theology and life than most Catholics do, but in a deep sense they do not understand what they know. The same begins to be true of Catholic scholars when doubts set in.

However, belief alone is not enough; with faith and learning there must be goodness, A Catholic scholar who allows himself to become dried up, ambitious, cynical, or selfish, something which very easily happens to scholars, will only have a shallow understanding of his subject. When Catholic theologians and scholars go a stage further and think that mastery of their subject depends on their intellectual skill rather than on grace, they will start to become blind. An exceedingly lofty opinion of himself as a scholar seems to have been what carried Dollinger out of the Church and made Lord Acton a very restive member within it. Historically, the learned and clever have generally been the first to be taken in by new errors. At the beginning of this century, when a well-known priest, who later left the Church, started to preach heresy at a famous church in London, the first person to notice was a lay brother — one of those who did the housework. The learned fathers who spent all day reading books were slower to understand.

These remarks about the temptations and natural difficulties, which beset Catholic scholars, are made so as to set what I am about to say about a particular group of them in the proper context. No doubt most of the remarks are fairly obvious, but without them in mind it will be much less easy to understand why this century has seen a great rebellion of scholars and theologians. In these disasters, the causes are always moral and spiritual before they are intellectual.

The Germ Of Modernism

Catholics, as we know, are always being influenced by ideas coming from outside the Church, a proportion of which are harmful. When spiritual health is strong, the Catholic Body throws them off; when a bit run down, will be invaded by them; when weak, will succumb in its faith to a whole range of infections.

Something like this began to happen in the middle of the last century — a process now reaching its climax.

Around 1860, the Catholic learned world began to feel fully for the first time the impact of that extensive thing, modern thought, which I talked about in another article. Dazzled by the prestige of 19th century science and scholarship (which were indeed formidable) and the technical marvels (gas lighting and steam engines) that went with them, they Legan accepting a whole range of speculative ideas and ideologies as established truths and altering Catholic belief to fit them.

Their original intention was apostolic: to detach all that was acceptable in modern thought and show how it could be harmonized with Catholic belief so that no unnecessary obstacles would prevent the men of their age from seeing Christ in the Catholic Church and the faithful themselves would not uselessly oppose what was naturally good. The wheat in modern thought had to be separated from the chaff — a praiseworthy intention. This is the idea behind all true concepts of what Pope John meant by aggiornamento.

But one can already see the seeds of trouble in the way they mostly spoke about the work to be done.

The Church, it was said, must be reconciled with "modern times" or "the spirit of the age," Gioberti (d. 1852) being one of the earliest to make the demand. But what is the spirit of the age? How much can we make friends with it? Insofar as its ideas are wrong, can it be persuaded to give them up, and if it won't, how far can we safely collaborate with it? These, of course, are the questions Jacques Maritain spent much of his life wrestling with, and that underlay some of the struggles at the Council over the drafting of its documents.

If the age is thought of as being run by a variety of spirits, an anarchical oligarchy so to speak, the problem is less intractable. Catholics can make friends with the good ones and shun or shut the door on the bad. In this sense, the Church is always reconciling herself with modern times — there are no times that are not modern — which often means tolerating what she does not approve of, but cannot remedy; the best she may be able to do is mitigate the most serious evils. In this she will often be hampered by the fact that a proportion of her children will be conducting a false aggiornamento with the times, a kind of impassioned love affair — the Renaissance and feudal periods providing us with some striking examples — the consequences of which will later cost holy churchmen much time and effort to undo. (Those of the 21st century are plainly going to have a big job of this sort.)

To some extent the disputes over this matter have to do with differences of taste and emphasis: "Do modern times have more of good than bad in them, or bad than good." But one already sees in men like Gioberti an inclination, which will become more pronounced in succeeding generations of Catholics, to regard "modern times" or the "spirit of the age" as an indivisible whole, good in itself, which can only be either accepted or rejected. This is much too simple an approach for a Catholic. Modern times — if by that we mean the ideas and forces let loose by the 18th-century enlightenment and the industrial revolution — are characterized by remarkable technical and material achievements, some reasonable and even noble aspirations, but also, obviously, by profound philosophical and spiritual errors — the unwillingness of men to see themselves as creatures being the most notable.

Becoming Enlightened

Another way of considering the work to be done was to talk about bringing together faith and science, or faith and reason. This way of speaking too was not without the seeds of misunderstanding. One knows what it meant. A naturally established fact, if it really is a fact, remains a fact. Our religion does not require us to deny it. But it may be a long time before the import of a particular fact is understood, and the mysteries God has revealed to us often seem to be contradicted by natural facts and appearances. When we speak about bringing together faith with reason or science, what is in our minds? Is our object in reality to make the mysteries revealed by God appear, what is considered to be "reasonable" by the average man or scientist without belief?

There would, I think, have been much less misunderstanding on this subject if instead of talking about faith and reason, Catholics had always talked about supernatural and natural knowledge. What was at stake would then have been seen more clearly: two sources of information and two bodies of knowledge, the first being the more precious and allowing the mind to penetrate deeper into reality. The objection to talking about faith and reason, or faith and science, is that it immediately puts faith at a disadvantage. Faith is widely regarded as a matter of hazy feelings and vague wishes, while reason and science are considered clear and precise and to deal only with facts. The advantage thus goes to "reason" and "science" — whether thought of as representing the claims of natural knowledge or the unbelieving point of view — before any discussion of the problems arising from trying to harmonize the two kinds of knowledge has so much as started.

By the 1870s, the learned Catholics I am talking about had begun trying to make faith, or supernatural knowledge, look "reasonable" to their unbelieving contemporaries in just the way I have been describing; a certain sign that it had begun to look "unreasonable," that is to say, unbelievable, to themselves. Under the influence of their studies, or rather of the temptations that went along with them, faith collapsed. The voice of secular learning, even in religion, came to seem a higher authority than the voice of the Church, and they took it as a principle that in any conflict of ideas (real or apparent) the Church must give way and adjust her thinking. Instead of separating wheat from chaff, having acquired a preference for chaff, they started trying to smuggle wheat and chaff into the granaries of the Church.

This was the origin of Modernism, and the intellectual subordination of the Church to secular learning its foundation stone. At the end of this process — which is now being reached — all of Revelation has been cast aside as a fairy story, which men invented to explain things before they could think, and "science" and "modern thought," accepted in their totality as the only source of knowledge, are woven into a religion. We are watching a bit of genuine evolution — the transformation of one kind of creature into another. When complete, the Christian steps forth, a Christian no longer, but a full-fledged man of the enlightenment.

The Hub Of The Modernist Wheel

Modernism in its first phase ran from about 1875 to 1910, when, as will be recalled, it was stopped, or was thought to have been, by St. Pius X. It then went underground for 50 years and resurfaced with the death of Pius XII. In this first period the movement was confined to the well educated; the mass of the faithful were little affected.

What came about was one of those intellectual brotherhoods of like-minded men which seem to arise spontaneously; men who are reading the same books and therefore thinking the same thoughts and who either know each other personally or by correspondence.

Between 1888 and 1900, a proportion of them gathered in a series of "international scientific congresses" of Catholics (they were principally gatherings of historians. Scripture scholars and philosophers) arranged by Msgr. d'Hulst, rector of the Institut Catholique in Paris, an institute of Catholic higher studies recently founded to provide scholars who could answer the attacks being made in the name of learning and science on the grounds for belief.

The most active figure was Baron von Hugel, a naturalized Englishman, Austrian by birth, who lived most of his later life at Cambridge in England. He was a kind of religious busy body, highly cultivated and widely read, who devoted himself to putting priests and laymen with doubtful ideas in touch with each other, encouraging them to persist in their work when they showed signs of flagging, and generally trying to keep them together as a group. He lived until 1925 and has had a great reputation among English Catholics, those in the know having minimized his Modernism and the rest being unaware of it. It is difficult to know what at various times he believed, but by 1900, it does not seem to have been the Catholic Faith. Fr. Tyrrel, himself a Modernist, after listening to von Hugel talking about religion one evening, summed up von Hugel's opinions thus: "Nothing is true, but the sum total of nothings is sublime." This estimate is, I think, confirmed by the testimony of other contemporaries. In spite of this, he was rather conspicuously pious — to the surprise of his more logical French friends. He much enjoyed acting as spiritual guide to troubled souls, sometimes assuring Protestants that it was better for them not to become Catholics. Much of his other advice is perfectly sound since he was familiar with the great masters of the spiritual life. The misunderstandings about him are largely due, I think, to his strange, bland, and one is tempted to say, slippery psychology. Like other Modernists of this period, he had the uncanny knack of writing as if he had a split personality, sometimes sounding like a devout and rather exceptionally spiritual monk or contemplative nun, at others like the editor of a magazine for skeptics. Teilhard de Chardin also had this knack.

Von Hugel certainly did not create Modernism, but his knowledge of languages, social position, and financial independence enabled him to act as impresario for the movement in a way that would not have been easy for anyone else. He thus gave it a coherence it might not otherwise have had and without which the public measures taken by St. Pius X to put an end to the movement might not have been necessary.

Spokes Connected To The Hub

Among von Hugel's Modernist correspondents, less than a dozen figure prominently in studies of the movement.

Loisy, the Scripture scholar, is perhaps the best known. He lectured at the Institut Catholique and wrote a series of books during the nineties and just after, which seemed to be a defense of the New Testament against ideas like those of the German scholar Harnack, but actually undermined it. Laberthonniere, an Oratorian priest, and Leroy, a layman, were philosophers. Hebert was head of the Ecole Fenelon in Paris, a well-known boy's college; his interests also were chiefly philosophic, though they extended to the Bible and history too. Houtin, another priest, was a kind of self-appointed publicist for the movement, and the liberal Protestant writer, Paul Sabatier, an enthusiastic participant. This was the main French contingent. The Italians Minocchi, Buonaiuti, Semaria, and Fogazzaro were the principal agents in popularizing Modernist ideas in Italy. The first three were priests. Minocchi and Buonaiuti edited reviews. Semaria, a Barnabite, was a Scripture scholar like Loisy. Fogazarro, the successful novelist, was able to bring Modernist ideas before the general reading public. In England, Fr. Tyrrel, Irish by birth and upbringing and a convert, was the most openly enthusiastic Modernist — in the view of his friends a mystical thinker and reformer of the philosophy of religion. Both he and Loisy had in them something of the enfant terrible — the urge to attract attention and make a splash — to the embarrassment of their more adult and prudent associates.

These were the men who made a noise; who were prepared to say openly what others were only thinking, or to take to their limits and beyond, ideas which these others were only gingerly beginning to touch, and who, therefore, eventually got themselves excommunicated, left the Church of their own accord, had books censured, or were forbidden to write. However, they were no more the cause of Modernism than von Hugel was. They were merely symptoms of a wider and deeper disorder — the tip of the rock showing above the waves at high tide.

Finally, Msgr. Mignot, the French Archbishop of Albi was a cautious episcopal patron for the circle.

Grander and more worldly wise figures like the French philosopher Blondel were sympathetic and played a part in the movement, but drew back from the extreme consequences of Modernist ideas. Others like Edmund Bishop, the English liturgical scholar, layman and convert, only expressed their views in private letters and otherwise laid low. The Abbe Bremond, the historian of French seventeenth century spirituality, another of the enfant terrible type, darted in and out of the game but mostly ran up and down the touch line, thus keeping out of serious trouble; while the French scholar Msgr. Duchesne could be said to have sat in the grandstand and enjoyed the sport without getting sunburnt or wet, sometimes egging a man on, at others crying a warning.

Nurturing The Seeds Of Unbelief

Duchesne, a hard enigmatic, and intellectually worldly priest, was first at the Institut Catholique and then, for the last 20 years of his life, at the French school in Rome. While unquestionably learned, with a detailed knowledge of early Church history, he appears to have had little comprehension of what the Church actually is. His feelings for the Holy See seem to have been sardonic contempt. Hebert said Duchesne helped him to see the "reasons" for not believing in the Resurrection. Duchesne later denied this. On his instructions his papers were burned after his death. The letters that survive make chilling reading.

Here is one to Hebert urging him not to give up the headship of the Ecole Fenelon, although Duchesne had good reason to believe he had lost the Faith.

"Religious authority counts on its traditions and the most devoted members of its personnel, who are also the least intelligent. What can be done? . . . Endeavor to reform it? The only outcome of such attempts would be to get oneself thrown out of the window. . .

"Let us, then, teach what the Church teaches. . . We need not deny that in all this there is a large part of symbolism that calls for explanation. But leave the explanation to make its own way privately.

"It may be that despite all appearances, the old ecclesiastical edifice is going one day to tumble down. . . Should this happen, no one will blame us for having supported the old building for as long as possible."

I have quoted this letter for two reasons. First because although Duchesne had some volumes put on the Index, he has an impeccable reputation as a great Catholic scholar; secondly because he illustrates what I was saying earlier about the temptations of scholarship and about what happens when Faith, Hope, and Charity decline behind a pile of learned books. What we see is something pretty sad and ugly. Behind how many other piles of books, was the same decay taking place? Duchesne multiplied by several hundred would provide enough explosives to set off several revolutions.

Listening to the group of unquestionable Modernists we have just been considering was an ever-widening audience of sympathizers, whose hearts were troubled by the same questionings and whose thoughts were moving in the same direction.

Title Page

Chapter Two: The Roots Of Modernist Unbelief

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