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The Roots Of Modernist Unbelief

by Philip Trower


Chapter Two of the booklet The Church Learned And The Revolt Of The Scholars.

Larger Work

The Church Learned And The Revolt Of The Scholars


12 - 21

Publisher & Date

The Wanderer Press, 1979

Chapter Two

What exactly did the Modernists believe, or gradually come to believe, as well as cease to believe? (For depending on which of its two faces one looks at, Modernism can appear either as a system of denials, or as a system of new affirmations replacing those denials.) What were they really saying, and how did they come to these new beliefs?

I think if we look at the order in which their ideas developed and the sources they were drawn from — even if this means covering some familiar ground — we shall perhaps get a better general picture of what took place then and is happening now, and how the intellectual transformation of Catholic and Christian into the quasi-Christian man of the enlightenment (or as we should now call him, secular humanist or believer in progress religion) is worked. While there were disagreements between individual Modernists about some of these ideas, and they were influenced by them in different degrees, they were at one on basic principles.

Darwinism and biblical criticism combined obviously did most of the damage. Both have the power of sweeping men off their feet because they deal with a vast subject matter and make their way in the mind more by suggestion than by clear demonstration or proof. What, if any, flecks of gold they contain in their mountains of dross is something the Church will ultimately tell us — at least insofar as they bear on Revelation. Here I am concerned only with the dross and that goes for all the other branches of study I shall be touching on.

Although biblical criticism had been in the field much longer than Darwinism, I think we should put Darwinism first, because its impact was far more sudden and violent. The publication of The Origin Of Species (1859), marked a great divide in a way that the publication of, say, Strauss's Leben Jesu (1835), or Renan's Vie de Jesus (1863) did not.

The Three Assumptions Of Biblical Criticism

Darwinism, as the world knows, by giving an apparently different account of the creation of species from the Bible, and a manifestly different account of the origin of men, directly challenged the Bible's truth and reliability. Since by the same act a number of fundamental doctrines constantly taught by the Church as being objectively true were called into question (above all, Original Sin), in certain Catholic minds belief in the Church as a trustworthy teacher was shaken. And if Adam and Eve, the Garden, and the Fall were myths and had to go, where did the business stop? A thread had been cut and the whole fabric of Revelation seemed about to come apart.

The idea that living things came into existence through the interplay of accident (natural selection) also seemed to reduce God, when not extinguishing belief in His existence altogether, to a cold and faraway First Cause, and implicitly to repudiate His providence. What room was left for Him to care about sparrows?

Finally, evolution seemed somehow to be a general law governing not only biology, but everything else: life evolves, history evolves, civilization evolves, religion evolves. Religion is, perhaps, after all just a natural phenomenon like music and dancing, a way in which man expresses himself.

Biblical criticism undermined the authority of the Bible in a different fashion. The challenge was not as direct but just as devastating.

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God in literary form, which we call the Bible, has always posed certain problems, which scholars down the ages have tried to answer. But the critical approach characteristic of modern times, and which began in the 17th century, has this special quality: it was inspired by and has received its driving force from men intensely hostile to religion or the idea of Revelation. Before their investigations begin, three assumptions have been made. God had nothing to do with the composition of the Bible: supernatural events do not take place and descriptions of them are, therefore, the product of imagination: all peoples in the past were of a lower order of intelligence than men and women of modern times and incapable of preserving historical facts accurately and faithfully. The whole movement has been colored by these three prejudices, which seem rapidly to infect anyone who approaches it.

The critical method proceeds by first calling in question the date and authorship of the books of the Bible, and then moves on to questioning the truth of their contents (though in practice, doubts about their truth usually come first, questions of date and authorship being raised later).

At first sight, it may not seem to matter very much whether the biblical books were, in fact, written when they are supposed to have been, or by the authors they have usually been attributed to, provided they are still believed to have been inspired by God and therefore to be true. But (leaving aside the fact that the text itself often refers to some of these authors as having composed them), it was precisely the conclusions the critics reached about date and authorship, and the way in which they reached them, which led men to doubt the contents.

The Sledgehammer Of Criticism

In its most extreme form, the application of the critical method was like the application of a sledgehammer to a marble pavement. The biblical text was beaten into fragments. These fragments of different origin, it was then maintained, had been fitted together for different purposes (often dishonest), not at the times previously supposed but much later, given spurious titles and authors and incorporated in writings of their own by anonymous groups of editors or individuals who were the actual authors of the books as we now have them. The fragments themselves had been written who knows when, by who knows whom, but long after the events they were supposed to record. To begin with, it was allowed that the fragments might have been based on earlier documents now lost. But soon the much more common view prevailed that the traditions preserved in them had been handed down orally for centuries, and that these orally transmitted memories had been constantly added to and altered along the way to suit the circumstances and beliefs of the moment.

Inevitably, not only the critics were soon concluding that the Bible must be largely a work of fiction, but many other people were besides. Among other things, the human mind readily accepts the idea (whether rightly or not) that the longer the lapse of time between an event and the moment it is written down, the less likely it is to be recorded accurately.

(As practiced by the majority of critics, this method of dealing with Holy Scripture had, and still has, aspects of a frivolous scholarly parlor game. Theories and opinions were picked up and dropped like tennis balls and changed from decade to decade. The method was also being applied to secular literature. Homer was pulled apart at this time and the authorship of his epics scattered among a mob of anonymous poets covering several centuries. Today the pieces are being reassembled, authorities like Prof. Lesky of Vienna inclining to a single Homer. Shakespeare's plays and The Divine Comedy would unquestionably have been dismembered in the same way, had less been known about their authors.)

First the Old Testament was given the full critical treatment, then the New. In the work of pulverizing and reducing the New Testament to fragments, belief in the Resurrection was destroyed.

Since Darwinism and biblical criticism were considered a part of modern science all or most of the conclusions just outlined were accepted by the Modernists as true. The consequences were momentous. The grounds for believing in a supernatural Revelation by God, fulfilled in Christ, recorded in Scripture, and guarded by the Church had gone.

Persuaded of this, a proportion left the Church. The majority remained behind, in appearance, at least, "in the Church" and started to build themselves a gem-crack religious shelter out of the ruins.

The attempt led them to formulate the two principles we now know.

No Certainty About God

Since there can be no certainty about what God has revealed, the source of religious knowledge is inner "experience." (The first Modernists inclined to lay stress on individual experience; today's prefer communal experience.)

Secondly, doctrines — or those at least which the Modernists found "difficult," or as would now be said, "lacking in credibility" — should not be regarded as statements of fact, but as in some sense "symbolic." Exactly what they symbolized remained to be determined,

Hebert was one of the first to make the demand more or less openly. Leroy followed with his famous article, "Qu'est-ce-qu'un dogme" in 1905.

It was around these two points that the battle between Modernism and the Church was fought then, and is raging now; the Modernists demanding that they be allowed to interpret doctrine symbolically (i.e. not believe it) and give first place to religious experience, with the Church (though not all churchmen) resisting. Here was and still is the central issue.

Once, under the impact of Darwinism and biblical criticism, the above two positions had been adopted, Modernism was in essence there. Other aspects of modern thought merely provided supporting matter.

However, we must look at these other subjects, which are not unimportant. They made this temple of vanishing beliefs seem more stable.

Contemporary Philosophy

Among the philosophies in vogue in the last 200 years, we can see three clear tendencies: first a widespread rejection of metaphysics; then a growing bias against the idea of anything fixed and stable in nature, a preference for seeing it as a state of universal change and flux; finally, in the search for the meaning of life and the nature of reality, a focusing of attention on man and what goes on inside him rather than outside him, accompanied by a general downgrading of his powers of mind and a corresponding upgrading of his will, instincts, and passions.

The rejection of metaphysics consisted in this. When we look at the world outside us, it was said, and think we can detect the presence of design, of the law of cause and effect, or of the existence in individual things of an informing principle or nature which allows us to grasp what they essentially are and to group them in classes and kinds, we are deceived. These ideas, which we infer from what we see, do not correspond with anything real outside us. They are patterns imposed on what we see by our minds. The phenomena, which our senses present to us, remain essentially unknowable.

Kant, (d. 1804) building on the ideas of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, was the philosopher chiefly responsible for making this startling addition to the stock of human error and unwisdom. Among the conclusions to be drawn from it, one was inescapable. If the apparent order in nature is put there by our minds, we are mistaken in thinking it proves to us the existence of God.

Although a Lutheran, Kant was contradicting what St. Paul had plainly told the people of Lystra (not to mention a great deal that is said elsewhere in the Bible); namely that God and His purposes can be known from His works. Kant was undermining the foundations of natural religion. His theories about the mind (or rather about its inadequacy) also encouraged men to judge philosophical and religious questions by their feelings.

The second tendency, the love of flux and change — which in this century has reached the proportions of an international mental illness — had a variety of causes. Darwin alone was not to blame, though he gave it a hefty push forward. Among these causes we can isolate the increased knowledge of history and biology, both of which deal with change in the form of growth and decay, and the increased knowledge of other civilizations, which suggested the idea that if customs vary, everything else may be a matter of taste and opinion, and therefore, changeable. Although everything is somehow moving forward, the universe develops, according to no preexisting design, no absolute laws. Anything is possible.

For the third tendency — the downgrading of the mind — we can, if we like, blame Descartes. His ideas, which had reigned for a century and a half since his death in 1650, had seemed to make men all mind and nothing much else — minds inside machines — and not minds like yours and mine, but strictly logical and mathematical minds; clear, cool, detached. After a century and a half of delighting in this vision of himself, European man became sick of it. The downgrading of the mind, or of that part which engages in speculative thought and uses abstract ideas, and the exaltation of the passionate and instinctive life, were part of the romantic revolt against the Cartesian picture of man. Led by the thinkers of his choice, European man began revelling in the thought that he was a "whole man" — with body and instincts just as important as mind or soul. Eventually, he will be revelling in the thought that he is mainly just a body.

Roadblocks To Belief In God

These three tendencies should also, I believe, be seen as connected with the spread of atheism.

When men no longer believe in God, there will be a growing desire not to know that His existence can be discovered by using the mind: a desire to block the path to the possibility of such knowledge.

To men, moreover, who think they have only one brief existence here with its limited possibilities of enjoyment, what is fixed — a nature that has to be conformed to, a law which must be obeyed — is certain to be detested. Hence, the elaborate and learned attacks by today's moralists on the concept of a natural law. Even if men in this frame of mind do not immediately want to do anything wicked themselves, they do not like the thought of being hindered should the whim to take hold of them.

Finally, when men are persuaded that their minds are useless as instruments for finding and knowing God, they are either going to give up the search or rely on their instincts and feelings.

Between 1890 and 1910, the philosophical currents I have described flowed together into the then fashionable creative evolution or vitalism of Bergson, and pragmatism of William James — pragmatism being the philosophy of maximum human advantage.

For our purposes, the important thing about these philosophies is the view of truth they popularized.

The accepted view of truth, applied to an idea or statement, is that it describes or corresponds with reality. ("Tell it like it is, man," is a popular and forceful way of making the point.)

According to the new conceptions, an idea was true if it was (a) alive, or (b) had what were considered useful or beneficial results. An idea is alive when a lot of people believe in it, and beneficial when it gives them spiritual satisfaction or makes them better or happy. Belief in Moloch was therefore once alive and in this sense "true." For the Canaanites, as they flung their babies into the furnaces, Moloch-worship was, as people would say today, "meaningful." When there were no more Moloch-worshippers, the idea was "dead" and no longer "true." Christian beliefs are "true" in so far as they make people unselfish or act as a psychological tranquillizer, an idea popularized by James's immensely influential Varieties of Religious Experience.

We should not underestimate the power of this last idea. It readily wins acceptance from Mr. Average-man, since, without faith and grace, most men will incline to be pragmatists; they will care more about results than about truth. This is why today "Christian" Modernists of all denominations are emphasizing orthopraxis ("right action") at the expense of orthodoxy (true belief), and why orthopraxis (in the sense of agreement about what should be done) is being put forward as the proper basis for Christian reunion, rather than orthodoxy (agreement about what God has revealed).

What Is Truth?

In reality, the meaning of the word truth had been altered. Men who use it in this way are not talking about truth but about utility, though they will mostly claim that what they regard as useful is also good and right.

The above is really James's view of truth. Bergson's was slightly different; it was based not on the principle of utility but on his concept of reality. Truth was always changing because reality was always changing. "Reality," as he put it, "is always in the making." This idea opened up different delightful possibilities. Since everything that happens is part of reality as it makes itself, more or less anything can be justified. We have here one of the foundations for situation ethics. (Needless to say, as so often with philosophers, neither was personally immoral in the way his system was.)

All these tendencies had their effect on learned Catholics and most of the Modernists seem to have been bowled over by them. Because new, they must be true, expressing evolving reality at the furthest point of its advance.

We find among most Modernists, a hatred of metaphysics bordering on paranoia, which spilled over on to the person and philosophy of St. Thomas, as well as onto Plato and "the Greek mind": the same infatuation with change, growth, and "dynamism," and revulsion from whatever is considered "static," as though these two aspects of creation were enemies and could not live together like friends in a single universe; the same dislike of religious certainty, the same prejudice against the use of the mind as a source of religious knowledge, and above all, of abstract thought in connection with religion or the important philosophical questions that lead to religion.

(This prejudice did not, however, extend to the use of the mind for scientific purposes. In science, there was to be accuracy and precision, only in religion, uncertainty and wooliness.)

An agitation began for the Church to adapt her teaching to the outlook of Bergson and James. The lead was taken by Blondel and Leroy. Although much less well known in English-speaking countries than Loisy or Tyrrel, Leroy was, I think, far more important, for reasons which will appear shortly. His "philosophy of action" was a synthesis of Bergson's evolutionary view of reality and James's opportunistic view of truth.

Here is an example of the way he applies his philosophic principles to the interpretation of Catholic dogmas. Dogmas, he argues in Dogme Et Critique, do not give information; they are not truths to be believed but guides to action. The doctrine of the Three Persons in the Trinity, for instance, does not tell us anything about God, but is a way of telling us to value personal relations. In another passage, he uses the same principle differently, but with even more deadly effect. After announcing: "I believe without restriction or reserve that the Resurrection of Jesus is an objectively real fact," he gets down to whittling away this bold profession of faith and taking it back. The Resurrection, we are told, has nothing to do with the "vulgar notion" of the "reanimation of a corpse." How, then, can he say it is a real fact? By his reinterpretation of the meaning of the word real. Things are real (he is actually talking about ideas at this point) if they can be put to use without breaking down, and if they are "fertile for life." The illusory idea that Christ rose from the dead has inspired generations of men to lead self-sacrificing lives: in this sense it is "real" and "a fact."

This interesting equivocation is worth pondering on, I think, because it provides the pattern for all the equivocations, which now surround us. It also allows us to see, in regard to today's "new teachings," how old they are under their wigs, rouge, and eye shadow.

An Avalanche Of Historical Studies

After philosophy, history and historical studies seem to have done most to wear away faith. Two factors had an influence.

The first was the accumulation of new historical material. Over the previous 100 years it had increased enormously and by the end of the century had become an avalanche.

Now in any subject, the sudden appearance of a mass of new and detailed information often has the effect of bringing about a temporary increase of darkness and misunderstanding rather than light. As the commonplace phrase has it, "men cannot see the wood for the trees." Something like this happened as Catholic scholars applied their minds to sorting and assessing the mass of new information about the history of the Church. The supernatural character of the Church began to dim as they looked at it through a thicker and thicker screen of natural and human appearances. Thus was hurried on the process, which failing faith had already started and which would end with the Church seeming to have nothing divine about it.

The other influence in this work of erosion was the German school of higher criticism.

Eroding The Seedbed Of Faith

Higher criticism was in essence simply a new and more rigorous method of testing the trustworthiness of the documents on which our knowledge of the past is based and reassessing their value (of the kind that was already being applied to the Bible). There was nothing wrong in itself with this reassessment, as applied to secular history. But the movement as a whole had two objectionable features. The documents were tested according to certain rules; and the impression was given that if these rules were properly applied, the results would be cast-iron; the historians wanted the degree of certainty available to the exact sciences, for which this higher level of precision is only possible because they deal with the lower realm of matter. But the rules of the higher critics did not have the value and certainty they attributed to them, as other historians at the time, equally distinguished, pointed out, and much valuable evidence about the past was impugned or cast aside as untrustworthy when it wasn't.

The second objectionable feature was the extraordinary arrogance and self-assurance of the higher critics.

Their principles were absorbed by the majority of Catholic historians, who quickly adopted an uncritically iconoclastic attitude towards ancient Church documents and antiquities, and who started demanding complete freedom from ecclesiastical supervision in the pursuit of their studies. (Catholics cannot enjoy this kind of independence in any of the so-called human sciences, any more than they can about the Faith, because they deal with the spiritual nature and activities of men, which are the province of the Church as well.) Through the higher critics, they also seem to have been influenced by a Protestant view of Church history; that the true nature of the Church has been lost, but can be rediscovered or reconstructed by study of the "surviving documents," though fewer and fewer of these were being found satisfactory: or else by historicism, the idea that the nature and beliefs of the Church are the product of historical circumstances and change as they change.

A Spirit Of Contempt

The spirit of the higher critics was possibly even more damaging than their principles. As with biblical criticism, the pioneers were mostly Protestant or unbelieving, and as such, unsympathetic to the Church. With their immense erudition and imperiousness they were able to batter down the resistance of all but the toughest opponents. (To them we owe that display of critical apparatus, which now weighs down the most trifling scholarly works.)

Intimidated and impressed, a high percentage of Catholic scholars started to imitate their tone and manner as well as picking up their contemptuous attitude to much of the Church's devotional life and past. They began to take an almost gleeful pleasure in dwelling on the historical mistakes or supposed historical mistakes of earlier times (the folly of Medieval canonists in accepting as genuine the decretals of the pseudo-Isidore; the credulity of the Catholic people in imagining that St. Dominic had received the Rosary from Our Lady), and ended by giving the impression that the Church is the Mother of forgeries, while good modern science alone is the protectress and preserver of truth. We have noted the influence of this spirit on Dollinger, Acton, and Duchesne (who, however, preferred an amused Voltairean manner); it more than touched the Bollandists, and disfigures the Thurston-Butler Lives of the Saints. Catholic history can be written honestly and realistically without any of this servile making-up to grand reputations. The truth is there is a great deal in all learned debate, which can't be imitated by Catholic scholars. What may do for secular historians quarrelling over Ptolemaic tax records — sardonic comments, acid footnotes, the coldly clinical approach — will not do where religion is concerned. The effects on the Faith and reverence of the scholars themselves, was damaging enough. When this spirit began to reach the non-scholarly and to penetrate footnotes to the Bible, the consequences were ruinous. The clergy were the worst affected. It gave many of them the idea that hard-boiled cynicism is the proper tone for talking about holy things in a clever, well-informed priest. I believe we can trace to this source a great deal of the post-conciliar barbarism and vandalism and that decline of the sacred Prof. James Hitchcock writes about.

Comparative religion was another subject coming into vogue in the period under consideration, which Catholic scholars had to tackle. This was the age when Frazer's Golden Bough was beginning to oust the Bible from the bedside tables of cultured men and women. It seems to have undermined not only faith, but also common sense.

The fact that all religions were found to have certain common features (people pray, or fast and give alms, or offer sacrifice to unseen beings) seems to have made it more difficult for some of them to believe that one religion, Christianity, could be unique. This is like thinking that because all houses have certain common features such as windows and doors, there is nothing special about the White House. The common features are simply traces of those natural religious truths, knowable without Revelation by all men, even if frequently distorted or lost sight of. Students of comparative religion — and this was the fate of many early Modernists — also easily slide into regarding the boiled-down residue of these common features as the essence of religion and end as devotees of some kind of one-world ethical monotheism towards which, they consider, the religious consciousness of mankind is evolving. There are many apostles of this "faith" today, working under Catholic auspices and imperilling the dialogue with members of non-Christian religions. They are simply following where the early Modernists led the way.

Destined To Save The Church

In discussing the above five subjects — Darwinism, modern biblical studies, philosophical pragmatism and relativism, higher criticism in history, and comparative religion — 1 think I have mentioned the main intellectual trends that went to the making of Modernism and gave it the characteristic features of its first appearance. In combination, they tended to produce a high-minded agnosticism or refined and watery theism under a Catholic veneer. With them often went a purely natural curiosity about mysticism, states of prayer, and psychic phenomena. In some respects, early Modernism reflected the fin de siecle decadence of cultivated European society as a whole, which was rationalistic and anti-rational, skeptical and superstitious at the same time, uniting "scientific" unbelief with a craving for spiritual experiences of a not particularly spiritual kind.

Why with the views they held did the Modernists not leave the Church?

Their psychology, at first sight puzzling, is however quite common in the history of the Church.

They saw themselves as elite destined to save the Church for herself. The ordinary rabble of Catholics, which included the Pope, (a canonized saint often rather snobbishly referred to as "the peasant Pope"), and most of the cardinals and bishops might not understand their high purposes. But for their own good and the world's they must be persuaded to. The Church could only be saved if she accepted, once and for all, the Modernist thesis that her teachings were myths and symbols — blundering attempts of the religious sense to express the inexpressible. Only in this way could she be reconciled with modern science. But this did not mean her teachings would be useless, or that she herself would have to go into retirement. Myths like parables can have an improving effect on the character, and this was the function, which, in the future, Catholic doctrine must fulfill in the lives of the ordinary faithful.

If the Church accepted this view of her role — as the wife, a rather abjectly submissive one you may think, of science and modern thought — she still had a great future ahead of her; she could still be the moral educator of mankind. But if she ignored Modernist warnings and insisted that her teachings be taken literally, then she and modern science would meet in a head-on crash and she was doomed to succumb.

For highly educated and, in some cases, gifted men, yesterday's Modernists, like today's, had a strangely naive view of science — what it is and what it can achieve; they were unexpectedly like bright schoolboys who have discovered science, spelled with a big S, for the first time.

We may note another peculiarity. They were totally unlike the skeptical abbes of the century before, who seem to have been contented with their unbelief while living comfortably off the Church's revenues. For them, religion was superstition and that was that. Why make a fuss? But late nineteenth-century man was a different creature; the winds of romanticism had been blowing over him. (At least this could be said of a high proportion of nineteenth-century men.) He had learned to appreciate the pleasures of powerful emotions and "immortal longings," even when no longer believing in immortality; he had learned to relish his anguishes and anxieties as well. Most of the early Modernists were more or less of this stamp. They liked religion per se, regardless of which religion, and almost, one could say, regardless of whether it were true or false. They liked to feel themselves religious men, as well as being mightily taken up with the world's and other people's spiritual improvement. Many had their psychological roots in pious and happy Catholic childhoods, a factory which also provides the key, I think, to understanding the trait I mentioned earlier — what ordinary people might call their two-faced way of writing. Even when belief had gone, religious language and sentiment kept its charm for them.

Common to them all was a near pathological hatred of Rome because it blocked their efforts to bring to modern man that new reinterpreted "Christian faith" which he would at last find acceptable. Rome was brutal, harsh, and ignorant. The rest of the faithful were silly, superstitious, or purblind. They themselves, in the words of Msgr. Mignot, were ames sinceres et intelligentes. From their lofty view of their role, they developed the practical principle we have seen Duchesne recommending. Stay put: don't let yourself be driven out: transform belief from within.

Title Page

Chapter One: The First Modernism

Chapter Three: Neo-Modernism: An Underground Plague

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